Food Hamper Articles

Tea – Yerba Mate, South American Delight

by The Food Hamper on November 23, 2010


Tea is most commonly associated with Asia. And it’s true that the majority of tea comes from China, India and other countries in that area. But there are other countries that have the climate, soil and expertise to produce a fine tea.

In recent years, South Africa has been on the radar with the rising popularity of Rooibos. Delightful as it is, Rooibos is not a traditional tea. It’s not made from the Camilla Senensis plant. Another plant makes for a great tea, and this one is cultivated in South America: Yerba Mate.

Produced from the Ilex Paraguariensis tree, part of the holly family, it makes a fine herbal tea. Grown in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil it is a South American wonder. Each country has its own distinctive style of Yerba Mate tea. In Brazil, the leaves are toasted, yielding a stronger taste. In Argentina, the cocido is a fine breakfast tea.

Like other herbal teas, it has many of the great health benefits of a traditional leaf. It provides a relaxing drink while aiding digestion. And it still has many of the antioxidants that are helpful in warding of cancers.

Even in bag or loose leaf form it still makes for a great brew. It can be a very fine, almost powdery substance, though. The leaves are dried, then crumbled into a very fine brown-leaf tea mixture. So, if you don’t care for bits of herb in the liquid, filter well. The tea can even be prepared in a French press.

It’s easy to obtain in bag form, but for a more traditional South American brew there’s an alternative preparation method. Instead of a teapot, a gourd and a bombilla is used. The gourd (called a mate) is used in place of a cup, and the bombilla is a metal straw that gives the smooth herbal a nice little tang.

Fill the gourd 3/4 full of herb, then pour cold water over them until they’re wetted but not drowned. Let them soak for a few minutes. While you wait, heat a cup of water to about 82°C/180°F, then add enough water to fill the gourd. Steep for a few minutes. Then insert the bombilla filter end down into the liquid and sip. Arriba!

In the traditional social setting, one person typically takes the role of preparer and server and has the first sip. Then the gourd and straw is passed from one person to the next. And you thought only the Japanese had tea rituals!

Pick up a gourd and bombilla and have some tea South American style.


Tea – White Tea, Delicacy Personified

by The Food Hamper on October 30, 2010

a cup of tea with lemonWhite tea is made from the same plant as is green tea, but undergoes a very different process. It begins with the rolled buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant, but suffers no oxidation.

That oxidation process, often called fermentation, is what produces the distinctive color and taste of other teas. Though the word is the same, ‘fermentation’ in tea circles does not mean the same as when it’s used in relation to wine. No sugars are altered to produce alcohol.

Instead of oxidation, the buds are dried by steaming, then air dried. No rolling or crushing occurs. This leaves the enzymes in the leaves intact, unexposed to air. Water evaporates more slowly and up to 40% of the original weight is lost. Then the leaves are slow-roasted to remove about 95% of their moisture content.

The result is a tea with very little caffeine and a very light color and delicate taste. The final product has a very fresh taste, somewhat like real leaves or grass, that is preferred by some tea aficionados. Leaves gathered in the early spring provide a clean cup with a fragrance that has a hint of outdoors.

A type called Silver Needle that hails from the Fujian province in China is an especial treat. The Darjeeling province in India makes a fine white tea as well. And there is a variety called Ceylon White that hails from Sri Lanka.

But there’s more to white tea than just good taste.

Though still an area of active research, there are studies that suggest white tea is even healthier than the already great green tea. Green tea stimulates the immune system to fight infection and according to a recent study at the Pace University, that property may be even more pronounced in white tea. It has an anti-viral and anti-bacterial effect.

With its lower caffeine content (15 mg per serving, compared to 40 mg for black tea, and 20 mg for green tea) white teas will be a great addition to the ‘decaf’ section of your tea tin.

Brew about 2.5 grams (1,5 teaspoons) for every 200 ml (6 oz). Heat the water to 82°C (180°F), then steep the leaves for a few minutes. Cool to taste and enjoy this ancient delight as a new experience.


Tea – Rooibos, The Red Delight

by The Food Hamper on September 11, 2010

a cup of Rooibos teaDerived from the Afrikaans word for ‘red bush’, Rooibos is not a true tea. It comes from a plant called Aspalathus Linearis, rather than the Camellia Sinensis, which is generally used for making tea. But, as Shakespeare rightly said: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Or, in this case, taste as sweet.

