TEA 茶 Camellia Sinensis
The progress of this famous plant has been something like the progress of truth; suspected at first, thought very palatable to those who had the courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached; abused as its popularity seemed to spread; and establishing its triumph at last, in cheering the whole land from the palace to the cottage, only by the slow and restless efforts of time and its own virtues.
–Isaac D’Israeli in a 1790 EDINBURGH REVIEW
It is probably safe to say that Americans know diddly squat about tea. While the affect tea had on the course of world history can not be underestimated. The fortune bubbles grown and popped, the empires made and lost. Tea is still on the periphery of American food culture. At a annual consumption of about 7 ounces a per person America lags well behind the moderate tea consuming countries like China and Japan (21 and 32 oz.) and far, far behind the high consumption countries like Ireland and the U.K. which consume an annual 71 ounces, that is nearly four and a half pounds per person. Tea is wonderfully complex and diverse drink. It can be simple and proletariat or sophisticated and highly ritualized. It should however never ever, ever come in a flat paper bag with a string and a little paper tag.
WHAT TEA SHOULD LOOK LIKE
TEA FROM INDIA
I start this list of tea with Indian teas on two accounts. First, it is the tea I start each morning with (when I am in the States). Second, it is the group of teas that is probably most familiar to western culture. Indian teas are blended black teas often served with sugar and sometimes with the addition of milk or lemon. I prefer my morning brew with milk and sugar.
India has a long history of tea consumption. However it was not until the British stole tea plants from China and set up large plantations in India did its commercial production begin. Sarah Rose’s For All The Tea in China is a wonderful and accessible book detailing this amazing time in food (and world) history.
Most tea in India comes from the Northeast regions of Assam and Darjeeling. Black tea comes in a staggering number of grades from FP and FTGF OP (Far too good for ordinary people) down to dust, here is a more complete list. Generally the bigger the pieces the better the grade. Then of course there is CTC tea. CTC (Cut, tear, and Curl) is a mechanized process that produces an inexpensive black tea that brews quite strong and dark. Good if you have a lot of milk and sugar (and possibly spices) on hand.
Assam is the the worlds largest tea growing region. The low elevation and the unique indigenous large leaf cultivar of tea brews up rich and strong. Perfect for breakfast.
Golden tippy long leaf (TG OP) Assam
Ceylon, Tea from Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka (Ceylon) a rather largish island off the Southeast coast of India is, for tea drinkers, another success of 19th century globalization. The British brought tea to the island in the middle part of the 19th century and by the late part of the century had full scale tea plantations. Tea is grown from lowlands all the way up to over 1200m. Giving the island a wide range of tea from strong dark teas to more subtle greens and white teas.
Aromatic Earl Grey. Tea flavored with the oil of bergamot oranges.
One lump or two?
Since black teas are generally served sweetened and the most commonly used sweetener used is sugar (well at least in the home) to understand the spread of one, you must understand the other. Sidney W. Mintz’s Sweetness and Power is a comprehensive and illuminating treatise on the once rare now ubiquitous substance of sugar. It may be said that sugar is the only food to have more dramatically changed the course of the world than tea. Though sugar and tea are so closely intertwined…
Note: For all the Americans “High Tea” is a light supper taken at a regular (high) table generally by the lower or rural classes. “Low Tea” is the fancy one with little tables, fine porcelain, and deserts/sandwiches. The one where you gossip about the neighbors. Just call it “Afternoon Tea” to save yourself the confusion.
TEA FROM TAIWAN 台灣茶
Taiwan primarily produces Oolong tea. Oolong plants were brought from Fujian China and planted first in the Northern part of the Island in the late 18th century. Later in the late 19th century more Oolong plants were brought from Wuyi Mountain in Fujian Province China and planted in the central part of Taiwan.
I love Taiwan’s teas and I cannot say enough about them. However, if I do start in on about it I risk sounding like every other white guy, foreigner that has come into contact with tea in the last 400 years.
Here is a short video intro to tea in Taiwan:
Oriental Beauty, 東方每人茶 (dong fan mei ren cha),PomFong. Grown only in Taiwan, mostly from Hsinchu 新竹, Miaoli 苗栗 and Pinglin 坪林 areas of Taiwan. One sip, one smell of the aroma of this tea and you might just understand what all those classic chinese poets were on about. This is truly an amazing tea.
This particular tea is referred to as a Pekoe (白毫 baihao) which denotes the fine white hairs on leaves. This tea in no real way resembles the Pekoes of India.
Dongding (Tungting) Oolong tea 凍頂烏龍茶 grown below 1000m in elevation makes for a very good, standard daily drink.
High Mountain Oolong, 高山烏龍茶. Grown at over 1000m this tea is what I enjoy most. By no means cheap but worth every penny.
It also comes in bags.
Tungting Oolong on the left 凍頂烏龍茶在左邊 and fried green tea with brown rice on the right 煎茶和玄米在右邊. These triangle bags produce a passable drink and are about as low down the tea ladder as anyone should go. Those flat bags with tea fannings in them are really not fit for quaffing except in an emergency (or to be polite).
For a short history of tea in Taiwan you can go to this site on Taiwan’s tea history.
A coffee press actually makes a for a very good tea infuser (it is also one of the few acceptable ways to make coffee). This is how I start my morning. I use 1 t. of tea per cup of water, steep 4 to 5 minutes for the first wash and 6 minutes for the second wash.
If you have more time, say in the afternoon or evening. The only way to brew Oolong 烏龍茶 is with a yixing tea pot 宜興茶壺. Well ok not the only, but the best way.
These little bags you fill yourself are great for travel or when you just want one cup. They are roomy enough to let good tea expand and infuse well. You can usually find them at Japanese and Korean Markets