It’s time again! The adventure gallops on, careening into yet another fascinating world; in my hands, I hold a sample of it–would you care to see? But ahh, oh! Patience, for it requires something of a grand introduction.
My current obsession is rich in history and cultural significance–extolling its virtues are stacks of scrolls, poems, treatises and paintings, towering centuries upon centuries high. Myths and legends abound about this precious material and its various forms, yet the truth often remains elusive. It was even touted as the Elixir of Life by Taoist alchemists. It’s not all splendor and glory, though. The memories of dark doings hang heavy in the mists of many south-facing slopes and subtropical valleys; they are knit several generations deep in the DNA of slave laborers; they tendril around the wicked hearts of many scoundrels, some of whom continue to benefit, even today, from an insidious cycle of greed and servitude.
Are you thoroughly perplexed yet? Any guesses?
The divine substance of which I speak–the exquisite commodity that powerful empires have mounted and crumbled upon…
Yes, the gentle cup of invigorating liquid that warms our bones and settles our spirits happens to possess a rather dramatic past, both brutal and beautiful. Who would suspect that such a ubiquitous, seemingly workaday beverage is actually at the crux of an ancient tale layered with mystery, religion, murder, narcotics trade and espionage? Like many things worth knowing, there’s much more to tea than what meets the palate.
If you are a guest in my home, I’ll offer you a cup of tea and you might (rightly) assume that I mean anything from a soothing herbal blend to a strong black brew that you could feasibly cream and sugar. Beleaguered by the contents of my tea cabinet, you will eventually report to me your selection, which I will set about to preparing–this is all about hospitality and not the lexicon of our culture but, well…it’s technically incorrect. Just so you know. You see, the term “tea” has essentially come to represent any plant-based, drinkable substance that’s not coffee or chocolate but in truth, it only technically refers to the liquor of the plant Camellia sinensis. Anything else is called a tisane, infusion or another name entirely. This may seem to be merely a stickler’s semantics but such differentiation is actually important for many reasons, especially because we put this inside our bodies! In the not-so-distant past, tea was frequently adulterated–sometimes with dangerous ingredients–in order to line the coffers of some crafty n’er-do-wells. I’m saying it’s important to be specific about these things in certain contexts.
The tree that produces tea is related to the camellias we find in many gardens here in the states, Camellia japonica–you know, these glamourous gussies:
They’re cousins. The species we use to make tea includes three varieties, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is native to China; the slightly larger var. assamica which is native to India; and var. cambodiensis which is native to Cambodia, being a hybrid of the first two and not used for drinking itself but rather in the creation of new cultivated varieties (cultivars).
Our “libation of the ages” has been known by a scad of names across most of the continents, the commonest being te (variations of this include tea, tee, tay, thé, etc.), ch’a, cha and chai. The sweet and spicy, creamy beverage Americans recognize as chai originates in India and parts of Africa, where this is the popular way to prepare the leaves, though chai is simply the word for the tea leaves themselves.
This one glorious species can yield everything from white to yellow to green to black tea–they’re just different versions of the same thing. It’s mind-boggling, no? In addition to their botanical differences, there are many other factors that contribute to the distinctive flavors in our cup–variables such as soil quality, microclimate, weather patterns and other stresses, like insect infestations. It’s very much like wine, actually.
Part of the alchemical wonder is in the way the leaves are manipulated. Here’s how the process goes: tea pluckers–as they are called in the industry–carefully pick the first two leaves and the bud on the tips of the twigs (usually) and take them to be processed according to what type of tea they’re meant to become.
If the leaves are destined for black tea, they will be withered (slightly dehydrated) and then rolled, which ruptures their cell walls, allowing the enzymes inside to react with the oxygen present in air–a process referred to as oxidation. Oxidation is something that is generally undesirable, for instance, when the flesh of your sliced apple is sullied by a brownish blush; when your wine tastes flat after you were silly and left it open on the counter all night; or when your bicycle sits in the rain too long and goes to rust. Conversely, in the production of certain types of tea, oxidation is positively transformative. Skilled hands can turn a leaf with minimal flavor and therefore, worth, into an exquisitely nuanced beverage commanding hundreds or even thousands of dollars a pound. It’s true! After the rolling and oxidation is complete, the leaves are then fired to halt the enzymatic action.
Green tea is not oxidized. The leaves are steamed or pan-fired after plucking to dehydrate them, which disables the enzyme responsible for oxidation and preserves their verdancy. The leaves are rolled into their intended shapes, which range from long, loose and leggy to balled up like a pearl. Matcha is a Japanese green tea that is powdered and prepared by whipping it into water, as opposed to being steeped and removed like most other teas.
White and yellow tea can be considered very delicate versions of green tea; they undergo even less processing, mostly just air withering. Their flavors are sometimes so slight as to be missed by the less discerning taster. Yellow teas are historically some of the most precious.
Wulong, aka “oolong” teas are slightly-to-moderately oxidized and fall somewhere between black and green tea on the flavor spectrum. Wulongs are extra special because one spoonful of these leaves can yield numerous steepings and an evolution of lovely flavors. They can be aged for many years.
Pu-erh is fermented and often aged–it’s very earthy, intense and may require an initiated palate. It can be purchased in loose leaves or in its traditional form–packed tightly and shaped into a tea “cake” for ease of transport on the backs of horses along trade routes. Portions of it would have been shaved off and boiled in water, sometimes along with other additives like salt or orange peel. Tibetans make a savory brew with pu-erh to this day, including salt, yak butter and sometimes barley flour (tsampa).
Tea was also used as currency at one point in China’s history, like cacao to Mesoamerica and coffee to the Middle East and Indonesia. Note the scoring on the brick below to facilitate the snapping off of a segment for making change.
As I investigate what life was like in previous eras and remember, even, what it was like to live in an insular, small Midwestern town, I’m developing an awareness and subsequent awe of the treats and treasures we have access to whilst living in this modern, affluent country. It’s a little outrageous! One generation ago, there weren’t mangoes or quinoa in all of the major grocery stores; even citrus was a special, seasonal delight. Now, a simple trip to Whole Foods presents us with a gigantic wonderland of off-season imports from thousands of miles away. These are luxuries that myself and others of modest income must work hard to afford but the fact that we have access to them at all is so strange and wonderful.
Exotic goods which once traveled for many months over land or sea for the exclusive enjoyment of royalty have now become regular household staples. Tea was among the shipments and caravans, as were chocolate, coffee, spices, sugar, incense, perfumes, silk and plenty of other beautiful things that now seem common and not terribly fancy. I’m so grateful that my good fortune landed me here in this particular time and for the ways these simple pleasures have enriched my life…why, I feel like a King!