Let me start by warning that, as much a I love him in SVU, I will not be writing about this guy:
We’re just talkin’ a different sort of Iced Tea here. But he does deserve a shout out.
When it comes to per capita tea drinking, New Zealanders are right up there with the British Motherland. I am an enthusiastic convert to the afternoon cuppa — my favourite is Yorkshire tea with a little milk, no sugar. It is a cup that aspires to be coffee, but without the jittery after effects. I like Earl Grey, too, but with lemon, no milk. My all time personal favourite is Lapsong Suchong, which is the closest thing to non-alcoholic Islay Single Malt. But as my beloved is a strict traditionalist, and since it is he that usually puts the kettle on in the afternoon, my usual is English Breakfast, milk, no sugar. It is important to note that Brits (and Kiwis, in general) believe that strong, hot, very sweet tea, is the cure to whatever ails you. And they’re usually right. I’m not a biscuit dunker, but, Judi Densch’s description of the process of Builder’s tea dunking in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has me thinking twice.
I now drink my tea almost exclusively hot, out of a mug. This is a great departure from the South of my upbringing, where tea is drunk only one way: iced and sweet. This shift doesn’t reflect any dampening of my love of iced tea; rather, it is a function of living in New Zealand, where iced tea is just another sugary drink sold in bottles with strange and unwelcome flavours like peach and mango. In most of the world, outside the Southeastern United States, you can’t walk into a restaurant or cafe, order iced tea, and just assume they know what you mean. You are likely to get brewed hot tea poured over ice with some sugar packets or Splenda on the side.
Even where I have to settle for unsweetened iced tea, it is my restaurant beverage of choice. It is more festive that just plain water, less intoxicating (and usually cheaper) than beer or wine, goes with almost any cuisine, and because you actually pay for it, waiters are less cross if you choose to linger over an additional glass after you’ve finished your meal. It plays the same important social function as that last little bit of wine in the bottle. And if you choose not to drink alcohol, you don’t feel quite so awkward hanging around. I costs next to nothing to make, so everyone wins!
Proper iced tea has three ingredients: water, tea, and optional sugar. A slice of lemon is acceptable, as long as I have the option of picking it out. No ginger. No lemonade. No peach, mango, raspberry, or — please GOD — frappe.
I didn’t grow up with iced tea. My family came from Europe via the Upper Midwest, where the whole point of drinking things was, for the most part, keeping warm. Or intoxicated. When we moved to Georgia, where it is hot . . . DAMN hot . . . for at least six months a year, the refreshing beverage of choice at our house was Kool-Aid. The old fashioned kind that didn’t come with sugar. And ours didn’t get sugar. It was, to say the least, tart.
I learned about iced tea from my southern friends, who drank the stuff by the gallons. And iced tea in Georgia is sweet. I mean really sweet. As in make your cavities SING sweet. While the iced tea nation pretty much starts at the Mason & Dixon Line (essentially the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland), the Sweet Tea Nation begins at the Virginia – North Carolina border). If you grew up in Virginia, and you’re accustomed to ordering iced tea and adding your own sugar, you’ll need to change your strategy in the Sweet Tea Nation. Here, tea is sweet. And cold. Even in winter. If you want that other stuff, you will have to ask for it. You will have to say, out loud, in front of God and everybody, ” I would like unsweetened tea, please” and immediately brand yourself as an Yankee. You can also order hot tea, but I won’t promise what you’ll get. It is (sort of) acceptable, and slightly less suspicious, to order half-and-half (iced tea, half sweet, half unsweet).
Now, I know I said I don’t approve of lemon-flavored iced tea, but there is an exception: the Arnold Palmer, which is half iced tea and half lemonade. This is best made with unsweetened tea and real (ONLY real, squeezed) lemonade (not the instant stuff, and not the pub lemonade you get in your shandy). This is not, however, southern. Arnold Palmer is from Pennsylvania.
