Temperatures rose and fell over the course of last week, and as they hit their ascendancy, iced tea played a large role in my day-to-day management of the heat. I didn't want to cook, I didn't want to leave the house, and when I did either, immediate liquid refreshment was necessary. Now, I know I should have been drinking water and I did, lots of it. However, despite the overwhelming selection of (very similar tasting waters) on the market, I craved something with a bit more of a kick, something that said "summer in the south" a little louder than all of the cicadas droning on and on in the background of every boiling day. Iced tea was the only solution.
The US is divided into two iced tea-drinking camps: the sweet tea camp of the south and the unsweetened camp of the north. Virginia, as the northernmost outpost of the south, has always been conflicted about to which camp it owes its allegiance. While I was growing up here in Richmond, tea was generally served in large pitchers unsweetened, but venturing even just a few miles southward towards Charles City or Petersburg, the tea became abruptly sugar sweet. As Richmonders, my family always gave me the feeling it was vaguely déclassé to stir sugar into your tea (what was that tall skinny spoon there for then?), and it was years before I discovered that sugar did, in fact, make that brown stuff sitting on the dinner table every night more palatable--and even enjoyable. My grandmother served her tea resolutely unsweetened and lightly infused with the fresh mint that grew wild all over her backyard.
I've tried to duplicate her tea over the years and because she wasn't the kind of fondly maternal sort of grandmother who carefully imparted her culinary wisdom to the rising generation, I've tried different techniques I've been told or read about over the years. What's so hard about iced tea, do you ask? Well, for one, consistency. Sure, you can dump some teabags in a pitcher, pour over boiling water, and let it steep for a while, but invariably, this kind of haphazard method leads to nasty, weak tea, fit only for plant-watering--not to put too fine of a point on it. Steep it longer you say and add more tea bags? Well, that leads to acrid, foul-tasting dark brown sludge you can't even drink. You need a formula to get it actually right each time.
I like my tea amber gold, minty and slightly sweet. True to my upbringing, however, I leave the sweetening to the individual, although I have discovered a mere 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar added along with the tea bags during the brewing process cuts the acidity of the tea without adding any noticeable sweetness. A pinch of baking soda will also do the same thing--it's your choice. I've never had much luck with sun tea and I like instead to brew a concentrate to which I add cold water. That way, my tea is ready to drink right away without having to chill in the refrigerator, and (even better) the ice cubes don't melt and immediately dilute my tea to dreck. I don't think you need to be too fussy about the kind of tea you use. We all grew up on Lipton's and that's the flavor most people are looking for in a good glass of iced tea. That being said though, my personal favorite is a half and half combo of any good quality English breakfast and orange pekoe teas. The orange pekoe gives it that Lipton-y amber flavor and the English breakfast tea lifts it a bit and adds a little complexity (Yorkshire Tea, if you can find it, is another good choice). Water? I use tap water but I'm sure the more discerning would prefer spring water (they always do). Just make sure it's at a full, rolling boil before you pour it over the tea. None of this "near boiling" stuff you read about for brewing hot tea; you want to extract all the flavor you can and you don't need to be finicky about it. Iced tea should be easy to make, at any rate, and watching the proverbial pot doesn't sound like a lot of fun. Lastly, pour over ice in a tall glass, sweeten to taste, and garnish with a sprig of mint if you have company. Ahhhh . . . now sit back, relax, and cool off. All those sweaty chores can wait for another day. richmond, food and drink
Iced Tea (makes 1/2 gallon)
6 tea bags or 8 teaspoons loose tea in a large tea ball
1 bunch fresh mint
1/2-1 teaspoon sugar
2 quarts water
Add mint to the bottom of an unbreakable pitcher and bruise with the back of a large spoon. Add tea and sugar. Bring 2 cups of water to a rapid boil and pour over the tea. Steep for 15 minutes. Strain out mint and tea, and add 6 cups of cold water. Serve.