Tea and its legends.

It all began in 2737 BC in China. According to legend, whilst the emperor Shen Nung was boiling water to slake his thirst in the shade of a tree, a light breeze rustled the branches and caused a few leaves to fall. They mixed with the water and gave it a delicate colour and perfume. The emperor tasted it and found it to be delicious. The tree was a wild tea plant: tea was born. In India, another legend tells of how Prince Dharma was touched by Divine grace and went out to preach the teachings of Buddha in China. To make himself worthy of such a mission, he vowed never to sleep during the nine years of his journey. Towards the end of the third year, however, he was overcome by drowsiness and was about to fall asleep when by chance he plucked a few leaves from a wild tea plant and began to chew them. The stimulating qualities of tea immediately had their effect; Dharma felt much more alert and thereafter attributed the strength he found to stay awake during the six remaining years of his apostolic mission to these leaves. In Japan the story goes a little differently: after three years Bodhi Dharma, exhausted, ended up falling asleep while he prayed. On awaking, infuriated by his weakness and devastated by his sin, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Some years later, on passing the same spot, he saw that they had given birth to a bush that he had never seen before. He tried the leaves and discovered that they had the property of keeping a person awake. He told the people around him about his discovery and tea began to be cultivated in all those places through which he travelled. Legends aside, it seems that the bush was originally from China, probably from the region around the border between north Vietnam and Yunnan province, and that the drinking of this beverage was first developed by the Chinese.


Tradition and symbolism.

During the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) the drinking of tea evolved into a more popular pastime, moving away from the realm of pharmacology and becoming a refined part of everyday life. Teahouses came onto the scene and for the first time tea was a source of artistic inspiration: painters, potters and poets created a sophisticated universe around tea, laden with symbolism. One of them, Lu Yu (723-804 AD), drafted the first treatise on tea, Cha Jing or Traditions of Tea, a poetic work in which he describes the nature of the plant and standardises the methods of preparing and drinking the beverage. "One finds, he writes, in the serving of tea the same harmony and order that govern all things." Tea then was made of compressed briquettes, which were first roasted before being ground to a powder and mixed with boiling water. Some ingredients were then added: salt, spices, rancid butter…. Tea is still taken this way in Tibet today. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) a second school was born that, insofar as the lyricism of its ceremonies and the importance attached to the rules of preparation were concerned, was a precursor to the Japanese Cha No Yu School. The teas used were increasingly refined and fine china began to play a decisive role in the world of tea. The leaves were ground, with a mortar and pestle, to a very fine powder on to which the simmering water was poured. The mixture was then whipped until frothy with a bamboo whisk. Alongside this ritual, reserved for the court, a more widespread consumption of tea was developed, including other social classes. The first unpackaged, loose teas made their appearance and it was therefore possible to meet the growing popular demand. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) an imperial decree prohibited the manufacture of compressed tea and tea began to be taken in its present form: a brew in a pot. This new way of enjoying tea influenced the artefacts and accessories that were used in its preparation: it marked the beginning of earthenware and china tea sets. The kettle replaced the tea bottles of the Tang era and the teapot became the ideal receptacle to infuse the tea. Tea was being democratized and it gradually gained a following in every social class, enjoying even greater economic success with the start of the export trade. In Japan tea appeared in the 7th century AD. On repeated occasions Buddhist monks brought tea plant seeds from China and tried to establish a tea growing culture in their country. However, it wasn't until the 15th century that tea was grown all over the archipelago. Sen No Rikyu (1522-1591 AD) was the first grand teas master: with him tea became a religion, an art and a philosophy. These disciplines were expressed through a complex and highly codified ceremony in which the ideal was to demonstrate the grandeur contained in the smallest everyday acts. "Tea is no more than this, he writes, boil the water, prepare the tea and drink it properly."


Europe discovers Tea.

