If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you probably remember that I used to be the special events manager for an Appalachian tea house. If you haven’t been following this blog for a long time, allow me to tell you more: I used to be the special events manager for an Appalachian tea house. Though I’ve always liked tea and sought out the good stuff (RIP Clarinda’s Tea Room, stalwart of the Southern Indiana tea scene in the early ’90s), what I know about tea comes from this period of my life.
The funny thing about working in tea is that people buy you tea as a present because they know you like it. What people perhaps do not consider is the sheer amount of free tea you receive throughout the course of your day. It’s a lot. Like, a whole lot. So much tea you cannot even imagine. For context: I quit Hillbilly Tea to become a writer and editor in 2013 and I still discover little vacuum-sealed baggies of dried leaves every time I reorganize my kitchen.
A couple years ago, I started hearing about this place in Danville, Kentucky, serving world-class teas. Like pilgrimage-worthy teas. Person after person told me about this family who had started a tea room in a historic house, which then took off big time, so much so that they had to close said tea room to meet international demand for their amazing teas. Finally, when my friend Stuart, a local historian and expert on the Boyle County area, recommended it to me, I got in the car.
If you are not from Kentucky, which I suspect you are not, this is probably not particularly noteworthy information to you. If you are from Kentucky, I can hear what you’re thinking, which is probably something along the lines of, “k.” Danville is small, very small. We’re talking low five-figure population small. The idea that it could sustain a world-class tea shop seems crazy. Hell, the idea that it would even have a tea shop is, in and of itself, unlikely.
But not only is there this lovely shop, but this lovely shop is so popular with locals and visitors alike that all three times I’ve gone, there’s been a line to get tea. The secret of the super-nice, extremely well-informed, low-key Richardson family is out, and for good reason: they’ve got an amazing product and they are willing to talk to you about it for as long as you’re interested.
They’ve got a whole range of historical teas (be still my heart) that I’ll tell you about at a later date, but for now, let’s talk about the Lung Ching Green I picked up on a recent visit.
Look at that! This is the platonic ideal of green tea, if we want to get right down to brass tacks. It’s a classic pan-roasted Chinese green tea and it’s got a simple, earthy taste I love things like it to have. It’s also really pretty; check out how nice those leaves look! You can tell it’s high quality because of how flat and light the leaves are (that’s usually a good indicator with dragon well teas; lower quality ones will often have darker, less uniform leaves). I got three good cups of tea out of this and it stood up really nicely to multiple steepings. The flavor developed differently every time I added more water rather than collapsing and becoming sadder and more faded.
In keeping with the meeting-you-where-you-are ethos of the Elmwood Inn tea experience, this is an easy to make, easy to drink tea that has simple-to-follow prep instructions printed right on the label, making it ideal for a novice tea drinker who just wants to dip a toe into the uh, kettle of very hot tea water? That metaphor fell apart, but bottom line: this is a great tea if you’re new to tea and want to try a clear-cut example of a near-perfect green tea, but it’s also wonderful if you’ve got a more developed tea palate because it’s just…really good drinking.
Hello, yes, it’s me! It’s me. I haven’t been around much since getting a full-time writing job and moving not once but twice (Charleston > Louisville > Italy), but I’m back and I wanted to dip my toe back in to blogging with one of my tea reviews.
Let’s get this out of the way: I am #basic. I am the #basickest. I love Target, autumn, yoga, brunch, and sweaters. I score favorably on quizzes such as this one. We can get into how I feel about the term basic at some other time; the fact remains that I am unapologetically #teambasic.
But I digress: Until Friday, I had never had that basic staple, the #starbucks #PSL. I’m on board with pumpkin pie, pumpkin smoothies, pumpkin burgers, and pumpkin cookies, but I’m just not that into sweet coffee drinks. My sweet friend Charlotte (hi, Charlotte!) took me to the airport, and indulged me when I got a 1/6th-the-pumps latte. Look, I had a buy-one-get-one coupon. Basics LOVE coupons. I couldn’t let it expire when I was on the plane. I know you’re on the edge of your seat: I didn’t hate it, but it was still a little too-too for me.
