Tea, Monsignor?By Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
My last few columns have been quite serious with martial law and blood ivory, so let’s take a break today and talk about lighter matters.
“Lighter” is relative. I will still have to refer to the National Geographic article by Bryan Christy about ivory trafficking, where a Monsignor Cristobal Garcia was implicated by the author as a particularly avid collector. In my column I wrote about how the monsignor had gotten into trouble in the United States, was dismissed, came home and “became a bishop,” which I presumed was the case because he was a monsignor.
Three clergymen, no less, wrote me to clarify that a monsignor is not necessarily a bishop. Let me share parts of their e-mails.
Monsignor Joselito C. Asis, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, wrote: “Monsignor Garcia is not an ordained Catholic bishop, but only given the title ‘monsignor,’ which in the Church parlance is not necessarily a bishop or having an Episcopal order.”
Bishop Richard Mickley’s e-mail elaborated on this: “The Vatican uses that title as an honor title for what they call a papal chamberlain, but ‘monsignors’ only hold an honor title, they are not ordained.”
Fr. Sean Coyle wrote in from Bacolod City to point out that the monsignori (plural for monsignor) “are simply priests with an honorary title given by the Vatican,” and added that his rector in his seminary in Ireland some 50 years ago didn’t particularly like these titles.
And indeed, the monsignori are among the many feudal vestiges that have lingered in the Catholic Church. The term means “my lord,” and at one time had 14 different grades. Pope Paul VI reduced the monsignori to three ranks: the apostolic protonotary, honorary prelate, and chaplain of His Holiness, each rank with its own coat of arms and ecclesiastical dress accessories. Talk about clerical fashionistas.
Father Sean said the titles can be confusing, and indeed they are: I went to Catholic schools till my second year of college and was taught to address bishops as “monsignor,” which is the title used in many countries for bishops and archbishops (but not cardinals). It turns out that in English-speaking countries, “monsignor” isn’t used for bishops, so maybe we were following a Spanish tradition.
Wikipedia has an entry devoted to “monsignor,” which has fascinating information about the pomp and pomposity around the monsignori. Do remember, though, that Wikipedia should only be a starting point for your research.
Let’s move on to tea, totally unrelated to the monsignori unless you want to learn how to offer tea to one of them. You might want to impress a bishop-monsignor by addressing him, for example, as Reverendissimus Monsignor, or Most Reverend Monsignor, and proceed to name different types of teas: “Indian or Chinese?”
If the most revered one prefers Indian, you can rattle off “Assam? Darjeeling?” and more, and if they want Chinese you can boast, “I have several types of oolong, some green ones, and I’d recommend dragon well. Or maybe vintage 1991 Pu Erh?”
A few years back I wrote a column lamenting the difficulty of getting good tea in the Philippines. Even 5-star hotels, I observed, would have a few bags of really inferior Lipton tea bags lying around, with hot water coming out of dispensers used for, and reeking of, coffee.
Then suddenly, in the last year or two, all kinds of tea houses have sprouted. Alas, I have yet to find a “true” Chinese teahouse among them since these places all offer a kind of Oriental milk shake: a bit of tea, some milk and lots of sugar and ice.
I am not against innovations in food, and tea. I like the way Chinese and Japanese teas are taken cold. I brew my own by doing a quick hot infusion of Chinese Pu Erh or Japanese sencha, and then leaving it in the fridge overnight, still with the tea leaves.
Milk with tea is something else. It started in the West and, according to one source, was a way of masking the flavor of inferior tea imported from India. Don’t get me wrong: India does produce very good, and very strong, tea, and I think the milk does help to reduce its acidity. The Indians, who weren’t originally into tea, went a step further with “chai masala” (masala tea), where you have milk and spices and sugar. I think the milk tea places here and in Taiwan might have taken off from the chai masala, trying to get to people with a sweet tooth.
Now comes news about a paper presented at the Fifth International Scientific Symposium on Tea and Human Health, warning that milk proteins might bind or trap chemicals called flavonols, which are responsible for some of the health benefits of tea. There are debates, though, on just how strong this binding effect is. (Go to npr.org and search for “health benefits of tea.”)
My gripe against milk and sugar in tea is that these mask the rich aromas and flavors of teas, especially Chinese teas. To avoid the astringency (manifested by a bitter flavor) and acidity, just make a weaker brew, rather than adulterating with milk and sugar. The Chinese take their teas seriously; some of the varieties, even characterized by the year of production for Pu Erh, are taken as seriously as good wines.
I can live with the milk tea places, but I hope we’ll see more appreciation and discernment of different types of teas. We should start by learning to distinguish so-called “herbal teas” from “tea teas.” The real original tea is Camella sinensis, which is a stimulant. There are all kinds of varieties of tea, such as the ones I named earlier in the column. The colors refer to the fermentation of the teas—for example, green teas being less fermented. Westerners have created blends of the Indian and Chinese teas. The popular Earl Grey, for example, is tea mixed with bergamot, a citrus plant that gives that particular Early Grey scent.
Herbal teas, on the other hand, are not usually stimulants; in fact, many are taken for a calming effect. The popular examples are mint, tarragon, lavender. In other columns several years ago, I wrote about my trials and tribulations in trying to get these herbs to grow locally. Turned out they were usually cultivated in Tagaytay and colder parts of the country and sold with leaves looking very healthy but within a few days they would wilt if kept in Metro Manila. Over the years, though, the plants seem to have acclimatized and do quite well even in condos and apartments, with lots of sun, and a right potting mix that allows good drainage.
There’s room for experimenting with other teas, especially with plants that thrive well locally. Hibiscus tea, also called Flor de Jamaica when prepared with particular varieties, is nothing more than gumamela. Lemon grass tea is nothing more than tanglad.
I’ll do more of tea breaks in future columns, in between the serious stuff like the electoral circuses. Readers’ suggestions, and experiences, are welcome.
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