UKRAINE: Coffee, tea, and herbal teas

Ukraine is mainly a tea country, with the strong traditional black tea culture, but coffee and other tea drinks are popular too. Taya Ukraine has a bit of an explanation of contemporary caffeine culture in Ukraine from Jan 2020 (the before times!). Those seasonal winter coffee and mulled wine stalls look really lovely.

There’s also a lot of herbal teas drunk in Ukraine, including made from local ingredients. I picked up a few from imports from Lakomka Deli – really just picking ones at random from Ukraine that look interested. Let’s see what I got!

Chicory with rosehip – Roasted chicory root has been used as a coffee substitute for centuries – the taste is similar, though there’s no caffeine. I’ve had it blended with coffee before (makes a nuttier coffee) but this is straight chicory, with some rosehip in it. I’m having it black – it tastes like a lighter coffee, with a bit of a citrusy tang from the rosehip. It’s quite pleasant, and nice for coffee flavour in the evenings.

Naturalis Uro-Natur – Meant to be good for your urinary system, this herbal tea is a mix of birch and bearberry leaves, knotweed, nettle, yarrow, and a bit of green tea in for good measure. Birch grows all over the northern hemisphere, and can be tapped like maple trees. I’ve had birch syrup and birch water, but I’ve never tried the leaves for tea. Very mild tasting tea, slightly bitter and herbal, but doesn’t taste like much. Birch leaves do have a long history as part of traditional medicine, as it can be a diuretic (hence the brand) and contains a mild amount of salicylates, which are a precursor to painkillers like aspirin.

Naturalis Seagull – Why seagull? No idea, it’s not a translation error, there’s one also on the box. It’s a herbal tea violet, licorice, and marshmallow root, plus some eucalyptus and chamomile, with another dusting of green tea. It’s very nice, the licorice and eucalyptus gives it a stronger, slightly medicinal taste but in a good way. Some brief googling shows that sometimes violet roots are edible and sometimes …poisonous? These ones are fine, though!

Liktravy Pine Buds – A lot of people aren’t aware that conifers are edible – and tasty! You can make tea year-round from the needles of almost all species of pine, spruce, and fir (not yew or hemlock, though, so make sure to ID correctly) and even eat the needle shoots raw in the early spring. This tea made from the buds of a Scotch Pine, which grows in Eurasia and is invasive in Canada. The buds take a while to steep, but they release this wonderful strong pine resin flavour. I absolutely love this, it’s like a walk in the woods in a cup. I think once I’m done this box, I’ll do my civic duty to stop invasive species by pilfering more buds from the woods.

NEW ZEALAND: Flat white and long black

A couple years ago, flat whites started popping up on coffee menus in Canada – espresso with steamed milk, like a less-milky latte. I’ve heard them described as a coffee creation from New Zealand, but apparently there is huge tension and controversy with Australia over who created and who “owns” flat whites (there’s also similar battles over pavlova and Anzac biscuits). The Kiwis now concede that the drink was created in Australia, but hold that they were ones who perfected it, and that the use of New Zealand’s high quality milk makes a better flat white. While I can’t comment on that, I did pop by my local coffee shop for a flat white to warm me up. It was very smooth with a dense foam, quite tasty, though sadly no fancy foam design.

New Zealand has a really deep coffee culture, but interestingly, it’s almost entirely espresso based – it’s nearly impossible to get a drip coffee! The closest you can get seems to be a long black – a double shot of espresso poured over hot water. It apparently comes out like a concentrated Americano.

UZBEKISTAN: Navat

I was hoping to make navat – it’s rock candy flavoured with saffron and other spices, and frequently stirred into tea. It’s common all around Central Asia – I was in a Persian grocery and saw several boxes of it imported from Iran (where it’s called nabat), some with saffron, some just plain rock sugar. I’m using one of the few recipes in English that specifically focuses on how it’s made in Uzbekistan, and this recipe has not just saffron, but cardamom, rose and orange blossom water, and tarragon in the syrup.

It’s a messy recipe with all the sugar, of course, but I set up the sugared strings and made the syrup – it smelled wonderful and turned a beautiful deep red colour. I carefully ladled the hot syrup in, making sure not to splash the sugar off the strings, covered it with a tea towel, put it in a cool corner where it wouldn’t be disturbed, and waited.

