My grandmother used to say that nothing in life was so bad that a good cup of tea couldn’t help. Sure she probably plagiarized it from a book or Irish proverb, but she lived by it. No matter what the situation her response was always, “Oh no, I’ll put a pot on for tea.” Really, we lost Uncle Walter overboard and she is going to fix it with a bloody cup of tea? As I got older I learned to understand her thinking. When there is nothing you can do, making tea is doing something. Then of course the actual act of drinking the tea is a break, psychologically anyway, from the situation; the hot beverage equivalent of counting to 10 to calm the nerves.
Perhaps there is something to be said for this matriarchal wisdom because tea is right up there with wine as a global libation to the gods of every day troubles. In fact, tea is second only to water as the most widely consumed beverage in the world, according to Alan McFarlane’s book “The Empire of Tea”.
I want to make it perfectly clear that I am talking about real Tea, not that herby flowery stuff you buy in the bean sprout and granola section of the super market. Tea is made from the leaves and leaf buds of the Camellia Sinensis plant. From this glorious plant there are six types of tea: White, Green, Yellow, Black, Oolong and Post-fermented. Each type is a little different but equally delicious in my opinion. I must admit however, I have never actually stepped up to the counter at Starbucks and ordered a Post-fermented tea.
Post-fermented tea is green tea that has been allowed to ferment by composting. Here it gets a bit confusing. Post-fermented tea is green tea that turns dark and called black tea in Asian countries, which is not black tea because black tea is called red tea in Asian countries. In western countries black tea is just black tea because we don’t have red tea. With that out of the way we simply call post-fermented tea Pu-erh. This remarkable product is aged for many months to many years to achieve a very smooth mellow flavor. It is purchased in small cubes or disks and is extremely expensive. A typical 350gram disk aged for 50 years can sell for up to $2,000. It is said to be a great weight loss aid. I suppose I would lose my appetite after a $150 cup of tea as well.
The Fujian province of China is known for the highest quality white tea. The leaves are wilted before picked to lose the grassy taste that can accompany the tea. An article in Science Daily describes several studies that have shown a wide range of health benefits attributed to white tea. Results show high levels of anti-oxidants that help prevent cancer and heart disease. White tea has also been shown to reduce the enzyme activity that breaks down the elastin and collagen; the two agents that keep our skin looking young and healthy. High ant- viral and anti-bacterial qualities have been attributed to white tea as well. Second only to white tea for these health benefits is bladderwrack. You just can’t find a decent cup of bladderwrack any more though.
Green tea is all the rage for the past few years in the west. In Japan however, green tea is so common that it is simply referred to as tea. China produces and exports more than 80 percent of the worlds green tea supply compared to Japan at only 9.5 percent. Green tea is very much a part of the Japanese culture, which is evident in the care that goes into cultivating and grading the tea. There are 16 types of green tea produced in Japan that vary greatly in price. Yale University published a paper that calls the low cardiovascular and cancer rates the Asian Paradox because of the high number of smokers. Theory suggests it is directly related to the amount of green tea consumed. This theory is also backed and published by the Journal of the American College of Surgeons202: 813-825 (May 2006) It makes a tasty iced tea as well.
It is safe to assume that tea does the body good. This one simple plant has travelled the world and made such an impact that countries formed and wars fought over it. The United States got its start with a huge tea party in Boston. My personal love for tea started with my first trip to the UK. After the first three days, I decided that I was looking in vain for a decent cup of coffee. Reluctantly I gave in and had my first cup of Earl Grey with breakfast. Since that time I make it a point to always have tea when travelling. I have found that every place I visit has a certain twist to the way tea is prepared and served. Some places are more different than others when it comes to the typical western cup of tea.
In Tibet and Central Asia Pu-reh is mixed with yak butter to make a thick creamy tea called Bo Ja. The tea and butter is shaken in a wooden cylinder called a dogmo and shaken until thick and frothy. It resembles more of a soup than tea and is quite tasty and filling.
In Central Europe a grog like drink is made with rum and black tea called Jagertee. In German it means hunter tea. The rum and tea mixture has long been enjoyed in the winter months and recently become chic in the ski resorts of the Swiss Alps.
In Morocco green tea is served with flair. The Moroccan tea ceremony is unlike any I have encountered. It starts with water and orange flower to wash your hands. A small amount of boiling water is added to the pot and swirled to warm it. Gunpowder green tea and mint is added to the pot and shaken to rinse the ingredients. The water is then poured off and discarded. With a little copper hammer a loaf of sugar is broken into pieces and added to the tea and mint leaves. The pot is then filled with boiling water and left to steep for four minutes. The tea is then poured from a full arms length to aerate the tea and create a frothy head.
In Malaysia Teh Tarik is a beverage made with black tea and condensed milk. This is often served by street vendors and kiosks in which a show of making it attracts customers like a street performer. The creation of this drink looks as though the preparer is pulling the tea from one glass to the other in long, well timed movements. This act is as entertaining as it is tasty.
For every rule there is an exception. The health benefits of tea are thrown out the window in the Russian Prison system with the popular beverage Chafir. My travels allowed me to experience this drink once and only once. I had heard the name in a song about Russian gulags on a train from Novosibirsk to Barnaul. I struck up a conversation with a man that led to the topic of Chafir. He claimed that it was tea consumed mostly by prisoners because of the drug like effects. He assured me that it contained nothing more than black tea, water and sugar. He went further on to say that he could make it for me on the train if I were interested in trying it. He left the car I was in to an unknown location and came back with a paper cup filled with a very black liquid about 10 minutes later. He had gone through all the trouble of getting this for me so I felt obligated to drink it. I remember three distinct memories from the experience. 1.) This tastes horrible. 2.) I am never going to sleep again. 3.) Why are the lavatories on Russian trains always out of order? Chafir is made by mixing 25 grams of black tea to eight ounces of boiling water and a few spoons of sugar to make it less disgusting. The normal cup of tea is 2.5 ounces of tea to six ounces of water.
Tea ceremonies in Japan, United Kingdom’s afternoon break “tea time”, Americans with milk and sugar or Inuit Indians drinking it black, tea ties the people of the world together with a common bond. Tell me one of your tea travel stories in the comments section below.