Friday, September 29, 2017

Jasmine tea's many secrets

Jasmine plantation in Huatan, Changhua county, Taiwan
Jasmine tea and flower scented teas in general have a long history in Taiwan dating back to the end of 19th century. In those time, while Taiwan exported mostly Oolong to Europe and America, flower scented teas were very popular in South East Asia. In these warm countries, teas with light oxidation, or none at all, have a very pleasant cooling effect for the body and a refreshing taste for the mouth. And while green tea leaves don't stay fresh very long, the scenting of the leaves with flowers gives the tea additional power and fragrances that won't fade away easily. In a sense, scenting the green tea (or light Oolong) with flowers is a way to increase the longevity of this product like roasting for Oolong! This allowed tea to travel longer distances by sea.
The first secret of (good) jasmine tea is... real jasmine flowers! Today's chemical companies have come up with so many artificial flavors that most cheap teas are not 'scented' with real flowers but 'flavored' with all kinds of fragrances. But this cost reduction has always existed. In the past (and still today) one common way to reduce the cost of using jasmine flowers was to use bigger and more powerful flowers (like Yulan) instead of small jasmine flowers. This unbalanced competition between artificial flavors and real flowers has caused the closing of most jasmine producers in Taiwan... 
Jasmine flowers are harvested between June and September, when temperatures exceed 26/28 degrees Celcius (80 deg. Fahrenheit). They are closed during the day and become really fragrant during the night. They can be used for 7 days and are then thrown away.

Here is how the scenting happens:
The flowers are spread on and around the tea. The tea leaves are not spread thin, but grouped in the shape of a mount in order to reduce their interaction with air. And since we are on the subject of the tea leaves, here comes the second second secret of jasmine tea: the leaves that are used come from the second spring harvests (in June). The first spring harvests are much more expensive and don't require the addition of jasmine scents to sell. The second harvests happen at a time when the temperatures are higher and produce a stronger taste, but less refined scents. It's for those green teas or lightly oxidized Oolongs that the scenting with jasmine makes most sense.

Why are the leaves of jasmine tea cut small?

To answer this question, I have to reveal the third secret of jasmine tea: the flowers loose all their fragrance after 7 days. But their petals have a high moisture level and if you'd continue to keep them in contact with the tea, the leaves would oxidize and loose their freshness. That's why you have to separate the flowers from the tea after the scenting process (and the tea needs to be further dried). This separation happens on this machine that shakes the leaves and flowers. The smaller tea parts fall through the grid, while only the flowers remain at the end of the sorting machine. (See below)
While it's normal that small fragments of petals will also be present in the jasmine tea, actually most of the flowers are thrown away because they don't smell nice anymore. So, if you see lots of dry jasmine flowers in your jasmine tea, something's not right. It might be a trick to let you think that the tea was scented with real flowers...
Jasmine flowers land in the garbage bin!
Two factors impact the quality of jasmine tea:
1. the number of times that the tea leaves are scented with jasmine flowers. Usually, it's 3 times, but for top quality it's 6 times and for imperial quality it's 10 times.
2. the quality of the leaves also varies with quality. The sorting machine also sorts between thick and thin leaves. The imperial quality only uses the finest leaves, the top quality is a mix of both and normal jasmine tea uses thick leaves.

There are many ways of preparing jasmine tea. Here is one of the easiest and it comes with a little trick. Use roughly only 1 gram of tea for your gaiwan. After you've preheated your gaiwan, fill it half with boiling water. Then add the leaves to the water and pour water again slowly on these leaves. Doing so is gentler for the leaves. It's a way to slightly reduce the temperature of the water.
As they brew, the leaves will sink to the bottom and it's possible to drink directly from the gaiwan and use the lid as a filter. This is a very common way to drink jasmine tea in China. You continuously add boiling water when you almost finish your cup.
In order to avoid over-brewing the tea, it's best to use very few leaves and drink quickly while the tea is hot.
Jasmine scented tea isn't just a very nice casual tea, it's also a good tea pairing choice for Shanghai style cuisine. (The dumpling restaurant Ding Tai Fong is serving jasmine tea to its customers).
Three types of 2017 jasmine scented teas are now available in my selection. And, for a limited time, I am giving away 25 gr samples of this jasmine tea from 2016 for any purchase of 60 USD or more (excluding shipping) on my online tea boutique.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A spectacular tea pairing event at the Mandarin Oriental in Taipei

