On a recent road trip across the Andes and the Argentine pampas, we brought back several kilos of yerba mate, an herbal tea commonly served in most of the southern cone of South America. A few months ago, I promised another post about my collection of tea tins. Like the “tea rites” of mate, many a cup of tea writes the stories of our lives.
Quite a ritual accompanies drinking yerba mate, especially in Uruguay. The loose herb is packed into a gourd-like cup, (almost) boiling water is poured to the brim, and then it’s sipped through a metal straw. Many Uruguayans (if not most) tote a large Thermos of water everywhere they go, often stored with an additional supply of yerba and other paraphernalia in a special leather case, complete with a strap so they can transport it on their backs while riding a bicycle or scooter.
And believe it or not, the thermometer can register 40 degrees Celsius (104 F.) and they still keep it up! In Chile, at least, they might replace the water with soda or milk during a heat wave. And not everybody on this side of the Andes partakes.
“All I need in life is tea, a good book, and an over-sized sweater.” –Anonymous
Yerba mate apparently contains a lot of caffeine, so I suppose it’s somewhat addictive, in the way that coffee and regular tea are. In Chiloé, many islanders—like the character Ramón Pérez in the Desert Island Diaries series—drink it morning, noon, and night, and at every break in between. In my own experience, it acts as a diuretic…so I avoid it under certain circumstances!
Time for Tea
But the real point of the mate “tea (w)rites” centers as much on friendship and fellowship as it does on refreshment or sustenance. In Chile, people sometimes share an entire afternoon or evening around a cup of mate (yeah, a cup!) and a basket of homemade bread.
My tea writes almost always feature teas of all kinds, including yerba mate. The world’s most popular beverage pops up again in Pursuit of the Pudú, coming this month.
Pursuit of the Pudú… launches this month.
After plain water, teas and tisanes of different types are the most widely consumed drinks in the world. Some have a cooling or bitter flavor. Others may hint of sweet, nutty, floral, or grassy notes. (That’s why Melissa Travis’s first opinion of mate was: “It tastes like grass.”) Tea’s stimulating effect (in more ways than one) stems primarily from its caffeine content.
In many places of the world, Chile included as well as Britain and India, “tea” can also refer to the evening meal. Most of my tea writes highlight a more-or-less formal afternoon snack time that may just tide-me-over or may replace a later large-scale dinner. Whatever its purpose in any given setting, teatime’s absolutely non-negotiable.
Tea WRites in China
Our earliest written records on tea come from China. Aromatic, full-bodied oolong is a world favorite of connoisseurs and commoners alike. This variety hails from Fujian and Guangdong provinces along China’s southeast coast. In Chinese, it’s known as wu long, “black dragon” tea.
With a flavor somewhere between fully oxidized black and unoxidized green, oolong leaves curl into small twists and need multiple steepings to fully release their essence. But it tastes wonderful from first sip to last drop. And, traditional Chinese medicine tells us, it reduces fats, removes toxins, and possesses many other health-promoting properties.
A Ming Dynasty official whose life was saved by drinking oolong draped royal red robes around the tea bushes (of the plant genus Camellia) to honor them. These protected plants eventually resulted in a highly prized oolong variety called Hong Pao (Royal Red Robe). Does that tea story draw you to sample it as it does me?
Several of my tea tins date from Daughter #3’s teaching sojourn in China. For one Christmas-in-July she brought me an exquisitely fragile blue-and-white tea set and taught me to perform the ceremony. At the time, I was finishing my Swan Island Secrets series, so I always connect the tea rites with the tea writes. 😊
She also gave me the pale blue miniature bell jar tin with cream-colored flowers and rust-red leaves. Right now it holds the real Chinese tea. There’s a big square copper-colored tin too. It says “Tikuanyong”—whatever that means—and I use it to store tea bags for my Chilean friends who think anything but ordinary black tea isn’t real tea.
More on that later.
The Queen’s Tea
Moving on across Asia… Robust-yet-delicate Darjeeling grows on the steep Himalayan slopes of West Bengal (traditionally northern India). Darjeeling is harvested in four “flushes”—seasons or crops—each with its own unique taste. Its deep amber glow and bracing flavor, tinged with sweet peaches, set this complex variety apart as perhaps the world’s choicest tea.
Sometimes called the champagne of teas, Darjeeling is what Queen Elizabeth II and Agatha Christie would have drunk.
“The secret to a well-balanced life is a cup of tea in one hand and a book in the other.” –The Tea Spot
A young missionary from the Chiloé Islands—believe it or not—first served me chai tea a decade or so ago. It’s usually made with black Assam tea (similar to Darjeeling), milk, and many spices—cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, peppercorns, etc. A writer friend introduced me to chai latte with our tea writes, and guess what? I’d almost take that over coffee, which says a lot.
My traveling daughter also gifted me my Tea of Life tin. This oval canister contained organic Ceylon (Sri Lankan) tea. I wondered how it differed from the teas of neighboring India. It seems that these plants flourish in very distinct climates, soils, and elevations.
On to the Middle East
Known as the coffee drinker’s tea, Georgian black strongly resembles Darjeeling. Not surprising, since it’s also grown on steep hillsides, here the Caucasus Mountains of the Republic of Georgia (on the Black Sea). Since its revival in the mid-’90’s following a decline under the Soviets, Georgian has morphed into an exclusive and high-demand gourmet product.
