Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Health Benefits of Chamomile

It happens nearly every week in our retail shop. A new customer - often a man - will enter and say something like this, "Dr. Oz says I should be drinking a tea that begins with the letter P. Do you have any?"

My answer is, "You mean Pu-erh?"

"Yeah! That's it!"

I call it the Oz Effect. Whatever Dr. Oz touts on his show is what viewers go in search of. 

Fortunately, for us in the tea business, the popular television health guru is a huge proponent of tea being an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, and a recent episode featured an herb found in every tea shop: Chamomile.
The National Institutes of Health funded a study at the University of Pennsylvania on people with generalized anxiety disorder where the anxiety interferes with their lives. Chamomile was shown to to have promising results in reducing the participants' anxiety. And not only did it reduce the anxiety but in a certain number of people who also had depression, it improved their symptoms of depression.

Chamomile binds to the same receptors in your brain that Valium-like medications do, but it's not habit forming. 

20 million Americans received prescriptions for mental health illnesses in 2011. Chamomile may be a natural alternative for some patients.
You need to drink two to three cups daily over a period of about 30 days to get the therapeutic amount needed in your system.

What happens when Chamomile is used over a longer period of time?

The University of Pennsylvania study not only confirms Chamomile's usefulness for anxiety and depression, but that its effects can increase over a longer duration. 

Traditional herbalists will typically recommend the use of anti-anxiety herbs such as Chamomile, Lavender, St. John's Wort and others over a period of three months to a year in order for them to reach their full effectiveness. After that, they are often recommended to be continued at least periodically or as needed.

The good news about Chamomile, as evidenced by this and other studies, is that it has no known adverse side effects and is non-addictive. This is in stark contrast to anti-depressant pharmaceuticals, some of which are known for being significantly addictive in addition to having numerous other adverse effects.

Do I get the health benefits of tea in Chamomile?

No. Chamomile is an herb and not a tea plant. The antioxidants found in green tea - specifically EGCG - are not present in Chamomile. Both caffeine or theanine are absent as well.

As always, consult a physician before beginning any natural treatment for illnesses. Until you do, keep calm, carry on, and drink Chamomile! 

TeaMaestro Bruce Richardson is a Contributing Editor for TeaTime magazine.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Mr. Selfridge Brought Tea to Marshall Field's

In 1890, Harry Gordon Selfridge, manager of Marshall Field’s in Chicago, enrolled the help of Sarah Haring to assist with a new project at the store. She was in many ways, a typical American woman of her era—wife of a businessman and a mother. Neither aristocratic nor impoverished, Haring was needed to recruit “gentlewomen” who had “experienced reverses” and knew how to cook “dainty dishes” that they were willing to prepare and deliver to the store each day.

Marshall Field’s first tea room began with a limited menu, fifteen tables and eight waitresses. Haring’s recruits acquitted themselves well. Harriet Tilden Brainard, who initially supplied gingerbread, would go on to build a successful catering business, the Home Delicacies Association. Sarah, meanwhile, continued as manager of the store’s tea rooms until 1910, when she opened a restaurant of her own, patenting a restaurant dishwasher in her spare time.

The new Chicago tea room met with immediate success. When Field’s Wabash Street annex opened in 1893, an expansion timed to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the tea room moved into a new space. It seated 300 and took up the entire fourth floor, which eventually was named the Walnut Room. At one time, the flagship store boasted six tea rooms.

Harry Selfridge later cashed out his Marshall Field & Company stock for $1,000,000 and moved to London. In 1909, he amazed Londoners with his magnificent effrontery by setting up a department store on Oxford Street, running it in the breeziest American tradition. When his financial partner withdrew, Selfridge obtained support from a wealthy London tea broker and, in 1908, Selfridge and Company, Ltd., was registered. 

The unique store opened in 1909 with a floor area of 42,000 square feet, which later was doubled. Selfridge was the first to offer in-store restrooms for customer use—encouraging customers to spend hours in store. 