There's an iron rule in gongfu cha never to eat food while tasting tea. That's because tea has very light aromas that are easily obscured by food. So does that mean that food and tea never mix? This reminds of the joke with 2 priests who meet outside church while smoking a cigarette. The first one says: "Are you allowed to smoke in your monastery? In ours we can't." The second one says: "Sure, we can. How did you ask to be allowed to smoke?" The first priest says: "I asked if I may be able to smoke while I pray. They said no. How did you ask?" The second priest says: "I asked if I could pray while I smoke!"

So, the answer is that it's best not to have food while tasting tea, but you can have tea while eating! After all, tea and gastronomy are intimately related as I've recently shown.
Last Friday, the Chairman of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Taipei, M. Lin, organized a tea pairing dinner for a group of distinguished guests from Thailand. He asked M. Chi Zongxian (aka Teaparker, my tea master) to pair the Chinese dishes with tea. Teaparker then turned to me to brew these teas with the help of a few more persons. The goal wasn't merely to have tea with the dinner, but to match each dish with a tea in a harmonious and delicious way.

The first course consisted of several appetizers: roasted suckling pig, barbecued pork ribs with longyan (similar to lychee), jelly fish head in chilli sauce, black fungus with aged vinegar, pork knuckle in soy broth, dried tofu in soy broth. What all these dishes have in common is soy sauce and ginger. That's why an organic Concubine Oolong from Shan Lin Xi from 2016 is a great match: the honey scents are powerful enough and the sweet taste adds to the taste of the food. Besides, these appetizers are quite rich and could almost make one feel satisfied, but the tea opens up the appetite. I brewed this tea in my biggest Yixing zhuni teapot and served it in dragon and phoenix gaiwans from the 1970/80s. Thanks to the lid, the tea stayed hot longer in the air-conditioned room. To refill the cups, Teaparker let us use a Qing dynasty Yixing zisha water polished teapot that was made for export to Thailand. This gesture was very appreciated by the Thai guests.

The second course was a double-boiled codyceps in a black bone chicken soup. The paired tea was Wuyi Baijiguan from the Yu tea plantation brewed in a Duanni teapot and served in wine glasses at a cooled down temperature unlike other teas. This dish was also paired with a 1986 chateau Mouton Rothschild. Baijiguan has a moss and mushroom like fragrance with a delicate, sweet taste. The guests drink the tea after drinking half the soup. They notice that the aromas of the soup intensify as they drink the Baijiguan and that the tea echoes the wine in terms of refinement. Fittingly, we refill the cups with a Japanese silver teapot with a spout in the shape of a phoenix head! 

The third course was a braised sea cucumber with spring onion. It was paired with a clone of one of the Wuyi DaHongPao bushes, the Qidang, from this spring. I brewed it in my antique Dehua porcelain teapot. It smelled like a bouquet of roses with a deep taste of rocks.

The fourth course is braised goose feet with abalone in abalone sauce. The same Qidang Yancha is used here. The fine abalone taste complements well the elegant taste of the Qidang. We refill the cups with a big 19th century silver dragon teapot. 

The fifth course is star garoupa fish with spring onions. The sixth course is poached baby cabbage and bamboo pith in superior broth. These 2 dishes have light aromas and are paired with this wild raw spring 2017 puerh tea brewed in my silver dragon and phoenix silver teapot. The fresh spring buds add a fresh feeling to the fish and vegetables. The cups are refilled with a gold teapot and added to the luxury feeling in this 5 stars hotel!

After this dinner, M. Lin gave us his feedback about this tea pairing event. For him, wine is a natural companion for a dinner, because it gives a party feeling. Everybody feels 'high' and easy going thanks to the alcohol. Tea seems to have an opposite effect, making people quiet and zen, but it also provides with interesting new pairing possibilities.

