Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

It's September 22nd; not only is it the Day of Atonement, but also the day when Soviet forces entered Tallinn back in 1944. The day when shit is expected to hit the fan. Things seem to be quiet in Tallinn - the WWII veterans, along with Russian and Belorussian embassy officials attended a somber flower-laying ceremony at the military cemetery where the Bronze Soldier is now located. Ahead of today, Klenski was officially banned from - well, breathing, really. There's another Nashi protest in Moscow, but that's not news.

In a celebration of today's utter un-newsworthiness, here's a post about something completely apolitical.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, has a famous essay describing to Americans the proper way to make tea. Here's the article, if you haven't read it or don't remember it well. Master Adams makes a few very good points, the central of which is that people who don't think tea is a wonderful drink have simply not had a good cup of tea. However, he makes use of several cornerstones of the British understanding of tea which are utterly misguided and impede the proper enjoyment of the noble drink.

Earl Gray. It's very British - it is, after all, named after an earl - but it is not tea proper. Earl Gray is flavoured, the tea mixed with an aromatic oil. As the oil is natural, the result of some dignitary's experimentation centuries ago, Earl Gray is not treated with the same contempt as modern flavoured tea bags that come in caramel, strawberry, and other utterly chemical varieties. It is still a ruse, though.

Tea bags. The British like them, and have spent a lot of engineering effort (that would be better spent on a new Jaguar) making them behave in a particular manner. So far they have failed. My British friends have attempted to convince me using the finest of these contraptions, a vaguely pyramidal thing that comes in boxes (and isn't flat-packed), but even that deteriorates the taste far too much. Tea bags are convenient and I use them sometimes in the office, but if you're going for really good tea, they simply won't do.

Milk. If you only have enough gumption to challenge one aspect of British tea, challenge milk. While some people actually like the taste of Earl Gray (though I find it vile), and tea bags have the justification of convenience, putting milk in tea is absolutely inexcusable. A lot of milk in tea will produce a specific flavour, that you might find intriguing and worth a try at least, but that is not proper tea. A little milk, the way the Brits do it, completely strips away the flavour of tea, and you end up drinking something murky-brown. Tea with milk is liquefied cardboard.

There is a better way to make tea. If your intention is to sample the full flavour of the drink itself, unleash the sensation of the plant, then you will need what my father makes, that which is singularly responsible for my appreciation of the art: Russian tea.

The beauty of Russian tea is its purity; it carries exactly one unorthodox step, and otherwise sticks to the absolute basics. It thoroughly encompasses the nature of tea as a social drink, a stimulant, and a savoury treat.

Russian tea requires the following tableware:
  • A kettle*
  • A pot
  • Teacups** and teaspoons
  • A sugar basin
  • A small tray.

It also requires the proper kind of tea. There are two aspects here. First, it has to be free leaf. This is non-negotiable. But don't just grab something that doesn't come in bags! You might end up with crushed tea, and that's horrid. Crushed/broken/granulated tea is worse than even tea bags. It's a homogenous mass that has gone through pulverizing equipment, and this means that the tea leaves are cut with stems - if you're lucky - or with random biomass like wood chippings. The stems do actually have the same compounds as the rest of the plant, so crushed tea provides the strength and the color, and it's cheap. But it doesn't provide the taste, or the aroma. Be absolutely sure that what you have is actual free leaf tea. It has to have large, long, dry chunks, and be a bit crunchy.

The second aspect is what kind of tea to use. Black tea, obviously, and not Earl Gray. But even black tea has varieties. The simple answer is it doesn't matter: they all come from the same plant, it's just a matter of processing. Just grab a decent brand - Dilmah is a safe choice for a newbie. Your keywords otherwise are Darjeeling or Orange Pekoe. The latter doesn't have bits of oranges in it, that's just a reference to the color it has in TV commercials. Both these types are actually pure, unflavoured black tea - exactly what you want. Don't use English Breakfast Tea! It's black and unflavoured, but it's a cheap mixture designed to be drunk at the time of day when your sensory receptors haven't recalbrated to the physical universe yet.

Now, next up is the tricky part, that which makes the tea Russian. Whereas normally you would make all of the tea in a pot, then pour into a cup and drink, the right way here is to use the pot for zavarka - the concentrate. You mix your own tea in your own cup: put in a bit of the concentrate and add water by preference. This does not deteriorate the taste of the tea, because it's still drawn out of the leaves by boiling hot water right there and then; but it allows you to vary the strength of it. This is where the social aspect comes in. A pot of zavarka, along with a kettle, lets each person have the tea at the strength they enjoy most.