From the 10th century onwards, tea was an export of primary importance for China: firstly to other Asian countries and then, starting in the 17th century, to Europe. In 1606, the first tea chests arrived in Amsterdam in Holland: this was the first known cargo of tea to be registered at a western port. The East Indies Company, a Dutch firm, had close links at the time with the Far East and they maintained a monopoly over the sale of tea until the end of the 1660s, even after the creation, in 1615, of the East India Company, an English competitor. In 1657, Thomas Garraway, the landlord of a coffee house in London, introduced tea on his premises and placed an advert in the local paper which read: "This excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors, and which the Chinese call 'Tcha', other nations 'Tay' or 'Tee', is on sale at Sultaness Mead close to the Royal Exchange in London." If the spread of tea at first met strong opposition - it was said to cause men to lose height and good humour, while women lost their beauty - it soon became the basis of a very important trade. At first the privilege of princes, it later became the favourite of all the dandies who frequented the "coffee houses", soon to be re-named "tea houses". Cromwell imposed a heavy tax on tea just before his death, and it quickly became the subject of a thriving contraband trade. In the 18th century its price became more accessible and tea became a revered national drink. In France the introduction of tea gave rise to numerous controversies, from 1650 onwards, in medical circles. It therefore became extremely popular. In one of her letters Madame de Sévigné mentions that Madame de la Sablière was the first person to add tea to her milk. Racine was a faithful tea supporter, as was Cardinal Mazarin who drank it to treat his gout.


Tea conquers the world.

English and Dutch settlers brought tea to the New World, where it was to play an important role in the history of the United States. The commodity was subject to a very high duty and, in 1773, the inhabitants of Boston decided to boycott its import. On the 16th December they threw the cargo of a vessel anchored in the harbour into the sea: it was this "Boston tea party" that provoked reprisals by the British authorities against the inhabitants of Massachusetts which, in turn, paved the way for the events that led to the War of Independence. Tea was also the cause of more peaceful confrontations: like those of the " tea clippers ", light sailing ships used to transport tea. In the 19th century the huge demand intensified rivalry between ship-owners: great races took place along the main maritime routes of the East. The Chinese were the sole producers at the time and imposed their rules: prohibitive prices, limited access to the port of Canton and a refusal to exchange tea for English textiles. To counter this commercial pressure the English decided to illegally introduce opium into China to create dependence - and therefore give them some bargaining power - on the part of their business partner. This was the start of the Opium Wars that would end with Britain annexing Hong Kong in 1842. By the 19th century China could no longer cope with the ever-increasing western demand and in 1830 the English started to develop tea cultivation in other countries. Tea plantations were started in India in 1834 and in Ceylon in 1857. The Ceylonese plantations at first were purely experimental but, in 1869, after the total destruction of coffee plantations by a parasite, tea became the island's main source of income. Tea was also planted in other Asian countries that have become important producers; also in ex-British colonies in Africa and, more recently, in Reunion Island and in Argentina.


Ecology.

The tea tree grows in regions where the climate is hot and humid with rain falling regularly throughout the year. It grows between 42° latitude in the Northern Hemisphere and 31° latitude in the Southern Hemisphere. In Asia: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaisia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Vietnam ; In Africa: Cameroon, Mauritius, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe ; In South America: Argentina and Brazil ; Around the Caspian and Black Seas: Georgia, Iran and Turkey. The top average temperature is between 18°C and 20°C and should have little daily variations. The climate has an affect both in the volume and the quality of the harvest. A climate too humid will give a lower quality, while a dry season can often bring higher quality harvests. High altitude also improves quality with a smaller yield. In tropical regions, the tea plant can be cultivated at altitudes ranging from sea level up to 2,500m. Sunlight is important: it is necessary for the formation of the essential oils that give the brew its aroma. The light should preferably be scattered: this is why large trees are regularly planted on tea plantations, they regulate the soil ecology and filter the strong sunrays. The soil should be permeable, loose and deep since the tea plant's roots can push down to a depth of up to 6m. Soil cover should be at least 1.5m deep. The best areas have a young, volcanic soil which is very permeable and rich in humus, neither basal nor too clayey. Tea is always grown on sloping ground, allowing for natural drainage, since the tea plants, unlike rice plants, cannot survive in stagnant water. This drawback is also a trump card: the tea plant is very resilient, it can be grown on extreme gradients and is perfectly suited to the most steeply-sloping, mountainous terrain.


A taster's glossary.

The vocabulary used by tasters and allows the sensations felt during the drinking of tea to be described.

 

Aroma: in the technical language of tasting, aroma should be reserved for the olfactory sensations felt in the mouth during retro-olfaction. But the word is also frequently used to describe smells in general.

In the mouth: the group of characteristics perceived in the mouth, comprising smell, touch and taste.

Bouquet: all the characteristics of smell that are perceived through the nose when one sniffs the tea, then in the mouth known as aromas.

Infusion: this refers both to the act of infusion and to the soaked leaves which one then retrieves. For tea it is never used to describe the liquid that is obtained by infusion, this is called the liqueur.

Liqueur: see above.

In the nose: see bouquet

Scent: smell

Smell: perceived directly by the nose, as opposed to the aromas that are felt in the mouth.

Flavour:: sensation (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, glutinous) perceived on the tongue.