He replicated his Chicago tea rooms and restaurants too. Within months of opening, the Palm Court restaurant at Selfridges was considered the place for London ladies to lunch.

Read more about tea's impact upon culture, commerce and politics in A Social History of Tea 2013 Benjamin Press.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Afternoon Tea Reigns Supreme at The Empress

I had the opportunity to return to the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia last month for TeaTime magazine’s Occasion for Tea. The other speakers included Jane Pettigrew, Norwood Pratt, Shelley Richardson and editor Lorna Reeves. We were joined by 70 devoted tea enthusiasts from across the United States and Canada for a weekend of pure tea bliss.

Afternoon tea in the Tea Lobby at The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC.
 I don’t know of a tea venue anywhere that hosts more afternoon tea customers year after year than the magnificent Fairmont Empress Hotel. Over 100,000 patrons sit at their lobby tea tables each year, generating over $4 million in revenue for the hotel.  

Since its opening in 1908, the hotel has long been accustomed to entertaining Hollywood celebrities. Rita Hayworth, Jack Benny, Pat O'Brien, Douglas Fairbanks, Katherine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Tallulah Bankhead, Roger Moore, John Travolta, Barbara Streisand, Shirley Temple, Harrison Ford and a host of others have passed through its lobby.
By 1965, there was much debate on whether to tear down what was becoming a faded, dowdy hotel, to make room for a more modern, functional high-rise hotel. One local newspaper warned that, “Without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era, literally tens of thousands of tourists will never return. This is the Mecca, this is the heart and soul of the city.” The decision was announced on June 10, 1966: The Fairmont Empress would not be demolished. Instead she would embark on a $4 million campaign of renovation and refurbishment, playfully dubbed “Operation Teacup.”
Jane Pettigrew entertains her table with tea time stories.
Afternoon tea at the Empress is what you do when you visit Victoria. Guests sip tea and enjoy delicious food and pleasant conversation, accompanied by live music, while seated in the famous Tea Lobby. The rose and green-trimmed lobby ceiling is over 15 feet high and supports 12 original chandeliers. A pair of period George V and Queen Mary portraits stand watch over the matching fireplaces. Tea patrons are seated at comfortable couches or chintz-covered high-back chairs set before antique wooden tea tables custom-crafted from the original wooden flooring.

Norwood Pratt with guests in the Tea Lobby at The Empress.
Summertime guests may take their tea at wicker tables along the verandah and watch boats arriving in the harbor, just as travelers have done for over a century. This same small port once welcomed fast-sailing clipper ships laden with tea imported for a growing population of tea-drinking British colonists and Chinese laborers.

A great way to walk off those clotted cream calories is to wander through the variety of fascinating shops that line nearby Government Street. Along a two-block area, you will pass Murchie’s Tea Shop, Teavana, David’s Tea, and Silk Road Teas. This is a tea drinking city!

Just remember - if you tell your friends the story of your visit to Victoria, they will ask "Did you have tea at the Empress?" 

If you say “no,” they will think you unrefined. But, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, there is no way that tea faux pas will happen!

Read more about the Empress and 20 other tea venues in the Bruce Richardson's THE GREAT TEA ROOMS OF AMERICA, Benjamin Press.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Six Steps to Crafting an Afternoon Tea

Tea at Harrods, London
I remember my first London afternoon tea at Harrods in 1979. Shelley and I queued nearly 30 minutes while waiting for the velvet rope to drop, allowing access to a three-tiered buffet of sweets that would make a regiment of Horse Guards swoon. 

The dessert trolleys held row after row of delicious pastries, cakes, and tarts. I filled my plate more than once and consumed so many luscious sweets that a sugary rush finally bested me and a headache set in for the evening. My body longed for anything savory to offset my bad behavior.

I learned a valuable lesson that day—a well-designed afternoon tea meal is a blend of both sweets and savories. That tenet served my wife and me well when we opened a tearoom ten years later. We crafted delicious tea meals at the Elmwood Inn from 1990 to 2004, but always with a balance of about 60 percent savories and 40 percent sweets.

