Friday, March 12, 2010

More tea please!

As promised yesterday, the rest of the tea story. Tea as a drink, has been around for about 5,000 years. The story goes, that the Emperor of China, Shen Nung, discovered tea. It was very common for all water to be boiled before use, and one day when the Emperor was visiting a distance part of his empire, they stopped for a rest. The servants set about boiling water when some leaves from a camellia sinensis plant fell into the pot and became infused. When the servant who first tried the brew, did not drop over dead, the Emperor proclaimed "tea".
Tea was an important drink in the East for thousands of years before it started making its way West. In the early 1600's, the Dutch, who were considered "Kings of the Seas", started bringing back tea with them in their trade with the East. Tea caught on in the Dutch court and in the mid 1600's tea was introduced to New Amsterdam (later new York)in the American Colonies and became very big business.
Tea had also become very fashionable in Russia, traveling across the continent by camel caravan. To this day, Russian Caravan Tea is very popular. Tea was also very fashionable in Portugal. About this time, teas was introduced to Great Britain but was offered as a medicinal drink and did not catch on.
It was only when Charles II married a portuguese princess named Catherine de Broganza that tea caught on in the United Kingdom. Catherine brought a trunk of tea with her as part of her dowry and it soon became all the fashion. Tea at this time was still very expensive and was only popular with the elite, who were the only ones who could afford it. A pound of tea in the United Kingdom cost about $500US.
By the mid 1700's, tea was actually the national beverage of the American Colonies. American had been used to getting their tea from the Dutch becaue theEnglish and Dutch had been in a war. When the war ended, England cut out the middle man and started tea trade with the colonies. When George III took over the throne in 1760, he was amazed at the amount of tea that was being exported to the colonies and decided he needed to capitolize on it as he aquired a huge defecit. In 1773 he raised the tax on tea from 12% to 119%! Not just a little jump, but a huge jump. What resulted was the Boston Tea party, which effectively ended America's love affair with tea and led to the Revolution of 1776.
Tea had however, caught on quite well in Great Britain and by 1797 English tea drinking hits a rate of 2 pounds per capita annually, a rate that increases by five times over the next 10 years. By the mid 1800's, the Ceylon, Darjeeling and Assam regions of India were being cultivated for tea production and for the first time the majority of tea is no longer coming from China. This of course, decreased the cost of tea and it became even more popular and quickly surpassed ale as the national drink.
Today, green tea has become very popular, but no matter wether it is green, oolong or black, the only way it can be classified as tea, is if it comes from the original camellia sinensis plant. We have many different variaties that come from this plant and the differences are dependent on what region and how the plant is cultivated. Difference can also be based on the elevation the plant is grown at, the time of year the plant is grown and picked, and the location of the leaf on the plant itself.
We also have today many herbal infusions but these are not tea. You can only call it tea, if it comes from the camellia sinensis plant. And yes, all tea has caffeine and this includes green tea. And yes, black tea is as beneficial as green tea because once again, they come from the same plant.
Most tea in the States today is drank iced. You can credit this to Richard Blechynden. He decided that he would reintroduce tea to the American public, but had no idea that there would be a heatwave at the 1904 St. Loius Worlds Fair, where he intended to do this. He thought all was lost, but noticed a really good trade at the lemonade stands and decided to offer ice tea. It was a big hit.
Thomas Sullivan is inadvertenty responisble for the tea bag. He was sending samples to clients in small silk bags and they thought they were suppose to steep the tea in the bag. Thomas Lipton thought it a wonderful way to use the chaff or what was left over after using the best leaves of the plant. Before this, the chaff was discarded. He saw a way to capitolize on this by putting he chaff into tea bags. Today, most tea sold in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the States is sold in tea bags.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tea, Glorious Tea!

