Archive for March, 2010

New Penja Pepper from the Cameroon in Western Africa

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

I’ve got some new peppers and as usual I am bit over-giddy about it.  These ones are classic Piper nigrum – the traditional pepper plant for normal black, white and green pepper.   Usually, we get our black pepper from India and Sri Lanka, but these are from Africa – from the Penja Valley in the Cameroon.  The Cameroon is a former French colony and is squeezed between Nigeria to the North-West, The Central African Republic and Chad to the East and the Congos to the South.   They have a wonderfully colourful football team – the Cameroon Lions – who are my non-England team to follow in the South African World Cup this year (see http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/teams/team=43849/profile.html).

The Penja Valley is a great place for horticulture, a remote valley with only 30,000 people living there.  The terroir is a fertile volcanic soil and the climate is ideal for tropical plants, like pepper vines – loads of humidity and rainfall and masses of hot sun.  It’s a steamy, sweaty place.  Like a niche estate wine, only 18 tonnes are grown on this 100 hectares plantation and no chemicals are used in the growing, processing or post-harvest processes, so while not organic they are free from nasties.

The rich volcanic soil creates flavours and aromas that are soft and refined with a delicate musky, mysterious perfume and lots of hot, African heat that lingers bitingly at the back of the throat. 

We have bought some Penja Green and Penja White this time. 

Penja White And Green Peppercorns

Penja White And Green Peppercorns

The Penja Green is picked while the berries are not yet fully mature and the oxidisation process is stopped by blanching the green berries in boiling hot water.  They are bright lime green in colour with a light, faint peppery aroma and the taste starts with a clean, slightly sweet flavour but this builds up quickly to a bright, bitingly hot and vivacious heat that lingers at the back of the throat and on the tongue. 

The Penja White is matured longer than the black, dried as above, and then the skin is removed in water to reveal the bitingly hot core of the berry, which becomes quite hard and crunchy.  The berries are smaller than the green due to the processing, giving a creamy white ridge shape reminiscent of big coriander seeds.  The aroma is strong, fusty and peppery and the taste is of a truly hot pepper that makes you sweat, quickly getting to an intense, searing white hot heat that lingers around the whole mouth, numbing the tongue.  It’s a really great white pepper and I like it better than many of the Indian ones I have tried, although there is perhaps less depth of character than a classic Wayanad white pepper.

Try Penja green pepper and Penja white pepper for some variety to you cooking – more mystery and a bit less refined than Indian peppers but full of great joyful heat.

Please find below the links to buy these peppers – let us know what you think of the pepper:

http://www.steenbergs.co.uk/product/1072/green-peppercorns-single-estate-from-cameroon//4

http://www.steenbergs.co.uk/product/1073/white-peppercorns-single-estate-cameroon-africa//4

Global warming – what’s the fuss all about?

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

I have to admit to becoming more skeptical about global warming since I began studying at The Open University on an Environmental Studies and Science Course.  I doubt that becoming less convinced about much of the stuff written about global warming was the expected result from being fed more information on climate change. 

However, by nature and training, I am a scientist (I did Biological Science as a Degree in the 1980s) and scientists are skeptics, therefore the more someone tells me that a particular idea is correct, and the louder they shout it, the more I want to find a quiet space and think about it myself – basically, I hate always being told to take things on trust and like to do my own thinking and understand things myself, and then if they are too complex and cannot be explained in basic, simple english or maths then I reckon it’s got to be a load of hoolley.

So there’s the background to why I have started looking in some more detail at global warming & climate change.  I am going to stick with global warming as that means we can focus on temperature whereas climate and weather is so much more complex.  Perhaps we can look at weather at a later stage.

My journey began in the most obvious starting point – the information published by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which slightly spookily was an idea of and set up by Ronald Reagan when he was President of America.  Here’s a short paper in the Frequently Asked Section of their website on how temperatures are changing:  http://www.ipcc.unibe.ch/publications/wg1-ar4/faq/wg1_faq-3.1.html. Now, the key data, that comes from the pretty graph at the bottom is that, depending on which time period you use, and also whether you start a period in a dip going to a peak in temperature, you can get a wide range for the rate of growth in global temperatures.  Their published range shows warming of 0.5oC – 1.8oC every 100 years. 

