A Cuppa Tea from the Garden!

It was time to prune back the ornamental Camellias, and clean up the dead flowers and fallen leaves. My mother-in-law (from China) was coming over for brunch, just before my day of gardening. As she passed by my waiting basket and hedge clippers, she asked: Was I planning to make some tea?


According to her, the fussy-flowered Japanese cultivar (Camellia japonica), which is typically grown as a garden ornamental, also has leaves that can be used to make tea, just as the leaves of the regular “tea” making varietal (Camellia sinensis) – only somewhat less flavorful.

I had my doubts. But after verifying by web-research that Camellia leaves are not considered toxic, and can, indeed be used to make tea, I set out to harvest some shiny, waxy new leaves for an experiment in tea making!

I harvested one large cookie-rack-full of baby Camellia leaves, and let them wither indoors overnight, covered with a towel. By lucky coincidence, our weather for the next few days was expected to be in the upper 70s and low 80s, which would allow for fermenting at room temperature. The process I attempted to follow was one which I obtained from the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Extension Service: Tea Processing (PDF downloaded from U. of Hawaii). The following morning, I wrapped the withered Camellia leaves in a couple of layers of cheese cloth, and kneaded and crumbled them, as the handout suggested. Then, I spread them in a thin layer on damp paper towel, and covered them with a wet towel, and set them in the sun to ferment in the heat.

The result was about 1/2 cup of what looked and smelled like a mild black tea.

The next morning, I brewed a few cups of tea with it, to serve to the family with breakfast. Much to my surprise, it yielded a very respectable cup of oolong-stye tea!

I believe the main trouble I had in getting my desired black tea out of the process was that we live in a very dry area, and so, while I set the tea out in the warm sun (covered with damp towel) to let it ferment in the heat, the towel dried out too quickly, and the dry heat stopped the fermentation before the full flavor had been achieved. Next time, I will try re-wetting the towels periodically, to keep it fermenting for a few hours longer, before allowing the dry heat to stop the process.

I had for a long time regretted my attachment to coffee and tea, and other culinary staples that I thought must be transported half-way around the world, with the associated carbon-footprint attached. Now, it seems, all I need to do is plant a few more Camellia bushes (probably sinensis variety), and snip my own leaves for a local-harvested tea supply. It sure makes pruning “chores” a whole lot more palatable!

First Indigenous Food Harvest

Our ongoing effort to deeply connect with the land upon which we live began with our ecosystem restoration project, some years back — in which we planted several hundred tiny, one-gallon seedlings of native plants. Over the years, the plants of our Native Garden have established and grown more and more fruitful, feeding native fauna, birds, and insect life. Until now, we reserved the restored area of our property for the service of the wild animals, but finally, the bounty has become so robust, that we felt comfortable harvesting a bit of that bounty for human consumption.

Harvest Season Jamming Ritual (with Recipe):

Step into the Native Garden, saying:

“I enter the sacred grove with reverence;
I enter the sacred grove in peace.”

Walk the land, in a state of receptive meditation, greeting each of the Backyard Kindred, thus:

Hael to you, beloved Oaks,
In greying green, from summer smoke.
Hael to Sagebrush, Lilac, Sage,
All dusty, leafless, wanting rain.
Hael Toyon berries, biding time,
And Coyote Brush’s shining eyes (Aaachoo!).
Hael, blessed Manzanita grove,
Of peeling bark and rusty fruit,
I ask of you a gift of Life,
From which to craft a sweet delight.

Shapeshift into a Bewick’s wren. Using Bewick’s wren’s-eye-view, find the hidden, rust-red berries, camouflaged by rust-red bark, peeling from behind and beneath the leaves. Circle the Manzanitas thrice, picking a few berries from each bush and tree, until you have gathered one heaping cup of manzanita berries.

Return to human form.

Thank the Manzanitas for the blessing of their bounty.
Reciprocate the blessing with a prayer for early rain.

Wash the berries in water, thrice, to get out all the dust and debris.

While the water flows through the berries, meditate upon the seasonal threshold currently upon us — dry, dusty seeds in a dead, drought-deciduous world, awaiting the First Rain to wash away the grime and return the world to vibrant life.

Boil the berries in 1.5 C water, until the dry berries plump themselves up and brew a deep reddish tea. Mash up the water-plumped berries, and boil a few minutes more. Let cool. Strain through a jelly bag, to remove all solids.

Add a splash of clear apple juice, to bring the liquid up to a total of 1-1/6 C. Add 1 Tbsp. no/lo-sugar pectin, 1/8 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. ascorbic acid crystals. Bring to a boil, mixing constantly, to remove all lumps.

Add 1 C sugar, and stir it in well. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture returns to a boil. Boil and stir for three additional minutes. Remove from heat.

Pour into two clean, 1/2-pint jelly jars, cap them, and boil in a water-bath canner for 10 minutes.

Thank the Gods for the blessing of manzanita jelly.


