Saturday, September 08, 2018

Té in my life, by Antonio SolisGomez

Té de Canela

On wintry day abuela would drop a couple of sticks of canela into a pan of boiling water, letting it boil for a few minutes before pouring a small amount of cold water to deepen the red color. By then the fragrant aroma was wafting throughout the kitchen. I liked mine with milk and sugar and it was even more wonderful when there was pan dulce to accompany my warm drink.

We also drank té de Yerba Buena, té de Manzanilla, té de Oregano with honey when we had a sore throat and té de Limon, my abuela teaching me a ditty “té de Limon si no te gusta vete al cabrón”.

I did not encounter tea from Asia until years later when I read a moving description in the Good Earth, by Pearl Buck, of a poor Chinese couple dropping a few leaves into a cup of hot water and savoring it as if it were a gift from heaven. I was moved to try tea but unfortunately at the time the only teas available were tea bags from Lipton, an awful product whose taste couldn’t be improved even with massive amounts of sugar.

 In the 1970’s Good Earth began marketing a spice semi-sweet tea for the Good Earth Restaurants and about the same time Celestial Seasonings sprung up that had a larger selection of herbal teas. I began purchasing boxes of tea bags from both companies regularly, but never abandoning my childhood teas either, tea bags were just easier to prepare in the staff room of the library were I worked.

Naturally I had by then tried the green tea served with meals in Chinese restaurants but I saw them more as a curiosity, not thinking of ever incorporating them into my lifestyle. That perception changed when I returned to Tucson in 2005 and was trying to write a fictional story about a Chicano who was living under the radar, wanted no digital footprints, got by with cash by working as a day laborer with jobs obtained at the Home Depot parking lot.

Chano, my character, had a penchant for marijuana and had collected a wide assortment of yesca. I wanted to be like my character who was not only a collector but a connoisseur of mota, with hundreds of samples from all over the world. He had jars of Acapulco Gold, Black Russian, Maui Wowie, Panama Gold, Texas Tea, Mexican Green. Sadly this option was not open to me as I no longer indulged in the practice.

I explored in my mind what other commodity I could collect in such a fashion. Wine and beer were a possibility but I no longer drank. That’s when I hit upon the idea of collecting tea and as I read more about it I realized that a true connoisseur would never stoop to brewing tea from sachets but instead would brew loose tea. I also learned that I could purchase it in bulk from the Food Co-op Market in Tucson or order online, both options which I exercised.

My first online purchase was from the Monterey Bay Spice Company and I bought some herbal teas that were familiar but I remembered reading that Lao Tzu said “Tea is the elixir of life” and knew that he was referring to green tea so I purchased some Oolong and one called Gun Powder.
Harvesting tea in Kenya

Tea in China, were it was first developed, has a prominent history going back as early as 2700 BC. Considered a national treasure the cultivation and processing of tea was a guarded secret for hundreds of years. The introduction of tea to the palate of the British when they began trading with China in the mid 1600’s was nothing short of revolutionary and now it is hard to think of the British without their cup of tea.

Two hundred years of trade between the two nations was beginning to unravel in the 1840’s when China, who was receiving opium grown by the British in India in exchange for tea, began to cultivate their own opium. Even before it began to unravel China was keeping the best tea for itself and sending what they did not want.

The circumstances set in motion efforts to acquire the well kept secret of tea cultivation and processing. The Chinese had reason to be vigilant having encountered a previous breach when secrets related to the production of silk were stolen by two monks sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 552 BC.

Described as a plant gatherer, a gardener, a spy and a thief, Robert Fortune was contracted by the east India Company in 1847 to venture into the heartland of tea cultivation where he had been previously for scientific reason. But now he had a specific plan to steal some of the seedlings and ship them in sealed glass containers to India along with a few Chinese men who had the expertise for tea cultivation.

One of the secrets that Fortune discovered was that the many varieties of tea originate from one plant Camellia Sinensis. Even Black Tea, known in China as red tea, is derived from the same plant that produces green tea, the difference being a matter processing. And the hundreds of varieties depend on the conditions of where it is grown, how and when it is harvested and how it is processed. All these factors contribute to taste and thus some growers produce higher quality teas not unlike the production of wine.

One Fact that interested me right away was that tea can also be aged, like wine, by pressing it into blocks or disks. Known as Pu erh, this tea is either raw or cooked and can sell for astronomical prices. “….a tong of FuYuanChang puerh tea from the early 1900s. The price achieved for this 2060g of tea was just over £1 million (1.7 million USD). At over £500 a gram, a pot of this tea would set you back around £4000. (Essence of Tea website)

A tong of Pu-erh
My wife bought a nice iron teapot and we began to have a morning ritualistic teatime with Pu-erh upon arising. It was nothing as elaborate as the tea ceremony developed by the Japanese but it was a way to connect at the start of the day. A few years into our practice I happened to mention it to my Chinese friend,  Ben, whom I have known since the 4th grade. We spent a lot of time at each other’s house throughout elementary and high school, his mom with limited English was quite traditional. When I told Ben about the pressed Pu-erh cakes he said. “You know when my mother died we found an old stack of those cakes and I didn’t know what they were so I offered them to my aunt. She said are you sure these are worth a lot of money? I said sure take them.”

I gasped when ben told me that story. True I don’t know if the tong Ben gave to his aunt was of high quality but I sure would have liked to find out.

After Fortune sent his stolen haul, India began cultivating tea and now produces the world famous Darjeeling Tea and although China’s monopoly was broken it still produces more tea than anyone else.

Japan also cultivates and harvests tea from seeds taken from China by Buddhist monks one thousand years ago. Sencha, the Japanese Tea, can be processed using different methods to produce a variety of Teas. Matcha a powder form is touted for its superior health benefits and has been used in the Tea Ceremony and in Buddhist Temples.


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Anonymous said...

amazing post collector kaise bane thank you.