Tea and Health.

There are three xanthics present in tea: caffeine, theophylline and theobromine. These are organic substances that are found in all types of teas whatever its colour. Ever since its first appearance in Asia, tea has been considered beneficial for the body. Its oldest references come from historians advocating its medicinal properties: at first tea was used in the form of a paste, as a poultice to combat rheumatism. Legends about tea, whether Chinese, Indian or Japanese, all show, in their own way, the stimulating and invigorating properties of tea. The Emperor Shen Nung, father of Chinese medicine and farming, states in his Medical Book that, "tea relieves tiredness, strengthens the will, delights the soul and enlivens the sight." In the 20th century medical science allows us to understand scientifically the many benefits that tea drinkers have known empirically for over two thousand years. Xanthics There are three xanthics present in tea: caffeine, theophylline and theobromine. These are organic substances that are found in all types of teas whatever its colour.  


Caffeine.

This is the main xanthic in tea; it represents 2% to 3% of the dry leaf. It is important to realize that caffeine found in tea and coffee is one of the same molecule, the only difference being that it is proportionately more present in coffee. The caffeine content of a tea depends both on the leaf used - the bud and the first leaf contain twice as much as Souchong leaves - and on the season of the harvest, since climatic variations influence the maturity of the leaf. Some teas are therefore high in caffeine: new season crops, those with many buds; others are almost entirely bereft of caffeine: smoked teas and Wu Long (Oolong) teas. Caffeine is a strong stimulant to the nervous system. Unlike coffee, the caffeine in tea is released slowly into the body. Because of this, it allows us to stay awake and alert without becoming hyper. This makes tea the ideal beverage to accompany exercise, both mental and physical. While this stimulating effect can cause a slight tendency towards insomnia in sensitive people it is very easy, on the other hand, to "decaffeinate" one's tea at home without altering the flavour: because the caffeine in tea is a constituent which is released in the first few seconds of infusion, just rinse the leaves with a first pouring of boiling water, leave for about thirty seconds and then throw the water away.


Teophylline.

Theophylline is present in much smaller amounts than caffeine. Its function is essentially one of vasodilatation, in other words it helps to dilate veins and blood vessels, improving blood circulation. This explains why tea, whether ice cold or boiling hot, is a refreshing drink: vasodilatation is one of the mechanisms that contribute towards the thermoregulation of the body's temperature. Theophylline is also a respiratory stimulant, which is used in certain medicines for the treatment of asthma. However tea should not, under any circumstances, be considered as a remedy for this type of complaint.


Teobromine.

This xanthic, which is found in lesser quantities than the previous two, has a strong diuretic effect. By stimulating renal circulation, it encourages evacuation though the urinary tract.  


Vitamins.

Vitamin C Tea is a plant with a naturally high vitamin C content (about 250mg per 100g of fresh leaves). Unfortunately, this is completely destroyed from the minute the tea is infused in water at a temperature above 30°C. Tea cannot, therefore, be used as a source of vitamin C. On the other hand, flavonoids, one of the tannins found in tea, help promote the body's absorption of vitamin C. Vitamin P Tea contains a considerable amount of vitamin P, which increases capillary strength and shortens bleeding time. B group vitamins Highly soluble in water, many B vitamins are to be found in a cup of tea. They contribute to the general good health of the human body, by kick-starting the metabolism, in other words the whole series of reactions taking place within our organic tissue: energy output, nutrition, assimilation… Minerals Tea is rich in potassium and fluoride. On the other hand it is low in salt, which makes it perfectly suitable for salt-free diets. The importance of fluoride in the fight against dental cavities is well known. Tea contains 0.3mg per cup. Since we know that we need to absorb 1mg of fluoride per day to protect our tooth enamel, tea can be an effective contributor, if taken regularly.


Tea and Iron.

It is often said that drinking tea lowers iron levels in the blood. Indeed, the tannins present in tea, while being very beneficial to the body on many counts, do have one defect: they prevent the iron contained in foods from being totally absorbed by the body during digestion. A heavy daily consumption of tea (more than 1.5 litres) could have an effect on the body's absorption of iron. This does not pose a problem if the tea drinker does not suffer from an iron deficiency and has a well-balanced diet. If this is not the case, it is recommended to wait for 40 minutes after meals before drinking tea. Iron absorbed by the human body is found in red meats and, to a much lesser extent, in vegetables. A vegetarian therefore has a greater risk of iron deficiency. Pregnant women are also more at risk: during this period it might be better to limit consumption of tea.


Cultivation.