The Result:

Two cups of Manzanita Jelly, from berries harvested off of our Arctostaphylos bushes (pictured above), a mixture of three varietals: Howard McMinn, Franciscana, and Densiflora “Sentinel”.

Taste Test:

The jelly is a delicate sweet-orange and pumpkin flavor, with hints of apple blossom.  Delightful!

Food in China

by Estifanos (age 7), of California, U.S.A.

This week, mom and I looked for recipes from China, because my grandmother came from China, and I wanted to know more about the foods from there. China has different foods in different areas. The northern, the southern, the eastern, and western parts of China all have different foods because they have different climates, tastes, and cultures.  Some areas have a lot of water, which you need to grow rice. Other areas have dry grasslands, which are good for raising cattle and growing wheat. Some areas have rivers, or are next to the ocean, so they can have a lot of fish and sea food like jellyfish, shrimp, and octopus. We found this map of China, showing different food regions.

The two dishes we made at home were fried mixtures of different meats and vegetables. One had ground chicken meat, chopped spinach, chopped scallions, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper. The other one had ground pork meat, whole shrimps, chopped mushrooms, chopped scallions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper. We didn’t really measure anything; we just kept adding stuff until we like the taste. We served both dishes over white rice. I liked the one with pork and shrimp and mushrooms, best.

My favorite Chinese dish that I like to eat, when we go out with my grandparents and uncle for dim-sum is: rice noodles with jellyfish, in some kind of bean sauce. I don’t really know what is in the sauce, but it is on the border between being sweet and spicy-hot, and I liked it from the very first time I tasted it. But I don’t like to eat jellyfish when they’re alive; they might sting my mouth!


Lesson of the Lemon Harvest

In my mind, the bardic arts involve not only the expression of personal Awen, but also the preservation and transmission of beauty — as with the unbidden blessings of Nature’s Bounty. We have planted 14 fruit trees, and an assortment of fruiting shrubs in our yard,  scattered bits of orchard, interwoven with our CA native ecosystem. Much of the fruit is intended for local wildlife, our brethren of the hills. But what do you do with a bumper crop of lemons? or apples? or plums? or pyracantha berries? What happens when you and the wildlife, in concert, are unable to consume so much fresh fruit?

The natural world runs on a gift economy. That means, surplus delights are intended to flow like water from one being to another, freely, building community, building relationships, building networks of mutual caring and responsibility. And to simply chuck piles of beauty, created by the divine essence of Nature, into the compost heap seemed like throwing a blessing in the trash. I just could not do it.

And so, I started hand-crafting culinary delights which would capture the full power of those flavors, in a manner that would preserve them for later use by us, or by friends and neighbors with whom we chose to share that blessing. The results, so far:

A sampling of homemade hazelnut, lemon, and cherry cordials. With gallons of refills in reserve, this makes for delightful drinking all year through, and easy holiday gift-giving.

A smattering of jams, jellies, and fruit-butters — with much less sugar and much more flavor than anything you could buy in a store, at any price point. My greatest discoveries last year included the mind-blowing flavor of plum butter made from Santa Rosa plums with skins left in, the delightful floral flavor of pyracantha berry jelly (also know as “firethorn” jelly), and the unbelievable flavor of captured sunshine that is evident in lemon curd made from lemons left on the tree until they are VERY ripe, and nearly orange in color.  Wow!

I have also found that the joy received from giving away that preserved, harvest bounty is another blessing in my life.

Brazilian Feast

by Estifanos (age 6), of California, U.S.A.

This week, mom and I looked for recipes from Brazil, to find out what food tastes like there, and to find out which foods from Brazil we would most like to eat. For our first Brazilian Feast, we made: Feijoada (a Brazilian pork and black bean stew) with rice and Pao de Queijo (Brazilian cheese rolls), served with cabbage salad, orange slices, mango juice, and toasted cassava root for sprinkling on top.

The whole family helped to make the Feijoada. The night before we started cooking, I measured a gallon of cold water, 1/4 cup of salt, and 2 pounds of dried black beans, and mixed them together in a pot, and let them soak overnight. The next morning, the beans were purple and plump, and the water was blackish-purple.

The next morning, Dada fried 3/4 pound of applewood smoked bacon, and Mom chopped up 0.54 lbs. of chorizo sausage, 0.58 lbs. of corned beef, and 0.86 lbs. of boneless pork ribs, into 1 inch chunks. I put the meat into a big pot with oil to brown, and then added the beans, and some diced onion, green bell pepper, scallions, tomato, bay leaves, and cilantro. Then, we let it simmer away.

Mom made the Pao de Queijo, because I was too tired, after all that cooking. This is a picture of her making it:

And this is a picture of me and my Mom, eating our Brazilian Feast:

My favorite part of the feast was the black beans and meat, because it tasted so meaty-beany-delicious! My least favorite part was the cheese rolls because they were a bit too gooey for me.