Steeped in Tradition

Alice – of Wonderland fame – would have jumped at the invitation.

So did I.

“You are invited,” it said, “to the World’s Biggest Tea Party. It’s happening in Hong Kong.“

Three weeks later, after jetting halfway around the world, I found myself sitting on a straw mat on the asphalt of the sprawling parking lot of Tamar Square, the site of Hong Kong’s hand-over ceremonies in 1997.

So were 4,950 other brewers and sippers. It was the strangest tea party I had ever attended.

Yet like Hong Kong itself, it was a big, glitzy, gutsy spectacle. The purpose, according to the organizers, the Hong Kong Tea Alliance, was to establish a new world record in the big tea-party category and, at the same time, to raise funds for poor tea farmers in the hill areas of mainland China.

So there we sat, listening to entertainment on the huge stage, each person brewing a cup of tea in a teacup with hot water drawn from a little thermos, nibbling on delicate pieces of traditional Chinese cake – and sipping.

To learn more about tea culture, we later visited the Lock Cha Shop, a place where, as the translation has it, one can “have fun with tea.” The owner, Ip Wing-chi, has a degree in fine arts and a fascination with Chinese culture and traditions that extends far beyond art. Through the week, Mr. Ip hosts free classes for tourists. Since that include us, not only did we learn to make the perfect Chinese cuppa, but we are also warmed to the finer points of local tea-drinking etiquette. Mr. Ip delights in sharing an ancient saying, particularly with his students of a certain age. “Life is like tea,” he says. “The longer it steeps, the richer it becomes.”

We learned that according to legend, tea was discovered in 2737 BC when a few leaves from a wild tea plant blew their way into Chinese Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of hot water. The emperor was entranced by what he tasted and soon the golden brew spread, first across China and then to Japan. Tea finally reached Europe in the 17th century when Portuguese and Dutch traders brought it home, along with spices and silks. That’s when the British began their love affair with the brew.

But the tradition of afternoon tea in England didn’t take hold until the early 19th century when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, found the gap between lunch and dinner was too long. To satisfy her mid afternoon peckishness, she had her maid bring tea and snacks to her room. She found this arrangement so pleasant that she began to invite her friends to join her. Soon all of fashionable London was enjoying ‘afternoon’ tea, as opposed to ’high’ tea, which was the working man’s supper after a long day.

In our coffee-crazed, grab-and-go culture, it comes as a surprise to many that tea is the world’s most popular beverage after water.

“Tea is a truly universal drink,” says Catherine Lashko, owner of The Tea Leaf on Queen Street East. “It crosses all cultures and social status. And it’s affordable.”

For Lashko, tea has the same levels of pleasure and sociability as wine. A former sommelier, Lashko had a thriving career as Food and Beverage Director at the Windsor Arms. It wasn’t until she opened the historic tearoom in the newly renovated hotel that she tuned into tea in all its 3000 varieties.

She contends that tea, like wine, has a broad spectrum and is just as complex.
And like wine tasting, real tea appreciation depends on a clear nose and a sensitive palate.

The four basic types of tea – black, Oolong, green and white – are all derived from the same source, the Camellia sinensis plant. The difference in appearance and taste is due to how the leaves are processed after harvesting.

Black teas, such as Ceylon, Darjeeling, Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe are subject to the most processing. The leaves are fully fermented and withered, resulting in the strongest flavours.

Oolong teas from China and Taiwan are rolled and partially fermented which results in a medium-bodied brew, with a flavour and colour half way between black and green teas…

Green tea, which is mainly produced in China, Taiwan and Japan, is treated more gently by steaming and rolling, but not fermenting, to retain the characteristics of the growing plant. The Chinese have touted the medical benefits of green tea for centuries, using it to treat everything from headaches to depression.

Science has recently proved what folk medicine has known all along – that tea, particularly green tea, is good for us. It is rich in polyphenols which act as antioxidants, protecting the body against damage caused by free radicals. This makes them important in reducing cholesterol, inhibiting certain cancers and helping fight heart disease.

White tea is the least processed tea. It is made from the steamed and dried top two leaves of the tea bud. Considered a delicacy, it is very pale and delicate with sweet, gently grassy aromas and fruity notes.

Because they don’t contain Camellia sinensis leaves, red and herbal teas aren’t true teas, but rather, tisanes.

Like wine, the characteristics of tea are determined by where the leaves grow and how they are processed.

Catherine Lasko, like all tea gurus, is a proponent of tea leaves over bagged tea. “ Loose-leaf tea is tea in its most natural form,” she says. ”You can see the leaves, smell them and know they’re fresh.”

Choice all boils down to a matter of taste. But since prices for loose tea can easily range from $8.50 to $55.00 for 100 grams, shopping at a reputable tea purveyor is the best way to breathe in a variety and to learn about the blend you choose. Especially for anyone considering Gyokuro, Japanese shade tea. At $1,000 a pound, it is probably the world’s most expensive. For three weeks prior to picking in April/May, the plants are covered in an effort to give them a sweeter flavour and no bitter tannins.

Tea has become so popular that some restaurants now tempt their clients with tea lists, similar to wine lists. In Toronto, cutting edge tea assortments can be found at the ROM, Lai Wah Heen Restaurant in the Metropolitan Hotel, Windsor Arms, Four Seasons and the trendy Red Tea Box on Queen Street West.

Back in Hong Kong, according to Vincent Chu, owner of the fashionable tea salon, Moon Garden, “premium Chinese tea has become the new red wine,” Moon Garden is a favourite afternoon meeting spot for local show biz producers and directors, with tea as their drink of choice. “Tea is very calming and helps with creative ideas,” Chu says. “And there’s no risk of a hangover.”

Tea Tips for the Perfect Cup

• Tea brews best when made with loose leaves.
• Warm the teapot by swirling boiling water in it, and then discard.
• Add one teaspoon of tea per cup to the pot.
• For black and oolong teas, bring fresh cold water to a boil, then pour over tea.
• For green and white teas, bring fresh cold water to a simmer, and then pour over tea. Or allow boiling water to cool for one minute before adding to the pot.
• Steep Black tea for three to five minutes; Oolong tea for three to five minutes; Green tea for one to three minutes and white tea for five to seven minutes. Any longer will create bitterness.
• Strain into cups.