Tea on the coffee table
By Greg Burliuk
Posted 2 days ago
Tea is a handsome coffee table book that explores the history, terroirs and varieties of tea. It’s written by the owners of the Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Montreal. It’s on sale for $24.95 at Chapters and Indigo Books. The company’s website is www.camellia-sinensis.com
Tea. Just say the word and it’s hard not to let a sigh escape you. In a world of jittery high energy, it’s an oasis of calm. Some might need that jolt of coffee in the morning but for others, and I’m a fairly recent convert, we like our tea. It settles us down, mellows us out. I’m relaxing just writing this and thinking about the cup of Earl Grey I just had with my toast.
Tea lovers who want to know more about their favourite beverage now have a terrific book to consult. Called simply Tea, it explores the history, terroirs and varieties of tea, plus it throws in a few recipes at the end. It’s written by Kevin Gascoyne, Francois Marchand, Jasmin Desharnais and Hugo Americi, who together own the Camellia Sinensis Tea House in Montreal, an outfit considered one of the top of its kind in North America.
These guys are very passionate about their tea. Each year they go out searching for the best crops to bring back to their customers. Each has an area of specializing. I chatted with Gascoyne, who is the specialist on Indian teas and soon will leave for a month’s journey to check out this year’s crops there.
Kevin is a Yorkshireman, so of course as he jokes he was weaned on tea. While working in Hong Kong he met a Canadian lady, a meeting that brought him to Canada and Montreal in 1987. He has been here ever since. He kind of fell into the business, turning a passionate hobby into a career. His first tea love is Darjeeling.
“I did a lot of travelling in Asia and I visited the gardens of Darjeeling,” he says. “I tasted fresh, higher-grade Darjeeling. I became quite obsessed with it.
“I began doing a bit of writing for various magazines and developing my palate.”
At the time Kevin was working in a restaurant and he began buying tea for other passionate tea drinkers.
“I was going every year to check out the crops so I realized I had to just forget it or turn it into a serious business,” he says. “Then I met these three very cool guys who specialized in Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese tea. They had a tea house and suggested we join forces.”
They formed Camellia Sinsensis Tea House, which now has three stores and a thriving mail order business.
“We’ve been told we’re the top tea company in North America and the president of the U.S. Tea Association says we’re in the top five in the world,” says Kevin.
“We carry 250 teas and every year we search out the best tea gardens in the world, taste the tea and bring it back. We’re very obsessive about quality.”
It wasn’t such a stretch then for the four to put their heads together and write Tea, which was first published in French in 2009 before having an English publication late in 2011. Kevin says the book can be used in three kinds of ways.
“You can read it from cover to cover,” he says. “You can use it as a reference book to get to what you want to know. Or you can use it as a coffee table book and learn a little something from time to time. This book has got in it everything that we’ve been learning.”
The book takes you through the various tea-growing areas of the world, tells you which teas are grown there and how they are grown and processed. There are beautiful pictures and curious little historic facts and legends. For example, Tai Ping Hou Kui tea, which won the title of King of Tea at the 2004 China Tea exhibition, is grown in the mountains of Huang Shan and is only accessible by boat. A long time ago when an old monkey died, an old man buried the monkey at the foot of the mountain and planted some tea trees in his honour. He heard a voice say that he would be repaid for what he had done and when he came back the next spring the mountain was covered with tea trees and he remembered what the voice had said.
The book’s weak spots are the recipes which were contributed by Montreal chefs but are so complex you’d almost have to be a chef to cook them.
The authors also did some research for the book and were surprised at what they discovered.
“We spent $25,000 to have different teas tested,” says Kevin. “Up until now the health benefits about tea have been vague and misquoted.
“We discovered that green tea isn’t always the healthiest of teas. Some green teas even have a lot of caffeine in them and some black teas were very high in anti-oxidants. We learned that the style of tea cannot be used as a barometer for how high the caffeine level is either.”
However, there is good news in that all teas seem to have some benefits to them.
“There are a group of amino acids in tea that calm us,” says Kevin. “The chemical effect is a nice balance between alertness and calmness.
“We think our results were different than others because we used tea as we drink it at home, whereas a lot of the previous other studies used extractions of tea, which isn’t the same.”
Kevin and his mates buy great tea and drink great tea. For example, on the morning I talked to him he’d just had a couple of pots of first flush Darjeeling Singell tea. But he’s not a tea snob either. For example, he has high praise for some of the commercial varieties of tea that you can buy in any grocery store.
“Lipton’s Orange Pekoe tea comes from Sri Lanka, which is one of the cleanest tea-producing countries,” he says. “It’s good for you and your immune system. The leaves are rolled, oxidized and dried. It’s one of the most noble products you can find on a grocery shelf. It’s pure tea and pure goodness.”
The book also gives instructions on how to brew each of the teas it talks about. Some teas don’t require really hot water. One no-no is to never pour boiling water on a tea bag or tea leaves, lest you scald the tea.
“Let the boiling water sit for a minute till all the bubbles are down,” says Kevin.
What if you are a tea tenderfoot and want to go more upscale?
“Match the flavour of what you’re drinking now,” says Kevin. “For you, you could get a high-end Earl Grey. I have some that comes from the base of the Himalayas. I think you’d also like Darjeeling because it, too, is very aromatic and has a nice bouquet.”
Kevin argues that while the teas at his store might seem pricey, they’re not.
“If you work it out you can get a litre of really good tea for about the same price that you’d pay for the same amount of Coke,” he says.
Right now I’m probably drinking two or three cups of tea a day, either Earl Grey or Moroccan mint tea. But after talking to Kevin, I think it’s time for me to get a little more serious. There are several tea stores in town and it’s time for me to check them out.