For Teaparker, such a tea pairing event was the first of its kind in Asia. It was a small, but important step to show the pairing potential of tea. This will become a future trend in upscale restaurants and it's going to be an exciting field of exploration and innovation. 

As for me, I think that M. Lin is right to point out the opposite effects of tea and wine. But this doesn't mean that tea and wine should necessarily be opposed to each other. On the contrary, as my cheese, wine and tea pairing event showed, tea and wine can also be complementing each other. Tea helps to delay the point when you feel to inebriated, while wine adds a celebratory mood to the meal. And both can provide good matches for the food. This approach is also probably easier to promote to restaurants where wine is often a cash cow that nobody wants to see replaced.

(This article is based on free translation of Teaparker's recent articles with his kind permission).

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The purest form of gastronomy is Tea

(This is an improved translation of an article I published in French a few days ago.) The way we practice skilled tea is gastronomy in its purest form. Tea and gastronomy are both rooted in desire rather than in need. We practice them because we want and love to, not just because we have to. Where gastronomy is the sublimation of hunger, tea sublimes thirst. These two primary needs, hunger and thirst, have the same origin: the constant regeneration need of the body. Hunger is more painful than thirst, but it's possible to survive much longer without eating than without drinking. And while it's possible to eat a little more when you are not hungry, there won't be much pleasure. It's still very important to feel hungry in order to arouse a desire for good food. Thirst, on the other hand, is such a fundamental need for the body that it's almost always possible to drink without feeling thirsty. So, if satiety kills the desire for gastronomy, quenching one's thirst doesn't suppress the desire for tea. There's always space for a small cup of tea! The desire for tea is therefore more sublime, because it exists beyond thirst.

For foodies, quality is more important than quantity. A good meal isn't judged by the number of calories or by the number of spoons we ingest, but by the quality of the feelings the food generates. For the best teas, it's also not the number of brews that matters. Sometimes, a single cup is enough to satisfy us immensely. In both cases, we pay attention to the quality of the main ingredients that come from specific origins. They are grown in harmony with nature, then they are harvested and transformed by traditional means by skilled farmers. But while the number of ingredients in a recipe is often 10 or more, a tea session only requires one type of tea leaves and good water. It's that simple and pure!
After the ingredients, let's turn our attention to the preparation. Here again, the recipe of tea is extremely simple compared to food: add very hot water to the leaves, let them brew and serve! But every detail has its importance. How many leaves? What water temperature? Should I preheat or rinse? How long should the tea brew? What tea vessel and tea cup should you use? There's no consensus, even tea experts. All this depends on the tea you are brewing and the flavors you wish to highlight. This fine tuning requires the same experience and skill as a good cook. 2 persons may follow the same detailed food recipe, but the result will never be exactly the same. The difference between good and excellent is how well you are able to adapt to circumstances and feel when it's ready. For tea this is very much the case, because with its very simple recipe, tea gives the brewer the most freedom to use his skills and experience. 
In today's virtual world, there's a new found pleasure in creating something with your hand that you can feel and even eat or drink. But creating a meal takes time and experience and so, many people choose to skip this pleasure and go to the restaurant instead or reheat something prepared by someone else. Making a tea is much less daunting or time consuming. And it may teach people the pleasure and magic of cooking: combining 2 or more ingredients with heat.

For all these reasons, tea is the purest form of gastronomy. You can brew tea whenever you want, at any time of the day. It's zero calorie! And the cost for the leaves for a tea session only rarely exceeds that of a hamburger! So, even though tea has an elitist reputation, it is a healthy and simple food pleasure for all!
Note: the pictures for this article show various roasted Oolongs I brewed recently.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Le thé, gastronomie à l'état pur

