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Eight Treasures

There was a brief moment, in 2002 or so, when Eight Treasure Tea  (Ba Bao Cha) was all the rage in Beijing. It seemed like all of a sudden every restaurant with notions of grandeur had the Long Pots and young men to wield them. It was a beautiful fad. In honor of this, the following post has been broken down into eight sections.


1) Eight Treasure Tea:  It seems best to start with a description of the eponymous tea. Eight Treasure Tea is described as a health tonic, but unlike most of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is delicious. The eight treasures vary, but they are, in broad strokes:

Green tea, dried chrysanthemum flowers, goji berries, dried Chinese red dates, dried dragon eye (longan), licorice root, ginseng, dried fruit, rock sugar.

In the Beijing of my youth, the really fun thing about the tea, aside from the fact that it came with sugar (a rarity), is that waiters filled our cups from three feet away with what in Chinese is called a "Long Pot". This is literally the best picture of a long pot on the internet:

 


This style of tea preparation is called Gongfu (Kung Fu), which is confusing because that term is also used to describe tea preparation with small tea pot and tea tray, often for oolong or pu-erh teas. Our yixing teapot would be perfect for the later kind of Gongfu preparation, less so for the former.


Here's a video that shows how fun it was.

I actually own one of these pots, but I am nowhere near ago good as this guy.


2) I don't know how I'm just coming to this party, but the China History Podcast is amazing!  And they're doing a 10 part series on this history of tea in China, which is also amazing. Highlight from the first episode: Wuyuan County, where much of our tea comes from, is the home of the oldest tea market on record in China. Lazlo is 8 episodes in, so you'd better start now!


3) This post on Serious Eats is great, and portends good things to come from what looks like a series. I'm drooling over the stoneware gaiwan used in the photography. 


4) I don't know how I've lived this long without owning a Teasmade — the original tea-making alarm clock from the UK.  The history is fascinating, as is the fact that they seem to have fallen out of style.This video about Sheridan Parsons and her collection is great, and makes me want one even more.

For more: this seems like the definitive site about them, maintained, naturally, by Parsons. 


5) Our tea is now being served at Seoul Kitchen in Westford MA. Everything about them is fabulous. 


6) Hunter White spent his winter break in Taiwan, drinking tea, getting lost, and getting featured on a roving gameshow with the EDA Rhinos. He was in the right shirt at the right time! We're *really* looking forward to the video.



7) Tea eggs (Cha Ye Dan) are a (Lunar) New Year treat for some people and a year round treat for others (like your's truly). This recipe from Saveur adds a couple things you might not necessarily need, but it produces exceptionally tasty tea eggs.  


8) An oldie but a goodie -- from the Onion on the subject a certain Area Man:

"Instead of simply heating a mug of water in the microwave, Baumer used a hoity-toity copper-bottomed tea kettle, which His Lordship reportedly purchased at Pier One Imports in 2003 for the express purpose of tea-making."

— Martin C


Fall Update

Back in Stock

Green Eyebrow and White Peony Teas are back in stock, woo hoo! Our cup now runneth over where these two are concerned, and we don't intend to run out again. In celebration, here's a image of an 18th century British etching. 

 

Fall Trip to China

We spent a few weeks last month in China — visiting friends, poking around tea markets, talking to tea growers, and eating dumplings. It was a lovely visit, and, surprisingly, we found ourselves with a weekend free of other commitments. Taking this as an opportunity to go somewhere we'd never been, we hopped on a fast train to Suzhou, an ancient city known internationally for its walled gardens (all former residences), and canals. We saw many gardens, sat in the little tingzi (a word often translated as pagoda, but really just a resting place, often four columns and a roof) and decided that, yes, indeed, it would be nice to live like this.

 

Because of the gardens and the canals, Suzhou is also a huge tourist destination inside China, and we walked along many narrow streets lined with shops for China's nouveau riche.  In one such store, amid essential oils and Taiwanese perfumes, we found a bottle of Doctor Bronner's Magic Soap, retailing for $30.

 

New Accounts

We are thrilled to announce that Cafe 8 oz. in Montreal, Quebec is the first Canadian cafe to serve our tea. It looks like a lovely spot, and if you're ever in the true city of bagels, you should be sure to visit them. We're already planning for a northern adventure of our own. 

 

We're similarly excited to be part of the newly opened Portland Food Coop on Congress St in Portland. It's a lovely store years in the making, and everyone in the area should go visit immediately. They'll be having a Grand Opening on December 10th. 

 

Shipping Cuttoffs

December 19th is the last day to order if you'd like tea by Christmas.  We'll be shipping pretty much every day between now and then, but please factor in 3 or 4 days for shipping. If there's some urgency to your order, please do add a note, and we'll do our best. 

 


Common Ground Fair

We spent this past weekend at the Common Ground Country Fair, giving out samples, talking tea, and generally enjoying ourselves immensely. We loved meeting everyone that came by, and we can't wait to do it again next year. Even though we spent 99% of our time at the booth, we did get a chance to get out, eat some tasty food, and look at all the beautiful produce. 

