A Cup of Winter Comfort

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Imagescup It’s wonderful weather for a cup of tea! Winter brings out the desire to be warm and cozy and nothing fits that scenario better than a hot cup of freshly steeped tea. Not only does it have the potential to boost your immune system and lower your risks for certain types of cancers, it’s just plain comforting. So wrap your hands around a steaming hot mug and read the neat stuff Lise Stern has to share with us on what “tea” is all about and how to best fix your favorite kind.

Americans are hot for tea.

It started with an interest in health: Studies have long demonstrated the benefits of green tea — and there is growing evidence that all tea is beneficial. But as we settle into the 21st century, the appeal has transcended the good-for-us lure. “Now we’re getting people who are interested in the taste [and] in the attitude that tea imparts,” says Michael Cramer, owner of online store Adagio Teas. “Tea is the anti-coffee, the anti-rush.”

Tea sales have soared over the past decade and a half, from $1 billion in 1990 to $6 billion last year. Hotels are hiring tea sommeliers to enhance their traditional afternoon tea service. Restaurants are offering a full selection of loose-leaf teas (rather than a basket of bags), complete with pot and infuser. We’re discovering the differences between blends and single-estate teas, between greens and oolongs. We’re learning the significance of water temperatures and ideal steeping times.

And the tea that inspires passion, poetry, treatises, Web sites — and sales — is loose-leaf tea, teas with exotic-sounding names like Assam, sencha, yunnan gold. “First and foremost, tea gives you a high, a buzz,” says author James Norwood Pratt. “You don’t notice it, because tea is subtle. At the same time, other constituents in the tea leaves are acting on the human system to calm you down. There is literally nothing else that we human beings have discovered that acts both to stimulate and to soothe at the same time.”

WHAT IS TEA?
All tea comes from one plant: genus Camellia, species sinensis. Its use can be traced back almost 5,000 years to China, where it is indigenous and has a long history of cultivation. Today, tea grows in India, Sri Lanka, and other parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. Factors such as elevation, climate, and soil content affect the growth and flavor of individual teas. Experts estimate that there are more than 3,500 varieties of tea.

Tea is an evergreen plant. The harvest consists of the new leaves and buds that appear in the spring (first flush); most teas have two or three harvests.

Once the leaves are plucked, they are withered; that is they are left to dry for a few hours until they are limp. Some teas are then oxidized, (crushed slightly so that they are exposed to air for a few hours). Finally, most teas are roasted, which further dries out the leaf and halts oxidation. Following are general categories of tea:

White: Tea buds only. Not oxidized. Fired or steamed directly after withering or sometimes directly after picking. Examples: silver needle, white peony.

Green: Leaves and buds. Not oxidized. Fired or steamed directly after withering or sometimes directly after picking. Examples: dragonwell, sencha, gunpowder.

Oolong: Partially oxidized. The length of oxidation can produce very different flavor profiles, ranging from almost green to almost black. Also called Formosa.

Black: Fully oxidized before roasting. Examples: Darjeeling, Ceylon, Keemun.

Pu-erh: Fermented, aged black tea. Has a distinctive, earthy flavor that is an acquired taste for many but is extremely popular in China and considered to have many health benefits.

Blends: A few different teas combined to achieve a balance of flavors. Examples: English Breakfast, Russian Caravan.

Scented: Teas that have been infused with flowers. Examples: jasmine, rose congou.

Flavored: Teas flavored with oils, extracts, dried fruit, and nuts. Earl Grey uses oil of bergamot, a small citrus fruit.

Infusions, tisanes: Herbal “teas,” which do not generally contain any actual tea or caffeine (South American yerba mate is an exception). Infusions include mint, chamomile, lemon verbena, hibiscus. The African tea Rooibos, sometimes called red tea, blends well with other flavors and has a woodsy flavor.

Decaffeinated: Tea that has had most of the caffeine removed. You can remove some caffeine yourself, as most of it comes out of the leaves during the first 30 seconds of brewing. Cover the leaves with a small amount of water for 30 seconds, discard, then brew. (This will also remove some of the subtleties of the flavor, however, as well as the beneficial antioxidants.)


BREWING TEA
There are a few key components to brewing tea: the temperature of the water, the duration of steeping, and the tea-to-water ratio.

The basics: Heat the water, steep the tea, strain, and drink. Experts recommend specific brewing times, but experiment and see what suits your tastes.

Use cooler, barely steaming water (160°F to 180°F) for white, green, and oolong teas (boiling water makes these teas bitter). The steeping time can range from 30 seconds to 3 minutes; some recommend more time for oolong.

For black tea, the water should come just to a boil. Steep the tea for 3 to 6 minutes, choosing a longer time if you’re going to add milk.

Most experts recommend 1 teaspoon of tea per 6-ounce cup of water; some teas may need more or less. Again, experiment — tea can taste weak when using too much water. In tea parlance, a cup is 6 ounces, or 3/4 of a standard measuring cup.

The easiest way to heat water for tea is with an electric kettle, which offers the advantage of speedy heating and automatic shut-off when the water boils. However, if you’re heating water for green tea, you’ll want to remain nearby to turn off the kettle just as it begins to steam. You can also use an instant-read thermometer to check the temperature. A new alternative is the utiliTEA kettle, sold by Adagio Teas. It has a variable setting, allowing you to determine at what temperature you want the automatic shut-off option to kick in.

There are a variety of ways to steep tea. Tea balls and disposable tea bags or tea socks can constrict the leaves. A good-size infuser basket allows a greater surface area of the leaves to be exposed, as does steeping the leaves directly in a pot, then straining them into another pot or cups.

— Lisë Stern
For more on healthy food choices visit www.epicurious.com

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