Rather than let them take my Basic Gold Card away, I headed straight for the tea shop and did the second-most basic thing I could: I bought pumpkin spice TEA so I’d have something to blog about on my blog no one reads. I know, so basic.
And here it is: pumpkin pie tea from the Louisville Tea Company. As you see, it’s a black tea, and honestly, not a great one. Something the LTC (if I may) does really well is range. They’ve got stuff for people weaning off oversugared Lipton to really hard-to-find teas that will impress even the snobbiest drinker. They will happily sell you something from either end of the spectrum without being snotty or pushy about it. If having extremely high-quality leaves is a non-negotiable for you, may I be the first to recommend many of their very, very fine varietals, but if you’re approaching this whole beverage thing with a sense of humor and want to try something kinda fun, then this is for you.
In addition to the leaves, you get pieces of dried pumpkin, cinnamon bark, whole cloves, bits of caramel, and some tiny pumpkin sprinkles. Is it gimmicky? Sure. Is it good? You know what? It is. It brews darker than I had expected, isn’t too sweet, and stands up nicely to two or three steepings. Pumpkin Pie tea calls to mind bonfires and hayrides and apple picking, and those are all fun things I happen to like. I’d recommend this with a little bit of vanilla soymilk first thing in the morning, maybe sweetened with a bit of sorghum.
Pumpkin Pie Black will run you about $7/50g from Louisville Tea Company. It’s a seasonal item, but you knew that.
Anyone had been surprised at liking a tea outside their usual favorites? Have you had another pumpkin spice tea you enjoyed? Tell me all about it.
Everyone who loves tea comes to it differently. Some people have a particularly transfixing pot at a restaurant and are hooked. Some people just evolve from drinking oversweet iced tea into more egalitarian drinkers. Like with most things I now like and excel at, I started liking tea to impress someone else.
My favorite aunt, Sheryl, is basically a master class on how to be an awesome human being. She went to college very young, was Miss University of Evansville, and became Dr. O’Sullivan before the age of 25. She then went on to educate the masses, including a young Paris Hilton. On top of all that, she is a world-class dancer, devout Christian who lives her faith with a quiet grace I can’t even process, and a truly awesome mom, sister, godmother, and daughter. That’s right: she’s pretty, smart, athletic, kind, and cool. It’s horrible to be around her sometimes.
When it came time for me to start drinking caffeine to keep myself functional, I was maybe 15 and still definitely the kind of person who wanted the approval of adults. Spoiler: I <3 approval. The coffee/tea choice was laid in front of me, and I picked tea to be more like Sheri and have something to talk about with her as I aged out of children’s literature (this is her particular academic realm of excellence). Because I was the sort of child who memorized books wholesale and repeated them back to anyone who would listen, I got kind of obsessed with tea, and well, here we are.
I knew my aunt was going to be in town, so I grabbed the Kusmi Petrushka, seduced by its truly gorgeous packaging. No photo I took did it justice, so just click around at the bottom of this post to check it out. I am so easily taken in by good colors and pretty patterns.
All casual-like, I just made the tea for her one morning like, “oh, this old thing? Had it forever! Definitely did not buy this on account of anyone else.”
This comes in bag and loose on the website, but the only had bag at the shop. Reader, I bought it. I know. It drinks like the nicest loose leaf, though! Promise. They come in these hand-sewn muslin sachets and you can tell Kusmi didn’t stick you with the gross dregs that they couldn’t put in a canister and sell at a premium. Kusmi is an old French company, and this particular varietal is from their Russian Imperial collection, the contents of which look between good and awe-inspiring. It’s a black tea with orange peel, vanilla, and almond notes, and it’s smooth and spicy in the best way possible, like if Earl Grey had a lovechild with real-deal chai. In a surprise twist, the second steep of this is even better than the first, though that trend didn’t carry on forever.
If I had it to do over again, I might drink this in the afternoon instead of first thing, but I have no regrets. And yes, my aunt loved it!
