March 22, 2016

Leaves in a Pot

Sherri Gardner

Tea is my favorite drink in the world. I favor black teas, usually an Earl Grey or English breakfast. I average two cups a day, and I'll drink it regardless of the temperature outside. I think it's a comfort thing. A hot cup of tea makes me feel warm and cuddly inside and helps me start the day with a clear head. Like so many other things that I enjoy in life, the discovery of tea was entirely accidental (at least that's what the legend says).

In ancient China, people discovered that boiling water got rid of impurities and made it safe to drink, so this became a standard practice to purifying water through boiling. Legend has it that one day, some leaves from a nearby tea plant landed in boiling water and began to brew. When Emperor Shennong came to check on the water, he noticed that it had changed color. Instead of dumping it out, he tasted it and enjoyed the aroma and flavor of the brewed leaves. And thus, tea was born. All by happy accident.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to 1607 when the Dutch East India Company brought tea to Europe. Decades later, tea made its way to England, where it was served in coffee houses. One of those coffee houses was owned by Thomas Twining and is about to celebrate it 310th anniversary here in London. Twinings has occupied the same space since 1706 and actually created the Earl Grey tea blend. Today, the company has the oldest logo still in use and makes the Queen's personal blend.

Last week I was in the Twinings shop for two hours, tasting and sampling six different teas during their master class. Two friends and I got there early and, as a treat, got a mug of Darjeeling white tea as we waited for the class to begin. At 10am, the leader of the class launched into a brief history of tea's origin, its arrival in London, the tea smuggling trade, the establishment of Twinings, and the beginning of afternoon tea.

After our history lesson, we learned how the six classes of tea are made and how the people in commodities taste and evaluate the teas that will be bought by the company. I also learned that in order to get all of the flavors in the tea, one should slurp from the spoon so that the liquid reaches all of the tongue's taste buds at once. We looked at the oils from the tea, the color of the liquid, the smell of the wet leaves, the flavor of the tea, the mouthfeel, the after taste, all of it. I was surprised to see what real tea looked and smelled like.

Truthfully, white tea, yellow tea, and green tea all smelled a bit like vegetables. Oolong smelled a bit fruity, but looked like vegetables once brewed. Black tea smelled earthy and tasted mostly bitter. Pu'erh, or fermented tea, smelled like compost and had a flavor that's only describable as vaguely unpleasant. By the end of the class, I felt like the tea version of a sommelier, and I was convinced that I could only drink loose teas from that moment forward.

When I got back to my apartment some hours later, the first thing I did was start making a cup of tea. As always, I started by emptying my kettle of the leftover water. London water is calcium-rich, and every time I heat it up, some of that calcium solidifies and sinks to the bottom of the pot. As I refilled the kettle, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of tea would suit this mineral rich water. For example, the signature Earl Grey tea was made with bergamot to counteract the lime that was in city's water at the time. I don't know what a master blender would select to go with my particular tap water, but generic brand Earl Grey tea tastes just fine to me.

The making of tea is simple. Heat water. Pour over tea bag and sugar. Stir. Sip. But the brewing of tea can be a temperamental process, especially for loose teas. The quality of water will change the taste. If it's too hot, the tea will become bitter and lose some its aroma. If it's too cold, the tea won't be as strong as it should. Allowing the tea to brew for too long can cause it to become bitter, or for the taste to go wonky. Flowering teas are dangerous because it's tempting to leave the pot as is, with the flower floating in the tea. But loose teas will brew for as long as they are submerged in water, so the beautiful tea will slowly destroy itself as the leaves continue to steep.

By the end of this post, I hoped to come to a revelatory statement relating tea and life. It was supposed to resonate and leave the reader nodding slowly with some sort of personal realization. But as I'm writing, tea is just tea and not everything is a metaphor. Last Wednesday, I had a wonderful time learning more about a drink that I enjoy daily. It made me smile to know that it was an accidental discovery. I thought it interesting that herbal and fruit teas are actually called infusions, or tisanes, because actual tea leaves aren't present. I was surprised to learn that afternoon tea is fancier than high tea. But more than anything, I was just happy to spend a few hours with friends, bonding over a mutual love of ours. The dried, sometimes oxidized, sometimes wilted leaves from the Camilla Sinensis plant.