I checked on it in the morning, and there were no crystals – little ones should start in a few hours. I poured the syrup back into the pot, brought it to a boil, added more sugar, and tried again. No crystals. I added even MORE sugar and a bit of honey, to the point where the syrup was thicker than maple syrup. Nothing. I tried a warm room, I tried a cold room, I changed the strings, I cursed, I checked rock candy how-to videos and old videos from Uzbekistan. Nothing.

I don’t know if I still didn’t have enough sugar (about 2kg of sugar went into a litre and a half of grape juice, then got boiled down), or if the temperature was wrong, or if the strings weren’t grippy enough, or if there was a preservative in the grape juice that prevented it (not likely, I got kosher 100% juice) or something in one of the spices, or if the culinary gods just said “not today”, but this was an abject failure.

The good news is that this syrup is still delicious – I jarred it and I’m going to be sharing it with friends. I have a feeling this will go great mixed into a rum punch or in place of honey.

As for actual navat itself, I went back to get a box of the Iranian saffron nabat. It’s very nice stirred into a cup of black tea.

ALBANIA: Podcasts

Beachfront in Sarandë – Source: Rough Guides

Explaining Albania: Blood feuds and honour, a tragic tale of Albanian tradition – An interview with Dr. Elona Prroj, a Protestant minister from Albania who runs an NGO seeking to end blood feuds in the country’s north, where they not only still occur, but have resurged after being suppressed during the communist era. Her own husband was killed in a blood feud, and she is working to both break the cycle with forgiveness (as her own family has done), and to tackle some of the root causes of blood feuds – particularly poverty and limited access to education.

Pendulum Podcast: In And Out Of Octopodi by Lori Lako – Poetic spoken-word reflections by Albanian artists and an interview with an art historian about Albania’s disappearing historical buildings – including the demolition of the National Theatre during the start of the pandemic, despite intensive protests, and on the neglect of the Pyramid of Tirana. They speak of loss of not just cultural heritage, but of local and personal history, and what gets lost as Albania works to wipe away its past.

The Pyramid of Tirana – Source

A Coffee in the Accursed Mountains: The one with… mountain tea – A discussion by two British immigrants to Albania about coffee / tea customs and about mountain tea. Mountain tea in southern Albania is the same as the Greek kind, however, in Albania’s north and in Kosovo, mountain tea instead refers to tea made from marjoram instead. I tried the southern kind – it’s quite nice, like an earthier chamomile.

Ottoman History Podcast: Paraskevi Kyrias, Albania, and the United States at the Paris Peace Conference – A look at the post-WWI 1919 Paris Peace Conference through the diary of Paraskevi Kyrias (Parashqevi Qiriazi), one of the few women participating. Kyrias had championed women’s education, had been part of the team that standardized the Albanian alphabet, and advocated for Albania’s independence with skilled diplomacy at the 1919 Conference. The podcast also follows her legacy and the communist Albanian government’s initial rejection of her due to her Protestantism and American connections, and then their subsequent co-opting of her legacy later in her life.

ALBANIA: Three Albanian drinks

I’ve got three different non-alcoholic Albanian drinks to try today: boza, kompot, and mountain tea! The boza and kompot are from TurkishMart, which is one of the few Canadian stores that also carries imported products from Albania, while the mountain tea is from a local Mediterranean grocery store.

Boza – Got a jar of homemade boza, a non-alc drink made from fermented flour – usually wheat and corn. It’s drunk in not just Albania, but Turkey and Bulgaria as well. This was shipped by mail, so I’m not sure if it fermented more in the bottle, but there was that satisfying pop when I opened it. The boza is thick and frothy, a little fizzy, and sweet with a tangy bready aftertaste. This is delicious – I’ve never had anything like it! I’m adding a dash of ground cinnamon to the top, which is a common (and even tastier) way to serve it.

Sejega plum kompot – Kompot is drunk all across Eastern Europe, it’s preserved fruit with extra liquid (as opposed to a Western European compote, which is more concentrated). The Albanian name for kompot is “komposto” and this one has whole plums in it. The plums are sweet and tender from being stewed in the liquid, while the liquid itself is a bit more tart with a rich plummy flavour. Refreshing and summery!

