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Teas that lend themselves to charcoal roasting include Taiwanese Dong Dings, Wuyi varietals grown in China or Taiwan, and Ti Kuan Yin varietals grown in China or Taiwan. These teas are typically brewed in hotter water (190-200ºF), but I notice that if I brew them in slightly cooler water (175-185ºF), the sweeter notes become more dominant, the tea has a smoother mouthfeel, and the charcoal roasting is not as pronounced.
There is a common protocol used by tea professionals to judge teas which is called "cupping". When visiting a tea farmer or wholesaler, the tea buyer might see several white porcelain cups and several plates of tea which are set up by the tea seller. The seller will then weigh four to five grams of tea, and put it into each of the cups. S/he will then pour near boiling water at the same temperature into each of the cups, which contain the same amount of tea. A timer will be set for five minutes, and when the five minutes is up, the buyer then begins sampling the teas, using a white porcelain spoon to dip into the cups, smell the aroma, and also serve him/herself some tea into the sampling cup.
By using the same weight, water temperature and steeping duration, all of the teas are treated exactly alike. While teas are naturally grossly over-steeped with near boiling water, (which is counter intuitive to making a great cup of tea), this method of employing extremes brings out the characteristics of the teas to the highest degree, allowing the tea professional to quickly assess both the strengths and weaknesses of the tea.
Generally the buyer will be sampling one kind of tea and therefore judging many different options of the same tea. For example, (s)he will be tasting five or six different Lishan teas or Asian Beauty teas (if in Taiwan). From time to time, a seller will also include a sample that is a different kind of tea to the others.
Spring teas can be likened to teenagers. They are vibrant, energetic, bursting with character, color, flavor and personality. They have been influenced by the drama of the torrential spring downpours and the variable temperatures and water volume available to them.
Winter teas are more like the mature individual who has perhaps more depth of character, a little more poise and is a bit more complex, but balanced and even. Terroir influences on winter teas include light but more constant rain that downplays the drama and increases the steadiness and balance of the teas. Winter teas tend to be more golden and darker in color than spring teas and sometimes require slightly longer steeping times to get the optimal brew.
The influences of shorter days and less sun, combined with cooler temperatures means that winter leaves are smaller, sturdier and thicker than tea leaves of the spring harvest. As such, winter harvest yields also tend to be smaller, and therefore sometimes more expensive. Winter tones tend to be deeper in both flavor and color than teas of spring.
A simple dish to prepare, I want to share it with Bon Teavant friends. The traditional dish consists of rice noodles or wheat noodles, tea oil and scallions, with a pinch of salt and pepper. I like eating this as a whole meal, so I like to add a bit of asparagus and red bell pepper. Fried tofu, meat or shrimp would also go well with this dish if you need protein in a meal.
Here is the recipe:
4 cups cooked wheat noodles or rice noodles
1/4 cup tea oil
scallions, chopped (use both white & green part)
1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
5-6 stalks asparagus, cut in 2" pieces
salt or soy sauce
red pepper flakes
In a saute pan, add 1 tbs tea oil. When hot, add white parts of scallions and red pepper flakes, stirring for a minute. Add red bell pepper and asparagus, stir for another two minutes and remove from heat. Add noodles and remaining tea oil, stirring to combine. Add salt and pepper or soy sauce to taste and top with the remaining green parts of the scallions.
Note: We use Arette Organic Tea Seed Oil.
Note2: Use only tea seed oil, and never use tea tree oil, which is an essential oil and should not be ingested in any quantity.
Most herbalists know that plants grow best in the company of certain other plants, and by doing this, you get the best result. By allowing other plants to grow in and among tea plants, the farmer monitors the teas but allows the tea plants to mimic wild tea by letting nature play the lead role.
We went directly to the tea farmer so he could tell you himself about ecologically grown teas:
One such person is Shui Yun Li, a native of Singapore and teacher of tea culture in the capital city of Taipei who founded the organization "Chrysanthemum Teaism". Her lovely venue for tea education feels as much Japanese as Chinese or Taiwanese, with rough "wabi" style furniture punctuating the dominant Ming and Qing Dynasty cabinets and tables that are carefully placed for both use and consideration in tea gatherings.
