A Captivating Child’s Tea Set

teappot with cup

Toy tea sets seem rather quaint today, perhaps delighting adults more than children. Yet, once upon a time, my own daughters loved to play “tea” with captive grandparents!

Imaginary Tea: When This Tradition Began in Europe

As far back as the 1500s, the Dutch were making Delft earthenware (a soft, easily chipped ware). Then, in 1602, the Dutch East India Company was founded, bringing Chinese tea—and porcelain, or “China ware”—to European shores.

Dutch potters quickly started imitating the amazing porcelain. In style, that is. They hadn’t yet figured out how to actually make the stuff.

(See my post Tea Arrived in Europe—and Launched the Quest for the Perfect Teapot, which explores why Europeans were so enamored with porcelain.)

With tea being pretty much an instant hit, the first tea sets designed for children came out of Germany as early as 1687 (Emerson Creek Pottery 2016).

And since the Germans hadn’t figured out that whole porcelain/china thing either, they made these early tea sets of metal—copper, pewter, even gold and silver (Decker).

An example of blue onion pattern.

Finally, a mathematician and alchemist team hit upon the formula for porcelain, and the Meissen factory opened near Dresden in 1710 (Malone 1976). Unsurprisingly, much of their ware imitated Chinese motifs.

In 1739, Meissen porcelain manufacturers produced an underglaze blue-and-white pattern, now known as “blue onion.” Based on Chinese motifs—which featured pomegranates or peaches and not onions!—this pattern was widely copied and is still produced today (Blue Onion Porcelain 2000).

Which brings me to this child’s china teapot and teacup:


Imaginary Tea: In a Blue Onion Tea Set

Porcelain tea sets for (wealthy) children began to be produced in the 1700s. After the Industrial Revolution, the sets were more widespread, and European factories manufactured toy sets alongside their usual ware (Decker).

The charming set that I own was purchased from an antique store, so it is at least vintage. It appears to be a knock-off of the Meissen blue onion pattern, and perhaps of their teapot design as well.

front and back montage horz

Since the onion pattern was highly popular for centuries, it makes sense that a child’s set would display that same pattern. My particular tea set, however, features a simplified version of the onion motif—undoubtedly quicker to paint and therefore cheaper to produce. Yet the design of the teapot itself is detailed, intricate, and delicate.

inside teacup

A note about the cup, which appears as though it could be full size. Its handle is so small that it is nearly impossible for an adult to securely hold it.

I do wonder, however, whether this set is actually a child’s play set. The pot is large enough to brew one cup of tea. Because it was included with an assemblage of children’s sets, it is easy to assume that it too was intended for children.

No matter. This set continues to captivate!

–Decker, C. “A history of children’s tea sets,” Childs-tea-set.com.
–Emerson Creek Pottery. Tea set history: The history of the tea set, teapots, tea customs, and tea drinking.” 2016.
–Malone, L. A. How to Mend Your Treasured Porcelain, China, Glass and Pottery, Reston, VA: Reston Publishing. 1976.
–Zwiebelmuster Blue Onion Porcelain. “A brief history of zwiebelmuster onion pattern porcelain,” European Blue. 2000.

What Is the Difference between Fruit Tea and a Tisane?

I peer out the window:thermometer_web

and stroll through my yard:daffodils_web

and check out the woods behind my house:wildflowers_web

Yep, definitely iced tea season in Michigan!

plum montageAnd because beautiful days call for beautiful teas, I pull out some plum fruit tea.

This tea has it all:

  • lustrous ruby red color
  • fruity aroma
  • strong, tangy plum flavor

And this fruit tea, available from TeaHaus, is a beguiling mixture of blossoms (hibiscus, peony, tea, rose, and mallow) and rose hips, cinnamon chunks, carob and red beet pieces—and fruit (plum and apple pieces).

It is made of all natural ingredients, and is caffeine free.

This “tea,” however, is actually a tisane because it does not contain any tea leaves (Camellia senensis).


While “tisanes” are defined as any beverage made by infusing fresh or dried herbs, fruit, and/or spices in hot water. . . .

