Minty Fresh

I’m not a great fan, in general, of herbal teas.  I don’t mind drinking them but I would generally choose other things in preference to them.

However, a few years ago I had the pleasure of being served some Iraqi mint tea (at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, of all places) and enjoying it greatly.

Subsequently I read up a bit on mint tea and, although I couldn’t find any specific references to Iraqi tea in my extensive researches (i.e. Wikipedia) I did manage to find references to North African mint tea, which seems to be known variously as Morrocan mint tea, Maghrebi mint tea or Touareg tea.  The latter is my favourite name, due to its alliterative appeal.

Unlike the more standard British versions of herbal teas, which are generally just infusions of the herbs themselves (e.g. mint) and therefore not technically tea at all (i.e. containing leaves of Camellia sinensis), this is actually green tea (most often, apparently, Chinese green gunpowder) infused together with mint leaves.

The authentic preparation of Touareg tea seems to be fairly complicated, involving boiling up the tea and mint leaves together in water with quite a lot of sugar.  I’ve not (yet) tried that but a few weeks ago it occurred to me, while drinking a cup of gunpowder tea, that a reasonable substitute (or at least, a nice refreshing and tasty drink with no pretension to being authentic North African mint tea) might be obtained simply by bunging a few mint leaves in with the tea when brewing it in the usual way.

I lost little time in trying that idea out (though I did have to wait a few days to get to a supermarket and buy myself a mint plant, as my last one had died a year or two back).  So far, I’ve made my mint tea probably about half a dozen times, chopping (or cutting up with scissors) one or two mint leaves to go with a liberal teaspoonful of gunpowder tea in my basket infuser to make a single cup of tea.  I’ve been very happy with the results.

That’s pretty much all I want to say about mint tea for now but I’ll finish with a couple of notes about the brewing of green tea in general.  These are things that I’ve learned through reading followed by experimentation.

I’ve been drinking green tea for quite a long time (in fact, on and off, for most of my life) but until a few years ago tended to find it came out a bit bitter for my tastes when I brewed it for myself.  I then discovered that green tea should be brewed with slightly cooler water than black tea (for which the water should be pretty much boiling).  I can’t remember the exact recommended temperature (which probably varies in any case between different types of green tea and personal tastes) but as a rough rule of thumb I usually aim to turn off the kettle just as the big bubbles start to form and then leave it for a few seconds before pouring.  The result of using cooler water is that the tea brews without releasing various compounds that cause the bitterness, so you end up with a much nicer tasting cup of tea.  (Black tea, by contrast, benefits from hotter water to release its full flavour.)  That’s almost certainly the single most important bit of advice I’ve come across for brewing green tea.

More recently, I found that green tea leaves can be successfully infused several times and still give good results.  In fact, by reusing the leaves two or three (or possibly even four or five) times you get subtle changes in the flavour which add to the tea drinking experience.  Indeed, for some types of green tea, such as gunpowder, the first infusion is considered to give a less pleasant taste than subsequent infusions, so it is quite common practice to discard the first batch and start drinking from the second.   I’m not sure whether that practice is officially called “washing the tea leaves” but that’s how I tend to think of it.  (Again, this is different for black tea, where most of the flavour seems to come in the first infusion; oolong tea, although superficially more black than green, seems to stand multiple infusions very well, although washing the leaves is neither necessary nor desirable.)

I’ve taken to doing just that, with the slight modification that I usually only use half a cup of water for the first infusion (if I’m using my single-cup basket infuser, which is my usual method for tea making these days) and that, rather than waste it, I’ll leave it to go cold and then feed it to one of my houseplants.  I’m fairly sure that the tea doesn’t do any harm to the plant, and may do some good, and I still get to enjoy two or three very pleasant cups of green tea (with or without mint; often I’ll do the first brew (not counting the washing) without and then add mint for subsequent cups).