Mountain tea – This herb is most commonly called “Greek mountain tea” here in Canada, but sideritis is drunk all through southern Europe and the Balkans. It’s generally wild-collected in Albania and sold in dried bunches of stalks and flowers. The scent of the herb is very similar to sage, and the tea tastes like a mid-point between sage, mint, and chamomile, but a bit earthier.

FINLAND: Moomin tea

Couldn’t do a month on Finland without Moomins! They have, of course, become a marketing sensation and are particularly popular in Japan. Finnish companies have licensed Moomins on everything, and I’m particularly charmed by these two tea samplers (I got them at FinnGoods). One box is different flavours of rooibos, the other different black teas.

All Things Fun are Good for Your Tummy (flavoured rooibos)

  • Me too – Strawberry milkshake rooibos, though the flavouring is very mild, it’s mainly rooibos with a slight hint of strawberry.
  • Ready to go? – Banana and vanilla – there’s a whiff of artificial banana but it’s not overpowering, goes nicely with vanilla and rooibos.
  • You’ll see – It’s flavoured like chocolate cake but it actually captures the …cake part? Like it’s not just chocolate flavoured. And it’s also not cloying – very tasty.
  • Tangy trick – The box says cheesecake, the bag says banana cheesecake – it’s not distinctly banana like the other one, it’s more of a slightly creamy cake flavour.

Best Moment of the Day (flavoured black tea)

  • Sweetheart – Wild strawberry black tea, has a very fresh flavour, almost like the green tops of strawberries.
  • I Should Know! – Black tea flavoured with lemon – the lemon is very subtle, more subtle than actual lemon in your tea, but it’s nice.
  • Go for It! – Blueberry muffin black tea – this seems the least flavourful of them all, there’s a bit of a nutty taste but otherwise nothing really blueberry or muffin.
  • Momminmamma’s Magic Potion – Not just strawberry, but strawberry and rhubarb. There’s a nice tart scent of the dried tea, but it’s more sweet strawberry flavour when brewed. Its nice but not dramatically different from the strawberry one.

Also, look how cute the packaging is!

ISRAEL: Herbal teas

I picked up from World of Judaica this neat sampler set of Israeli herbal teas. While Israel is mainly a coffee country, ShalvaTea makes blends using only herbs that grow in Israel. Each blend is named after a different location, and the owner, David Ross (originally Norwegian before immigrating to Israel) tries to make sure the herbs reflect that specific location.

Elah Valley – Peppermint with rose petals, licorice, sumac, and zuta (white savoury). It’s like a richer mint tea, you can pick out the taste of licorice and the lemony sumac, and while I’ve never tried zuta before, I assume it’s adding that extra woodsy mintiness- it’s related to mint.

Ein Gedi – Wow, this is a very sage-dominant tea. There’s also fennel and carob and a few other herbs, but it’s mainly sage, sage, and more sage. Good if that’s your thing, not really big on that much sage myself.

Jerusalem – Mainly lemongrass and hibiscus, so it’s nice and tart, but there’s also olive leaf and cardamom and a little bit of sage – makes it a bit smokier and spicy.

Carmel – Rosemary is the main scent of this tea, with a savoury woody flavour. It’s an interesting blend of herbs that aren’t too common in tea – rosemary, hyssop, sumac, zuta, as well as calendula and raspberry leaves. The rosemary starts the strongest, but the others start to come out after you steep it a bit.

Arava – Chamomile and lemongrass, with mint, licorice, and lavender. Kind like how the Elah Valley tea is a boosted mint tea, this tastes like a boosted chamomile – I really like the lemongrass in it.

Galil – A lemon-forward tea, with lemongrass and lemon balm, as well as a bit of sage as an undernote. It’s pretty refreshing, though I’d be interested in trying olive leaf tea on its own to get a sense of what its flavour is – it seems quite mild.

I’d say the Elah Valley tea was my favourite, followed by Arava, and that the Ein Gedi tea didn’t do too much for me – too much sage! But this is a really neat concept, and I liked getting to try some really new herbal mixes.