. . . the second definition of “tea,” according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a drink made from the infused leaves, fruits, or flowers of plants other than tea.”


To confuse the terminology further, a “fruit tea” can refer to a blend that contains both Camellia senensis (tea) leaves and fruit. . . .

. . . or it can refer to a combination of fruit, blossoms, herb leaves, spices, and so on (no C. senenis).

One Way to Distinguish the Two

The Tea Wall at TeaHaus distinguishes these by referring to tea (C. sinensis) blended with fruit (or other additives) as “aroma teas.” Thus, you can have a “black aroma,” with a black tea base; a “green aroma,” containing green tea rather than black; and so on.

The blends (or tisanes) that do not contain C. sinensis but are composed primarily of fruit are labeled “fruit tea.”

Other tisanes include those blends based primarily on herbals/flowers/spices (“herbal tea”) and those containing  rooibos or honeybush.

So Is It “Tisane” or “Fruit Tea”??

Both terms are used interchangeably, and yet they are also used to refer to different things altogether.

According to common usage and the dictionary, you can use either term to refer to a beverage made of fruit and no C. senensis.

You just can’t use “tisane” to refer to a blend of fruit and C. senensis.

Got that?

Oh what the heck—just go make a cup and call it whatever you want!plum-tea-dry-in-woods_web

Is Climate Change Real? Ask a Tea Grower!

Science cookies by TeaHaus, Ann Arbor

Many of us spent Saturday—Earth Day—thinking about our planet and our role  in caring for it.

So what about tea production? Any problems there? Should we be hoarding our favorite tea?!

From Damage in Darjeeling

During winter in Darjeeling, no tea is harvested, and the bushes are pruned to encourage new growth. Then in spring, warmer weather brings a burst of new leaves—the first flush so highly anticipated and valued.

Tea connoisseurs, of course, are thinking about first-flush Darjeeling’s incredible flavor.

A whole lot of other people, however, are more concerned about the economic ramifications of this first-flush harvest—because it accounts for around one-third of the year’s total tea value!

So just as farmers do everywhere, tea growers watch the weather. As quoted in the Economic Times (Sarkar 2017), scientist S. E. Kabir said:

Weather during this period plays [a] vital role behind quality and quantity of first flush. Tea is a chill loving plant and demands adequate humidity in air or soil. Less than normal humidity or above normal temperature can seriously retard metabolic function of bushes hampering its health rejuvenation.

This year, rainfall and humidity were first significantly lower, and temperatures significantly higher, than normal—followed by constant rain and no sunshine, which is equally detrimental to tea production (Ghosal 2017).

To Adversity in Assam

Meanwhile, over in Assam—one of the world’s largest tea-producing regions—heavy rains coupled with the failure of bushes to produce leaves are “likely to bring down total tea production by 30% during March, feel planters” (Ghosal 2017).

Sure, yearly fluctuations in weather are expected and normal. But are current weather problems normal?

Back in 2015 I wrote Assam Tea At Risk? Climate Change Threatens. And then, in 2016, Assam was beset:

–first by drought (bringing pests and plant loss)
–followed by heavy rains (plants didn’t get nutrients because there wasn’t enough sunlight, plus the sodden ground caused roots to rot)
–that brought widespread flooding (countless people were homeless with entire villages underwater)

Assam’s longer-term problems include:

  • Rainfall and monsoons have become less predictable.
  • Vacillations in rainfall are devastating to tea. A NASA program was designed to measure soil moisture (to allow smart irrigation)—but the equipment aboard the satellite malfunctioned (read more).
  • Soil fertility has deteriorated.
  • Lowland Assam tea is on the boundary of tea-growing regions, and so is the first affected by temperature increases (Kahn 2015).
  • Tea is produced by hand, so over two million workers in Assam are affected when tea quality and quantity decline.

So Is Tea at Risk?

The writing may well be in the [lack of] tea leaves.

