Tea makes my world go round because it comes from all around the world. Every cup is different depending on where it's grown. Plants soak up the stories around them - roots in the ground respond to minerals in the earth, changes in the weather, and the impact of other lifeforms. Because of this sensitivity, a plant like the Camillia Sinensis (tea) can be grown on two mountain tops, treated the exact same way from pluck to packaging, and still end up tasting distinctly different from each other in the cup. That's the Terroir, the taste of a place. This month I have for you the taste of two Greek mountain tops, courtesy of Katie O'Keefe.
Katie and I have shared a lot with each other over the past six years; classes, apartments, stories, and uncountable cups of tea. Naturally, when she came back from her trip to Greece last October - she was eager to share her travels. When she told me the story behind the two Sideritis samples she brought back for me, I asked if she'd be willing to share it here as well. Happily she obliged:
Anna: Thanks for sharing your tea and travels with us, Katie! Before I let you get into the details, I have one question: why do you drink tea?
Katie: I love tea. Drinking tea is a healing experience. It warms you up when you are cold, it can aid your body in expelling unwanted guests, and it can serve as an offering of care. Searching for new teas and flavors is exciting and I love being able to share a pot of what I have found. I drink tea because I like the taste, but I love tea because I enjoy participating in its ceremony. My fondest memories of tea are those where I was enjoying a cup with another.
Anna: Another thing we share. On to this tea you brought back. I understand you picked up two Sideritis plants on your trip. One from your maternal grandmothers mountain, and one from your grandfathers. You mentioned already your grandmothers maiden name is Sideris (very close to the scientific name of greek mountain tea!) and your grandfather was Vasili Athmopoulou. What else can you tell us about them?
Katie: My Yiayia (Grandmother in Greek), who’s name was Popi Sideris, lived through 2 wars. First World War II as a child and followed by years of civil war in Greece. During World War II Karpenisi, the large town near her village, had become Greece’s Capital. It was high in the mountains and difficult to get to. As a result, she saw much war. The love of her life had been hung to death in front of her. She snuck into soldiers tents to steal bread for the starving children of her village.
When she was fifteen she went to school to become a seamstress. She used the money she made from her skill to take care of her two sisters. After her sisters were married, a marriage was arranged for her in the United States to my Grandfather, Vasili Athamopoulou, who was twice her age. She was 30 and her family was worried no one would want to marry her. My Grandfather had emigrated to the U.S when he was a teenager. He worked on the railroad, laying down train tracks. My Grandparents first met in Bermuda, where they got married.
Anna: I know you've traveled abroad before (I'm remembering the Ataturk photo series you made on your trip to Turkey while we were studying together at MICA). How long have you been traveling to Greece? What was your last trip like?
Katie: The first time I went to Greece I was around 1 1/2 years old, too young to remember anything. We went so that my Yiayia could meet me. She had moved back to Greece, but to Athens this time. Our whole family would make the trip to visit her every 2-3 years.
It had been 13 years since the last time my family and I had traveled back to Greece. I was very excited to be meeting members of my family I had never meet before. after traveling up some VERY winding roads we made it to Karpenisi. We stayed with my mother’s cousin, Mary, who lives there. As we walked around town she pointed out a very tall sharp mountain, which she called Pedistedi Vonia or Dove mountain. She told me that a certain time in the year the village would walk up the mountain and pick mountain tea.
Anna: Did you get to pick tea from the mountain tops?
Katie: Unfortunately I was not there during tea picking season. But I found a small herb shop that sold some. Funny enough the owner of the shop had grown up on Long Island. She moved back to Greece to help her family through during these difficult financial times.
My mother’s Cousin Nikos and his wife Eftehia(happiness) came to visit us during our stay with Mary. They took us around the country side - to all the sites and the best places to get food and Tsipouro(Greek moonshine). It began to rain, hard. So Nikos and Eftehia invited us over to their place for a nice warming cup of mountain tea.
She brought a pot up to boil with enough water to make 5 cups of tea. When the water was rolling with bubbles she took a bunch of the leaves, a comfortable loose handful, and placed it in the pot tapping down the leaves. She told me she would leave them to boil for 1 minute. She served the tea with local honey, that is about twice as thick as the thickest honey you could find in the U.S..
Then we made the trip over mountains to the tiny village of Agridi. We stayed in a larger village close by named Kalavryta, which was were I found the second batch of tea. It was in another herb shop. The tea I bought here looked as though it was freshly picked. It was not dried like the one from Karpenisi.
Katie and I got together to make both teas for a side by side tasting. Click through the gallery below to see how we made each tea step by step.
Greek (Grandmother) Mountain Tea:
- Appearance: small yellowish-green buds stacked closely together with little yellow flowers tucked inside. leaves are thin, fuzzy and silvered.
- Wet Leaf: bright crisp herbal smell
- Tea Liquor: honey colored, lightly green
- Flavor: light smooth honeyed taste. Mild grassy tones - like sage without the bitterness. Slight minty quality. Katie compares it to a very light jasmine tea.
Greek (Grandfather) Mountain Tea
- Appearance: large pointy spearhead shaped buds, a livelier green, and set further apart on a thick hairy stem. Leaves are much larger and still consistently green
- Wet Leaf: pungent earthy spiced smell
- Tea Liquor: vivid coloring like thick honey tinged with olive oil
- Flavor: Richer, darker minty quality. Somewhat hard to place. It's similar to the grandmother tea but with a black pepper-ish bite at the end.