Only 2 more days and I am off to Ireland! I am so excited and I can't wait to get to Bunratty and have a nice cuppa! Having had a tearoom for so long and also making my own blends of tea for many years has aroused quite a curiosity for tea and all things tea. We always think of tea as being very British, and this is ri...ghtfully so, as they have done more with tea than anywhere else in the world, but Britain actually came quite late to tea. The British Isles of course does have the distinction of drinking more tea than anywhere else in the world.
The British Isles is made up of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. Ireland is a Republic all unto itself, and having worked so hard to get there, they do not like to be included in this category. You will notice that in my posts I always say, The British Isles and Ireland. For clarity we will call Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England the United Kingdom as that is the appropriate title. This land grouping is small enough to fit into the state of Michigan, and yet they drink almost 200,000,000 cups tea daily, for every day of the year!
Ireland, however, holds the distinction of drinking more tea than any other country in the world. They average 7 cups of tea per person per day! I have never been anywhere in Ireland where the first thing that is done after greeting you, is putting the kettle on for tea. What a wonderful way to welcome someone to your home! The Irish are not particularly fond of flavored teas or herbal infusions. Irish Breakfast Tea is primarily Ceylon tea, which is a very small, dark tea leaf and produces a very dark cup of tea which much more resembles coffee. And the Irish want their tea strong!
In both Ireland and the United Kinggom almost all tea is served with milk but much fewer take sugar, only about 30 percent. You generally want to use milk and not cream, as cream masks the taste and milk enhances it.
I started blending tea about 10 years ago, and although there is no possible way that I could be labeled as a master, I have learned a tremendous amount about tea. I started blending tea for my tearoom and wanted blends that would reflect the areas of the British Isles and Ireland that I love so much. My very first blend I called "Wildflower Cottage", which was the name of our tearoom. It is a black tea blend of wild blackberry, rose, jamine and vanilla. The second blend is called "Queens View" after my very favorite view in the Perthshire area of Scotland. It is an assam blend with huckleberries and butterscotch.
It took quite a while for my "Isle of Skye" blend to come about, but in the process I came up with a few more blends. I have "Irish Morning", which is a ceylon tea blend with raspberries, cream and grenadine. "Yorkshire Dales", which is a darjeeling with pear, caramel and cardamom. "Mystic Glen", which is an assam with rhubarb and ginger. "Pembrokeshire Peach", which is black tea blend with peach, apricot and ginger. "Strawberries and Cream", which is funnily enough, strawberries and cream!And finally "Isle of Skye" came together. I wanted it to have an earthy taste and remind me of our ancestral homein Scotland. It eventually turned out as an assam with apples, cinnamon and vanilla!
I drink tea on a daily basis and I am always thrilled when magazines and newspapers come out with "new" ways that tea can be beneficial to you! Things tea blenders have know for years. Tomorrow I wil talk a little more about the origins of tea, its course from China into the Western World, the differing teas, tea leaves, and where they come from.
When I first get to Ireland however, I will raise my first cuppa to all my wonderful readers, who I will be thinking of fondly!

Shannon McDonald Tate

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Slieve League Donegal Ireland

For all of you who love the Cliffs of Moher, please do not get me wrong as I love them as well but they are not nearly as impressive as Slieve League in Northern Ireland! The cliff are not nearly as well known as the Cliffs of Moher and that is part of their attraction. They are not easy to get to either and this leaves a very unspoilt landscape. And the best part of all, a visit to the cliffs will not involve opening your wallet!
The cliffs are about 30 miles from Donegal traveling through Dunkineely, Killybegs, Kilcar and to Teelin where you found a narrow, winding, single lane road with hairpin turns and sheer drops. There is no margin for error and no barriers on the seaward side. Until just recently, the road wound around the cliff side with dramatic rises and falls that would leave even the most stalwart explorer breathless. In the past year the road was leveled out but it is still a one lane road that hugs the cliff side and can be a wee bit dangerous if you are not paying attention. I actually preferred the road more before they leveled it out, but it is much safer now, and now our minibus can even make the climb!
When you get to the car park at Bunglas Point, you can walk across a green meadow which abruptly stops and you will then be rewarded with a cliff side view that has a sheer drop to the Atlantic Ocean below! You can then look across and see the highest point of the cliffs which rise almost 2000 feet out of the ocean! From the car park there is still so much to see by walking the 1 1/2 miles to the cliff top.
As you walk towards the terrifyingly high top of the cliffs, you have spectacular views of the Sligo Mountains and Donegal Bay. A short walk will take you to the right of the cliff face of Bunglas (which literally means, the end of the cliff) which rises over the raging ocean below. There are a number of cairns to see as you travel along the cliff top before you drop down and cross One Mans Pass, which is a narrow ridge that will take you to the summit.
The ruins of a church with some early Christian hermitages lie near the pass. Returning from the summit by foot, one will pass the ruin of a watchtower at the end of Carrigan Head. This watchtower was constructed to defend the northwest coast during the early 19th century when there was the threat of Napoleonic attack. Walking on the eastern side of Slieve League there is a magnificent wilderness of rocks, streams and a deep rugged valley to your left.
No matter if you just want to take in the view from the car park or have a more adventurous view, the cliffs are awesomely spectacular/ If you are lucky enough to be here at sunset, the rock face is streaked with changing shades of red, amber and ochre and is truly stunning!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Carrigaphooca Castle