Now I have to admit I didn’t like their graph as I think you cannot take artificial time periods and force those onto the graph and felt a bit as though it was all being neatly calculated to fit a preconceived viewpoint.  Just like when you did maths at high school, you need to look at the graph and visually work a best fit line for the data, so I printed the sheet out (I am sure someone clever can do this on a computer but I am not that skilled with them but I can use a ruler and pencil!).  Now the graph is pretty small so accuracy is not going to be great but based on 150 and 100 years of data, global warming seems to be growing at about 0.45oC – 0.75oC every 100 years.

Now there are bits of the graph that can show much faster growth, however these are over really short time periods and appear to be picking rates, or periods, when you’re going from a low temperature to a high temperature that may be the result of normal cycles in sun temperatures etc, so I think you should look over longer periods that can remove some of the noise of other factors. 

That’s my view and everyone will have different thoughts on that, but this does highlight one of the contentions against “climate science” in that it is some ways “climate art” and becomes a matter of representation and debate rather than fact and science.

I was still not satisfied, in fact I wanted to look more closely at the data, so I started the hunt for some data to plug into an Excel spreadsheet and see what the answers would be, which will explain in a blog in the next week or so.

Recipe – Hot Cross Buns

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

I have always bought our hot cross buns from the baker or the supermarket, which just seems a bit too lazy really, so I thought I would have a bash at making them myself this year.

Hot cross buns grew out of traditional Lenten yeast buns that started being popular in England in the mediaeval times, when these small enriched bread buns were served at the end of Lent to be eaten while drinking a good quantity of celebratory wine.  They became popular throughout Lent during the Elizabethan times, when wealthier people loved to show-off their money and sophistication by spicing these buns up with expensive, rare and luxurious spices and dried fruits that were really hard to come by during the cold, winter months.

It had also been traditional in the mediaeval period to mark the loaves with a cross cut into the top of the buns to ward off evil spirits and so encourage the bread to rise.  This was abandoned for most of Lent during the Reformation (in the 17th Century) when such behaviour was regarded as too popish, however they were still made with crosses on them for Good Friday in token of the crucifixion, so the tradition did not completely die out.

Because of the wide availability of storecupboard staples like spices and dried fruits nowadays, we have all lost the excitement and awe that used to arise from cooking with these things to enrich your breads and cakes, while the fact that they seem to start getting into the shops immediately Christmas is past means that we are inured to the religious significance of hot cross buns as a Lenten tradition. 

I really hate this drifting of traditions by the supermarkets with Easter eggs and buns being available for months before Lent and Christmas getting into stores from somewhere towards the end of the summer holidays.

These home-made hot cross buns have a lovely mild spiciness unlike the heavy-handed flavours of the high street bakers, while the texture is great; they have a soft, silky mouth-feel – it’s a bit like the difference between a feather and a foam pillow, where the supermarkets’ hot cross buns are the chewy, rubbery foam pillow.

Ingredients

For the hot cross buns:

210ml / 7½ fl oz milk
1 free-range organic egg
450g / 1lb white bread flour (unbleached bread flour, please)
1½ tsp organic Fairtrade mixed spice
½ tsp organic ground cinnamon powder
½ tsp sea salt
50g / 2oz organic Fairtrade caster sugar
50g / 2oz organic butter or lard or margarine
1½ tsp quick yeast , or easy-blend/ rapid-rise yeast
100g / 4oz organic currants
25g / 1oz organic sultanas
25g / 1oz organic mixed peel

For the pastry crosses:

50g / 2oz plain flour
25g / 1oz butter (or if you prefer margarine)

Tip: you can cheat by using 50g / 2oz shortcrust pastry from the freezer section in a local shop, which you then cut into narrow strips, or add enough water to make it runny enough so that it can be piped as below

For the glaze:

30ml / 2tbsp milk
25g / 1oz organic Fairtrade caster sugar

Stage one – making the dough

Using a bread machine:

Pour the organic milk and free–range egg into the bowl of the breadmaker.  Reverse the order if your bread machine tells you so to do.  Sprinkle over the white bread flour, ensuring that it covers the liquid.  Add Steenbergs organic Fairtrade mixed spice and the organic cinnamon powder.  Then place the sea salt, caster sugar and butter in separate corners of the bread pan.  Finally, make a small indent in the centre of the flour and put the yeast into there.

