My grandmother used to say that nothing in life was so bad
that a good cup of tea couldn’t help. Sure she probably plagiarized it from a
book or Irish proverb, but she lived by it. No matter what the situation her
response was always, “Oh no, I’ll put a pot on for tea.” Really, we lost Uncle
Walter overboard and she is going to fix it with a bloody cup of tea? As I got
older I learned to understand her thinking. When there is nothing you can do,
making tea is doing something. Then of course the actual act of drinking the
tea is a break, psychologically anyway, from the situation; the hot beverage
equivalent of counting to 10 to calm the nerves.
Perhaps there is something to be said for this matriarchal wisdom
because tea is right up there with wine as a global libation to the gods of
every day troubles. In fact, tea is second only to water as the most widely
consumed beverage in the world, according to Alan McFarlane’s book “The
Empire of Tea”.
I want to make it perfectly clear that I am talking about
real Tea, not that herby flowery stuff you buy in the bean sprout and granola
section of the super market. Tea is made from the leaves and leaf buds of the Camellia
Sinensis plant. From this glorious plant
there are six types of tea: White, Green, Yellow, Black, Oolong and
Post-fermented. Each type is a little different but equally delicious in my
opinion. I must admit however, I have never actually stepped up to the counter
at Starbucks and ordered a Post-fermented tea.
Post-fermented tea is green tea
that has been allowed to ferment by composting. Here it gets a bit confusing.
Post-fermented tea is green tea that turns dark and called black tea in Asian
countries, which is not black tea because black tea is called red tea in Asian
countries. In western countries black tea is just black tea because we don’t
have red tea. With that out of the way we simply call post-fermented tea
Pu-erh. This remarkable product is aged for many months to many years to
achieve a very smooth mellow flavor. It is purchased in small cubes or disks
and is extremely expensive. A typical 350gram disk aged for 50 years can sell
for up to $2,000. It is said to be a great weight loss aid. I suppose I would
lose my appetite after a $150 cup of tea as well.
The Fujian province of China is
known for the highest quality white tea. The leaves are wilted before picked to
lose the grassy taste that can accompany the tea. An article in Science
Daily describes several studies that have shown a wide range of health
benefits attributed to white tea. Results show high levels of anti-oxidants
that help prevent cancer and heart disease. White tea has also been shown to
reduce the enzyme activity that breaks down the elastin and collagen; the two
agents that keep our skin looking young and healthy. High ant- viral and
anti-bacterial qualities have been attributed to white tea as well. Second only
to white tea for these health benefits is bladderwrack. You just can’t find a
decent cup of bladderwrack any more though.
Green tea is all the rage for
the past few years in the west. In Japan however, green tea is so common that
it is simply referred to as tea. China produces and exports more than 80
percent of the worlds green tea supply compared to Japan at only 9.5 percent.
Green tea is very much a part of the Japanese culture, which is evident in the
care that goes into cultivating and grading the tea. There are 16 types of
green tea produced in Japan that vary greatly in price. Yale University
published a paper that calls the low cardiovascular and cancer rates the Asian
Paradox because of the high number of smokers. Theory suggests it is
directly related to the amount of green tea consumed. This theory is also
backed and published by the Journal of the
American College of Surgeons202: 813-825 (May 2006) It makes a
tasty iced tea as well.
It is safe to assume that tea does the body good. This one
simple plant has travelled the world and made such an impact that countries formed
and wars fought over it. The United States got its start with a huge tea party
in Boston. My personal love for tea started with my first trip to the UK. After
the first three days, I decided that I was looking in vain for a decent cup of
coffee. Reluctantly I gave in and had my first cup of Earl Grey with breakfast.
Since that time I make it a point to always have tea when travelling. I have
found that every place I visit has a certain twist to the way tea is prepared
and served. Some places are more different than others when it comes to the
typical western cup of tea.
In Tibet and Central Asia Pu-reh
is mixed with yak butter to make a thick creamy tea called Bo Ja. The tea and
butter is shaken in a wooden cylinder called a dogmo and shaken until thick and
frothy. It resembles more of a soup than tea and is quite tasty and filling.
In Central Europe a grog like
drink is made with rum and black tea called Jagertee. In German it means hunter
tea. The rum and tea mixture has long been enjoyed in the winter months and
recently become chic in the ski resorts of the Swiss Alps.
In Morocco green tea is served
with flair. The Moroccan tea ceremony is unlike any I have encountered. It
starts with water and orange flower to wash your hands. A small amount of
boiling water is added to the pot and swirled to warm it. Gunpowder green tea
and mint is added to the pot and shaken to rinse the ingredients. The water is
then poured off and discarded. With a little copper hammer a loaf of sugar is
broken into pieces and added to the tea and mint leaves. The pot is then filled
with boiling water and left to steep for four minutes. The tea is then poured
from a full arms length to aerate the tea and create a frothy head.
In Malaysia Teh Tarik is a
beverage made with black tea and condensed milk. This is often served by street
vendors and kiosks in which a show of making it attracts customers like a
street performer. The creation of this drink looks as though the preparer is
pulling the tea from one glass to the other in long, well timed movements. This
act is as entertaining as it is tasty.
For every rule there is an
exception. The health benefits of tea are thrown out the window in the Russian
Prison system with the popular beverage Chafir. My travels allowed me to
experience this drink once and only once. I had heard the name in a song about
Russian gulags on a train from Novosibirsk to Barnaul. I struck up a
conversation with a man that led to the topic of Chafir. He claimed that it was
tea consumed mostly by prisoners because of the drug like effects. He assured
me that it contained nothing more than black tea, water and sugar. He went
further on to say that he could make it for me on the train if I were
interested in trying it. He left the car I was in to an unknown location and
came back with a paper cup filled with a very black liquid about 10 minutes
later. He had gone through all the trouble of getting this for me so I felt
obligated to drink it. I remember three distinct memories from the experience.
1.) This tastes horrible. 2.) I am never going to sleep again. 3.) Why are the
lavatories on Russian trains always out of order? Chafir is made by mixing 25
grams of black tea to eight ounces of boiling water and a few spoons of sugar
to make it less disgusting. The normal cup of tea is 2.5 ounces of tea to six
ounces of water.
Tea ceremonies in
Japan, United Kingdom’s afternoon break (tea time), Americans with milk and
sugar or Inuit Indians drinking it black, tea ties the people of the world
together with a common bond.