–Doshi, V. “Flooding in India affects 1.6m people and submerges national park,” The Guardian, July 27, 2016.
–Ghosal, S. “Rains wash off tea’s premium edge,” Economic Times, April 3, 2017.
–Kahn, B. “Global warming changes the future for tea leaves,” Scientific American, June 4, 2015.
–Sarkar, D
. “Darjeeling’s high value first flush tea under trouble,” Economic Times, February 7, 2017.

Should You Microwave Your Tea? Part 2: Flavor

According to researcher Dr. Vuong (Hoh 2017), brewing tea in a microwave oven imparts greater health benefits and results in tastier tea.

So, About This Claim

While I cannot test the health factor (see my previous post), I can test the flavor! Admittedly my little experiment wouldn’t meet any laboratory standards, but anyway.

I brewed teabags (standard teabags, purchased from a grocery store) and loose leaf Chinese green teas (again, standard tea)—both in the conventional manner and with Dr. Vuong’s method.

Experiment 1: Brewing a Teabag

I used 8 ounces of hot water, steeping a teabag of Chinese green tea for 2 minutes.

I put a second teabag into hot water and immediately microwaved it for 30 seconds at half power, and then let it sit for a minute before removing the teabag, per Dr. Vuong, who advocates this method.

Neither he nor the teabag company suggested what temperature “hot” should be, so already this experiment is not at all controlled. Nor does Vuong provide what wattage the “half power” should be.

Experiment 2: Brewing Loose Leaf Tea

I measured a teaspoon of loose Chinese green tea and brewed it in 8 ounces of hot water for 2 minutes.

I put another teaspoon of loose tea into 8 ounces of hot water and immediately microwaved it for 30 seconds at half power. After letting it sit for an additional minute, I filtered out the leaves.

So Does the Microwave Make a Difference?

I had my husband and daughter do a blind taste test.

Teabag Results
preferred microwave version because it was stronger
Husband: thought the microwaved version was stronger but he preferred the conventionally brewed one
Daughter: thought the microwaved version was stronger but the conventionally brewed one was sweeter

Loose Leaf Tea Results
Me: microwaved version was awful so totally preferred the conventionally brewed version
Husband: preferred conventionally brewed one
Daughter: thought the conventionally brewed tea was stronger but the microwaved one was sweeter

The Upshot

With Teabags
It seems—based on this extremely limited trial—that if you are using a teabag and you like stronger tea, you may want to give the microwave a try.

These results intuitively make sense because in this photo of the teabag contents after brewing, you can see that the tea leaves have been chopped into tiny bits.

When they are brewed, there is a lot of surface area and the flavor is quickly extracted.

The microwave apparently maximizes that process, without contributing bitterness to the brew.

With Loose Leaf Tea
If, however, you have loose leaf tea, I personally would follow the recommended conventional brewing method.

For the loose leaf tea, the leaves are in large pieces or nearly whole, as seen in the photo here, taken after brewing.

Compared to small bits of leaves, whole leaves retain more of their flavor and health benefits, and they also release them more slowly—which is why many green, white, and oolong teas can, and often should, be brewed more than once.

The microwave was not sufficient, at least in my little study, to extract the flavor that I expect from these leaves.

Source: Hoh, A. “Microwaving tea the best way to brew and extract health benefits,” ABC News, April 10, 2017

Should You Microwave Your Tea? Part 1: Health Benefits

microwaving teaA perhaps disconcerting study has been recently publicized. It promotes—of all things—microwaving your tea so that you obtain more of its health benefits.

Moreover, scientist Dr. Quan Vuong asserts that this technique yields a better-tasting cup.

Anathema! Nuke my tea? No way!

But why was Dr. Vuong microwaving his tea anyway?

As reported by ABC News–Australia on April 10, Vuong focuses on how to best extract components from foods and beverages—so that these compounds can be added to other food products or used in supplements.

china lung ching 2And tea is simply loaded with highly beneficial stuff:


Yes, caffeine has plenty of real health benefits (click here to see why we might want to embrace it). Extracted caffeine is also added to other beverages and to medicines.


