Tea? Totally! (Part I)

But not Teetotal

Since we talk here about brewing, does tea fit? Tea is brewed, of a fashion. Well, steeped really, but let’s not be technical. For once.

I always liked tea and probably started drinking it even before coffee, in my early or mid-teens.

My first memory is drinking it in my grandmother’s flat in Montreal: tea with honey cake, or roly-poly, or poppy seed cookies. We took it plain, no milk or sugar. In later years I might add milk, but for many years drink it plain again.

50-60 years ago in Montreal, the type we drank, as in most of Canada then, was orange pekoe. Until recently I never knew exactly what orange pekoe was, other than being a black tea. Green tea was familiar to us too, at Asian restaurants, but not used at home.

Looking into this, I found an excellent description at Lady Baker’s Tea, in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

In part it states:

First of all orange pekoe is not an orange-flavoured tea nor in any way associated with the orange fruit!

… [it is] a classification of black tea based upon the origin of the leaf. To be classified as pekoe, the tea must be composed purely of the new flushes – a flush being the leaf bud plucked with two youngest leaves. (Any other leaves produce teas of lower quality.)

So…the orange pekoe term refers to a grade of black tea based on the size of leaf and its location on the tea plant.

The site has good additional discussion with links to further information.

The orange pekoe taste I recall in in the 50s and 60s was dominated by a floral note, both the taste and scent. However, I can’t recall the brand(s) we used.

I asked my mother, whose memory is excellent generally, but she can’t recall either. It might have been Red Rose, always popular in Canada, or Salada, or another brand.

Until recently the orange pekoes I’ve tried in Toronto, including some well-known UK imports, seemed somewhat different. There is an earthy tone, even slightly smoky. I like this too, but it’s not quite as I remember it.

I did finally find the taste I remember, but first an interlude.

An American’s impression of English ways with tea was recorded back in 1832. Zachariah Allen was from a prominent Rhode Island family. He made a pilgrimage to England as many Anglo Americans (his term) did in the 19th century.

His memoir The Practical Tourist records the trip and is full of engaging detail. Upon landing in Liverpool, his first impressions were anti-climatic. Buildings looked similar to those in the main American cities, and people dressed and spoke similarly.

Later in England he might note differences in accent and vocabulary, here and there. He makes no reference to a distinctive accent in Liverpool, which makes me wonder if the way the Beatles spoke developed later on.

The buildings were coloured differently, he said. Pervasive coal smoke had a darkening effect vs. the brightly painted American structures.

Slowly he unpacks further differences, like tea service. You may read it here, but summarizing, in America the tea came hot and ready made in the cup.

In Liverpool, one was presented with a box of different teas from which to make a selection. The guest had to place his tea in a freshly rinsed teapot, into which the waiter poured hot water from a  flagon.

Allen is confused what to do but finally twigs, in part. He selects a few strands from the box and puts them in the teapot. The water duly goes in (the waiter saying nothing) but the tea emerges useless, barely coloured.

Allen on his next try took a much bigger quantity of leaves, but this produced a black tannic drink also undrinkable.

Allen later became a noted industrialist, inventor, and benefactor of Brown University. A man of that stripe wasn’t likely to muff his third try with the tea, and he didn’t. Thenceforth he knew the drill.

He noted too the English habit to mix green and black tea, not done in America, he said. This is not generally practised today, I believe (anywhere), which is interesting.

As to my quest for a Proustian taste of tea-youth, quite by accident recently I found it. Emerging with a cup of tea and a muffin from a local coffee shop, the tea had the floral note I remember. Looking at the triangular bag, the tag read Sloane Breakfast Tea. It’s a Toronto-based tea merchant.

This website describes the various brands, and I plan to stock up on Breakfast soon.

Although I am quite happy with the tea of our time, it’s good to know I can get this other taste, one I remember from Sunday afternoons visiting grandparents on rue Esplanade. Now all I have to do is get the roly poly. Hmmm.

 

 

 

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