Le thé tel que nous, vous et moi, le pratiquons est une forme idéale de gastronomie. Au départ du thé et de l'art de la table, il y a le désir dans toute sa noblesse et non le besoin. La gastronomie, c'est la sublimation de la faim, tandis que le thé, c'est la sublimation de la soif. Ces deux besoins primaires que sont faim et soif ont la même origine: le besoin de régénérence continuelle du corps. La faim est plus douloureuse que la soif, mais l'on peut vivre sans manger bien plus longtemps qu'on pourrait vivre sans boire. Certes, on peut manger (un peu) sans faim, sans le besoin de de sustenter, mais le désir d'un bon repas est un moteur nécessaire à ce désir. Or, le besoin en eau du corps est si fondamental qu'on peut tout à fait boire sans soif. Si la satiété tue l'envie gastronomique, l'épanchement de la soif ne supprime pas le désir d'un bon thé. Il y a toujours de la place pour une petite coupe de thé! Le désir de thé est donc plus sublime, car il est au-delà du besoin.
Lorsqu'il s'agit de gastronomie, la qualité prime sur la quantité. Un bon repas n'est pas jugé sur le nombre de calories ou de bouchées, mais par la qualité des émotions générées en bouche. Pour les meilleurs thés, il suffit parfois d'une petite coupe pour nous procurer des plaisirs intenses. Dans les deux cas, on commence à la source, par la qualité des produits venant de terroirs spécifiques. Ils y sont cultivés en harmonie avec la nature et travaillés, transformés de manière artisanale par des agriculteurs exigeants. Mais au lieu d'avoir de nombreux ingrédients, chaque session de thé n'utilise qu'une seule sorte de feuilles à la fois et de l'eau. On ne saurait faire plus simple et plus pur.
Après avoir porté notre attention aux ingrédients, il est nécessaire de s'intéresser à la recette. A première vue, le thé est de nouveau une simplification extrême de la gastronomie puisque la recette est courte et ne change pas. Il suffit d'ajouter de l'eau très chaude aux feuilles, de laisser infuser et de servir. Mais chaque détail à son importance. Combien de feuilles? La température de l'eau? La force de la verse? Le temps d'infusion? Le choix de la théière, des coupes? Tout dépend des feuilles et de quelles saveurs ont veut mettre en avant. Cela demande la même expérience et le même savoir-faire qu'un très bon cuisinier. La recette ne donne que les grandes lignes. Ce qui fait la différence entre le bon et le sublime, c'est de s'adapter aux circonstances et de sentir quand c'est bon.
Il y a un plaisir immense dans la création d'un bon plat. Mais comme cela prend du temps et de l'expérience, pour un grand nombre de gens, on préfère mettre une croix sur ce plaisir de cuisiner et se contenter du celui de la table d'un restaurant.
Pour un thé comme celui que vous voyez sur ces photos, j'ai eu tous les plaisirs! Ce top Hung Shui Oolong vient des hautes montagnes d'Alishan. Il a été torréfié traditionnellement au charbon de bois de longyan. Récolté au printemps 2016, ses arômes s'affinent avec le temps comme un bon vin ou un bon fromage. Fraîcheur et torréfaction lui donnent une complexité et nous offrent un challenge: arriver à l'infuser de manière à préserver cette tension entre ces deux pôles. C'est ce que je fis avec un simple gaiwan en porelaine dans un joli Chaxi. Le plaisir pour mes papilles fut le même qu'un morceau de chocolat noir enrobé de café et dégusté en pleine nature! Ce thé-ci est absolument fantastique. Il est très proche des meilleurs Yancha de Wuyi, mais son prix reste plus que raisonnable.
Le thé, c'est de la gastronomie simplifiée, réduite à ses concepts les plus purs. On le fait soi-même au moment qui nous convient. Et c'est zéro calorie! De plus, le coût des feuilles pour une session ne dépasse que rarement le prix d'un hamburger! Aussi, malgré sa réputation élitiste, le thé est le plaisir à porter de tous!