Growing tea used to be done from seeds that were re-planted. Nowadays reproduction of tea plants is basically accomplished by taking cuttings from selected plants. The cuttings are taken from the chosen plants and then replanted onto nursery beds where they will remain for 12 to 18 months. As soon as they turn into young plants, they are replanted in the main plantation, being spaced out in such a way that the fully grown bushes will cover the entire area when they reach maturity. The plant is left for 4 years before any leaves can be plucked. Constant pruning and shaping will form its required height of 1.20m, hence creating the plucking table and giving a good framework to the bush. It will not reach full growth until the fifth year when it will begin to produce. It will still be pruned at varying intervals - on average every two years - in order to keep it at a good height for plucking. A mature tea plant does not usually live for more than 40 or 50 years. Nonetheless some varieties can live up to 100 years. At the end of the fifth year, the tea plant is ready to be harvested. This operation, which consists of a light, repeated, pruning of the young shoots, is carried out in a 7 to 15 days cycle, depending on the growth, the climate and the amount of tea to be plucked. Plucking seasons in Asia: China: February to November, Northern India: February to November, Southern India: all year round, Indonesia: all year round, Japan: 4 times a year, from May to October, Sri Lanka: all year round except in high altitude, Taiwan: mainly in Spring, summer and autumn.  


The principal Tea categories.

Green tea, black tea, white tea, dark tea or red tea: tea comes in all colours and each colour corresponds to a very particular type of tea. At the root of this diversity is just the one plant: the tea plant, but its leaves have been processed in different ways and have undergone numerous transformations. The most important of these is fermentation, a chemical reaction that takes place as a result of enzymes contained in the fresh leaf. By setting off and controlling this process the tea planter gives its selected colour to the tea.

White Tea:  these are teas that have remained in their natural state. The leaves in this case only undergo two procedures: withering and firing. In order to obtain a level of moisture loss comparable to other teas, the leaves are left to wither for a much longer period of time: from 52 to 60 hours. They are then immediately dried in large pans for approximately half an hour. The process might appear simple but the production of white teas is nevertheless one of the most delicate. Withering in the open air is an operation impossible to control in terms of humidity and heat: the skill of the tea planter lies in accurately predicting weather conditions and organising the timing of the plucking accordingly. White teas are a Chinese speciality from the Fujian region.

Green Tea: green teas are un-fermented teas. Their preparation therefore aims to avoid any hint of fermentation. The leaves go through three processes: roasting, rolling and firing. Roasting The purpose of roasting is to kill those enzymes in the leaves that cause fermentation. In order to do this, the leaves are brutally heated to a temperature of around 100°C, either in large pans (the Chinese method) or by steam cooking (the Japanese way), for anything from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. The leaves thus become soft and easily bendable for the rolling process. Rolling The leaves are then rolled or folded by hand to give them the appearance of small sticks, balls, coils or actual tea leaves as is the case, for example with Long Jing tea. The operation can be carried out either hot or cold, according to the fineness of the harvest: young shoots are easily rolled cold since they have high water content, as opposed to more mature leaves which require immediate rolling after the roasting process, while they are still hot. The firing process The leaves are dried on racks called "tats" with hot air being circulated for two or three minutes. Then this process stops for half an hour leaving the leaves to rest, after which time the drying is repeated until the moisture content of the leaves is no more than 5 to 6%. .

Tea Wu Long or semi-fermented Teas: these are teas in which the fermentation has been interrupted mid-process. More mature leaves that therefore contain less tannin and caffeine are often used for this category of tea. Wu Long (Oolong) teas are a speciality of the Fujian province in China and of Taiwan. These Wu Long teas are currently divided into two categories: lightly fermented teas (10%-15% fermentation) prepared in the so-called Chinese way; and others where the fermentation process is much more important (60%-70%) in which the teas are processed according to a method more specifically developed in Taiwan. In practice the preparation of semi fermented teas is an area less clear-cut than this: each plantation has its own recipes and produces teas with different degrees of fermentation which does not necessarily correspond to these two categories. In order to classify Wu Long (Oolong) teas then, this guide has opted to use a criterion that expresses the degree of fermentation rather than using the traditional divisions made according to Chinese versus Taiwanese methods. Whatever the end product and notwithstanding local wisdom, all semi fermented teas have to go through the following procedures: Withering The leaves are left to wither in the sun for a few hours, and are then put in the shade to cool. The fermentation process begins. Sweating This is the most important stage in the preparation of semi fermented teas. The leaves are placed in a room that is kept at a constant temperature of between 22°C and 25°C with a humidity level of roughly 85%, in which they are continually stirred with ever-increasing force. This allows the aroma to be released and facilitates the evaporation of water. The final degree of sweating depends on the duration of this process: in the so-called Chinese method the fermentation is halted as soon as the leaves have reached a 10%-12% degree of fermentation and this produces light teas with a leafy flavour. The so-called Taiwanese method involves a longer period of sweating allowing fermentation to progress to a level of up to 70% and producing darker, fruitier teas. Roasting Once the desired degree of fermentation has been reached, roasting allows the tea enzymes' reaction to be halted. This procedure is identical to the one used to produce green teas. Rolling As is the case for green teas, the rolling process will give the tea leaves their twisted shape. Naturally, the leaves are often very large and are just creased or sometimes rolled into large pearls, as is the case with Dong Ding teas.

