Time for tea

I’ve just got back from this week’s sailing adventure and it was a very pleasant evening. Not only was the weather fine (after a generally miserable day, meteorologically speaking) and the crew large enough and experienced enough to make for a smoother sail than we often have, but we even had time for a quick cup of tea on board before we started.

This was particularly welcome since, as so often happens when I have to go out for things (usually sailing or a band practice) shortly after getting home from work, I didn’t have time to finish the cup of tea I started before I went out.

In recent months, when I’m in the situation of wanting a cup of tea but not really having enough time to make and properly enjoy one, I have tended to go for Russian tea, but I’m beginning to get a bit tired of that pun and it recently occurred to me that green tea has several natural advantages for an occasion such as this. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll restrict myself to considering only green and black tea, rather than other types such as oolong or white tea, or non-tea-based infusions; I’ll also consider them generically rather than thinking about the specific details of particular types or blends.

The first benefit of green tea is that it is optimally brewed with slightly cooler water (around 75 degrees, instead of 100 degrees for black tea), which means both that the kettle reaches the desired temperature quicker and that the tea cools to a drinkable temperature quicker. Allied to this is the fact that green tea often requires only a relatively short brewing time (say around 2 minutes, instead of 3 or 4 for black). All that adds up to a beverage that is ready to drink somewhat sooner than black tea – very handy when time is limited.

The second benefit is that green tea leaves can usually be successfully brewed at least two or three times, and often in fact they reach their best on the second or third brew. This contrasts with black tea leaves, which are generally best the first time round. Hence, if you do run out of time and have to abandon half of your first cup, you can reuse the leaves later on when you have a bit more time to spare. This is obviously less wasteful than having to chuck them away. The cold tea left over from the first cup can be used to good effect for watering houseplants, and I’m not sure that it makes too much difference for this whether green or black tea is used.

Anyway, I’ve just finished my second cup of green tea (and I’m sure my spider plant enjoyed the latter half of the first cup I brewed before I went sailing), so it’s time to draw this musing to a close.

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Cold Comfort

For the second week running, I found myself unable to go sailing last night. This time, however, it wasn’t the weather that kept me ashore but the fairly heavy cold I’m currently nursing.

This sprang up from nowhere on Monday morning and steadily got worse as the week progressed, reaching its zenith (I hope) yesterday and rendering me unfit to go sailing. At least, I would have given it a go if the crew had been short-handed but there were enough other people available and I was feeling sufficiently rough to consider that it would be better all round if I stayed at home.

I think I feel marginally better today, but it’s still at a fairly yucky stage (I’m sure you’ve experienced enough colds to be able to imagine the gory details without me spelling them out) and I’m also missing tonight’s band practice, though I hope to be well enough to go to tomorrow night’s.

While I’ve been sitting at home, reading the fictional exploits of Horatio Hornblower and dreaming of a life on the ocean wave, I have been soothing my throat with a concoction that my boss (officially “line manager”, but that sounds too corporate for my liking) told me about this afternoon while I was manfully struggling on with my work and looking forward to the moment I could knock off and head home to hit my rocking chair. (Incidentally, in case my boss or any prospective future employer is reading this, I should emphasise that when I’m at work I don’t usually just sit there looking forward to going home – only when I’m feeling ill but can muster just enough strength to drag myself to the office in the first place.)

The concoction in question is actually a decoction (I think that’s the correct technical term) of ginger, black peppercorns and cloves in water. As such, it bears a certain similarity to the honey, lemon and ginger decoction that I usually make up when I have a cold. It also reminded me somewhat of masala chai, which is perhaps not surprising given that my boss is Indian and is therefore steeped in the same culinary/medicinal tradition from which that fine beverage comes.

My method of preparation was to roughly chop a bit of fresh ginger, crush a few cloves and peppercorns in a pestle & mortar and then simmer the whole lot for a few minutes in a small saucepan of boiling water before straining into a cup. I drank a little bit of it neat but used the bulk of it, while the water was still nice and hot, to brew a cup of coffee (as suggested by my boss).

I can’t speak for the medicinal properties but it was certainly pleasant and soothing to drink (with or without the coffee – I’m sure it would also work as a masala chai mix with a bit of black tea thrown in, without the coffee of course!) and will be a useful addition to my repertoire of brews to make myself feel better (if not actually get better any sooner) when I have a cold.