Tea Cake from The Tea Table
Here are  five more helpful suggestions to consider as you organize your next afternoon tea event:

We taste first with our eyes. Teatime foods should be beautiful and presented in a fashion that pleases the eye before it pleases the taste buds.  Consider using edible flowers, multi-grained breads, or fruits to brighten your teatime color scheme. 

No one item should dominate an afternoon tea meal. Guests should be looking forward to tasting your next exquisite creation. That anticipation won’t come about if their appetites are satiated by one dominant item.  Keep it light.

Use glazes rather than frostings for your tea cakes. Victorian sponges and cakes sliced into small portions are perfect for afternoon tea meals. Avoid heavy chocolate icing or sugary fillings that might overpower other foods on the plate.

Tea at The Wolseley, London
Feel free to draw from multiple culinary traditions. I love English afternoon teas at such restaurants as The Wolseley in London where I expect to find cucumber, egg and cress, and smoked salmon tea sandwiches on the plate. But in America, anything goes as long as items don’t compete with each other.

Make your food easy to manage. Your guests will appreciate the effort you put into making sandwiches, canap├ęs, and tarts easy to eat. Most foods should be small enough to consume in two to four bites. This is especially true when it comes to creating a buffet tea. Everything should be in miniature form for guests who may be standing or seated away from a table while eating. This helps diners feel at ease and conversant, and it gives them more opportunities to compliment you on the skill and thoughtfulness that went into your culinary creation!

Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson and his wife Shelley are authors of numerous tea books, including A Year of Teas at the Elmwood Inn and The Tea Table. They are the hosts of America's longest-running professional tea seminar, TEA101.

Text and photographs are copyrighted by Bruce Richardson and may not be used without written permission.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Tea Examiner of 1939

Official tea taster employed by the US government. Notice the spittoon close at hand.
The country’s seven most important tea drinkers met on February 18, 1939 to tabulate what they thought of samples of the beverage they savored during five days of official tasting. They were chosen by Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace to select samples of teas which will serve as minimum standards for admittance to the United States between May 1, 1939, and May 1, 1940. 

Basic samples of ten types of tea, below which imports will be excluded, were tested for flavor, body, purity and color. The law requiring minimum standards for tea was passed in 1897. That law lasted exactly 100 years and the official tea tasting panel was abolished in 1997 by President Bill Clinton.

Official tea taster photograph dated 1924.

Pu-er teas would not pass the exam and made their way into the United States during the first 50 years of the law because pu-er teas would have been considered contaminated by bacteria. 

Tea importers do their own testing for purity today. I spoke a few years ago with one of America's major packagers who related the story of disposing of an entire ocean freight container of tea which didn't pass their pesticide standards. Ouch!

Read more about tea's impact upon culture, commerce and politics in A Social History of Tea 2013 Benjamin Press.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tea Terroir: Tasting a Sense of Place

Darjeeling Tea Garden
Photo by Bruce Richardson
Have you ever wondered why the flavor of Chinese Yunnan black tea differs from an Indian Darjeeling black tea? Each region yields a tea with unique aromas and flavors due in large part to varietals.
But the distinctive taste of regional teas can be also be explained via a French term we borrow from our wine friends. That word is terroir.

I often point students to India’s famed Darjeeling teas to illustrate this concept. A tea plant growing at 7000 feet in those Himalayan foothills could be dug up, transplanted in the Dooars region (elevation 1000 feet) and harvested a year later. The resulting tea would no longer have the distinctive Darjeeling taste because it had been removed from its close proximity to the sun.
Mountain-gown tea plants shield themselves from the harmful effects of a thin ozone level by pumping more chlorophyll into their leaves. They produce their own sunscreen. That natural sunscreen is chlorophyll. Its elevated concentration is one reason why high altitude teas are so distinctive.

Terroir is simply a plant’s “sense of place.” It is the sum of the effects that the local environment has had upon the plant’s growth and production. These dominant effects are soil, climate, and altitude.

