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Vol. LXI, No. 29
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
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Tea Expert Judith Krall-Russo Brews Cheering Cup of Tradition at Library

Arielle Shipper

Food historian and certified tea expert Judith Krall-Russo admits to a "lifelong love affair" with food. As a teenager she was fascinated by the culinary traditions of other cultures, she said.

Ms. Krall-Russo shared her explorations into the "culinary other" with an audience at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, July 16.

In her talk, "Tea Traditions of Many Lands," part of a series titled "Read Around the World," Ms. Krall-Russo led tea enthusiasts on a tour of the teas and tea rituals of countries with historically-strong cultural ties to tea production and consumption, such as China, Japan, India, Russia, and Morocco.

To these she contrasted current practices in the United States, one of the few countries in the world lacking a national tea or afternoon tea tradition — a lack that Ms. Krall-Russo traces to the days of the American Revolution, when locally grown herbal "liberty teas" and coffee replaced the once-customary tea provided by the East India Trading Company.

Prior to independence, she said, tea drinking in the United States was most closely related to the British afternoon tea, that continues nowadays with black tea "served with milk and sugar or a slice of lemon," and accompanied by sandwiches and sweets.

Today, she informed her listeners, the lone tea plantation in the United States is located in South Carolina, the production site of the Charleston Tea Company, founded in the 1800s.

Ms. Krall-Russo went on to describe ritualistic Japanese tea ceremonies in which the host grinds green tea called macha into a fine powder, and uses a special bamboo whisk to whip it into a foam with prescribed movements. This, she said, is the only type of tea in which the leaves are -actually -consumed, rather than merely infused in water.

In India, the popular masala chai, is made by boiling tea with milk, sugar and a mixture of spices that can include cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon. Moroccan tea is brewed with sugar and occasionally served with a slice of lemon, but milk is never added.

Ms. Krall-Russo noted that although accoutrements and brewing methods vary from country to country, a common plant, camellia sinensis, is used throughout the world. Green, oolong, and black teas are all produced from this plant, which, due to its vulnerability, is not suited to all climates and is grown mainly in India, China, Taiwan, and Kenya.

Variations in flavor are determined by how long the leaves are left to ferment, as well as by the soil in which the plant was grown. Green tea is unfermented, oolong is partially fermented, and black tea is fully fermented.

In China, "black tea" can be left to ferment for up to 70 years before it is consumed.

Herbal teas, or tisanes, are blends of herbs, fruits, or flowers and do not contain any real tea at all.

Like Fine Wine

Likening tea to wine, Mrs. Krall-Russo pointed out that "certain years are better than others," and that tea leaves are susceptible to the same environmental factors that produce variations in grapes and wine; picking season, age, and the altitude in which it was grown determine the quality of the finished product.

Also like wine, tea is aged, and Ms. Krall-Russo advised her library audience that "aeration can enhances flavor and therefore the most important thing to remember when making tea is water temperature."

She also described customs reminiscent of decanting wine, such as the Kenyan method of pouring tea between two metal cups, and the Eastern tradition of raising and lowering one's arm while pouring tea to further aerate the water and accentuate the flavor of the leaves.

While large companies, such as Tetley and Lipton, use blends of tea to achieve their uniform flavor, true tea aficionados drink leaves harvested from one area and look forward to what a new year will bring.

Mrs. Krall-Russo, who is currently taking a certification class in the Japanese tea ceremony, calls the study of tea "a lifelong process."

When asked what she most wanted audience members to take away from Monday's presentation, she urged everyone to drink tea for pleasure, and for health. She then excused herself to go brew another cup of tea.

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