The ratio of free tea leaves to water for zavarka is the same as the ratio of coffee powder to water for regular drinking coffee. Remember, you're going to be diluting the tea a lot! Plus, I'm talking about dry volume: dried tea leaves have a lot of volume but little weight and density. Use teaspoons. If you use 4 tablespoons of coffee for a half-pint (quarter-liter) mug, put 4 tablespoons of tea in the pot and pour a half-pint of boiling water over them. (Use this ratio - 4 teaspoons of leaves per 250ml of water - as your default.)

An important point, one that Mr. Adams got right: the water has to be boiling when it hits the leaves. It's not just a matter of temperature; boiling is a process whereby bits of water turn to vapour, and this really helps to draw out the tea from the leaves. You can pre-warm the pot to make sure the water still boils for a few seconds once it's in; using a clay/china pot helps immensely. It's also useful to keep the water boiling in the kettle for a little bit before pouring. Go and put your kettle on: can you hear bubbling noises for about 5-10 seconds after it switches off? Excellent, that'll do.

(Note: you have to let the zavarka pot stand for a few minutes. This lets it become strong enough. In the meantime you can refill the kettle to have a lot of hot water for everyone, and call them to the table. The beauty of Russian tea is that you can drink it for a long time: the zavarka keeps the proper taste for a couple of hours, and as long as you have hot water on the table - not necessarily boiling - it still tastes good.)

Now you can go ahead and drink the tea. Experiment with the ratio of zavarka to water; start with 50/50 and adjust. (50/50 is actually a strong mixture, but you're doing this to fully feel the taste.)

Obviously you can't add milk to Russian tea, but you can add lemon. The canonical way is to cut a circular slice (use a half-circle if a full one doesn't fit in your cup, but really half-circles are for tequila), put it in the cup, and pour tea over it. Just like Mr. Adams with his milk - of course you can't scald lemon, but the pouring of strong, hot zavarka will draw our the juices better. Once you've put in the zavarka and water, feel free to poke the lemon with your spoon, press it against the bottom of the cup, crushing the individual cells. This is - again like Mr. Adams - socially unacceptable, but I learned about good tea from my parents when I was little, and I still like doing it. You can also take the butt end of a lemon and squeeze it over the cup. It doesn't have an adverse effect on the tea. In fact, when I get the flu, one of the best medicines I know is a nice, hot mug of tea with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it.

Actual lemons are best, of course, but I've had acceptable results from cooking-spec lemon juice. Not the sweetened drinkable stuff, and not the concentrate used for baking - just organic squeezed juice. I use it for convenience, along with my tea-making set: a kettle, and a glass pot that has a leaf-holder in the middle. The pot sits on a hotplate that keeps it from cooling down, and can be used to pre-heat it. That makes up slightly for it not being china.

If you just use a regular clay pot, you'll probably get a few loose leaves in your cup. There are devices to avoid this - little net things that clip onto the spout - but don't bother: it's part of the experience. Otherwise, add a bit of sugar if you want it, and you're ready to drink!

* The more culturally curious of readers may be vaguely aware of the samovar, a massive copper keg with a place to start a small fire, and a spout at the bottom. There were electric samovars in the Soviet days, even. They're impressive-looking, but have very little to do with the taste of tea, so don't worry about it.

** Another classic Russian thing is to pour your tea into the saucer, then sip it from that. It's a way to cool down the tea quickly, since there's a lot of surface area to the water. Please don't try and do this. It's only for professionals, and rudimentary anyway. As far as I can tell, it's an artefact from the samovar, where water could actually end up superheated. For the full experience, you should still use fairly small clay cups with saucers. Or, to be exceedingly Russian, use a glass mug in a silver holder. You can find them in most Russian souvenier shops, just between the five-in-one dolls and the figurines of bears swigging vodka.


Frank said...

You forgot to mention that a proper fire inside a proper samovar is built out of charcoal put on top of dried bark of birches ...

Anyhow, anyone who stands up for tea unspoilt deserves to be praised ~

Flasher T said...

As I'm specifically saying that a samovar is pointless and redundant, I think it was OK to leave that little detail out of an already ginormous post. :)

But thank you.


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