Set the bread machine to the dough setting; use the basic raisin dough setting if that option is available on your machine.  Press start.   Lightly grease 2 sheets of baking paper.

When the machine beeps or 5 minutes before the end of the kneading period, add the organic mixed peel, organic currants and organic sultanas.

Stage two – making the hot cross buns

Hot Cross Bun Dough

Hot Cross Bun Dough

When the dough is made, remove the dough from the bowl and place it on a lightly floured surface.  Knock it back gently, then divide into 12 pieces.  Cup each piece between your hands and shape into a ball.  Place these balls on the prepared greased baking sheets, and cover with oiled clear film, and leave for 30 – 45 minutes or until it has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 200oC / 400oF.

Make the pastry crosses either cheating by using some frozen shortcrust pastry cut into strips or making your own pastry.  In a bowl, rub together the plain flour and butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Bind together with a little bit of water to make a soft pastry which can be piped.  Spoon the pastry into a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle and pipe a cross onto each bun.

If you want to be more ”ye olde breadmaker” about it, you could cut into the buns rather than put on the pastry crosses.  You do this by cutting into each pastry ball through the surface by not all the way down.

Bake the hot cross buns for 15 – 18 minutes, or until golden brown.

While the hot cross buns are in the oven, heat the milk and sugar together in a small pan to make the glaze.  Stir thoroughly until the sugar has dissolved.  Brush the glaze over the top of the baked hot cross buns, turn them onto a wire rack to cool, then serve immediately or leave to cool, reheating them when you want to eat them.

Home Made Hot Cross Buns

Home Made Hot Cross Buns

This recipe and some of the spiel was based on a recipe from a great book on baking bread, called “Bread” by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter.

Chinese Green Art Teas – Yin Yuan

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I have received a few Chinese Green Teas that have been hand crafted into intricate shapes – they are called Art Teas or Flower Teas and they really do look exquisite.  And for those tea drinkers like me, who love the ceremony and artistry of the whole pallaver of making tea, Art Green Teas are a wonderful luxury.

China Green Tea - Yin Yuan

China Green Tea - Yin Yuan

Yin Yuan is made from green tea that has been tied together and pressed into the shape of a coin; the word yuan is a type of round coin in China while yin is dark as in yin and yang.  Hidden inside are a few chrysanthemum blossoms tied to a piece of string.  Ideally you should brew this tea in a big glass bowl as the green tea opens out into a huge spectacle of tentacles or fronds like a chrysthemum flower or a sea anemone.  I think it looks really quite amazing and I liked watching the tea fold out and the blossoms suddenly float upwards; it’s mesmerizing and slightly mindless – a bit like watching a fish tank for hours on end – but strangely peaceful.

China Yin Yuan Green Tea Opened Out

China Yin Yuan Green Tea Opened Out

The tea itself has a lovely light green colour and tastes green and fresh, with hints of flowery blossom coming through.  There is no hint of bitterness and the flowers give a delicate peachy sweetness.  Yin Yuan Green Tea is one to indulge with yourself selfishly when there’s no-one else around to disturb your thoughts or noise to intrude your few moments of peace.

Brewed Bowl Of China Green Tea - Yin Yuan

Brewed Bowl Of China Green Tea - Yin Yuan

Review of Green Ideas in General Election

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

The UK’s General Election will be held soon – the weight of money is for it to coincide with the Council elections slated for 6 May 2010 but these could probably be shifted to coincide with a later General Election which must be latest of 3 June 2010.  My gut instinct is that Labour will call the General Election pretty soon after Budget Day on 24 March 2010.  Gordon Brown loves detail and he will feel that this gives him an advantage as he will be able to state that he has a fully costed programme and “where are the other parties’ costed budgets!”

However, I think he misses the point which is that Prime Ministers must have vision and focus on the “whys of life” rather than the details of the “what and how of specific policies”.  This made Tony Blair more inspiring for the electorate as a whole rather than specific Labour interested groups, i.e Blair could look outside to the wider electorate rather than just look inwards to his core voters – in fact, Blair perhaps made mistakes by sometimes appealing more to voters outside his Labour core base and hence got kicked out by his own. 

