Searching for China’s Ancient Tea Leaves: A Journey to the Heart of Tea Culture
Tea is the most popular beverage in the world, first cultivated over 6,000 years ago in ancient China. Shunan Teng is on a mission to experience it in its most authentic, historic form. Her love for tea knows no bounds, as she travels halfway around the world, up steep mountains and through remote jungles in search of the world’s oldest tea trees. Now, through Tea Drunk, a teahouse in New York City, she’s giving others the opportunity to be steeped in history.
Tea, that delightful concoction that warms us up, cools us down, and wraps us in comfort, is undoubtedly the most beloved drink worldwide. We’ve got our own unique twists on how we brew and savour it, but have you ever wondered how our ancestors enjoyed this ancient elixir? Well, buckle up for a wild ride, because we’re about to embark on a journey deep into the untamed Tea Mountains of Southwest China, where centuries-old tea trees flourish, waiting to share their precious leaves and buds.
So, if you’re up for a trek that could rival an adventure movie, imagine this: you, a backpack, and a determination to find the most authentic Chinese tea. Picture yourself traversing rugged paths, scaling steep slopes, and even hopping on a motorcycle now and then. Sounds like a thrilling quest, right? But hold on, who’s crazy enough to embark on such an escapade? Meet Shunan Tang, the spirited soul behind Tea Drunk, a charming tea house nestled in the bustling heart of New York City.
Shunan isn’t your average tea enthusiast. She’s on a mission to preserve the art of historic Chinese tea, a culture-rich tradition that harks back to the zenith of tea craftsmanship. Unlike the mass-produced tea bags we often encounter, the teas she’s after are like timeless symphonies or exquisite masterpieces. Just as a violin’s sweet melody touches your soul, these teas are a sensory experience meant to resonate deeply within you.
Now, the real magic lies in the leaves themselves. Imagine this: ancient tea trees that have weathered the winds of time, their branches reaching towards the heavens, each leaf holding tales of centuries gone by. These tea trees, nestled in the wild, give rise to leaves that bud for a mere 15 days each year. You heard that right – it’s a race against time, a springtime sprint for Shunan and her local farmer companions to pluck those precious leaves before they retreat into nature’s embrace once more.
But why go through all this trouble, you ask? Well, my tea-loving friend, the answer is simple – authenticity. The finest tea trees, the ones that produce the nectar of the gods, are hidden away in the most rugged terrains. These tea trees, perched precariously on steep hillsides, have silently observed the world changing around them for centuries. With wisdom etched into their very essence, they gift us a taste of what tea is truly meant to be.
Once these leaves are carefully collected, the intricate dance of tea-making begins. It’s a dance that requires precision and patience, much like crafting a timeless masterpiece. The freshly plucked leaves are spread out, basking in the open air. Why, you might wonder? It’s all part of the plan – a grand scheme to allow the water to escape and make way for the next step.
Now, if you’re imagining Shunan tossing these leaves into a frying pan, think again. There’s more finesse to it than meets the eye. A wok-frying process follows, where the goal is to halt the tea’s fermentation. This crucial step ensures that the tea’s flavours are locked in, like a secret whispered from leaf to liquid.
And here comes the twist – rolling. No, we’re not hosting a tea party for rolling pins, but we are gently rolling those leaves to coax out their flavours. Think of it as a pampering session for tea leaves, where each twist and turn unveils the layers of complexity they hold within.
After this intricate ritual, the sun takes over. As the tea leaves bask in its warm embrace, the magic intensifies. Slowly, tantalizingly, the leaves dry under the watchful eye of the sun. But it’s not all sunshine and roses – the final hurdle involves scrutinizing each leaf. No one said perfection was easy, and Shunan takes the time to handpick, sort, and examine every single leaf for any hint of imperfection. This meticulous process takes months to complete, a testament to Shunan’s dedication to bringing you the crème de la crème of teas.
You might be wondering, “Is all this effort really worth it?” Well, my tea-loving friend, let me paint you a picture. Imagine a cup of this meticulously crafted tea, its aroma dancing around you, its taste a symphony of flavours on your tongue. Every sip transports you to the ancient tea trees, the wild landscapes, and the hands that tended to them with love and care.
Shunan’s passion for these extreme, nuanced flavours is contagious. Her eyes light up as she speaks of the joy these teas bring, a joy that transcends the mundane. It’s a joy born from centuries of tradition, a joy that only the finest teas can offer. As she puts it, it’s about experiencing those “extreme, fine points in taste” that elevate your senses to new heights.
And that’s not all – Shunan’s mission extends beyond preservation. She’s a trailblazer, a maverick in the world of tea, constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Her dream? To elevate this ancient art to new heights, to invite modern tea lovers into a world of timeless flavours and traditions.
So, the next time you sip on a cup of tea, take a moment to ponder the journey it has undertaken. Think of the ancient tea trees, the daring treks into the untamed wilderness, and the meticulous craftsmanship that shaped its flavours. As you revel in the exquisite taste, remember that you’re not just sipping on a beverage – you’re savouring a piece of history, a taste of centuries past, and a glimpse into the unwavering dedication of individuals like Shunan Tang, who are on a quest to keep the spirit of ancient tea alive and thriving.
This Great Big Story was made possible by UBS: https://bit.ly/3iTnnbZ
This story is a part of our Flavours series, where we do so much more than play with our food. Come with us as we dive into deliciously different and tastefully off-beat stories in the culinary world.
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