Tasty, healthy infusions suit owner Sarah Richards to a tea

For more than 5,000 years, tea has had the distinction of being one of the most cherished beverages around the globe. Whether sipped hot or over ice, this delectable brew is second only to water in consumed beverages worldwide.

All traditional (non-herbal) tea varieties begin as a plant known as camellia sinensis and is similar to wine in that the environment in which it’s grown determines taste, color and scent. The plants are typically mass produced on large plantations and nurtured best in acidic soil and regions with heavy rainfall. The four top producers of tea are China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka.

Sarah Richards, owner of Homegrown Herb & Tea on Congress Street in Portland, reveals that the outcome of a tea depends on what happens subsequent to its harvesting.

“Many people are surprised to learn that all teas, be it white, green, oolong or black, are made from the leaves of the same plant,” says Richards. “The significant difference of the tea type is in the processing and the degree of oxidization, which begins after the leaves have been plucked from the plant.”

Although tea processing is complex and varies by regions, Richards breaks down the teas, flavors and processing into basic terms.

Black tea: It’s the most popular variety with its hearty flavor and deep color. Black tea has an extensive oxidization process that includes exposing crushed tea leaves to the air until they are fully oxidized and dried.

Green tea: It’s growing in popularity; it is a milder brew with a green appearance and appealing taste. There is no oxidation during processing; leaves are simply withered and then roasted or dried.

Oolong tea: A cross between black and green tea, these leaves are withered, partially oxidized and then dried.

White tea: The rarest and purest type of tea, it features a mild taste and light color. Leaves are picked before the buds have fully opened and are steamed and dried, which makes white tea closest to a natural state.

Richards says the health benefits of tea are many.

“Tea is rich in healthful properties which are believed to lower heart disease and stroke, protect against cancer, promote weight loss, strengthen bones and improve mood and concentration. The less processed the tea leaf, the more health-promoting properties it has.”

One type of tea worth mentioning is matcha, which has become the new buzz word in the tea-sipping world.

“Green tea leaves are stone-ground and served in powder form, giving the full potential to the consumer. It is made similar to other teas, but whisked until frothy,” Richard says.

Now, if you were surprised to discover that all teas are from one plant, you may be stunned to learn that when you drink a cup of herbal tea, you are most likely not drinking tea at all, but an herbal infusion.

“In our Western culture, we tend to call anything infused as a tea, yet in fact, there may not be any camellia sinensis in it,” says Richards. “Herbal infusions are normally made from carefully measured and planned mixtures of botanicals such as seeds, roots, flowers, grasses or other parts of plants and roots. In the real tea world, anything that is steeped is an infusion, so in reality, all teas are infusions, but not all infusions are teas.”

Richards became interested in botanicals in college for their unique taste and contribution to an array of lore, as well as for their researched-based benefits.

“I started exploring different herbs that might be helpful for whatever ailed me at the time; be it an upset stomach, stress or exhaustion. I would use medicinal herbs, then add flavorful herbs to enhance the taste. Then in the late ’90s I lived in Granada, Spain, and discovered a Moroccan tea house that served the most amazing mint tea. It was whole, fresh sprigs of mint stuffed and steeped in an ornate silver tea pot and sweetened with golden, native honey. I remember so well the pure and simple pleasure of those healing afternoons. It was as though all my homesickness and worry just washed away with every, minty sip.”

In November of 2006, now in Maine, she opened Homegrown Herb & Tea, and it reminds her of her first of many love affairs with infusions.

“My memories were my omens, my little road signs showing me to wellness through the healing power of herbs and plants; the magic of making an infusion with true intention. A single herb can bring us back to balance; back to a place where body, mind and spirit celebrate in harmony; deliciously, in every cup,” says Richards.

At Homegrown Herb & Tea, she sells tea and serves tea, but her true love is herbal infusions.

And it’s obvious when you walk in. Jars line the wall, colorful and brimming with such herbs and botanicals as cardamom, red raspberry leaf, anise, ginseng and lemon balm.

“Unlike commercially blended teas, each infusion I make is hand blended to order, in small batches. Herbs can be bought separately or specialty infusions can be created to meet the needs of a wide variety of common ailments, yet flavorful herbs can be added as well to pass the true test of taste,” Richards says.

Herbs are full of vitamins and are believed to offer specific benefits including encouraging a faster metabolism, increasing blood circulation, relaxing muscles and weight loss. Herbs are normally steeped for 10 minutes to obtain the full benefits.

Richards offers some examples. “Infusing chamomile is good for insomnia and fighting colds, cinnamon is good for circulation and diabetes, and dandelion is good for the liver and detoxification. Ginger can lessen nausea; thyme works as an antiseptic and aids the immune system and licorice root with slippery elm help with soothing the stomach and bowel.”

A true devotee, Richards is not only convinced of the benefits of infusions, but that once you try one, you’ll be forever a fan.

“For those of you who embraced infusions, keep drinking to good health; for those who have not yet warmed up to the habit, it’s never too late to brew a batch and fall in love,” she says.

The perfect cup of tea

Ingredients:

2-3 cups filtered cold water

1-2 teaspoons of loose tea or tea bag

Tea sack or ball if using loose tea

Instructions:

Bring water to a boil and pour about one cup into a mug to warm the mug; preferably unglazed earthenware.

Let the rest of the water cool slightly in kettle for about 2 minutes until water reduces to 165-180 degrees. Dump out the water from the mug and put the tea bag/sac/ball in. Pour one cup of remaining water over tea and cover with a saucer or plate to infuse. For black tea, infuse 2-3 minutes; for green and oolong, 2 minutes; for white tea, 1-2 minutes. Remove bag.

Amounts, temperatures and infusing time can be adjusted for personal taste, but over steeping can cause bitterness.

Herban Cowboy stamina tonic

Ingredients:

1 cup cold water, boiled and cooled to 165-185 degrees

All loose herbs:

Sarsaparilla

Ashwaganda

Astragalus root

Schisandra berries

Orange peel and fresh/dried raspberries

Instructions:

Measure sarsaparilla, ashwaganda, astragalus root and schisandra berries to total 1-2 tablespoons. Place into a tea ball or a tea sack tied tightly and place in mug. Pour prepared water over herbs, cover and steep for 10 minutes.

Garnish with orange peel and raspberries.

Mug can be pre-warmed if desired.

The tea ball/sack can be used for 2-3 infusions and still produce a full-flavored tea; it is particularly good iced.

Matcha and chocolate bundt cake

Ingredients:

For chocolate mixture:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

For matcha mixture:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2-3 tablespoons matcha powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Wet ingredients:

3 cups sugar

2 sticks softened butter

3 eggs

1 3/4 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions:

Grease a 12-cup bundt cake pan and lightly coat it with cocoa powder.

Make the chocolate mixture in one small bowl and the matcha mixture in another small bowl and whisk each one.

In another bowl, cream sugar and butter, add eggs, milk and vanilla. Mix well and divide mixture, putting half in another bowl.

Slowly add chocolate mixture to half of the creamed mixture and mix well. Do the same with the matcha mixture, adding it to the other half of the creamed mixture.

Drop alternating spoonfuls of chocolate and matcha into prepared bundt pan. Gently run a knife through batters to swirl.

Bake for 75 minutes at 325 degrees.


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