In fact it is vision that seems to be missing in politics generally at present and I need something to stop me joining the most popular party of all – the non-voters!  Even Obama in the US does not seem to be really living up to his hype, and may just be about to repeat the policies of former US Presidents by continuing with policies on nuclear weapons largely unchanged from the past. 

That’s a fairly waffly introduction to stating that the General Election will be soon whatever the details of the actual timing.  So we thought we would look to the Green Vision that will be hidden inside the main parties’ manifestoes and will read through the political programmes of all major parties plus a few extra, so that will be Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal and SNP, doing them in strict alphabetical order.  That will be hard enough work I reckon.

We thought we would look at a few major things:

  1. How much space is given over to green ideas?
  2. How plausible are policies on the Environment, Energy and International Development?
  3. What money (if any) is given over to support Sustainable Development, Renewable Energy etc?
  4. Are there any surprises lurking in the text, eg on Afghanistan or Genetically Modified Crops or Nuclear Weapons?

We’ll have a go, but perhaps we will have bitten more off than we can chew on this one.

Steenbergs Fairtrade Vanilla – Some Background

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I tried to post a response online at The Times in relation to their article but they wouldn’t post it – perhaps it was too long or too partisan.  In any case here are some further details on Steenbergs vanilla

The article in The Times is unfortunately in part true as child labour is one of the big problems with vanilla in Madagascar and the developing world.  I am not sure about widespread employment of children below the age of 8 years old, but it certainly might exist in pockets and will tend to happen around harvest time on family farms. 

Other major problems include: very high levels of general poverty and low levels of development within Madagascar where GNI per capita is $410 for 2008 compared to $45,390 for the UK, ranking Madagascar 145th out of 182 countries; and environmental issues such as degradation of the rainforests for slash & burn agriculture and massive losses of unique biodiversity in Madagascar. 

These issues are being addressed in a small way by Steenbergs through a focus on (a) organic agriculture and (b) Fairtrade vanilla, but the fight must still go on to improve further the development prospects of the Malagasy people.

Steenbergs vanilla beans come from three Fairtrade projects in North Eastern Madagascar with about 1000 farmers structured into co-operatives.  Employed staffing is low at 60 people with a large amount of seasonal workers, reaching up to 400 people.  Child labour is prohibited.  All workers are paid above the minimum Malagasy wage and lunch is provided for free and is not deducted from wages.  All employees work 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday and 4 hours on Saturday morning.  If additional work is needed, overtime is paid at a higher rate.  The working week is no more than 60 hours.  Employees are provided with work clothes. 

Here are some basic facts relating to financial status of region:

  • Vanilla represents over 90% of agricultural income of planters’ families with rest coming from sales of coffee and some rice, but perhaps more importantly it is these cash crops that enables farmers to generate income above pure subsistence farming; the rest of their farming is cassava, rice and vegetables for their own consumption.  Each planter produces on average 400kg a year of green vanilla (unprocessed vanilla) every year which generates income of roughly $600/year per family.  Switching to organic Fairtrade vanilla generates income of over $2,000 for the same crop, an increase of $1,400 per year per family. 
  • So without Fairtrade and organic, vanilla farmers only earn less than $2 a day to live on and so their standard of living is miniscule, and even with Fairtrade and an income of $5.5 a day there is still a long way to go.  On top of this, a typical Malagasy family comprises 8 people plus sometimes some additional grandparents, and they live in  a bamboo hut of 20 – 30m2.
  • As for schooling in the vanilla growing regions, 80% of children aged 6 – 11 go to the local state school, but only 10 – 15% continue to middle school (12 – 15 years old) and 3% continue their schooling beyond the age of 15 years old.  Schools are usually about 100m2, which is then used to teach 4 grades, i.e. 300 children, in the same space.

    Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

    Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

  • Other social information: with a few exceptions, mains drinking water is not available nor is electricity.  Transport is by foot along country tracks and average distances of travel to various places are: 5 – 8km to middle school; 25km to high school; 25km to nearest dispensary for pharmaceuticals; and 90km to nearest hospital with first 20km by foot.

The Fairtrade premium has been used in the last year for the following:

  • Purchase of land and construction of silos for storage of rice
  • The repair of bridges and other small structures
  • Improvement of school facilities

Other projects being looked at include:

  • Drinking water supply and sewerage infrastructure
  • Improvement of country tracks to make walking easier
  • Irrigation systems to aid rice farming and stop “slash & burn” farming techniques
  • Plan on AIDS awareness to be conducted at school

For me, even Fairtrade seems like a drop in the ocean and more needs to be done.  But the key is to start taking those small steps towards greater economic stability and social improvements and to halt environmental degradation (stop the slash and burn of the forests). 

