I think of myself as a purist when it comes to the teas I like to drink. I seek teas that are straightforward, tasting of their terroir, and not flavored with anything nature-equivalent, synthetic, or artificial, true to their type. I want to inhale and taste the tea and appreciate the art of the grower and the processor. But there are times when the palate is in need of new excitement. It is then that I turn to seasonal produce for inspiration, relying as much as possible on locally grown fruits available at my neighborhood farmers markets. In the spirit of experimentation, at this time of year, I am flavoring every fourth or fifth cup of tea that I drink with the home-dried peel of in-season citrus. (Yes, citrus fruits do have a “season” and it’s not twelve months long.)
Commercially blended and flavored Earl Grey teas may be perfectly fine (although some are overwhelmingly floral to my taste), but what’s even better is a cup of properly brewed black tea from the top gardens in Assam or Nilgiris lightly enhanced with the dried peel of bergamot oranges (which only recently and excitingly have become available through specialty citrus growers in California—www.melissas.com is one great source, a virtual universe of seasonal specialty produce that ships its products nationwide reliably and quickly). Lacking those, however, in warmer climes, you may be blessed, as I am, with farmers markets featuring just-picked citrus only a few minutes’ ride from home. Without naming them all, a changing parade of citrus floods the markets here. I have found super sweet Kishu and Satsuma tangerines, hybridized tangelos, Murcott sweet-as-honey tangerines, bracing easy-to-peel clementines, perfumed Meyer lemons and Buddha’s hand citron, Minneola tangerines, sweet-skinned kumquats whose interior is tart, sweet/tart key limes and limequats, very fragrant Japanese sudachi and yuzu and southeast Asian kaffir limes, low-acid Mellogold cocktail and oro blanco grapefruits, thick-skinned white and deep pink-fleshed pummelos, and very sour Seville oranges (the ones used for the best English marmalade), all whose outermost skin lends a perfumed dimension to many kinds of tea. Though I favor flavoring black teas with citrus, some light Japanese greens, green Darjeelings, and sweet orchidy oolongs pair nicely with the zest. Experiment to find just the right pairing.
All you need to enjoy this heightened tea-drinking experience is a sharp knife, a steady hand when stripping the colored part of the skin from the underlying pith, and a bit of patience. Once removed in strips, the zest should be placed in a single layer in a warm place for about a day or until fully dry to the touch and crisp in texture. It’s normal for the zest to discolor and darken a bit. (Warm dry kitchens are ideal for this culinary alchemy.) Turn the peel occasionally so that all of the surfaces are evenly exposed to the air. When dry, store in an airtight container. To get the maximum flavor from the peel, it’s best to infuse the water for the tea with the zest first. Bring to under the boiling point and let the zest infuse in the water for about 5 minutes. The water should be fragrant. Taste and inhale it to confirm. Remove the peel and discard. Then depending on the type of tea you are brewing, reheat the infused water to the desired temperature, add the tea, and brew as normal. Sit back, inhale deeply the paradisiacal and refreshing scent, and enjoy. This kind of restorative olfactory bliss is seasonal, so you may wish to add this new wrinkle to your tea-drinking routine quickly. Enjoy it now while citrus is at its peak.