Yesterday I went to a tea tasting at the tea shop, Song Fang Maison de The, which is run by a French woman–I know–French, not British or Chinese! She used to work in perfumes which seems kind of fitting as a true tea connoisseur should be able to appreciate all the differences in the tastes and smells of the different teas. Just as no two wines taste the same, neither do teas.
Tea has a 5000 year history in China. The earliest written record concerning tea dates to the 10th century BC! It seems fairly certain that tea was originally used as a medicine, but as is often true about something that happened so long ago, there is more than one story about how it came to be such a popular drink, a beverage that inspired deceit, colonization, shaped economies, and provoked rebellion.
The first story is that Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC was drinking a bowl of hot water when some tea leaves blew into his bowl, creating the first cup of tea. He was quite surprised by the change in the color of his water, decided to try it, and declared it good.
The second story says that our Emperor (who happened to be the inventor of agriculture and Chinese medicine) was testing some herbs out on himself to see if they provided any medical benefit and came across some that were poisonous (so goes the life of a scientist). Much to his relief, he discovered that tea was an antidote.
According to Wikipedia the tea plant originated in the area of present day Burma and the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China. It is now grown all over Asia and in Kenya.
By the 17th century the British had discovered tea. It was wildly popular but expensive because it had to be imported from China.
Britain’s first attempt to solve this problem was to send an undercover botanist to China to grab some tea plants. Trees in hand, he brought them back to Scotland where they disappointed all of England by promptly dying. You can take the tea plant out of China, but you can’t put the mountains and humidity they require into Scotland.
Plan B followed from the realization that tea plants were already growing in India, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While they were waiting for the tea plantations to take hold in India, Britain was also dealing with China’s refusal to accept any imports from other countries. China was a huge exporter of luxury goods such as tea and silk during this time period and they wanted to keep the flow of money coming into China, not back out. It seems though that Britain was able to persuade them to change their minds by offering guns and opium, much to the detriment of many Chinese men and women.
The teas used in our tea tasting are classified as “fine teas” because they are made from the tips and buds of the tea plant, the leaves unbroken. Broken tea leaves have lost essential oils and will be more bitter. And those Lipton tea bags? They’re made from the dust that falls onto the floor (we were assured it’s a clean floor!) during processing of the good stuff.
The take away from the testing was that tea should be made in a small pot and served in small bowls.
She didn’t know the science behind why tea tastes better in a small cup than a huge one, but I too can confirm that it always tastes better when I drink tea from the smallest cup I own.
It’s sitting beside the remains of our second cup of tea, called Longine which is a fresh green tea. It tasted distinctly different than the first, sort of vegetal with a hint of green beans, whereas the first was floral, and soft with a hint of soybean.
The Bai Mudan has the strongest antioxidant powers and is good for the skin. The Longine is rich in fluoride and is great for the blood circulation, but has fewer antioxidants.
This oolong tea has the least caffeine of the three. It is good for digestion, has a slimming effect, and helps you sleep. Too bad it was my least favorite of the three.
It still boggles my mind that all of these different teas come from one plant. Change what time of year you pick the leaves, where you grow the tea plants and how you process the leaves and you have multitudes of varieties (this lady sold 70 different kinds) and none were flavored with fruits or caramel or chocolate!
Even the British did not realize that their black tea came from the same tree as the Chinese’s green tea. Because black tea is fermented it could withstand the 3 month trek across the ocean. Unfortunately the British didn’t know the proper way to make tea and they would leave it to steep for long periods of time, resulting in a bitter brew. They solved that by adding milk and sugar, another item they had to go great distances to buy. Unfortunately milk ruins the healthful properties of tea, so not only were they getting tooth decay, they weren’t even getting any health benefits.
As with so many parts of their culture that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, much of the finer elements of the Chinese knowledge of tea growing and processing have been lost. Tea houses were shut down to stop people from gathering to talk politics. The tea ceremony itself was considered bourgeois. The result is all those unpleasant cups of tea I’m always being served with the leaves floating around in the bottom, sticking in my teeth, and making the tea increasingly bitter.
When this woman opened her tea house, she couldn’t find anyone with any knowledge of tea. The women who work there now came after a 3 year tea course. Like artisan soy sauce, the knowledge of tea making is disappearing as young people head to the cities for well paid jobs.
Here’s a few tips for tea making.:
1. Don’t let your water come to the boil. Boiled water has lost the oxygen needed to release the fragrance of the tea into the air.
2. The most caffeine is released in the first 30 seconds of the first brew. You won’t be run out of town if you throw that first cup away because you want less caffeine in your life.
3. The Chinese follow the seasons in their tea drinking. Green tea is for summer because it is “cooling”, black tea is for winter because it is warming and oolong is for all the times in between.
4. White and green teas have the most caffeine.
5. Black teas can be made in a big pot.
6.If you use a clay pot, you should dedicate it to one kind of tea, as the flavor and fragrance of the tea will permeate the pot like coffee does.
7. Iron pots will impart a metallic taste to the tea.
8. Loose leaf teas can be brewed many times, usually at least 3 or 4 times, and a few up to 10. Another tea shop claimed one of their teas could be brewed 70 times, but I find that hard to believe.
9. Don’t drink green tea on an empty stomach. It can make you nauseous.
So there you have it. This has made me want to go brew a cup myself!