Another favorite castle in Ireland is Carrigaphooca Castle. This castle, Caisleán Carraig a' Phúca in Irish, means Castle on the Rock of the Fairy. Carrigaphooca was built in 1436, by Donal McCarthy of Drishane and is a ruined five storey rectangular tower house, situated on a steep-sided rock and overlooking the River Sullane. It is located 3 miles west of Macroom in County Cork, Ireland.
The castle went through some restoration in the 1970's. The ground floor chamber is lit by small off-center windows, and is flanked by a straight mural stairs which rises as a spiral to the 4th floor level. It is a very simple building with a single room on each of its five levels. The windows are very plain in form, small and narrow, and like other early tower houses, there are no fireplaces or chimneys.
The most interesting thing about the castle is that is known locally as one of the most hauinted in Ireland, and of course haunted by a Phooca, which is a ghost or a spirit. As I was doing a haunted tour in Ireland, I tried to learn a bit about the castle but could only find information that said it was haunted by a malicious spirit. I did read one story that said it was haunted by 24 phoocas!
I decided I must investigate and new the best way to see it, would be to add it to an upcoming tour. I think that is why our tours are so popular, we always leave room for a bit of exploring. When we arrived in Macroom, I did something very unmanly and stopped into a local pub to ask directions. The whole pub immediately surrounded me and began to tell me ghost stories of the castle and how to get there. They said that I could not miss seeing the castle, as it sat high upon Fairy Rock.
They were right, as we could not miss seeing it but we had no idea how to get there! We drove all around the castle, seeing it in the ditance but finding no way to get to it. I decided I would do the unmanly thing again and I stopped at a farmhouse to ask how we get to the castle? The owner greeted me warmly and said he would be back to me in just a moment. He returned to the door and handed me a key asked that I be sure to loch up when we left.
As the only way to the castle was through the farmyard and a field, we carefully picked our way through the sheep droppings and made our way to the castle. We had to go up a short flight of stairs so that I could unlock the door. At the top of the stairs we all immediately felt a whoosh of cold air fly by us and the hair on the back of our necks stood up! Might have been that is was October! I unlocked the door and we carefully made our way inside. Wow!
I am like a kid in a candy store when it comes to castles and I had the key! We could explore to our hearts content and we undertook to do just that. The lighting was not great on the lower floor and the lower floor was all dirt. Unfortunately it had several grave like holes that had been dug into the floor. Well, after a bit of checking out what looked like graves, I had enough of the ground floor! The feeling was very much like the feeling I get in Leap Castle, which is well known as Ireland's most haunted castle. Only difference was that nobody lived here in this castle and we were all alone!
We had a grand time exploring and scaring each other silly. We all felt that we were being deterred from climbing the stairs but carried on anyway. The views from the top of the castle were incredible and were well worth fighting off all the spirits that hindered our way! What an experience!

Just another day in the life of a small group tour operator.

Shannon McDonald Tate
Scottish Dream Tours

Picture of Carrigaphooca Castle near Macroom, County Cork, Ireland.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Another of my favorite coastal villages is Lossiemouth, or just Lossie as the locals say. It is known as the jewel of the Moray Firth. It has also become a favorite of my family and as a srop while on tour with our group tours. The town began as a port at the mouth of the River Lossie to help the town of Elgin in trading. The port is now a busy town itself and a marina has developed in the twin basined harbour.
The first time I was in Lossie, it was a cold brisk March day, but I was immediately enchanted anyway. The area is generally favored by a Gulf Stream that provides for quite mild days but today it was not apparent. Upon arriving from Elgin, our first sight was the wee main street of Lossie that soon gives way to the harbour where we first caught a glimpse of the brilliant white sandy beaches that stretch for miles east and west of town. Further on we saw the spectacular yachting marina and a resident fishing fleet where fishermen continue to bring in their daily catches to the fish market.
To the west, this splendid beachfront stretches for 3 miles, while to the east, this beach characterised by its sand dunes which run parallel to the sea and the river, stretches even further. It is reached by a wooden pedestrian bridge over the river Lossie. The bridge was built originally to encourage day trippers on the old Moray Railway to visit the town in the summer months, as there was once a railway between Elgin and Lossie. The dunes on the beach were made from old railway carriages to protect the seatown from heavy seas.
The second time I was in Lossie was with a group I was leading. Again, it was a cool crisp day but in September this time around. As we crossed the bridge to the beach, one of the ladies on the tour kicked of her shoes and raced in to the firth! I was chilled to the bone just watching her, but it was her first sight of Atlantic waters and she was not going to let the moment pass! The sun was out and dogs were racing up and down the beach while the kite fliers and windsurfers were having the time of their lives!
The third time I was in Lossie, it was a glorious summer day. The sky and the sea were in competition to see who could outshine the other. We were on tour and we had 2 delightful elderly ladies with us. Their names were MaryLou and Yolanda but had become YoYo and LuLu! I had sat with them on a bench overlooking the beach while we had an ice cream. They said it was the perfect place sit because they had a good view of all the eligible men coming from both directions down the beach. They later on decided to write about their exploits while on tour and call it "YoYo and LuLu do Scotland". We had so much fun with them!
There is a lovely bakery in Lossie, a few pubs along with a couple of other good eateries, a fisheries museum, a library and a smattering of other local shops. There are many trails and designated paths so you can enjoy coastal or countryside outings and you can take sea excursions to see dolphins and seals. I have learned over the years, that no matter the weather, Lossie is a perfect little spot to spend an hour, an afternoon or the whole day.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Northeast Coast of Scotland