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).

 

Knowing me to a tea (or coffee)

I have made no secret, either on this blog or elsewhere, of the fact that I love both tea  and coffee.  However, it seems to be the case that many people, including some who know me quite well (or at least, have known me for a long time) seem to assume that I only drink one or the other.

Most often, I think, people get the impression I’m an exclusive coffee drinker.  Certainly it’s true that I like to start the day with a cup of fairly strong black coffee and that’s also what I’ll often opt for if I’m given the choice when I go to someone’s house for dinner or if I’m meeting someone for a chat at a local café (if it’s not a greasy-spoon venue that charges more for a cup of instant coffee than for tea, in which case I prefer the latter).

In fact, I probably drink more tea than coffee on an average day, as that’s what I’m more likely to brew for myself after my first morning coffee (though if people offer me coffee I’m generally more than happy to accept it).  Although I’m quite content with what would be considered a standard British cup of tea (with milk and, unlike coffee, I don’t dislike it with sugar, though I don’t usually bother) I tend to go more for slightly more delicate teas, generally without milk or other additives.  My tea cupboard at home probably contains on average somewhere between 5 and 10 varieties of tea, both black and green (and sometimes white).  I also drink quite a lot of rooibos and sometimes yerba mate, both of which I tend to think of as types of tea although I know that strictly they aren’t.  I’m not generally a big fan of herbal teas, though I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time and I do quite enjoy an occasional infusion of rosemary (which I think is supposed to be good for the memory, though I can’t remember for certain).

One group of friends that I regularly used to hang out with included a lot more tea drinkers than coffee drinkers, to the extent that quite often everybody else there would be wanting to drink tea (of the standard British variety with milk) and I was happy to go with the flow for the sake of simplicity.  At one point somebody I’d only known in that context saw me drink a cup of coffee elsewhere and was surprised as she’d assumed that I was a tea-only drinker.  Actually I still hang out with essentially the same group of people although we now seem to have more coffee and rooibos drinkers in our midst so I quite often go for one of those instead.

The reason I bring this up is not just to reassure you that you’re welcome to offer me either coffee (as long as it doesn’t have sugar in it) or tea but due to an incident that occurred yesterday.  I was chatting to someone I’ve known for almost 15 years and happened to mention that I was about to make myself a cup of tea.  This surprised him as he’d assumed it was coffee-or-nothing for me; to be fair, we first knew each other when we worked together in a university maths department and I drank a lot more coffee and somewhat less tea than I now do (click on the picture below for a possible explanation).

Theorem machine

Musing on this encounter, it struck me how easily we can have a very limited and inaccurate perception of someone even if we’ve known them for a long time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it means that getting to know a person well can be a lifelong journey, which helps to keep things interesting, but it means we should be careful about jumping to conclusions (especially on more important issues than which beverage someone prefers).

PS if you were wondering about the title of today’s post, it’s a deliberate mangling of the idiomatic phrase “to a T”, which is used to mean “precisely” or “in great detail”.  I don’t think it’s often used in the context of knowing something to a T but I don’t see any reason why it can’t be.

La Dame Azure

As I write this, I’ve just finished drinking a cup of what is currently one of my favourite types of tea – Blue Lady from The Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee Company.

I first came across this company, which has become my favourite online tea merchant, sometime last year while searching, as I recall, for a place to get Russian Caravan tea (one of my perennial favourites – although their blend is a bit more delicate than I’m used to for this one).  Part of the attraction is that they are based in my home county of Kent, not to mention that they sell a wide range of interesting teas, coffees and other infusions (such as a very pleasant Spicy Chilli Rooibos) at quite reasonable prices (and no, I’m not getting paid to write nice things about them!).

The company is based in the village of Pluckley, which (despite having lived in Kent for almost half of my life to date) I don’t recall ever having visited.  It has a reputation as a haunted village and is sometimes claimed to be the most haunted village in the UK (according to Wikipedia, this assertion was backed up by an appearance in the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, though the article doesn’t mention what happened in subsequent editions).  Supposedly there are at least 12 ghosts which roam Pluckley and one of them is the Blue Lady after whom the tea is named.

