‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ has ceased to be a simple question in my house.
I feel slightly sorry for my unsuspecting guests, who come over for dinner and find themselves faced with my labyrinthine tea cupboard at the end of the proceedings, forced to choose from an overwhelming collection of over fifty black, green, white, and herbal brews, each with their own unique characteristics and subtle flavours. Devastatingly, most people end up overwhelmed and simply opt for builder’s tea or, at best, peppermint. I see myself as a sort of tea evangelist, on a mission to prove to the world that there’s more to mid-afternoon than a cup of bitter English breakfast or perfumed Earl Grey. While these teas have their places, I’d encourage you to experiment with some other wonderful varieties out there, particularly if you’re a creature of habit and need something to break the monotony. Here are my favourite unusual teas and tea blends; why not add a new one to your collection and see what you’ve been missing? All of the below can be bought online or at good tea shops or delis (and even some supermarkets).
Also known as ‘popcorn tea’, and if that doesn’t have you queuing up to buy some, then you may have lost your sense of fun. This is a Japanese blend of green tea with toasted brown rice, some of which occasionally ‘pops’ during roasting and turns into popcorn, hence the name. Originally drunk by poor Japanese, as the rice helped to bulk up the tea and make the expensive leaves go further, this blend is now popular all over Japan and worldwide. It has a gorgeous warm, nutty, toasty flavour and the slight astringency of green tea. It’s one of the most soothing, life-affirming teas you can buy, and perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up. It also helps you feel full, so may be a useful replacement for that post-lunch piece of cake or chocolate.
If you enjoy a peppermint tea as a post-meal digestive, try a lemongrass infusion too. These come in various blends – sometimes they feature ginger or lemon – but all are made with shards of dried, herbal lemongrass that has a wonderful zesty, tropical aroma when infused in boiling water. You could also try making some fresh by pounding a lemongrass stalk in a pestle and mortar and infusing it in boiling water, as they do in Thailand, sweetening it with honey if you like. Lemongrass has numerous health benefits, and also makes a refreshing end to a meal. You may also find its sharp, zingy fragrance helpful if you have a cold.
Mango green tea
The grassy bitterness of green tea is too much for some people – a friend of mine once posted on Facebook ‘Green tea drinkers, am I missing something? I keep trying and all I’m getting is smelly water’ – but something magical happens when you mix it with the tropical perfume of mango. This mellows the tea and adds an addictive sweet flavour, with no sugar or guilt. I love mango green tea as an afternoon pick-me-up, when you need something a little sweet but don’t want to gorge on desserts, or to wake me up at breakfast time. Numerous companies sell this blend of green tea; my favourite is Yumchaa, based in London, but Twinings also make a version that is readily available in supermarkets. If you like this, you should also try lychee or peach green teas, which are similarly aromatic and sweet. Birchall makes an excellent version of the latter.
One for those with a sweet tooth, this is black tea infused with the heady perfume of vanilla, and it’s an utterly gorgeous brew. You can find it in specialist tea shops or online, and it’s best when the whole tea leaves are used, rather than teabags, as the flavour is more complex and subtle. I love this tea in the afternoon as the aromatic vanilla is the perfect energy boost, but it’s also fabulous served with a cream tea or a piece of cake, echoing the sweet notes in the baking. This is a tea to be savoured, using as it does one of the world’s most expensive and popular ingredients.
No, you didn’t read that wrong. For those of you who are addicted to the throat-tingling smack of hot chillies, this is the tea for you, and for those of you who aren’t, I promise you’ll love the slight kick that chilli gives to a brew. There are a variety of tea blends that incorporate chilli, and it works best when combined with other spices to give an aromatic, warming flavour. I love Yumchaa’s ‘Chilli chilli bang bang’, which incorporates cinnamon, ginger, chilli, red thistle, sweet peppercorns and a rooibos tea base (so it’s caffeine free), and the Bluebird Tea Company’s ‘Dark choc chilli chai’, which combines black tea with cocoa, chocolate chips, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and chilli; an incredible flavour blend and one that can easily replace a piece of cake in the afternoon – you really can taste the chocolate and chilli.
I have to say, I’m not personally a fan of the woody flavour of caffeine-free South African rooibos tea, although it appears on many a café menu as an alternative to black tea. If you too struggle with its flavour, you may find that flavoured rooibos teas are the answer to your decaf tea needs. Adding herbs and spices to rooibos complements the unique flavours of the tea itself while mellowing its strength. It works particularly well with spices, as in the chilli tea above. My absolute favourite is the Bluebird Tea Company’s ‘Gingerbread chai’, featuring cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and mallow flowers blended with that golden rooibos. It’s slightly sweet and really does taste like gingerbread, making it a great after-meal tea or mid-afternoon treat. Also look out for vanilla rooibos, lemon rooibos or other fruity blends.
Olive leaf tea
I was lucky enough to visit the olive groves in Abruzzo, Italy, where the leaves for this tea are grown, dried and processed in line with a centuries-old tradition. Containing more antioxidants and vitamin C than green tea, and without the tannin that stains your teeth, olive leaf tea is a perfect alternative to green and black teas. Produced by Mirabilia, it has a beautiful golden colour and mild herbal flavour, and comes in three varieties: plain, with crushed pomegranate, and with lemon and wild mint. A must-try for those who love unusual teas, and a wonderful healthy alternative to other drinks. It’s also good served chilled and sweetened in summer.
Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, Seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.