This highly desirable amino acid, found nearly exclusively in tea:

  • Gives tea its umami flavor. (Shade-grown tea has more theanine than tea grown in sunlight, driving up both tea quality and price.)
  • Increases alpha wave activity in our brains. These are the brain waves that relax us (think meditation or mindfulness).
  • Works synergistically with caffeine to improve brain function and attention.
  • May prevent some cancers and heart disease, boosts our immune system, and helps us lose weight (Vuong et al. 2011).


And of course tea is loaded with phenols, which are incredibly good for us in myriad ways (may prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, etc.).

Vuong and his colleagues (2010:3426) speculate, however, that just drinking tea “may not provide a sufficient level of catechins to achieve these health benefits”—hence his efforts on extracting and concentrating phenols so they can be added to other foods.

(While not negating the benefits of consuming more phenols, I would say that there are other research studies that indicate that drinking tea does have measurable effects.)

Which brings us to:

Extracting these elements

When we make a cup of tea at home, we use hot water to extract flavor, caffeine, theanine, and polyphenols from the tea leaves.

For extraction on a large scale and for commercial applications, however, methods must be as efficient, reproducible, safe (for employees, consumers, and environment), and cost effective as possible.

Therefore Vuong and his colleagues (2010, 2011) experimented with multiple ways (including with a microwave) to extract theanine and polyphenols, using varying solvents, temperature, time, and so on.

They found that the process was most efficient with ground dried tea. They also learned that they could extract the most theanine at 176°F for 30 minutes and a ratio of about 6 ounces of water to 0.035 ounces of tea (20 ml water per gram tea) (Vuong et al. 2011:2474).

Needless to say, extracting bulk theanine to add to other products is a whole different thing than extracting it in your teapot where the goal is largely to make a great cup of tea!

Which brings us to the microwave

For immediate home use, Vuong (Hoh 2017) asserts that you can obtain 80% of tea’s caffeine, theanine, and polyphenols—and the best flavor—by making tea this way:

  1. Put hot water in the cup with your teabag.
  2. Heat in the microwave for 30 seconds on half power.
  3. Let it sit for a minute.

Does it work? Well-l-l-l-l . . . .

Well, as far as health benefits go, that depends on whether you believe the science is correct, and as consumers, this is difficult to verify. For one, we must watch for additional research that supports Vuong’s claims.

I would say, however, that the “half power” thing is extremely non-scientific! Microwaves vary in wattage levels so half power of a small microwave will not be the same as that of a more powerful microwave. So how do we know if we are getting the 80% or not?

And as far as flavor goes, I’ll let you know in my next post!

–Boros, K. et al. “Theanine and caffeine content of infusions prepared from commercial tea samples,” Pharmacognosy Magazine 12(45):75–79. January–March 2016.
–Hoh, A. “Microwaving tea the best way to brew and extract health benefits,” ABC News, April 10, 2017.
–Vuong, Q. V., et al. “Extraction and isolation of catechins from tea,” J. Sep. Sci. 33:3415–28. 2010.
–Vuong, Q. V., et al. “Optimum conditions for the water extraction of L-theanine from green tea,” J. Sep. Sci. 34:2468–74. 2011.

How to Properly Store Tea

You found a loose leaf tea that you love. Now, how do you store it so that it maintains its incredible aroma and flavor?

THEN: Form over Function

When tea from China first arrived on their shore in the 1600s, Europeans sought to properly store—and protect—the costly leaves. Elaborate tea caddies, often with locks, eventually became all the rage for those who had money to spare.

small caddy with text
These caddies frequently contained one section for green tea and another for black, and sometimes a bowl, as shown in the ornate caddy below. While separating green from black tea is a definite plus, the caddies also were commonly lined with lead, a decided drawback.

tea caddy montage

AND NOW: Form and Function

storage tins montage

Today, we don’t have to worry about locking up our favorite leaves, but we do need to protect them from other aromas, moisture, and light.

This rules out glass jars, tins that have been used to store anything with an odor (including other, heavily scented, tea!), old plastic containers, and anything that does not tightly close.

