I’m sitting on the back porch, the old maple towering overhead, with a cup of Vidyaranya and a Goji bar. This tea is described in tea connoisseur’s guides as “exquisite” with a “crisp muscatel” taste. The name, Darjeeling Vidyaranya, means “from the forest of learning,” so I’m doing my best to soak up any insights this “exquisite” brew might inspire.
I started drinking hot tea in college. Iced tea, of course, has always been a staple in the South, but neither Southerners nor Appalachians (I consider myself both) are hot tea drinkers. Hot tea has more often been associated with proper folks who have the time to wile away the afternoon hours sipping from dainty, expensive teacups while discussing world affairs. For the record, my teacup this afternoon is a cheap mug with “Sumatra” printed on the side above a large orange sun. I have never been to Sumatra and don’t have a clue where this mug came from, and I’m wiling away the hours working at my laptop after having mopped the kitchen. There’s no one with whom to discuss world affairs at the moment except the three nuthatches scooting up the trunk of the maple tree searching for bugs or the yellow swallowtail that keeps alighting on the impatiens.
I did not have a tea of choice in college. The only brew available locally was Lipton. Tea bags and hot water. The chocolate was Hershey’s — plain or with almonds. No Goji bars in those days. The bar on my table today is Vosges Haut Chocolat, a deep milk chocolate with Tibetan goji berries and pink Himalayan salt. The label lists the steps one should take to enjoy an exotic candy bar — breathe (3 deep ujjayi breaths, whatever that means), see (check out the little pink specks in the bar), smell (inhale deeply; yep, you must inhale to appreciate the fullness of the flavor), snap (hear the “crisp, ringing pop”), taste (finally!), feel (in Tibet and Mongolia festivals are held each year to celebrate the goji berry — the “feeling” after chocolate consumption should have that same celebratory effect).
Tea has been around for nearly 5,000 years without getting too much notice until recently. Now, everything relating to tea is fashionable. I have more than 20 tins of tea leaves in my cupboard (not because I want to be fashionable, but simply because I love tea). No more teabags except for travel. My tea of choice for breakfast is Black Dragon Pearl. The leaves are hand-rolled tightly into a small ball that unfurls gradually in hot water. This is a black tea from the Yunnan province. Very fragrant.
Other favorites — Ceylon Neeraja, a tea grown at 3,000 feet in the tropics of Sri Lanka; Himalayan Majestic is from the hills of Nepal, growing at 6,000 feet, with a copper-colored brew that is rich tasting. I have an empty tin that once held Golden Monkey, the finest Chinese black tea from the Fujian province. Those are just the black single-estate teas and blends…Queen of Babylon and Silver Needle are white teas; Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls is flavored with jasmine flowers; and Rooibos Tropica is a red tea with rose and cornflower petals and orange peel. And there are herbal infusions, green teas, and oolong. My special tin of Darjeeling Puttabong, a first-flush tea from the well-renowned Puttabong estate, called the “Champagne of Teas,” is also empty. I haven’t been able to locate a shop that sells these leaves in two years, but I keep the tin just in case.
A couple of years ago I went into a McDonald’s in the hills of Kentucky and asked for a cup of hot tea. The young girl behind the counter did a double take, looked at me like I was an alien, and promptly drew a cup of tea from the iced tea container and handed it to me. Warm tea plus ice is iced tea; warm tea minus ice is hot tea. Not really. She called the manager who opened a cabinet crammed with odds and ends and sifted through its contents until…voila! Tea bags. Lipton. The manager also showed the girl where the hot water spigot was located on the coffee machine. Another visit, a few months later, ditto. Back to square one. The next morning I went to Arby’s. Do you have hot tea, I asked. They did. Lipton tea bags, hot water…lemon? Sugar? So, when I’m in that part of the world, I skip the pancake breakfast with sausage at McDonald’s and head for Arby’s. They know how to brew a cup of tea.
I suppose I’m a tea snob. Or maybe drinking tea is just a habit. If I stopped at Starbuck’s every day for my morning joe, would I be a coffee snob or would I simply have a coffee habit? My husband goes wine tasting every Saturday afternoon and knows all about bouquets and wine-growing regions round the world and which wines to serve with oysters, say, as opposed to chocolate. He’s definitely a wine snob. In fact, he just walked in with a bottle of Sauvignon blanc that is “really good” and “‘very economical” at $7.99 a bottle. Hmmm…wine for dinner; I could buy an ounce of Darjeeling Puttabong that would last at least a week for $7.99 — if I could only find a shop that sells it!
A spot of tea anyone??
(All of the teas listed above — except the Puttabong — are sold at Teavana.