If you happen to find yourself at Zeb Dean’s Bar-b-que in Danielsville, Georgia, you’ll get: a loaf of Sunbeam Bread (in the bag), a plastic pitcher of sweet tea (you can also get one of unsweetened tea, if you have the courage to ask for it — then you can make your own half-and-half), a serving of “Stew” (aka Brunswick stew, but made with the barbecue detritus instead of the traditional squirrel), a pitcher of Zeb’s peppery, vinegary sauce, and the best damned pulled pork barbecue in the whole wide world. Strictly speaking, however, Zeb’s barbecue is not vegetarian. So this is not an official Kale Whisperer endorsement. But really, if you are ever headed south on I-85, and you eat pork and/or are a slacker vegetarian like me (Shame on you!) it is well worth the 45 minute or so detour. (Sorry, Wee Charlie.)
So, what makes southern sweet tea unique? There are two key factors: the tea, and the sugar delivery system.
First, the tea. Most commercial teas — Lipton, Tetley, PG Tips, etc. — are for brewing and drinking hot with milk. So they are WAY to strong for iced tea. When you chill them, as you must do with iced tea, the tea turns cloudy. Not only does it look awful, but it makes the tea too tanniny. When I was growing up, the mainstream tea companies hadn’t caught on to this yet, so the iced tea brand of choice was Lusianne: “Alway clear as a bell.”
Nowadays, most of the big companies offer special iced tea blends that address the cloudiness issue, but for those who live in non-iced tea cultures, like New Zealand, there is still an alternative to those horrid iced teas in bottles. The answer is sun-brewed tea. I don’t understand the science, but it you brew regular tea in the sun, instead of with boiling water, it doesn’t get cloudy. It works like this:
- Find a large glass container with a fairly tight lid and fill it with the desired amount of COLD water.
- Add 2 or 3 regular teabags (or the equivalent amount of loose tea) per litre (or quart) of water.
- Place the jar in the sun for no more than 4 hours (obviously, this only works on sunny days).
- Then remove the teabags (or strain out the loose tea) and chill the brewed tea as soon as possible.
- Sweeten (or not) to taste. This works with regular or green tea).
The sugar delivery system for proper sweet tea is easy peasy, and absolutely crucial. You can sweeten your sun tea with Sweet and Low or Splenda, but I don’t want to know about it. Unless you like your tea cloyingly sweet, you aren’t going to add that much sugar anyway. You may, however, add artificial sweetener if you send me a doctor’s note. Here’s the process:
Simple Sugar Syrup for Southern Iced Tea:
- Put one cup of sugar and three cups of cold water in a saucepan that is high enough not to boil over.
- Watch it carefully.
- Bring the sugar and water to a boil and AS SOON as the water starts to boil, turn it down to a simmer.
- Simmer the water and sugar, stirring constantly, until the sugar has completely dissolved. This usually takes about 5 minutes. Cool for 4 hours.
- Done. But,
- If you like flavoured tea, you can, at this point, add mint, basil, a little lemon or orange peel, or fresh ginger — whatever flavour you like — and steep until the syrup is cool. Again, about 4 hours. Pour the syrup through a sieve, and press the flavouring to get out all the essential oils and yumminess. This way, your sugar syrup will taste better and last a long time in the fridge without moulding.
- You can use the mint syrup to make that other Southern Classic, the Mint Julep, which involves: a mint julep cup (or an old fashioned-sized glass) filled to the brim with crushed or shaved ice to which you add a TBS (or two if you have a sweet tooth or don’t like whiskey), and 1 1/2 jiggers of whiskey — Bourbon or Tennessee mash are traditional, but mild blended scotch works too. What you get is a sort of alcoholic shave-ice. I haven’t tried this with Single Malt because, why would you? But you can try it if you want.
- Basil syrup makes a nice change, but then you are absolutely not allowed to call it a Mint Julep. Really, though, the cocktail possibilities are endless. Once you try it, you won’t want any other cocktail in the heat of summer, except, perhaps, a nice G & T (with bitters).