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Any Time is Tea Time

Tea GardenThis writer was brought up in a tea-drinking environment, which, perhaps, explains my partiality to a good "cuppa". Coffee, carbonated drinks, wines or a matured whiskey all have their place but a well brewed, flavoursome cup of TEA is the answer for that "feel alive" feeling! Personally, I favour tea brewed from the "black" tealeaf but millions of folk (especially Chinese) thoroughly enjoy "green" tea so we all have individual tea preferences. Nevertheless, it is with some puzzlement that I view advertisements offering "Mint Tea" or "Raspberry Leaf Tea" or "Chamomile Tea" and the like.

Such are fruit or herbal infusions tea is tea is TEA! And it is the most popular beverage in the world. Even the names of the classical teas (or blends) carry us around the world Assam, Darjeeling, English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Russian Caravan, Earl Grey, Oolong, Ceylon and so on. Tea was also the culprit (or, rather, the taxes thereon) for the "Boston Tea Party" which eventually cost Great Britain her embryonic colonies in North America. So the enjoyment of tea has played a part in shaping world politics and continues to play an important role in the economies of tea producing, and tea drinking, nations.

Tea GardenTea has been grown and drunk in China for thousands of years. The Mandarin Chinese word for tea is "Cha" and, in fact, this word was assimilated into the English language as "Char" (a "charlady" was the lady originally employed to brew tea in English offices and factories). "Cha" has also been assimilated into the Thai language. "Tea" is taken from "teh" which is from another Chinese dialect.

Tea, whether "green" or "black", comes from the same plant and is of the Camellia family. The tea plant is classified as Camellia sinensis; it can grown very tall (up to 30 metres) but, under cultivation, is kept pruned to around one metre height to facilitate "plucking" and continuous growth of the mature bush. Ideally, only the top two leaves and a bud are plucked from the growing tips and this process is labour intensive since, for best results, it is done by hand. Tea bushes will grow from sea level to around 1,250 metres altitude but those grown in the cool airs of the higher altitudes are less subject to blights and pests.

The difference between "green" and "black" teas is in the processing. "Black" tea, which is the most internationally preferred, takes longest to process. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and India are the major producers. After plucking, the leaves are spread on wide trays to wither for up to 16 hours. As moisture evaporates the leaf becomes limp; it is then mechanically shredded and this releases the natural leaf juices. The broken leaves are again air-dried and the enzymes released from the juices oxidize causing light fermentation.

TeaThe fermented, broken leaves now a rusty colour, are drum rotated through warm air machines and this removes the last of the moisture. This is "black" tea which is then packed in "tea chests" (which are foil lined to prevent adulteration from undesirable odours) for shipping to blenders and tea-traders in every part of the world. "Green" tea, largely produced in China for its own domestic consumption, is simply air dried and baked, which shrinks and curls the leaves. The whole leaf remains intact, as it is not broken. A final passage through warm air machines removes any remaining moisture before the tea is packaged and ready for enjoyment.

Thailand, although neither a major producer nor exporter, has been growing tea for over 60 years. The mountainous regions of North Thailand favours the cultivation of tea plants and the district of Doi Mae Salong is noted for growing quality Oolong tea. The growers are descendants of the Chinese KMT who settled in northern Thailand after the onslaught of Mao Zse Tung. A noted producer of Thai grown, "black" tea is the Raming Tea Company, which has a faithful following of consumers. So the enjoyment of tea is not new to Thailand although it does not dominate the beverage market as in other parts of the world.

The rituals involved with tea drinking, and tea brewing, are legion. There are tea ceremonies in both China and Japan while huge tea samovars, attended by muscular ladies, gently hiss aboard the Trans-Siberian express. My Aunt ensured that her favourite teapot was only rinsed of tealeaves but never scrubbed clean of the heavy tannin deposit. Also, my Grandma insisted tea was best brewed in a brown, ceramic pot which had been "warmed" and then rotated three times in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions. Come to think of it, I once knew a gypsy lady who could tell one's fortune by reading the leaves at the bottom of a cup but that's a different story altogether!

Finally, tea drinking is very healthy. Everyone needs to drink more liquids (especially in tropical countries like Thailand) so tea is a pleasant way to supplement daily water intake. Up to six cups a day can be enjoyed, without harmful effect, as tea is naturally low in calories, the caffeine content is relatively low (about half as much as coffee) and it is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids (also found in fresh fruit and vegetables). No wonder the tea beverage gives us a "lift" and is sometimes referred to as "the cup that cheers". Freshly brewed tea, either with milk and sugar to taste, or black with a slice of lemon or simply black is a refreshing part of any day. At breakfast, lunch, supper and, of course, afternoon tea! Another cup anyone?

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