Because every tea has its own wonderful aroma, it is best to store each type of tea in a dedicated container so that the flavor is not compromised. And with all the pretty options out there, that isn’t so hard to do!

For example, these charming Kotobuki tins are wrapped in Japanese rice paper and have an interior plastic lid that really seals.

round tin_inner lid_cropIf minimal is more your thing, simple tins that tightly seal are also perfect for keeping your tea tasting its best. A second inner lid is even better.

So although modern tea tins have nowhere near the artistry of a 1700–1800s-era Chinoiserie tea caddy, they also do not contain lead or other harmful chemicals that may leach into your tea. And they will keep your tea fresh for a very long time!

The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, by Shirley M. Mueller and R. Craig Miller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016.  

–Walne, T. “
Antique tea-caddies brew up a profit,” This Is Money. September 28, 2009.

Tea tins pictured above are available for purchase online at TeaHaus and EatMoreTea.

Macaron or Macaroon?


Flowers are blooming. Tree buds are opening. The lawn needs mowing. Darn.

But when work calls, I answer with a preemptive tea break. Accompanied by something sweet.

Now spring weather, at its loveliest, calls for something delicate, elegant. Like a French macaron.

Which matches spring weather in other ways—confusing, changeable, shifting.

Because is it a macaron or a macaroon?

Dan Jurafsky provides a fascinating history of the macaron/macaroon, explaining how the sweets are linked with macaroni and even the Macarena. Really! Check out his article.

In short, . . . well, it’s actually quite involved, even though early in his article Jurafsky states that

both are new fads, invented around 1900 by modifying the original almond cookies called macaroon in English or macaron in French.

If only it were quite that simple!

To start the whole story:*

Once upon a time, according to Jurafsky, a honey and starch confection was eaten by Persian kings to celebrate the new year. Adapted by the ʿAbbāsid dynasty (750–1258) of the Caliphate, the sweet evolved into nut-and-sugar creations.

~with pasta and confection intertwining, oddly~

Pasta also originated in the Muslim world, and both Greeks and Roman ate dough products. When the Romans planted durum wheat in Sicily, that region became the center of pasta, exporting it to Muslims and Christians alike.

By 1279 the word maccarruni appears in writing, referring to both a sweet (almond paste with rose water, egg whites, sugar) and a pasta (flour paste with rose water, egg whites).

Almond paste creations proliferated in the Middle Ages, with marzipan becoming part of Christmas and Easter celebrations. Eventually a baked version showed up in Europe, with the French calling both it and pasta macaron, whereas the Italians used various names for the confection but reserved maccherone for pasta.

Finally, an actual definition!

Eventually, as Jurafsky relates,

the first English language recipe in 1611 defines the English word “macaroon” as derived from the French “macaron” which are “compounded of Sugar, Almonds, Rosewater, and Muske, pounded together and baked with a gentle fire.”

Which held for around 300 years

But then, around 1900, a pastry shop in France began using a filling to stick two macaron shells together. Voilà, the modern French macaron!

Meanwhile on this side of the ocean, the coconut palm had come to Florida, initiating a coconut craze. Coconut went into everything, including the macaroon. The first Jewish cookbook that was published in the States substituted grated coconut for the almond paste—which made it kosher for Passover and created the coconut macaroon.

So it’s totally clear, right?

The dictionary on my computer has this to say:

macaron: a small round cake with a meringue-like consistency, made with egg whites, sugar, and powdered almonds and consisting of two halves sandwiching a creamy filling
macaroon: a light cookie made with egg white, sugar, and usually ground almonds or coconut

Confusion still abounds!

But no matter. Macaron or macaroon—either pairs well with tea!


*Here, I am abridging Jurafsky’s account, so credit for the text goes to him. The mouth-watering French macaron, however, is one of TeaHaus‘ amazing creations (flavor: White Russian).
Source: Jurafsky, D. “Macaroons, macarons, and macaroni,” The Language of Food. April 16, 2011.