Let's have a tea party!By Sharon Brown (Sharran)
April 21, 2009
I missed out on a lot of tea parties when I was growing up. There were not many kids who lived nearby and since I was more interested in caterpillars than in dolls, I never knew the fun of having a tea party. Oh, I drank lots of teas, and invented a few, but rarely did I ever get Kitty Fluff or Pepper Dog to sit still long enough to test them. But time passed, as it always does, and here we all are. It's a perfect time for us to get together for a tea party.
Many herbs make delicious or beneficial teas. Some taste good brewed alone, while others benefit from being blended with another herb or two for a more complex flavor. I don't always have a wide variety from my garden, so quite often I find a good selection from my local grocery, and I know there is a great selection at most health food stores. If you take time to read the labels of blends that you find, you will have more ideas for creating your own mixtures.
Teas are all different, some are good for morning, some for evening, and some in between. Take balm and catnip leaves for example; they make bracing afternoon teas. Yarrow and peppermint make refreshing, invigorating flavors that I prefer for mornings. Horehound tea is best for cold weather, especially when you feel you might be getting a cold. And chamomile, well it always relaxes me so I have it in the late evening. There is also the idea of mixing herbs with regular tea. Sometimes mint or raspberry leaves, or even balm added to a cup of black tea makes a pleasant drink. The possible mixtures are endless, and fun for you to try. For a time when I was experimenting with teas, I kept a little notebook and I wrote all the tea combinations I tried, along with a list of those I liked and those I didn't. Of course, that was when I was a young professional with no family and lots of time. Now I am an old retired professional, and I want to try them all again.
I also learned a while ago that loose dried herbs usually make the best teas, because some flavors are lost in tea bags. The same is true of the kind of water you use, as well as the steeping time allowed. Most of the time, your own tastebuds will be your guide, which is why I still keep that little notebook stashed in the cabinet where I keep my teas and herbs. Of course it all started when I was little and discovered mint. I added its crushed leaves to lemonade on hot summer days, and now it just isn't lemonade to me without the minty flavor. I have one word of caution about making your own teas, darker is not better. Herbal teas tend to be pale in color anyway and are generally better tasting when on the mild side. I learned that little lesson the hard way. There is nothing worse than over-steeped tea, unless you serve it to someone you are trying to impress. That can be truly bad.
Here is a list of some of my favorites, with directions that work for me. The quantities are for one and a fourth cups of water, which will yield one large mug of tea.
Balm: Refreshing in the afternoon. Try blending it with a few lavender flowers, rosemary, or spearmint leaves. Pour boiling water over 2 tablespoons fresh or 3 teaspoons dried leaves.
Basil: Spicy and bracing. Pour boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried leaves or about 20 fresh leaves. Steep for 5 minutes.
Catnip: A pleasant afternoon tea. Pour boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes and serve with honey and lemon slices. (This is better dried than fresh, I think.)
Elderberry flower: Sweet and soothing. Pour boiling water over 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flowers. Steep for 5 minutes.
Yarrow: An aromatic tangy tea. Pour boiling water over one half cup fresh flowers and leaves. Steep for 3 minutes, serve with sugar or honey. I like honey much better.
Fennel: Reminds me of a combination of peppermint and anise. Pour boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried leaves or 1 tablespoon fresh. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how strong you like it.
Spicebush: Satisfying and spicy. Simmer 1 cup leaves, twigs, and bark in 2 cups water for 15 minutes. Sweeten with brown sugar.
Hibiscus: Slightly tart. Blends well with other teas. Pour boiling water over 1 teaspoon crumbled dried blossoms or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh blossoms. Steep for 10 minutes.
Rose Hip: Tangy and healthy because of its high vitamin C content; blends well with many other herbs. The rose hip is the fruit of the dog rose. It should be picked in the fall, cut into pieces and dried. Bring one tablespoon dried hips and one and a half cups water to a boil. Remove from heat and steep for 15 minutes.
Mint: Invigorating and tangy. Blends well with many other herbs, including chamomile and balm. Pour boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried or the fresh leaves (at least 2 dozen, small) from 2 to 3 sprigs. Steep for 5 minutes.
Oswego: Sweet and fragrant. Pour boiling water over 2 teaspoons dried leaves. Steep for 5 minutes. Serve with a lemon slice and honey.
Chamomile: Delicate and soothing. Great blended with regular tea for an iced drink. Pour boiling water over 1 teaspoon dried flowers or one tablespoon fresh. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
There are some other things I learned along the way in my tea brewing ventures. I like to use spring water, it seems to give me drinks that are more aromatic and flavorful. Strength of flavor can also vary according to the amount of oils in the leaves when they were picked. Usually if I am using an unfamiliar herb, I stay with 2 teaspoons of dried, or 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh to one cup of water. Then I allow the tea to steep for a minimum of 5 minutes. If it is necessary, you can add more herb. Sometimes longer steeping can be tried, but with some herbs I have found that the longer it is steeped, the more bitter it seems.
Another thing that I have learned is the best way to brew tea is in a teapot made of glass, ceramic, or stainless steel, and never aluminum or iron. The same is true for the kettle or pan in which you boil the water. First, fill your teapot with hot water to warm it, meanwhile bring a kettle of fresh water to boil. Empty the teapot and put in a measured amount of the herb. Pour in the boiling water, cover the pot, and leave it to steep for the specified time. Stir the brew and taste it. If necessary allow it to steep for another minute or two.
I have also discovered that herbal teas taste better with honey, and strong flavored teas are even better when sweetened with brown sugar, maple syrup, or molasses. It seems to me that milk clouds the flavor of herbal teas. The teas that I have listed above are the ones most commonly found in gardens in the areas where I live and where I grew up. I am sure you could add others to the list.
I remember my grandmother and my great aunt telling me that coffee can be served in mugs, but tea must be served in china. For our tea party today, I have gathered together all my china teacups and saucers. Some of them might have the slightest chip, and I know my saucers don't always match the cups. But you see, they belonged to all those little ladies who served tea before me, and I only use them when I have tea parties for my most favorite people. It is so nice you could join me.
Photos from Plant Files: Catnip: HarryNJ; Australian Elderberry: Kennedyh (this particular elderberry is not used for teas usually, more often it is black elderberry that is preferred); Yarrow: Gabrielle; Spicebush: Mgarr; Rosehips: KMAC. Thanks to the photographers.
The photos of teapot and cups are my own.