 

Vanilla Flower

Vanilla Flower

Fecondation or Hand Pollination of Vanilla Flowers

Fecondation or Hand Pollination of Vanilla Flowers

Initial Heating To Kill Green Vanilla Beans - Echadaudage

Initial Heating To Kill Green Vanilla Beans - Echadaudage

Curing and Testing the Maturing Vanilla Beans

Curing and Testing the Maturing Vanilla Beans

Sorting And Packing Fairtrade Vanilla

Sorting And Packing Fairtrade Vanilla

Child Labour and Vanilla

Monday, March 15th, 2010

There was a pretty damning article in The Times yesterday about child labour and low prices paid for vanilla from Madagascar – see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article7060962.ece, however rest assured our vanilla beans are not creating abuse like that.  Here is my full response to the article:

“At Steenbergs, we were one of the first people in Europe to start with Fairtrade spices before any of the supermarkets or other major spice brands.  We hate the fact that such a small amount is being on the high street for commodities that mean the difference between a sustainable living and real poverty and hunger for families in the developing world, including child labour on a big scale; a few pence saved by Tesco or Sainsbury translates into a huge difference back on the small farms in Madagascar, India and Sri Lanka.  When Axel Steenberg (that’s me) and Sophie Steenberg (my wife) started buying and selling organic spices back in 2003, there had been a few bad crops of vanilla in Madagascar so 90% of world supply disappeared overnight and the price of vanilla shot up to $500. We worked hard to pioneer Fairtrade spices and became one of the first to do these in the world.  As for vanilla, small farmers in India borrowed money and started planting vanilla plants to “cash in” on the boom, only for Madagascan supply to come back and the prices on the world market to collapse to below $20 now, leaving farmers in India with unpayable debts and suicides rising.  That’s where Fairtrade comes in, as it put a floor on the vanilla price purchased from source at $45 per kg of vanilla plus $6.50 as a Fairtrade premium, as well as having rules on using child labour and educating children and so on.

Fairtrade rules state that no child below the age of 15 may be employed (contracted) and any work may not interfere with schooling, or jeopardize “the social, moral or physical development of the young person”.  Also, the people involved must work under the Small Producers rules of Fairtrade and cannot be big industrial concerns.  This is audited annually by auditors working for Fairtrade as there is a fine line between a bit of casual work on the family farm (which is permitted and cannot be policed) and employed work which could drift to become like the article above.  The minimum price of $45 per kg is the price that is paid by our exporters of vanilla, whether from Madagascar or India, to the farmers groups plus the various costs of getting it here to Ripon in North Yorkshire.  We pay more for the gourmet high quality beans that we use for Steenbergs products or sell to people like Crazy Jack’s and a bit less for extract grade Fairtrade vanilla beans that go into Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, so when you buy these products we have paid minimum prices way above the world market price, as well as adhering to the rules of Fairtrade and a chain of custody that ensures money gets down to the people who matter.  We are currently redesigning our vanilla packaging and you will be able to get two Steenbergs organic Fairtrade vanilla beans for less than the price of non-organic vanilla in a supermarket – about £4.50 for two.

One of the things to look out for is that the vanilla in the your chocolate bars is actually from a Fairtrade vanilla.  So I am not convinced that your Fairtrade Dairy Milk Bar from Cadbury’s contains any Fairtrade vanilla, so it’s a bit of a swizz, just like the Green & Black’s Fairtrade Maya Chocolate Bar that does not include Fairtrade vanilla just a straight old organic one.

Find out more at http://www.steenbergs.co.uk/category/22/fairtrade-products for fairtrade products and about our ethics at http://www.steenbergs.co.uk/article/show/48/steenbergs-business-social-and-ethical-principles and about how Fairtrade works at http://www.steenbergs.co.uk/blog/2009/09/fairtrade-spices-standards-a-reprise/

Recipe for Simnel Cake

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Today is Mother’s Day and what a glorious sunny, Spring day it has been.  We gave Sophie a gorgeous bouquet of flowers – white roses, lilies and greenery – and went to church for a Mothers’ Day Service, a bit of a rarity for me.  I liked the sentiment which was that mother’s always have time for a smile for their children however exasperating, painful and annoying we can all be.  So thank you Mothers and Mums everywhere for being so tolerant, caring and loving.

