"Est-ce tu veux une infusion?" * My French host mother asked me after dinner one night. (I was an exchange student at the time, in Aix-en-Provence, in 1994.)
Translated this means, "Do you want an infusion?" I assumed she meant tea, with a little of the typical French affectation.** "Du thé?" I asked with a raised and slightly amused eyebrow, thinking I had outwitted her. I was used to a certain amount of French disdain surrounding almost everything that was American about me and assumed this to be the next subtle blow to my own sense of sophistication. After all, “le thé” had been one of the most simple and recognizable words in all the French language. Easy to pronounce the word was so close to the English “tea” that I could use it in a sentence without any fear of the usual tsk-tsking or finger wagging rectification. "Voulez-vous du thé?" was one of the first phrases I remembered learning back in French 101, perhaps eight years earlier. Had I been mislead? Have I always been saying this wrong or were the rules now changing? Could I no longer just use a familiar, comfortable, easy to remember word such as "thé", when wanting a simple, unremarkable, steaming little cup of "thé?"
"Non," she replied sternly and directly. (I always thought French sounded a bit stern and direct even spoken by my French host mother who was, in fact, kind and lovely.) "Après dîner, on bois l'infusion."
It was good for the digestion, she assured me. Case closed, we would call it an infusion, excuuuuuusez-moi, “une infusion” from then on. Defeated, I agreed to drink the infusion, and it was I’ll admit quite good. (Which was another thing typical of the French - good and delicious food.)*** She had served up an herbal concoction of mint and honey that I would have called “tea”, but out of politeness I put the matter to bed. The lesson I learned was this; after dinner, and when in France, “tea” is referred to an “infusion”. In the nearly twenty years that have passed since I left France, I have never since asked nor drunk an infusion.
Or so I thought.
It turns out, my lovely French host mother Rosemarie was right. There is a difference between tea and infusions and I, a self proclaimed tea snob and plant nerd should have known better. Tea by definition is, in fact, either the plant or a brew made from the plant of Camellia sinensis. That’s it. Concoctions of mint, rooibos, chamomile and other herbs and fruits are NOT in fact teas, but eh hem, infusions. Some people go one step further to call them tisanes (rhymes with begone.) It is incorrect to call them herbal “teas”, as technically they do not contain any “tea” at all.
Crap. How did this misconception go on for so long? I’m going to blame this on my own country. After all, Americans are notorious for misusing words and then allowing their misuse to evolve into the vernacular. “Literally?” “Ironic?” “Reticent?” Don’t get me started on the word “garbage!”
Yes it is true that I too make mistakes. You have probably counted at least 10 grammatical and punctuation errors already. Am I right? I mean, only last year I discovered that “compliment” and “complement” were two different words. I’m certainly evolving like the rest of us. I just hate when the language mistake overlaps with a botanical mistake. I utterly hate it. It’s like getting two reproofs for the price of one. Of course, I have done it before and with tea even.
It seems that someone (Mom, I am not naming any names) put it into my head that Earl Gray tea was made from the Bergamot leaf which is otherwise known as Beebalm, Wild Bergamot, or Monarda fistulosa. I probably passed that little nugget of erroneousness on at least four or five times a year (I assume) for most of my professional life. Who knows how many people out there are now brewing up concoctions of beebalm because of me. No need to worry, it is not poisonous, but truth be known, the Bergamot that gives the Earl Gray tea its flavor is not from the leaf of the Monarda plant but, in fact, from the peel of the Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia.) To all I have misled, consider this your apology.
So perhaps part of the problem is this out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. Bergamot orange, for example, is grown in places like southern Italy and France. It is certainly not grown in Vermont. Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, the most cold hardy of all of the teas is really only hardy to USDA zone 6a. I know this now, only because I recently visited a Camellia nursery with the express purpose of picking up one of these little tea plants during a stay with my sister.
To be exact, the place is called the Camellia Forest Nursery and is located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The owner was quite a sight to behold. Well adorned in a beautiful ensemble of complementary (hee-hee) pinks and purple hues, her countenance was much like a Camellia flower itself, small, perky, and perfectly pert. The rest of the place was on the utilitarian side, with rows of plastic bound hoop houses filled with every variety of Camellia you could think of. Not that I could think of many species or cultivars of Camellia, if truth be told. It was that out-of-mind thing again. Camellias just have never entered into my daily sphere of plant considerations. I have never before had the opportunity to use Camellias in my designs, or perhaps I should say, the know-how. But times, they are a changing.
For one, I now know that Camellias have a broad hardiness range that extends into some of the regions in which I work. Secondly, there are Camellias out there that bloom in the dead of winter. (Vermont readers, cover your eyes or skip ahead. This does not apply to you or your climes.) That’s right, while visiting on December 30th I spied several varieties that were either in full bloom, recently passed, or bursting with buds. Color like this is a welcome sight in the winter, even in the gentler climate of North Carolina. Also their flowers are such perfection, like tight, clean roses with spiraling rows of petals.
The Camellia Forest Nursery kept their teas in a separate greenhouse on the other side of the farm. Camellia sinensis is not known for its ornamental qualities and some might say that its flower is a bit drab. Of course, this is the workhorse of the Camellia world, not its beauty queen. The Camellia Farm website says that you can harvest tea leaves from the bush every 10 days if you are really demanding. It also suggests that you go ahead and plant a whole hedge if you want to keep your whole family in good supply of fresh leaves.
As for the processing, I am sure that this takes a bit of practice. The Camellia sinensis plant is responsible for the black, white, green, and Oolong varieties of tea. The difference is in how you handle the leaves. Black teas are put through a process of fermentation (oxidation) involving an intentional bruising of the leaves and an interaction between the leaf’s own enzymes and the oxygen around. This process is halted by a quick cooking in an oven. With green teas, the process of oxidation is not allowed to occur, the leaf fired to kill off the enzymes before this can happen. With Oolongs, the leaves are partially oxidized but not as much as black tea. There is a process that involves firings and intermittent abuse of the tea leaf for this one. White teas are simply the young leaves that are steamed and dried without the fuss or muss. As a result, the flavor is subtle and sweet.****
I’ve thought about buying some more tea plants for my sister to grow down on her little plot in North Carolina. (Camellia Forest sells them for 10 for $100, I noticed!) It would be certainly nice to grow my own tea, if not from a distance. Already I am taking this vicarious pleasure with peanuts and passion fruit. I can see, however, from what I have read that growing the plant is just half the battle. I can hardly suggest that she dry, ferment, and fire the tea too. I guess I’ll have to stick with my mint plants (of many varieties) and throw in a rose hip or two. One things for certain, that when I do make up the concoction, I will no longer be erroneously calling it tea. I will call it a tisane or even an infusion… if I really must.
“Est-ce que vous en voulez?”
*French speakers, forgive me. It has been a while and I am sure to make mistakes here. By all means, give me a comment and I will fix the error.
** Again, apologies to the French.
*** See, a nice thing said about the French
**** Thanks to a little write-up by The Tea Table for helping to clarify these distinctions.