Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sumac tea in tall new Turkish glasses

Photo of staghorn sumac by Dendroica Cerulea, Flickr Creative Commons license.

Rose hips, pink clover, chamomile flowers. They're all tea ingredients, and I knew about them. But in my secret heart, I'd always thought that tea wasn't the most interesting thing to do with gathered leaves, berries, and rose hips.

Surely, cake was better, right? That's what I thought until last weekend, when a rainy, cold Sunday met my previously frozen bag of deep red-orange staghorn sumac(Rhus typhina) branches and a warm hangout with friends.
Photo of staghorn sumac in fall by Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons license.
In the 1928 house under the deep firs, friends Delia and Toliver had returned from their circuit of western Turkey, bringing me a large glass evil eye charm (extra-large, they said, to make up for my traveling), a red, orange, and yellow woolen scarf, some date-like fruits, and three kinds of apple tea (dried bits; large and ear-like dried bits; and some that were encapsulated neatly in green tea bags, ready for quick dunking at every cafe in Istanbul).

Delia and I had just gone for a walk to gather bright red and orange Madrona (Arbutus menziesii) berries and stored them for later use.

When we returned, Delia opened her freezer and said, “What’s this?” I suddenly recalled the sumac branches I’d picked a week earlier while walking from their house (where I was housesitting) to the grocery store. There were the rust-red berry branch clusters, in a freezer bag in Delia's hand.

Delia excitedly compared the sumac’s berry-hued branches with the jar of ground sumac that she’d brought back from Istanbul markets. She poured out some powder. “It’s the same color!”

We marveled at this, gazing at the distinctive “stag-horn” shaped clusters of cinnabar-colored berries, and at the ground spice from bustling marketplaces half a world away. It was interesting to think of the same (or a very similar) plant growing in Asia Minor, being ground for market consumption and baked on z’aatar bread and other savories.

We tasted the ground sumac. It was distinctly lemony, with a slight salt tang. Delia seized her laptop and found that ground sumac often includes salt for longer storage purposes.

Photo of staghorn sumac by Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons license.
Immediately after picking my sumac, I had lost interest in it, wondering if it was too rain-sodden and late-in the season. (It had actually been pretty late in the season for sumac –they’re typically gathered in late summer – but in the Northwest’s cool temperatures, sometimes plant seasons are extended.) I’d let the sumac dry a bit, then tossed it in the freezer bag and forgotten it.

But Delia, thorough and art-minded like the graphic designer that she is, opened the bag and arranged the antler-shaped branches on a butcher block. Tidily, she began to separate the berries from the branches.

Soon the wooden block was scattered with tiny, slightly fuzzy, round berries. We looked at them, marveling at the fuzz. Delia put them in a colander under a bright lightbulb to let them dry.

A couple of hours later, we dropped the berries into the tea-leaf (filter) receptacle of a glass tea pot, and poured in boiling water.

Photo of sumac berries in strainer inside tea pot, by Jody Marx
In the companionable household, sitting at a dining table covered with bright treasures brought back from Turkey, we waited and listened to music.

After ten minutes, Delia brought out her new gold-rimmed Turkish tea glasses, and poured out the amber-red tea. To each tall, ceremonious glass we added a brown sugar cube from a dish on the table, and stirred.
On that gray, rainy day we drank bright, warm tea with a native, lemony flavor that filled and warmed us. Sumac tea is sometimes called sumac lemonade or Indian lemonade. It felt wonderful to drink something from immediately outdoors, that had been carefully and artfully prepared. It came out tasting of the earth and of lemons and heat, all the layers of something wild.

Photo of sumac tea by Jody Marx

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting!