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Alimentary, My Dear

The Tao of Tea

By Tamia Nelson

July 10, 2001

Whether they're seated at the breakfast table at home or squatting by a campfire back of beyond, most Americans are coffee-drinkers, and I'm no exception. I drink less coffee now than I did when I was a mineralogy student, but I still look forward to my morning cup. During the rest of the day, however, I prefer tea.

This wasn't always the case. Until I met Farwell, I assumed all tea was made by dunking little paper envelopes into cups of tepid water. The contents of those envelopes always smelled vaguely of wet straw, and the resulting beverage tasted much the same. I simply couldn't see the attraction. When I heard the Brits described as a nation of tea-drinkers, I had a hard time understanding how so many masochists could survive being crowded together on a small, damp island in the North Atlantic, with nothing but cups of tea to help them keep out the chill. That seemed more than the human frame could bear.

Then Farwell showed me the error of my ways. This came as a surprise. Farwell's not a Foodie. He is—or was, at any rate—strictly an eat-to-survive type. But he somehow learned how to make a good cup of tea early in life.

Curiously, he isn't sure just how (or when) this happened. He can remember his father telling him, in hushed and wondering tones, of British armored columns halting on the drive north through Italy to "brew a cuppa," even as HE rounds from German 88s shrieked into the muddy earth around their idling tanks, showering the huddled crews with clods of earth—and, occasionally, bits of their comrades, as well. To the end of his days, Farwell's father was amazed at the strength of the Brits' apparently irrational compulsion. And he remained a coffee-drinker.

Later, when the Marine Corps invited Farwell to become one of the few and the proud—it was an honor he simply couldn't refuse—tea wasn't on the menu.

So the mystery remains. Somewhere between the age of ten and twenty-five, Farwell learned how to appreciate the "cups that cheer but not inebriate." And sometime after that, he taught me.

OK. Just how do you brew a good cup of tea? Here's one recipe, adapted from the work of the sixteenth-century "father of the Japanese Tea Ceremony," Sen no Rikyu:

Tea is only water, heated to a boil
And poured over leaves.
Make it with care and savor each mouthful.
That's all there is to it.

Stripped bare of all ceremonial embellishment and reduced to these essentials, the brewing of tea is a delightfully simple process. But this apparent simplicity conceals an unexpected richness of detail. Let's examine each element in turn.

Tea is only water…

"Only water"? To make a good cup of tea, you need cold, clear, clean water. This can be surprisingly hard to find. The water that comes out of the taps in many cities smells (and tastes) like it's drawn from a municipal swimming pool. And drawing water directly from rivers and lakes is almost never wise. In his history of the Krupp dynasty, William Manchester notes that the waters of the Ruhr "pass through the human body eight times" during their journey to the sea. While the Ruhr is a special case—it flows through Germany's industrial heartland—few rivers anywhere in North America escape entirely unscathed. Paper mills, mines, and communities without sewage-treatment systems can be found in the remotest corners of the continent, as well as in the most highly-regulated and heavily-populated states.

Spring water, on the other hand, is often delightfully cold and clear—if you can find a spring that hasn't been fouled by the remains of someone's picnic lunch or contaminated by agricultural run-off, that is. But is it also clean? Maybe. And maybe not. The only universally-applicable rule is the one propounded by Colin Fletcher in The Complete Walker: "If in doubt, doubt." And treat. Unfortunately, the easiest and most effective water-treatment agent, tetraglycine hydroperiodide (Potable-Aqua is one familiar brand-name), imparts a distinctive flavor to water, even at the minimum effective dosage of 0.5 milligrams of free iodine per liter. A warning: while this dosage will kill pathogenic viruses and bacteria if given adequate contact time, it won't touch encysted parasites. The remedy? Much higher doses (as much as 16 milligrams of free iodine per liter) or supplementary microfiltration.

Tap-water being what it is, and certified springs being few and far between, many folks now buy their drinking water at the supermarket. But hauling bottled water with you really isn't practical on any trip longer than an over-nighter. Happily, though, tea-making necessarily involves boiling, and simply bringing water to a boil kills pathogenic organisms, even at elevations as high as 10,000 feet.

…heated to a boil…

So bring your water—clear, cold, fresh water—to a rolling boil. Just that, and no more. Water left to simmer for more than a minute or two makes flat, insipid, characterless tea. Once steam issues forth from your pot or kettle, lose no time in pouring it over your tea leaves.

And poured over leaves.

Leaves. Tea leaves. Not bags. Not herbs. (Herbal "teas" are tisanes. These can be wonderfully refreshing, but they're not tea.) Tea leaves. And where can you get leaf tea? Try your local supermarket first. Lipton sells what they call "loose tea" in one-half pound boxes. It's not bad—think of it as the jug wine of teas—and it costs just about the same, cup for cup, as Lipton's bag teas. But it's much, much better.

If you're feeling more adventurous, the sky's the limit. Local food co-ops often have a good selection. Don't buy any tea that's been packed in clear plastic bags and displayed on a self, though. Sunlight and the odors of other foods will quickly destroy the character of even the best tea. Buy only those teas that are packed in tins, retort packs, or air-tight treated paper bags.

Your town doesn't have a food co-op? No problem. A quick Internet search or a flip through the pages of any Foodie magazine will turn up several international tea merchants. They'll be happy to supply your needs, and then some. One catalog on my desk offers at least 200 varieties of tea, in packages ranging from 100 grams (3½ ounces) to 1 kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds).

Too much choice? Possibly. But it's not as bad as it seems. All "true" teas come from one plant, Camellia sinensis. Differences between teas reflect their place of origin—tea is grown in China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, and Japan, and in several African countries, as well—the size of the leaf, and the nature of post-harvest processing. Teas which are fixed by steaming shortly after processing are called "green" teas. Other teas are allowed to ferment. Those which ferment longest are "black" teas, while varieties intermediate between green and black are styled "oolong."

I could go on at some length, but since you'll probably be happiest making your own discoveries, I'll just tell you about three teas that I've found good, both in the bush and back at home. First, there's the Lipton "loose tea" I've already mentioned. It's cheap, widely-available and perfectly satisfactory. Need I say more?

Then, for an after-dinner cup at the water's edge, give Earl Grey a try. It's a blended, flavored tea, and there are as many Earl Greys as there are tea merchants. Still, almost all of them are made from a black tea base, scented with oil of bergamot, a flavoring derived from citrus peel. It's not to everyone's taste, I admit, and it's not something I'd choose for breakfast, but I find it goes down a treat at the end of a long day. Maybe you will, too.

Lastly, when you're ready to begin your tea apprenticeship in earnest, pick up one of the teas grown in the Darjeeling district of northern India. With a characteristically subtle yet complex flavor, darjeeling is sometimes called the champagne of teas, at least by advertising copywriters. And it's available in a bewildering variety of grades and types, both blended and "single-estate." Distinctions are made between the first picking and later harvests (or first and second flush, in the jargon of the trade), between teas with a lesser or greater proportion of golden tips (the latter are said to be "tippy"), and so on. It's all wonderfully esoteric. Indeed, if patience and pocketbook permit, there's nothing to prevent a tea buff from competing on equal terms with any wine snob. For the rest of us, however, even brown-bag darjeeling makes a fine, bracing cup of tea. And that's the important thing.

Make it with care…

How do you make a good cup of tea? Bring your water to a rolling boil, and then splash a little into the pot to preheat it—an earthenware pot is best, but stainless steel and aluminum make much more sense in the field—swirling the water around in the pot and then dumping it out. Next, measure a teaspoon of tea for every six ounces of water that you'll be adding: use well-rounded teaspoons for coarse, large-leaf teas like (most) Earl Greys, and slightly rounded teaspoons for small-leaf teas like Lipton's or darjeeling. Put the loose tea directly into the pot. Do NOT use a tea-ball or infuser. Now pour vigorously boiling water over the leaves, put the lid on the pot, and set it to one side. (If you're using a metal pot, wrap it in a towel or shirt to hold in the heat.) Let the tea steep for three to five minutes—large-leaf teas usually require a longer steeping time—stir and pour. Use a stainless-steel mesh strainer to keep tea leaves out of your cup. You're done! Sit back and enjoy a really good cup of tea.

…and savor each mouthful.

Chances are that you will. Leaning against a moss-covered rock at the edge of a lake, watching the sun disappear behind a dense hedge of spruce on the opposite shore, you'll find that the day's anxieties and frustrations slide away. You may even begin to understand why British troops risked their lives for a mug of tea on the road to Monte Cassino.

That's all there is to it.

And it is, too. The Tao of tea. Anyone for a cuppa?

The Character of Tea

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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