What is unique in Ms. Li's offerings are the public tea ceremonies that she coordinates with sponsorship and grant money from various tea merchants and other donors. Her students, many of whom are interior designers, architects, and film makers, are given instruction by Ms. Li about how people around the world create spaces for tea gatherings. From this base of knowledge, Li's students create unique tea spaces that are used for public, outdoor tea gatherings, where tea is served and celebrated with dancers and other performers adding to the mystery and beauty of the gatherings.
Literature and art are invited guests as well. The concept of Indoor and outdoor space becomes blurred as they merge and bend to each other as gracefully as the dancers.
A slide show of events Ms. Li screened for me at her tea space brought back memories of how I felt when I first went to Spain and viewed Gaudi's architectural triumphs--buildings and landscape design so unusual as to inspire even the least creative person to expand all references to "reality" and "possibility" in art and in life.
The "tea room" designs created by the students under the direction of Ms. Li are sometimes very contemporary and at the same time in rhythm with centuries of traditional tea cultures found in Asia. Ming Dynasty tea bowls sit on brightly colored modern textiles laid on the ground as a tea "tableau" rather than a traditional tea table. Dramatic overhead lighting is screened through trees brought in to throw shadows on the scene and highlight the drama of the tea ware. Dancers spin through the empty space like human mobiles or constellations in a dark and open sky.
I have yet to see anything similar to this being done in the United States, but we are ripe for this, I believe. Where are the tea loving dancers, writers, film makers, architects and interior designers with boldness and creativity? Come out, come out wherever you are!
Fu Shou Shan Farm
What is so special about Fu Shou Shan? While it is right near Lishan, Fu Shou Shan tea is grown naturally, which means the tea has few (if any) chemicals, and no pesticides. We can see this through the lovely weeds, grasses, flowers and other plants that grow around the tea bushes in Fu Shou Shan, as compared to tea bushes in Lishan where the grass and other plants are literally scorched away by pesticides and herbicides. We saw these chemicals being transported by pully up and down the Lishan range.
You can taste this for yourself when you sample teas from different farms. Teas grown without chemicals tend to be less bold in flavor but possessing rounder more balanced tones and incredible mouth feel. Chemicals show up in the back and back sides of the mouth and linger long past the floral notes, leaving one wondering about the real health benefits of tea.
The rub? Fu Shou Shan tea is difficult to obtain. A small number of wholesalers have these teas, which are in very high demand in China and not very available elsewhere.
Fu Shou Shan farm continues on for miles and is part of a protected mountain area in Taiwan. The land is captivating, with a softness that is in contrast to the rugged mountain landscape in much of the surrounding range.
After planting my feet on this farm, I knew why I always preferred the taste of Fu Shou Shan tea to that of Lishan or even the coveted Da Yu Ling....the land of Fu Shou Shan is spectacularly beautiful. Look for vidoes coming soon!
A couple of favorites for different reasons include Shang Yang Tea house, which served one of the best Jin Xuan's I've ever seen or tried. Dark emerald green tea glistened in the yixing pot. After a 13-hour flight and the rigors of engaging in a new culture, this was a most welcomed tidbit from the heavens.
Yang Syu Yang tearoom is spectacular for it's decor and views. The tea is not superb, but the views, and even the gold-leaf wallpaper make up for whatever is lacking in the leaf. This tea house features an indoor koi pond, with stepping stones over a bridge to a number of private rooms with carved doors and windows that overlook Taipei, temples, and the lush tropical flora of Taiwan.
For those who don't mind heights, a gondola will take visitors up (or down) the mountain, offering panoramic views of Taipei and the tea houses and temples tossed across the landscape like so many jewels flung from the hands of ancient gods.
I couldn't manage to tear myself away, and as night descended, decided to brave the gondola the trip down the mountain rather than wait an hour for the bus (which had just come and gone). Bravery has its rewards: the views were stunning with Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world, glittering in the distance.
Coasting through the dark, starry sky, you can hear cicadas chirping along the side of the mountain and the dark sky means one isn't completely aware of the gondola's altitude. More coming soon, including a few videos.