You can buy 4.4 ounces for about $20 here. They’re sold out of this one on their website for good reason, but go to Kusmi to check out their offerings.
Confession: I don’t like pumpkin spice _______. I tried one of those latte things at Starbucks last autumn for the first time, and I thought it was kind of gross. I was excited for what I thought would be a pumpkin-flavored coffee, and instead it was cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and a lot of sugar.
I love pumpkin, though. Like eggs or sandwiches, it’s unfairly categorized as a thing that is to be eaten and prepared just one way. Eggs are for breakfast. Sandwiches aren’t for dinner. Pumpkins are for sweets. Rubbish, I say.
Risotto isn’t nearly as hard to make as people seem to believe, which is great for you: when you make it, everyone acts very impressed. Even though it isn’t very photogenic, it is kind of of sexy. Seasonal and filling, this pumpkin take I invented has been a big hit with everyone I made it for. My best friend is convinced this is how she sealed the deal with her new boyfriend, so strong is the allure of a savory pumpkin dish.
Whenever I have something that is very, very expensive, I am consumed with a perverse desire for it to be mediocre. Not bad, exactly– I don’t want to be miserable– but I want it to be just “meh” enough that I can justify skipping Lululemon yoga pants in favor of Target ones, or Bojangles’ fried chicken in place of Thomas Keller’s. That said, I had aggressively, assertively low hopes for this week’s pick. Behold: the $37 blended breakfast tea from Bellocq Tea Atelier.
Laying aside the fact that it is silly to call a tea shop an “atelier,” I was extremely disappointed. I wanted this to be no better nor worse than any other nice breakfast tea I’d had– better than Tazo or Celestial Seasonings, maybe on par with something from Teavana. Nope. This Ceylon/Assam/Yunnan blend is pretty much a dream.
Breakfast blends take a lot of flak in the tea world for being the Uggs/Nike Shorts/French manicure of the beverages, but you know, a good one is worth its weight in gold. This is a good one, and I paid roughly that. With the toasty notes of a good Assam and the security blanket smell of a Ceylon, it’s just as nice first thing in the morning while you do a crossword as it was this afternoon, when I had it for a treat during a formidable rainstorm. It has an unusually long steeping time for a black tea– five to seven minutes, depending– which I ignored the first time I made it. It didn’t get bitter and the extra minute or two let the flavors unfold and gave me time to do some dishes. The second and third steeps brought out mellower notes, but were still great, which is what you’re hoping for from a higher-value tea.
So now you’re wondering: is this worth the $45ish dollars that it costs retail? The answer to that is probably no, unless you are a great connoisseur of tea. The good news is that you can buy this without the beautiful tin for the price of about $5/ounce, which is a good value for an organic black tea. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but the tin was why I bought it in the first place: hefty and old-fashioned, it keeps the tea nice and fresh and looks beautiful on your shelf. Unless money’s no object, skip the pretty packaging and just get it delivered to you in the sleeve.
If you’ve poked around this blog at all, you have probably picked up on the fact that I hate to waste pretty much anything. I’m one of those people who puts water into the soap dispenser to get more liquid out (what? it works!), and I save all my vegetable peels so I can make stock. I’m like your grandma who lived through the Great Depression, only I have WiFi. To me, wastefulness is lazy and uncreative, two things no one should want to be.
Right, so, pineapples were on special at Publix, and I love a sale, so obviously I bought several. I peeled them and chopped them and ate them, but then I had all these spiny skins littering my kitchen and I was loathe to throw them away. What the Sam Hill do you do with a couple pounds of pineapple peel? I googled around and came across zoborodo, a Nigerian tisane that put them to good use.
As we’ve covered in previous blogs, tisanes (or herbal teas) aren’t really teas at all. They’re waters infused with herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers. They’re hydrating, almost calorie-free, and have tons of benefits for you, but they aren’t tea. This one can lower blood pressure and decrease pain, plus it’s got a little vitamin C to boot. Here’s an easy recipe for zoborodo that I adapted from a few I found online. The only odd thing in this recipe is hibiscus flowers, which you can buy at Whole Foods or a health food store.