Traditionally in Britain, today the fourth Sunday on Lent was the first day that girls in service at the big, posh houses of the gentry were allowed to go home and see their Mothers – this is back in the 17th and 18th centuries.  As such, they would bring home a demonstration of their skills learnt at their place of work – a rich and delicious fruit cake that became known as Simnel Cake. 

So today used to be called Simnel Sunday and then morphed into Mothering Sunday.  Originally, the cakes were decorated with 11 small paste balls, symbolising the 11 faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  These cakes improved with eating and were best enjoyed at the end of the Lenten Fast or Lent and so they became associated with Easter to become the traditional Easter Cake.  Simnel Cakes are less often baked than a Christmas Cake but I feel they should be made as much of a tradition as the classic Christmas Cake.

Here’s how we made ours today:

Ingredients For Simnel Cake

Ingredients For Simnel Cake

Ingredients for the cake:

125g / 4oz butter
125g/ 4oz  dark brown muscovado sugar
3 free range organic eggs, beaten (they were discounted in Spar – bargain at 50p a half dozen)
150g / 5oz organic plain flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp organic Fairtrade mixed spice
350g / 12oz mixed organic raisins and sultanas (about 200g: 150g respectively)
50g / 2oz mixed chopped peel
Grated rind of lemon (I used orange today as I had no lemon and I am sure it will be fine)

For the marzipan or almond paste:

225g / 80z Fairtrade organic caster sugar
225g / 8oz organic ground almonds
2 eggs beaten
1 teaspoon Steenbergs Natural Almond Extract

To glaze the cake

A little apricot jam
A little beaten egg (just cadge some from making the marzipan as you don’t need much)

Prepare an 18cm (7 inch) deep circular cake tin by greasing and lining the base and the sides

To make the marzipan, mix together the caster sugar, ground almonds, Steenbergs natural almond essence and beaten egg and knead with your hands to a smooth pliable mix.  If it feels too gooey, just add a bit more almond and knead some more.  Roll out a third of the marzipan  – almond paste - into a circle and set aside.  Reserve the remainder for topping the cooked cake.

Mixing Up The Marzipan Or Almond Paste

Mixing Up The Marzipan Or Almond Paste

Now put the oven on and preheat to 140oC / 275oF.

To make the cake, cream the butter and muscovado sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs a little at a time.  Sieve together the plain flour, sea salt and Steenbergs mixed spice together and add to the mixture alternately with the dried fruit, mixed peel and grated rind, mixing all the ingredients together.

Put half the mixture into the cake tin, then smooth the top and cover with the circle of almond paste.  Add the rest of the cake mixture and smooth the top, hollowing out a small hole in the centre.  Bake in the oven for 1½ hours.

When the cake has cooled, brush the top with apricot jam.  Now put the oven on and preheat to 180oC / 350oF.  Then with the reserved marzipan, roll 11 small balls (for the good disciples and definitely smaller than the massive balls that I made) and then roll out the rest of the almond paste over the top of the cake.  Now place the almond paste balls evenly around the edge of the cake.  Return the cake to the oven and bake for 10 minutes until the paste has gone slightly brown.

Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake

We then put some coloured speckled Easter eggs in the centre.  leave for a couple of weeks to mature and then eat and enjoy.

Enjoying Tasting Oolong Tea

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Today it’s a sunny day with a warming, clear fresh light and a blue sky.  This is great weather to look at tasting oolong teas from China and Taiwan (sometimes called Formosa by tea drinkers).  The clear light allows you to see the subtle colour differences between types of teas being cupped, while the fresh light air marries really well with the taste of oolongs.  Oolong tea is sometimes called wu long which is perhaps a better transliteration.

Oolong tea is called a semi-fermented tea, where green tea is basically unfermented (or lightly processed) while black tea is fermented (i.e. fully processed).  Oolong tea sits somewhere between a green tea and a black tea with exactly where they are in that green-to-black tea range having a lot of effect on the end tea.