Sadly I’ve been unable to discover the story of the Blue Lady, although several web-based lists of Britain’s Most Haunted Places which mention Pluckley (with no reference to a Blue Lady there) also talk about a Blue Lady either at Berry Pomeroy Castle near Totness in Devon (see here – NB Pluckley’s item #2 on the list and the Blue Lady is at #7) or at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire (in this Wikipedia list, which is in alphabetical order per country).  The tea company website is vague on the point, merely referring to “the blue lady spirit who roams our most haunted village” and mentioning that some of the locals call her Lady Blue (so it’s possible that she isn’t officially called The Blue Lady).

In any case, the name seems to have provided the Pluckley-based tea merchants with a good excuse to come up with a fine tea, which they describe as “a is a citrus scented blend of loose leaf black tea with exotic flowers.”  That seems to me to be a good description and in fact the next bit of their description – “A tea to really excite the taste buds. A powerful citrus aroma with a sweet scented taste!” – is also, while subject to a certain amount of marketing hyperbole, a fair enough description.

Incidentally, for those of you who know me as more of a coffee drinker than a tea drinker (which is probably not actually true, although I do retain a strong affection and appetite for the umber nectar, without which I can scarce contemplating starting the day), although I have thus far mostly sampled the teas (including rooibos, though it isn’t strictly tea) of the Kent & Sussex Tea Company, I’ve also recently finished a pack of their Brazilian coffee beans.  I enjoyed this coffee very much and I look forward to tasting a few more of their wares on that side of the fence too.

Raspberry Tea

I am writing this on my Raspberry Pi, which is currently hooked up to my monitor at work (it’s now my lunchbreak and I’ve, once again, successfully resisted the temptation to play with my Pi all morning).

As I mentioned the other day, my first attempt at directly hooking up the I/O hardware (rather than going in via SSH or VNC to a headless setup) failed because my HDMI cable and DVI adaptor combo was too big to fit in the space at the back of my monitor.  I suppose the proper geek solution to this problem would have been to dismantle the cable and adaptor and see if I could wire them together directly and make the whole thing short enough to fit.  Instead, I opted for the slightly-less-exciting but also considerably-more-likely-to-work-without-frying-myself-or-my-monitor approach of buying a new cable with a HDMI connector at one end and a DVI connector at the other.  This has now arrived and works fine.

My Pi is beautifully quiet compared to my desktop PC, as it has no fan to make lots of noise (the chip is sufficiently cool-running not to need one) but it’s also noticeably slower (as it has a lot less memory and probably a much slower processor), so I won’t be trying to persuade my boss to let me replace my office computer with a Raspberry Pi, nor ditching my home PC in its favour.  However, it’s certainly an excellent little bit of kit for the price.

I’m still trying to think of actual GPIO based projects that I might want to use in real life, but I’ve now come up with an idea that is at least a step up from just making LEDs flash in pretty patterns.

Several  years ago, I wrote (and then, over the space of a few years, gradually modified) a simple little tea timer script.  As I recall, it started life as a shell script but was soon reworked in Python and has remained in that language to this day.  There are plenty of tea timers in existence but none of the ones I could find did quite what I wanted (which, initially, was mostly to allow me to run it from the command line without a GUI environment to hand, although I later added a GUI option too).

My script works reasonably well and I still use it occasionally, although these days if I want a countdown timer (whether for brewing cups of tea or other purposes) I usually reach either for my mobile phone or my mechanical kitchen timer.  However, one problem I always found with it was that it’s all too easy to miss the alarm bleep and the console message or dialog box that appears when the timer is finished.

It occurred to me the other day (or perhaps it was this morning?) that a nice shiny LED to indicate when the tea is done would be a lot more eyecatching and, with the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO facilities, it wouldn’t be very difficult to set up.  In fact, I’m intending (once I get home to my electronics stuff) to rig up two separate LEDs – one (probably red) to shine while the timer is operating (to show that it’s working) and the other (probably green) to switch on when it finishes.  I may further refine it by making the first LED flash as well if you don’t switch the timer off after a minute or so.

Due to the nature of the hardware and software involved, it’s unlikely to be possible to produce a very accurate timer, but it certainly should work well enough for purposes such as brewing a cup of tea.