Friday, September 08, 2017

The One

This morning, I noticed a swimmer on lane 1 swimming at a fast pace. For 5 laps, I managed to keep up with him, but then, exhausted, I had to let him go ahead of me. It's my competitive spirit to often try to excel and be better than others. I think I would have loved to live during the Sung dynasty and compete for the tea foam that lasts longest in one's black glazed bowl!
As a tea collector and tea enthusiast, I also try to find what's best. It's not just for the pleasure of being number one, but more to know what it is like when you come close to perfection. Usually, for me, it is a pretty good feeling! One thing that all great teas have in common is a prolonged aftertaste. This means that you can enjoy them long after finishing your cup. Such teas become companions, a presence of pure, natural aromas and sweet, energetic taste.
In the last 10 years, it has become more and more difficult to find excellent young puerh. Market prices for old arbor puerh have been rising every year in Yunnan, while the quality of the leaves decreased progressively. Some very old trees became protected and off limits to producers, while others became overexploited. Formerly abandoned plantations of old puerh trees are tended with fertilizers to increase production... However, high prices also had the effect of making remote wild forests more accessible and worth exploring. That's how one of my contacts in Yunnan found a several wild puerh trees estimated around 500 years old in a remote, rocky and secret forest in Yunnan. Apparently, these trees had never been harvested before according to the villagers who live closest to this spot.
This is a familiar story that we have read and heard many times during the last ten years. It's completely normal to be suspicious and careful at this point. The best thing to do at this point is to listen to the leaves.
This means brewing a rather small amount of this puerh in a porcelain gaiwan for a long time. It's the method most tea judges use to evaluate a tea. The porcelain vessel ensures a certain neutrality of taste. And the long brewing time means you are pushing the leaves to their limits: only the best tea still tastes great when brewed extra long.
What happens next is that you analyze and compare this tea to all the other young raw puerhs that you have experienced so far. I think I have tasted a great number of cakes, loose leaves... of fresh puerh in the last 15 years, but this one tops them all when it comes to purity, energy and sweetness.
Right now, this puerh has a sweet scent of jasmine flowers. Like the taste, the scents are very pure, natural and clean.
What I find most enjoyable and fascinating with this puerh is the purity and harmony of its aromas. It's like a solo concert of virtuoso violin player instead of an orchestra. There's only one note, but it is both powerful and elegant.
The tea friends with whom I have tasted this cake so far were all amazed by how great it tastes when considering its young age. It's more than simply drinkable! This is consistent with my experience of great puerhs like my 2003 wild Yiwu and the 2006 wild Lincang: they were all a pleasure to brew from day 1!
What about its price? Isn't it much more expensive than old arbor puerh from 10 years ago? Of course, it is much more expensive, but there is no going back to these price levels. Wages and living standards have increased a lot in China and among tea farmers in Yunnan. And for Chinese consumers of such top quality teas, money isn't a problem anymore.
How do I justify the fact that I purchased several tongs of this puerh? From a value point of view, good puerh packs more aromas than other teas. That's one reason why it's possible to age it. I usually use fewer leaves with puerh and I am able to get more brews from them. So, on a cup basis, this puerh is still cheaper than Oolong from DaYuLing!
My second justification is that this puerh tastes so good that I actually believe that it comes from a remote forest of aged trees that have been harvested for the first time. This level of purity is at its peak this year. Who knows how the village will handle the next harvests? By paying the requested price without bargaining, I hope that the trees will be treated in a sustainable way to keep the quality highest. However, this is out of my control. All I can do is keep the place a secret so that few buyers show up there. In any case, the quality of a first harvest is difficult to be topped and tea prices of such old arbor puerh are likely to continue to increase in the future.
It took 10 years for such an opportunity to present itself. With my character, I couldn't pass this chance of owning, selling and frequently enjoying the best fresh raw wild puerh I had ever tasted!
This is the one!
The one that defines quality and purity in wild, old arbor puerh.
The one tea to rule the kings of puerh.
The one tea with limitless aging potential.
The one tea to bring on a desert island.
The one tea that you should experience once in your life.
And to make this tasting affordable, I have made the one available as 10 grams sample. This should be enough for at least 3 sessions of many brews.

Note: this puerh has been tested for chemicals in China and Taiwan, and both reports showed that all unwelcome chemicals were indeed absent from these leaves.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Michel François's artistic tea wares

Bai Lun black glazed porcelain bowl
Michel François is a French artist who lives and works in Cornwall, UK. There, he has opened the Falmouth Pottery. But before becoming a ceramist, Michel François was a sculptor and used to carve big blocks of white Carrara marble. He had a shot at fame in the modern world of art for millionaires and big foundations, but he quickly found out that this wasn't the life and art he had been dreaming of. He didn't want to make big monuments for the (vain) satisfaction of today's financial elites. He wanted to create art that could be used and bring beauty to the lives of a great number of people.