Oolong tea has the smooth, light and refreshing characteristics of green tea with some of the additional depth of character provided by the firing process to give it hints of black tea – so you will hear people talk of oolong tea being “sweet” or “refreshing” or “flowery” or that it has hints of “spiciness”, “warmth” and a “light flavour of heat coming through”.

The tea leaves are picked from a special type of tea plant with large leaves, which are then withered and allowed to oxidize in carefully controlled air conditioned rooms.  When ready (and this is part of the art of the tea maker), the leaves are steamed at a high heat to stop the oxidation process.

I just love them.  For me, they have more character than green tea and white tea and are like a premier cru wine from a really small, specialist wine estate that’s been given extra love, care and attention.  Or perhaps they are like the mystery of a Rembrandt or Titian painting over the perfectly clean lines of a Raphael.  They are darker than green teas in colour but still often have silvery white tips coming through.

Some Oolong Teas

Some Oolong Teas

I have gone for the following types – an everyday Chinese Oolong Tea and a Taiwan Baihao Oolong (or Bai Hao Oolong) and two flavoured Oolong Teas . So I have chosen a classic style China Osmanthus Oolong Tea that’s been flavoured with delicate Osmanthus blossoms, and a China Milky Oolong Tea that has a silky, milky, sweet taste that’s weird – but beguiling – and has a round mouthfeel.

The Baihao Oolong tea comes from Xinhui in Northern Taiwan, which is humid and wet compared to the rest of the country.  This creates an oolong that’s really smooth and sweet, with almost no astringency, with a lovely flowery aroma of ripe peaches and sweet magnolia-flavoured honey.  Bai Hao Oolong is sometimes known as
Dong Fang Mei Ren or Oriental Beauty Oolong Tea because Queen Elizabeth II loves the special aroma and taste of Bai Hao and so she named it “Oriental Beauty”.

As you can see from the picture below it has a redder, darker and fuller colour than the green teas that I tasted a couple of days ago.  However, this does not translate into a bitter drink and it should be drunk fresh and without milk, sugar or lemon.  And while it costs a bit more than normal teas, it is really a treat for when you’re in a quiet, contemplative mood plus it brews well a second time on the same leaves – in fact I often prefer the second brew to the first as more character comes through.

Delicious Cup of Bai Hao Oolong Tea

Delicious Cup of Bai Hao Oolong Tea

Tasting Japanese Green Tea

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

At Steenbergs, we are undergoing some changes to our loose leaf specialist teas.  Last year, we redesigned the labels to be bespoke for each tea type and with better descriptions on making tea, as well as being bright and fun looking.  Next week, we should also see the arrival of our own new bespoke tea tins – they are in a matt black with a roundel on the top with our name “Steenbergs Tea Merchants” printed in it, which is pretty exciting.

Allied to this, we are going over the specialist teas that we sell to give the Steenbergs range of teas more breadth and more interest.  So I am tasting, for my sins, green teas and oolongs over the next few weeks.

Today, it is the turn of Japan and their green teas.  I like the clean pallet of Japanese green teas without any hint of bitterness that quite often mars commercially purchased green teas from the high street – that’s not healthy and good for you, just plain disgusting tea.

I have chosen some lovely Sencha Fukujyu and Bancha teas, plus a Genmaicha, which is a weird, but traditional Japanese green tea, made by mixing Sencha with Rice Kernels (genmai) giving it a nutty flavour like drinking green tea with unflavoured popcorn mixed in – wacky but quite cool.  The popcorn-looking stuff in the Genmaicha are actually rice kernels that pop during the roasting process.  At this stage, I have not gone for a Matcha as I am not sure with the samples that I have tasted so far.

But I really love the Gyokuro green teas.  I have particularly enjoyed two of these  – an organic Gyokuro and a truly exquisite Gyokuro from the Tanabe District near Kyoto.  The Tanabe Gyokuro is grown under special bamboo shades for a tea with a unique flavour and is processed only from a small first flush; this should give a delicate, round flavour with a delicate, pale yellow-green colour.

Gyokuro Tanabe Green Tea

Enjoying Cups Of Japanese Green Tea

These teas have a delicate, sweet flavour with hints of sweet damp hay coming through that’s typical of good green teas.  The tea cups a light yellow green colour.

What are your favourite Japanese green teas?