I love small coastal villages and those especially on the north coast of Scotland inbetween Inverness and Fraserburgh. My favorite spot in particular is the lovely villages of Cullen, Portknockie and Findochty.
We quite often hire a cottage for a week in Portknockie and just relax, explore and unwind in this heavenly area of northeast Scotland where we always feel like part of the villages themselves. The total population of all 3 villages is around 3800 which is just perfect for me and here you will find the real Scotland. These villages are full of character but they are not dressed up for tourists and do nothing in particular to cater to them as they are delightful all on their own!
Findochty is a true fisherman's village as it is centered on the harbour and sprinkled with an abundance of fisherman's cottages all jostling for position. In the early 1400's the village of Findochty was crowded around the natural harbour known as Crooked Haven. It expanded as a fishing port through the 1700s and 1800s, and by 1850 was home to 140 fishing boats. The late 1800's saw the expansion of nearby Buckie and by the middle of the 1900's most of the fleet was operating from Buckie instead. The end result, was this traditional fishing village became a haven for lesiure sailors and one of the prettiest villages I have ever been in!
Portknockie is inbetween Findochty and Cullen. While Findochty is built around the harbour Portknockie differs in that it lies above on the cliffs. These spectacular cliffs drop dramatically to the shore below. Portknockie's harbour is naturally sheltered by the rocky bluff of Green Castle which was once a Pictish stronghold. With a history going back to 1677, most of the village stands above the harbour is predominatly the smaller fishermen's cottages. Here you will also see the larger captains houses that came about in the propserity of the late 1800's. No pretension here, as Portknockie is very much a residentail community that does not have to rely on tourism to survive but has en easy charm that captivates.
If you walk along the clifftop path that leads around from above the harbour you will find Bow Fiddle Rock. The rock is a wave-cut natural arch which provides a dramatic roosting place for gulls and cormorants. Further on in the walk you get some great views over Cullen Bay to Cullen. You can either walk along the beach or along the cliff which wanders beside Cullen Golf Club. This is a traditional links course which has amazing views over the Moray Firth and if you are lucky, you may see a dolphin or two!
Cullen is a very attractive town built around the Burn of Deskford. I love to wander around the Seatown area where all of the cottages have a wonderful patchwork look. The render between the stones is a differing color of the stones themselves and the effect is quite lovely. Cullen was established in 1189 and has a church that was built in 1236. Its wealth in the 1700s was built on textiles, and threadmaking in particular. The village really came into its own with the herring boom of the early 1800's. Cullen is well known for the traditional Scottish dish "Cullen Skink". This is a chowder like soup of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. "Skink" merely comes from the Gaelic word for "essence". If for nothing else, come for the ice cream, as the shop in town is regarded by many as the best in Scotland!
This area is home to some amazing fish and chips shops that you will find as you wander through these beautiful villages. The local pubs are also a great place for a good meal and catching up with the locals. The best gossip in town can be found of course at wee shops in each village and you will find no lovelier coastline anywhere!

Picture of Bow Fiddle Rock, Portknockie.

The call of Scotland

Hello all.
I am in the beautiful city of Seattle this weekend and the sun is shining and it is a breathtakingly beautiful day! Seattle is one of my favorite places to visit. I travel all over the world and I can easily say that it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, as my mother would say. it's not Scotland!
For those of you who have been to Scotland, live in Scotland or have an overwhelming call to visit Scotland, you will know what I am talking about. And Scotland does call. I believe it actually has something to do with the earth itself and a strong connection between our physical bodies. I have been all over Ireland, Wales and most of England but I only get this feeling in Scotland. I think Ireland is absolutely beautiful and I love every moment that I am there. If I could not live in Scotland, Wales would be a very close second but still, they don't call to me quite the same way. I can and do spend days traipsing through the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and the Cotswolds and there are all magical wonderful places that I love dearly but they do not call to me to come home!
Why is the feeling so strong and where does it come from? I have pondered it many times but have yet to find a real, logical answer that does not involve emotion.

Shannon McDonald Tate
Scottish Dream Tours

Picture is from Glencoe in winter.