Black Tea: for black teas the fermentation process is allowed to run its full course. Legend has it that in the 17th century, a cargo of green tea from China arrived in London after a particularly long voyage. During the journey the tea chests had gone mouldy and the tea they contained had turned from green to black. Not great tea connoisseurs, the English enjoyed it so much that they asked for a new delivery to the Chinese… Withering This first procedure is to give to the leaf pliability for subsequent rolling. Fresh leaves lose 50% of their moisture. The harvest is spread out evenly on bamboo or hessian racks placed 12 to 18cm apart in a room. The room temperature is kept constant between 20°C-24°C with fans circulating air. This process usually takes between 18 and 32 hours. Rolling The rolling of black tea differs from green teas: its objective is not to twist the leaf but to break down its cell structure, in order to facilitate the enzymes reaction of the fermentation. If the leaves are lightly rolled they will produce a mild tea; if they are more twisted the tea will have a more pronounced flavour. Rolling can be carried out either by hand or by machine. Fermentation The leaves are sent next to the fermentation room. In these rooms the humidity ranges from 90% to 95% with a temperature from 20°C to 22°C. Ventilation needs to be good however without any draughts. The leaves are spread out in layers of between 4-6cm. Fermentation can last for anything from 1 to 3 hours, depending on the quality of the leaves, the season, the region and according to the strong colour desired. Roasting To stop fermentation the tea has to be brought to a high temperature as quickly as possible. Roasting usually takes place in large, cylindrical drying machines that heat the leaves to an average temperature of 90°C for 15 to 20 minutes. Grading The next thing that must be done is to sort the tea by grade. The tea is immediately sorted into two grades: broken leaves whole leaves Broken leaves are obtained either naturally when, whole leaves are broken during handling, or artificially by being cut with a machine. Whole leaves are classified according to the fineness of the harvest.

Smoked Tea: smoked teas are black teas. A Chinese story dates their appearance to around 1820 in the Fujian region. At this time the Chinese army had requisitioned a plantation. The plantation owner, having being told to free up the drying room found himself with a considerable quantity of wet leaves. As he didn't want to lose them, he decided to try dry them out quickly. He therefore lit a fire with some roots of a spruce tree and placed the leaves on it. The leaves dried in a few minutes and had a very particular smoked taste. A few days later a foreign trader, who happened to be visiting the planter, discovered this discarded batch of tea. He was seduced by its aroma and took it with him to Europe where it met with great success. Nowadays, to produce smoked teas the same process is followed: after rolling, the leaves are lightly grilled on a hot iron sheet then arranged on bamboo racks, above a spruce root fire. The length of this process depends on the level of smoking one wishes to attain. Smoked teas remain a speciality of the Fujian region and, like many teas from this area, they are also prepared in Taiwan.

Dark Tea: this type of tea, also known as Pu Er, is produced with a steaming process that provokes a non-enzymatic fermentation, different from the black teas. Before being rolled, the leaves undergo a specific type of roasting, which kills most of their enzymes. This is done in iron pans, heated to 280°C-320°C, into which the leaves are placed and then covered with straw. The straw stops the steam from escaping and allows the leaves to be steam cooked. This is essential as the leaves are old and therefore lacking in moisture. During this operation, the caffeine content of the leaves decreases. A first rolling is carried out, then the leaves are arranged in piles of about 1m high and covered with a damp cover that will keep a hygrometric level of 85%. This is the sweating process. It lasts about 24 hours and can be repeated several times. The size of the piles and the duration of the sweating period have important consequences for the tea produced; its aroma will be more, or less, enhanced. Dark teas can often be found in the form of compressed briquettes or bird's nests. They are also the only teas that improve with age and for which age can sometimes carry enormous weight when selling at auction.