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National addiction

FrustrationI think I may be actually addicted to tea.  How do I know this?  Every time I go on holiday outside the UK I get ratty and distracted by the damned awful versions of my national drink that are marketed and sold as ‘tea’.  In France, which as one of our closest neighbours tends to be a regular haunt of mine… oh have mercy….in France they are more used to delicate ’tisanes’ – herbal teas that are merely politely introduced to very hot water for a nano-second and the anaemic result is what you are supposed to drink, and presumably enjoy.  France, and I can say this as basically a half-French woman, is a lost cause.  In the world of general cuisine I will concede that they are amongst the front runners.  For making a good cuppa?  Forget it.  Order tea at your peril.  What you will get will be gnats’ pee.

I’ve singled out France but really the story will be the same for most of Europe.  There is one exception – Ireland.  You want tea? You’ll get a proper brew, one that you could stand your spoon in.  I once stayed in a hotel in central London and was served what I can only describe as dishwater, cheekily passing itself off as tea.  As I’d noticed a good southern Irish lilt in my waitresses’ voice, I asked if it was possible to have a stronger pot of tea, to which she replied ‘yes, of course, we only give out this rubbish because the tourists like it’.  Do they?  Do they really?  Nations who are coffee addicts make properly brewed versions of the stuff for visitors because that’s what they themselves drink.  They wouldn’t dream of handing out the weaker instant coffee version because they assume that ‘the tourists like it’.

Freshly plucked tea leavesI have to say that one of my biggest frustrations is when I travel to the U.S. because this nation understands their own addiction to the coffee bean only too well.  In fact, Americans are so rabid about their own national drink that it features in popular culture, it is the birthplace of the ubiquitous Starbucks, Americans are seen everywhere clutching ‘half-gallon’ canisters like bottles of formula, and coffee percolators (not instant coffee sachets) are available in fairly mundande hotel rooms to allow for that early morning fix.  The national addiction to coffee is so recognised, and so ingrained, that if you visit any restaurant or diner before lunch time the waitress will come to the table already armed with a steaming hot pot of the drink and be pouring it out before you have even glanced at the menu – before you have had time to say whether you even want it.  And herein lies my frustration.  The Americans fully understand this addiction to the bean.  They know that consumers get ratty without their caffeine fix and so they anticipate and pre-empt any troubles by offering it up before any conversation takes place.  However, woe betide you if you don’t drink the stuff, if in fact your morning fix is from the rather more gentle, but still caffeine laden tea leaf. 

In even expensive hotels I have been advised to use the coffee pot/percolator to heat water for my morning cuppa.  cuppaHave you any idea how much coffee taints the flavour of the water in those coffee makers?  No?  Well try to imagine if I told you to make your morning coffee in the pot normally reserved for onion soup.  Yes.  It’s about as pleasant as that.  Even after flushing it through several times with plain water, you can still taste the coffee so that what you are left with is weird ‘co~tea’ in the a.m. and, trust me, it’s naaasty.  When I’ve asked for boiling water to make my tea it comes in a coffee pot which, in case you hadn’t twigged yet STILL TASTES OF COFFEE!

When I’ve ordered tea in a restaurant, I have to wait for tea-like paraphernalia to appear, as though I wish to perform my own version of the Japanese tea ceremony.  Do I want lemon?  Do I want silk tea bags?  Do I want to rifle through and pick from this entire 50-strong tray of tea bags, including mint, chamomile, lemon verbena….?    No, fer cryin’ out loud!  I want tea!  The brown stuff that comes out of generic bags from makers like Typhoo, Tetley and PG Tips!  I don’t want silk, I don’t want herbs, I don’t want lemon and trays and pots and pans and, by the way, I don’t even want ferkin’  Twinings which, in case you didn’t know, is barely drunk in Britain because it’s strictly for Wishy Washy Wimps!  I want TEA!!!  The caramel golden nectar which keeps the fabled British Army marching ever onwards!  That glorious brew that stains your teeth brown, you can stand your spoon up in it and it makes you feel like you’ve had a great big enveloping hug from your ever-loving Mummy who adores you like no other.   T. E. A.  I want tea.  Please.

You can read a few interesting facts about my favourite drink over at my other site here.

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There are plenty of fine teas out there but what I’m referring to above is the bog standard ‘cuppa’ as consumed by millions of Brits every day.  Snobs will tell you that these blends are the ‘sweepings off the floor’ but that’s them just trying to prove that they’re a cut above the rest of us and, frankly, they’re talking rubbish.  Millions of us can’t be wrong and, in fact, I read recently that the Chinese are now starting to import English bog standard blends, of the type mentioned below, because they too have realised what a little gem we have.