Intense, rich, and flavorful, the Georgian variety is considered among the world’s most interesting teas. It’s customarily served with a spoonful of cherry jam stirred in. How fun is that? I’d love to try it.
A prism-shaped cylinder on my kitchen tea shelf once held beautiful little muslin silk pyramid bags of Akbar Moroccan Mint. I remember drinking a lot of this brand of herbal brew while working on tea writes in Santiago. My characters, like most Chileans, just pluck a few sprigs from their backyard.
A hot tea with a cool taste, refreshing mint tea is usually served steaming throughout North Africa and the Middle East, where it’s a traditional symbol of hospitality. Candy-sweet spearmint is the herb of choice, sometimes combined in a pot with regular tea leaves. In Morocco people prefer green tea with a romantic drop of rosewater.
The Egyptians favor strong black tea, typically brewed in a silver pot with a long, graceful spout. The server holds the pot high and pours the tea out 12-20 inches into tiny gold-embossed glasses on a brass, silver, or copper tray. That impressive feat of showmanship in restaurants and cafés reminds me of reading Bodie Thoene’s Zion Chronicles on a bus trip more than 30 years ago.
Nibbles of Rahat lokum—fruit-flavored jellies known as Turkish delight in English-speaking lands—often accompany a Middle Eastern tea, whether mint, green, or otherwise. How can you help but think of the White Witch’s seduction of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are lifelong favorite reads for me. So, of course, they have sneaked into my tea writes, especially in Swan Island Secrets.
And speaking of Lewis, who was born in Northern Ireland, 63% of the population of the United Kingdom drink tea daily. As of 2016, Ireland is the world’s second-largest (per capita) consumer of tea. (After—wait for this—Turkey! Who knew?)
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” –C. S. Lewis
The popularity of tea in the British Isles should come as no surprise, though. Aren’t the Brits the originators of afternoon tea as practically a meal in itself? So I admit that someday I’d love to enjoy high tea, one of life’s most pleasurable indulgences, at the Ritz in London.
Imagine a paradise of tiny sandwiches trimmed into rounds or finger shapes, spread with butter and filled with cucumber, ham, smoked salmon, shrimp, or watercress. You’ll see scones and crumpets with jams and marmelades, lemon curd, clotted cream. And the pastries and pound cake…
Then there’s the tea, of course. What to choose? Smoky lapsang souchong, bergamot-flavored Earl Grey, subtle Chinese oolong, the Queen’s Darjeeling? The options seem endless.
A missionary teammate who visited Ireland in 2019 brought me back a set of three miniature telephone booths. These shamrock-green tins hold Irish breakfast, Irish afternoon, and green tea. On the shelf, they perch beside a red-and-gold tin box that came with loose English breakfast tea. (Not sure how different they could be, but a competition exists there, right?) Another friend, after a more recent trip to England, added to my collection with an adorable (little) Big Ben tin containing—you guessed it—tea.
For Christmas last year, this same dear friend gave me a gold Twinings box of Earl Grey tea. The citrus aroma of Earl Gray always infuses my home with a nostalgic aura as I recall the proper Scottish ex-nun who served me my first cup of it.
Back to Chile
In those days, you could buy instant tea in Chile and many people served it regularly. Yeah, I know—it really tasted pretty bad. I often wish, though, that I’d thought of keeping one of those old Té Orjas tins for the historical shelf of my collection. 😊
I’m not sure how far we’ve progressed since then. Although we do have more choices now. My Internet research reveals that Chile sits at #8 on the list of tea-consuming nations (first in South America). How did that happen? I still have to stock the plainest, cheapest old Té Club or Mildred brands from the supermarket for my guests here. That’s real tea (ahem, to them).
Never mind organic. And for the most part, Chileans don’t like green tea, white tea, rooibos or oolong. Fruit teas won’t work as substitutes either. And though some herbal infusions are accepted, they’re much better fresh-picked from the garden. Maybe chamomile, mint, melissa, rosehips, lemon verbena, boldo, and bailahuén put us on the tea-drinking register.
“Rainy days should be spent at home with a cup of tea and a good book.” –Bill Watterson
At least Té Supremo has launched some intriguing containers. I have a sky-blue and carnation-pink lidded box of loose tea. Another, part of a children’s art contest, features drawings of aliens…drinking tea? There’s a story in that. 😊
And Lipton’s on the market now. A friend gifted me a lovely pink tea tin that urges:
So, while I’m not that big a fan of yerba mate, I do try to drink positive. Tea has grown on me over the years, and the rites of tea culture have grown into many tea writes:
- Linda Peterson serving tea after the earthquake and then blessing the victims with her grandmother’s teacups (Destiny at Dolphin Bay).
- Melissa Travis heading home to work in her mother’s teashop after the adventure of Pursuit of the Pudú.
- Cristina Linnenbrink baking apple kuchen for teatime with her students (Legacy of the Linnenbrink Light). Okay, so maybe she prefers coffee like me, but…
- Coni Belmar bringing home her orphaned pupils one-by-one for high tea at the manor (Swan Pose).
And sometimes I’ll take a simple mug of hot chocolate like Meg in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Or like Nicolás and Melissa on their first date in Pursuit of the Pudú. Perhaps they should have sipped mate instead..