Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tea or Tisane?

Everyone knows what tea is, right?  Tea, technically, comes from the leaves of one plant: camellia sinensis.  Anything other than the leaves from this plant is not actually tea, although “tea” is often used as a catchall word to include all the different herbal beverages used these days. 

Legend has it that tea was discovered long ago in China quite by accident.  Some leaves from a nearby plant blew into a cup of hot water; a nice brown colored beverage resulted, was found to have a refreshing taste, and tea was born.  However it was discovered, tea is very refreshing, whether it is black, green, oolong or white.  Tea has been proven in more recent times to have wonderful health benefits.  We have all heard of antioxidants in tea, helping to fight free radicals that can cause harm to the body.  Tea is far lower in caffeine than coffee.  It is refreshing, whether used hot or cold. 
Golden Tippy Black Tea, brewed
There are various types of tea, all beginning with the same leaves.  Black tea is created by bruising or crushing the green leaves to expose them to oxidation and allowing them to ferment, then rolling the leaves and drying.  This produces a beautifully colored beverage and has the strongest flavor of all the varieties of tea.  Oolong tea (pronounced ‘OH-long’) is oxidized and fermented the same as black tea, but only for about half the amount of time and the resulting product is a lighter, more reddish beverage with a flavor all its own, somewhere in strength between black tea and green tea.  For green tea, the leaves are heated immediately, stopping the fermentation process entirely, then dried and rolled.  It produces a lovely light colored beverage, and is said to have the most health benefits.  The processing of white tea is similar to that of green tea, but only the unopened buds of the leaves are used.  It has the same health properties as green tea, but the flavor is the lightest and most delicate.

Golden Tippy Black Tea Leaves
Good quality tea is a wonderful beverage.  Whole rolled or twisted leaves are the best quality; the smaller the leaf, the higher the quality of the tea.  The top grades are called Flowery, Golden Flowery or Tippy.  Seconds, termed “Choppy,” are the leaves that have broken into smaller pieces.  They brew a great tea, and are usually less expensive.  The smallest particles leftover from the tea process, called “Fannings”, are what is used in tea bags.  It brews tea of course, but once tasting a tea brewed from a wonderful full leaf Darjeeling Black Tea, for example, it is hard to return to a tea bag for optimal flavor. 

“Orange Pekoe” (rhymes with “gecko”) is a western terminology applied to a grade of black tea; the word orange in the name has nothing to do with flavor, but could be a reference to the Dutch House of Orange using the name Orange as an implied “seal” of some sort.  Pekoe may be a westernized interpretation for a Chinese word meaning “white hairs”, referring to the fine white down on the tea leaves.

So, what are herbal beverages called?  Herbal beverages are called tisanes, and may be prepared by different methods; usually infusion or decoction.  It is incorrect to apply the term “tea” to anything infused or decocted, although tea is actually infused.  Infusion is the preparation method of choice for leaves, flowers or buds; plant matter that will release its properties easily into a drinkable beverage.  Placed into heated or boiled water and allowed to steep, the herbs release their goodness into the water, and then are strained out.  Decoction is the method used for harder or denser plant materials, such as roots or barks that take longer to release their flavors or health benefits.  With a decoction, the plant materials are brought to a boil, simmered gently for 15 minutes or more allowing the liquid to reduce, and then straining.

No matter which you prefer, tea or tisane, for pure enjoyment or for health benefits, look for the best quality.  Discover your favorites among the different types of loose teas.  Taste the different herbal tisanes and discover new flavors.  Above all, enjoy! 

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website, on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. I am also on a spiritual journey and hope you will join me at my new blog, An Eagle Flies.