Therefore…To make a delicious, bog standard cuppa, as drunk by all good Brits:

Look in the ‘English’ section of your supermarket if there is one.   (I know, for instance, that such things exist in Florida).  The tea brands to look for are Tetley, PG Tips, Yorkshire Blend and, our favourite, Typhoo.

Put one tea bag in a [preferably] china cup or mug.  It is true that tea tastes better in china rather than plain pottery because china holds the water at a better temperature … and by the way, there’s no need to be snobby with this tea, serving it in mimsy little cups, unless you want to impress your guests.  I’m a ‘mug’ person myself.  

Pour on a little cold milk (about a tablespoon, no more).  Boil a kettle and pour freshly boiled water over the milk and tea bag.  Colour will immediately start to flood out.  Use a teaspoon to ‘mash’ the bag until you have the desired colour.  ‘Serious’ tea drinkers will want their tea a golden caramel colour.

Beginners might want to add sugar, although ‘serious students’ (myself included) know that totally swamps the flavour of the tea.

Sit down and enjoy. 

Good in the afternoon with plain biscuits dunked in it (another joyous English custom designed to pile on the pounds because once you develop the technique of a perfectly dunked biscuit, you cannot stop). 

By the way, there’s a quirky little site about tea, biscuits and our national drink called a Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down that you might like to visit.

0135, Daily Dose

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All about butter

Butter CurlsI don’t think anything compares to the taste of real butter in cooking. Butter-based spreads have come into existence to try to provide healthier alternatives but they are not always ideal for cooking.  Here is a quick low-down on the basic versions of butter available, plus a few facts and hints:

Salted butter – Salt is a preservative so that the addition of salt to butter gives it a longer ‘shelf-life’.  Salted butter will last about a month in the fridge, six months in the freezer.

Unsalted (or ‘sweet’) butter is the freshest butter available, with an accordingly fresher taste – largely because the natural sweetness of the product isn’t masked by salt.  However, without that extra preservative it will not last as long.

Given the above, good traditional bakers usually opt for unsalted butter in recipes – the flavour is better, there is the option to decide just how much salt should be added, and too much salt tends to produce a tougher dough.  At a pinch (no pun intended), ready salted butter can be substituted in baking recipes, but remember to reduce, or cut out entirely, any extra salt noted separately in the ingredients list.  (If you have to use salted butter in a recipe because that’s all you have, the rule of thumb would be to cut salt by 1/4 tsp for every 4 ounces, or half a cup of butter that is in the recipe).

Light / reduced calorie butter is made with half the fat of regular butter and in order to approximate the consistency of the full fat version, water, skimmed milk and gelatin are added.   As a consequence, it will give different results when used for baking and frying and is therefore not recommended.

In some countries whipped butter is also available.  Its’ whipped texture makes it lighter and more spreadable but the process of whipping means that it is actually 30 – 45% air.  For this reason it also is not generally  recommended for baking.

When frying and sauteing,  it is better to use unsalted butter.  If you wish, the addition of just a teaspoon of oil will allow you to heat the oil to a slightly higher temperature before it begins to burn but both salted and unsalted butter have low smoke points (the point at which the butter burns).

Clarified butter is used widely in fine cuisine as the basis for sauces and, as most of the milk solids and water is removed during preparation, allows for cooking at higher temperatures without burning (useful for frying and sauteing) . 

To clarify: gently melt a quantity of butter in a pan and, using a metal spoon, skim off the solids that begin to foam up on the surface.  Be careful not to allow the butter to burn. When you feel you’ve removed as much as you can, pour the melted butter through a sieve which has been lined with cheesecloth or muslin, into a bowl beneath.  (These solids can be thrown away but are also considered a delicacy in Northern Indian cuisine, being eaten with unleavened bread). The clarified butter in the bowl will last in the fridge for up to a month.

Ghee is very similar to clarified butter, the differences being that all the water content has been evaporated off, all the milk solids removed and the remaining butter has been allowed to brown slightly, giving the ghee a nutty flavour.  Pure ghee will keep at room temperature for months and, as with clarified butter, can be heated to high temperatures.  The process of preparation has removed casein, lactose protein (often a problem to those with allergies) and oxidised cholesterol, whilst still retaining valuable vitamins.  Its’ more intense, nutty flavour also means that you will probably use less of it in cooking.  Ghee is available in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as in some supermarkets.

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  • Butter absorbs the flavours around it so is best stored in an airtight container or wrapped carefully in foil.
  • Store in the coolest part of the fridge (which is generally not the door)
  • To soften butter quickly for baking, cut into small cubes and leave at room temperature.
  • Frozen unsalted butter can be grated into pastry mix for a nice, light and flaky crust

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