Bai Lun black glazed porcelain bowl
That's why Michel François became a ceramist instead. One of his essential inspiration comes from 'The unknown craftsman, a Japanese insight into Beauty' by Soetsu Yanagi. Tea plays a big part in this book and in Michel's life. Tea is where the functional beauty of the accessories is most appreciated. That's why Michel François is mostly making tea ware that is meant to be used.
Bai Lun black glazed porcelain bowl
Thus, Michel François follows the same kind of inspiration as David Louveau, Petr Novak, Jacob Bodilly, and Dalloun Dalloun. As a tea blogger, it is my greatest pleasure to exchange ideas and tea with all these potters. Each time I receive a package from one of them, it's like opening a Christmas gift as a kid! This summer , while in France, I received a big package from Michel François. (These bowls and cups are now available in my selection.)
Bai Lun black glazed porcelain bowl
In this article, I am testing the Bai Lun black glazed porcelain bowl and the black glazed porcelain bowl with a blue comet with matcha.
These bowls are inspired by Sung dynasty black glazed bowls, sometimes also named Tianmu bowls. The most classic bowls came from Jianyang, Fujian province and were made with dark clay. However, in northern China, some kilns imitated these glazed bowls, but used white clay (Jizhou kiln, for instance). So, using white porcelain as clay for a black glazed bowl isn't a modern innovation. It's actually in the spirit of ancient times, because potters would always work with the same local clay that they could get near their kiln.
This porcelain clay is one of the major characteristic that sets Michel François apart from the other potters I have mentioned above. Except maybe Jacob Bodilly (who is a very good friend and former co-worker of Michel François), the other potters are not porcelain specialists. Stoneware clay will always appear rougher and more natural, while porcelain will tend towards more purity and elegance. I don't mean to say that one approach is better than the other. In terms of pairing, unglazed stoneware cups are better fits with puerh tea, while porcelain cups work well with all other teas.
And the choice of porcelain as Michel François clay of choice is in harmony with his more artistic and aesthetic approach. That's why he has spent time to find very high quality porcelain: it comes from New Zealand and has a high kaolin content and purity. This use of excellent material that hasn't been industrially refined makes his wares better and more valuable.
The shape and size of his bowls is very similar to that of Sung dynasty bowls. They perform their function well when you use them to whisk green tea powder. The thick black glaze is a nice contrast to the light tea foam. The bowl is stable and retains the heat well.
Michel François's innovation on these bowls are natural wood ashes that he adds on his glaze and that will give this blue color on the black glaze. Blue was one of the most difficult color to obtain on Sung dynasty Jianyang bowls. The most famous example is displayed in Tokyo's Seikado Bunko Art Museum.
These blue spots may look like comet hair or even like far away galaxies in dark space... The mind is drawn to new horizons while admiring these bowls. This makes the tea experience even more heavenly!
When tea ware is made by hand, there are always some irregularities. Here's what Yanagi has to say about this: "Now, although I am not personally drawn to works in which distortion is purposely attempted, I believe that truly beautiful objects usually contain in them some element of irregularity. (...) Beauty dislikes being captive to perfection. That which is profound never lends itself to logical explanation: it involves endless mystery."
These black glazed bowls can also be used as Jianshui, waste water bowls. Their dark color is elegant and hides impurities. It's the opportunity to use hand crafted tea ware made by a porcelain artist at a very reasonable price. And with last year's Brexit, the British pound has never been that low! The timing couldn't be better.
If a bowl is too expensive for your budget, you could consider one of Michel François's green celadon tea cups or his light blue ones. Where else is it possible to own, admire and use a smooth, elegant and unique piece of art for less than 50 US dollars!?
Thank you, Michel, for creating these artistic tea wares that add beauty and meaning to our tea experience! And thanks to my readers' support, I will soon make another tea exchange with you. May my teas give you new inspiration to continue your way.
Merci l'artiste!