Soil. The tap root of a tea bush can easily reach six to twelve feet into the earth. At this depth, the roots absorb minerals and nutrients that were laid tens of thousands of years ago. Tea plants like an abundance of rainfall and soil that drains well. That’s why some of the best tea comes from steep mountain settings such as the Wuyi Mountains of China’s Fujian Province, or the highlands of Sri Lanka. The rainfall here comes in abundance but it quickly runs off down the vertical terrain.

Climate. The tea plant grows particularly well in tropical or subtropical regions where rainfall is abundant, humidity is high, and the dry season is no longer than 90 days. It can tolerate some frost but not temperatures lower than 23° F. One delicious residual effect of terroir occurs in the high slopes of the Blue Mountains of Southern India where a light late-January frost sometimes lands on a small shady patch of tea bushes. These fields are marked and the plucked leaves are processed separately from the rest of the harvest. The resulting flavor of these rare Nilgiri Frost teas is unlike anything else produced from those gardens. It’s a taste that cannot be duplicated.
Tea Gardens in the Highlands of Sri Lanka
Photo by Bruce Richardson

Altitude. Some of the finest oolongs come from the high mountains of Taiwan where lingering morning clouds only give way to the sun a few hours of the day. This shading effect slows the growth of the tea plant. Slow growth, whether in tea leaves or wine grapes, concentrate the flavors and aromas. These spring harvest tea leaves will be made into rolled oolongs known for their floral aromas and lingering honey finish. Slow growth also leads to a smaller harvest, but a higher demand. High mountain phoenix oolongs are prized by tea drinkers around the world, who can afford them.

You can teach your palate to distinguish the effects of terroir. Gather similar grade teas from one family—black, oolong or green—from four growing areas such as China Yunnan, India Darjeeling, India Assam and the Sri Lanka Highlands. Taste each and see if your nose can distinguish the aromas of those four distinctive terroirs.  If you notice a difference, you might have a future as a tea sommelier!
Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson serves as Contributing Editor for TeaTime magazine. This article first appeared in the May 2013 edition. He and Jane Pettigrew are authors of the National Trust of England tea reference book, The New Tea Companion, available from Benjamin Press.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Tea at Breakfast

“How do we motivate people to make soft drinks … part of their morning ritual in the same way as tea of coffee?”

This question was contained in a June 2013 Coca-Cola Enterprises report evaluating the changing breakfast habits of consumers in both North America and Western Europe. I cringed when I read this quote reported by Jonas Felciano, analyst for Euromonitor International.

I spend a lots of nights each year with the Hilton family and am intrigued by the number of guests who consume soft drinks at hotel breakfasts. I want to know why a soft drink is their breakfast beverage of choice.

What prompts someone to say, “Waiter, I’ll have scrambled eggs, toast, and a Coke.”

I often cite this breakfast scenario when asked about tea’s ability to help us lose weight. Yes, tea can boost metabolism about 4.5%, which translates to 100 extra calories burned in a day. That’s not significant - until you substitute a cup of tea for that breakfast Coke. Then you have removed 150 calories and burned an extra 100. That adds up to a decrease of 250 calories or about a 10% reduction in calories for an average person.

That could lead to real weight lose - as long as you don’t add sugar to your tea!

The rising popularity of tea and coffee is causing concern for soft drink companies as they see their market share flat line. Coca Cola now relies more and more on their brands of bottled water and ready-to-drink teas to fill the profit gap.

I think they’re fighting an uphill battle as consumers gravitate toward a diet based on less sugar and healthier choices.

Back to my Hilton breakfast - I suspect the habit of drinking Coke at 8am might be as much a ritual for some as drinking tea is for me. I sometimes get an evangelical urge to leave a tin of tea on their table along with a pamphlet promising that “tea can change your life if you will only turn away from sugary evil of Coke.”

On second thought - the Hilton family might not look kindly on that outburst and I might lose my Gold status.

For now, I’ll restrain myself and sip my fourth cup of Assam in silence.