Acquire the following:
Peel of a pineapple
A generous handful of hibiscus flowers
Two tablespoons (ish) of diced raw ginger
Juice of 2 limes (pro tip: check the “priced for quick sale” shelf at your supermarket. Limes are expensive right now, bout they’re usually there. They’re fine for juice, but just kind of ugly. I got a dozen for a dollar this week.)
Put all these in a big pot and cover with water (I did about 2 liters of water). Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes, then remove from heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes. Strain out all the things you put in and serve. You can drink this hot, but I loved it iced! It’s still 90 degrees here in Charleston, so the mere idea of drinking a warm beverage is a horror. It’s a little bit sour, so add some agave or honey if you want something sweeter. Enjoy!
So what do y’all think of my pineapple reuse? Any other tips for me?
If you’re still with me after that unforgivable (but very funny) pun, I want to share with you my recipe for homemade chai in honor of this, a midsummer tea party. Chai is one of those things I didn’t realize you could make yourself until I thought about it and was like, “well, obviously it gets made at some point.” If you were wondering, that’s the provenance of about 90% of my DIY projects. Behold, Oprah-free chai:
I know it’s pretty hot to be thinking about drinking chai, but who doesn’t love an iced bev this time of year? I tried this out a couple different ways (details after the jump), and it was good hot, cold, room temp, and as an ice cube.
I’m fond of hating on Savannah. Not to say I don’t like Savannah, I do. It’s a fun town with gorgeous architecture and great restaurants and friendly folks and beautiful art. It’s just that Charleston is so. much. better. I like to tell people who are deciding between the two for vacation spots (not sure why these two are always paired, but there you have it): Anything you can do there, you can do better here.
I would like to amend that statement in two regards: one, they have way better thrift stores. Two, they have much, much better tea offerings. Today’s tea, the Blueberry Black, is from the Tea Room, a little shop on Broughton that specializes in tea and its myriad accouterments.* It’s slightly precious inside, but the tea ladies are knowledgeable and their offerings are many.
As you might have expected, today’s tea is a black, and it’s from China. It’s mild and smooth, and I don’t know much about it. It’s mild like an assam, though and was pretty caffeinated. The bright blue flecks you see in the photo are cornflowers and I think they’re just for color. I liked how pretty it was to look at. I know that’s a stupid thing to like about something you’re going to soak in water and then drink, but the cerulean was a nice surprise when I opened the bag.
The nose on this thing is very fruity, and it’s pleasant– somewhere between a real blueberry smell and a Bath and Body Works blueberry body spray (I know you know what I mean). A teaspoon steeps for roughly three minutes on the first infusion, and more like five or six on the second.
The taste is nice, pleasant, not overbearing in the slightest. The black tea was smooth and light; very drinkable. Blueberries were not super-strong, but there was a nice bit of fruitiness. If you aren’t usually a tea drinker, this might be one to change your heart. It was a great breakfast tea, but this would be a great iced tea– toss in a sprig of mint and you’re in business. I’ll be putting this away in volume come summer.
Blackberry Blue runs 3.75/ounce and can be purchased online or at the Tea Room.
Syrup is a many-splendored thing. A two-to-one ratio of water to sugar can turn into virtually whatever sweet concoction you can imagine. When I was working in fine dining, we had ginger syrups and jalapeno syrups and hibiscus syrups and I don’t even remember what else for our highly fancy cocktails. A dash of simple makes making sweet tea much, much simpler, whatever weird syrups you care to concoct make your Sodastream a thing worth the counter space, and of course the omnipresent bottle of Hersey’s will trick small children (okay, and also me) into drinking their milk. I see pre-made syrups hanging out at the grocery store, and it makes me ultra-crazy because it takes under a minute to make and the sky’s the limit. I’m going to show you how to make chocolate syrup today, but I’ll make some notes after the jump for how to customize it. The method’s the same no matter what.