And Rooibos teas are certainly that. This shrubby bush with thin, needle-like leaves produces a brew that is light, sweet and delicious. The difference in color, which is indeed a light red, even adds to the experience. The color is a nice change from the green or dark brown of more traditional teas.

But then, tradition is different in different places. In South Africa, the home of the native Rooibos bush, the tea has been providing the populace with a wonderful brew for generations. When WWII restricted imports of Asian teas, those who supplied the millions wanting their afternoon cup went looking elsewhere.

They found it in the Cedarberg mountains where farmers harvest its low-volume seeds to produce a drink that has become popular worldwide. The tea is finely chopped, then left in the hot South African sun to dry.

The leaves are originally green, but turn red from this oxidation process, called ‘fermentation’. In tea parlance fermentation bears no similarity to the word as used by wine producers. No sugars are fermented to make alcohol from the plant. The result is a leaf ready to make a delectable drink.

But Rooibos has more benefits than simply good taste. As if anything more were needed!

Rooibos is caffeine-free, yet retains the same anti-oxidant value that is found in green teas. That makes it heart-healthy and a value for those who drink tea for its cancer fighting properties and other health benefits. It’s low in tannin, so you can have numerous cups without concern. Tannins lower the absorption of iron and other minerals.

Like other teas, there is some evidence that it has additional health-boosting abilities. Some studies suggest it helps the immune system, just like other teas. It also has been reported to aid in relieving stomach cramps. Since it has no oxalic acid, it can be drunk by those with a tendency to produce kidney stones.

You may find the product labeled Herbal Allergy tea, owing to its reputed ability to aid allergy sufferers. Or it may be labeled Red Bush and available in the section used to treat skin disorders, such as eczema.

But, again, by any other name it is still a wonderful addition to the tea tin. And that’s a tradition that is worth maintaining.


Tea – Oolong – So Many People Cannot be Wrong!

by The Food Hamper on August 12, 2010

Tea – Oolong, The Black Dragon

Green or Black? Sometimes you can’t decide. Normally the middle ground is the province of those who just can’t commit. But when it comes to tea drinking, compromise is no vice. Try Oolong.

The word comes from the Chinese, meaning ‘Black Dragon’ and there are a dozen legends surrounding the origin of the name. But one thing is certainly no myth: this is a fine tea.

Midway between a black and a green, Oolong originated in the Fujian Province near the end of the Ming Dynasty 400 years ago. It gradually migrated to Formosa (now Taiwan) and has been a staple product of that noble nation ever since. Though, the majority still comes from Wu Yi Shan mountain in China.

It is not only a delight to taste, when well prepared, but has a distinctive aroma owing to its moderate oxidation and careful processing. The floral scent and slightly astringent mouthfeel bears a similarity to a fine wine. And that is no accident.

Most of the processing is carried out by hand, beginning with the careful plucking by individual farm workers. Selecting an Oolong for harvesting is done as carefully as the picking of perfect grapes by vineyard workers.

Unlike most teas, running hot water through the Oolong leaves more than once can actually enhance the flavor. This rinses away any residual dust or other contaminants from processing. The second bath brings pure Oolong flavor into the cup. This special Taiwanese method of tea preparation has brought the Oolong to the pinnacle of a fine brew.

But more than just a delectable, relaxing drink Oolong also has many health benefits. Research strongly suggests that Oolong is good for several different body systems. The beneficial effects for the digestive system are well known and well documented.

But recent studies suggest that the volatile aromatic vapors from Oolong help dislodge toxic residues from the bronchia and air sacs of the lungs. They can then be expectorated (coughed up and spat out). This effect may help to explain why Chinese men, among the heavier smokers on the planet, tend to have fewer cases of lung cancer.

Oolong teas also contain plentiful amounts of the antioxidants polyphenol and catechins. These help gather free radicals from the blood stream, which are removed during urination. Free radicals are ionized molecules that, in concentration, destroy cell membranes and have other harmful effects.

Oolong comes in a hundred varieties, and nearly every one can be found at some Chinese restaurant or other. There is the Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe), the Shui Jin Gui (Water Turtle) and many other delightful kinds with equally evocative names. The Golden Buddha produces a light brew, while the Water Sprite is a dark tea. The Dong Ding from Nantou in central Taiwan is a favorite of those who favor Oolong.

But there are times when you want to have a cup without the accompanying Dim Sum. Fear not, for any of those varieties is available online with a few mouse clicks. Drink up!