  • Common Ground Fair
  • Common Ground Fair
  • Common Ground Fair
  • Common Ground Fair
  • Common Ground Fair

On Gunpowder

Gunpowder tea is one of the oldest and most traditional teas in all of China. The honey-like sweetness and smoky finish make gunpowder tea one of the world’s most popular teas: from its origin in Zhejiang Province in China, all the way to the Maghreb Region of North Africa, where it is used to make the traditional (and tooth-achingly sweet) Tuareg mint tea. While gunpowder tea is usually made from green tea, oolong varieties also exist. There is much debate over the etymology of gunpowder tea. The most common explanation is that gunpowder tea closely resembles the dark grey-green pellet shape of China’s traditional gunpowder. Some suggest that the name comes from the way in which the rolled leaves “pop” open when placed in hot water. Another common theory is that the name can be attributed to the tea’s signature smoky flavor.

Perhaps most interesting (if patently false) is the idea that the Mandarin Chinese phrase gāng pào de (剛泡的) or “freshly brewed,” closely mimics the English word “gunpowder”. In Chinese, there is no debate. The tea is simply referred to as zhū chá (珠茶), which means “pearl tea” or “bead tea.”

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Earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Chinese Wujing Zongyao of 1044 AD. 

Gunpowder tea was first made in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907), around the same time that actual gunpowder was invented in China, and it was crucial in the progression from compressed brick tea to the loose leaves that we use today. The rolled shape is functional rather than aesthetic: since surface area is minimized, the pellet form allows for the tea to ship compactly and retain more of its flavor and aroma, The rolled leaves are also less susceptible to damage and breakage, especially when compared to fragile open loose tea leaves.

Gunpowder’s hardy tea leaves kept fresh during long trade routes, likely explaining how gunpowder tea ended up becoming such a ubiquitous beverage in Northern Africa, and indeed a large percentage of the tea traded around the world during the 1700’s and 1800’s consisted of gunpowder tea. Even in the colonial United States, gunpowder tea was one of the few options for tea drinkers

In order to make gunpowder tea, the leaves are gathered and then allowed to dry. The tea pickers must be greatly skilled, as torn leaves will not roll uniformly. The tea is generally made during the summer and fall tea seasons, when the tea leaves are more mature and pliable, and thus easier to roll. In some areas, smaller amounts of gunpowder tea are made with the early-season spring leaves, creating a subtler brew.

The dried leaves are then steamed and rolled into a rounded shape, before being dried again to remove any surface moisture. Traditionally, these tea pellets were rolled by hand, but now most gunpowder teas are formed by mechanized tumblers. The highest and most expensive grades of gunpowder tea are still hand-rolled. These higher grades are rolled into much smaller pellets, and are sold under the name “Imperial Pinhead.”

Gunpowder tea makes a great beverage hot or iced. The leaves can be used for multiple infusions, and it is quite fascinating to watch them gradually unfold through successive steepings.

***

If you’d like to enjoy something a bit different, you can try your hand at making Moroccan Tuareg mint tea at home using gunpowder tea. The traditional method is incredibly complex, but a simpler version can be made quite easily: Simply throw in a generous handful of mint leaves into the pot along with your tea leaves. You can also boil the filtered tea with mint leaves to create a stronger mint taste.

 

Image via Wikimedia

Tuareg tea is usually incredibly sweet. Traditional recipes call for about five teaspoons of sugar for every teaspoon of tea leaves. Honey can also be used to make a delicious, if less authentic version.

In Morocco, Tuareg tea is poured into small glasses from a great height, often up to a few feet. This process aerates and cools down the tea, and also creates a lovely frothy head. I always seem to end up spilling hot tea all over the kitchen whenever I attempt this, but with any luck, you are a bit more adept than I am. Also, the process is much easier if you use a proper Moroccan teapot (berrad), with its long tapered spout for easier pouring.

Gunpowder tea is a great beverage for the tea historian and tea enthusiast alike. We are sure that you will enjoy its robust smoky flavor as a hot drink to keep you warm in the winter, or as a refreshing iced tea to cool you off in the summer.

 

—Hunter W.


500 Tea Drinkers — A Photo Project by Yang Hui

These photos are from a project called the "500 Tea Drinkers" by Shanghai based painter and photographer Yang Hui. The photos were taken in rural Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provices in 2005, though they could just as easily have been taken in 1965. About the project Yang Hui says "those old peasants ... embody a basic truth. To me, they represent living arhats." The arhats to which he refers are early Buddhist disciples said to have achieved Nirvana. They, by some tradition, also number 500.

 


 

If a picture is worth a thousand words then what we have here is a whole book about drinking tea...

500 Tea Drinkers Part6 Zhejiang Ding Hu Village 五百茶客 浙江 丁河村 2005[6]-19

Take some time, put on some nice instrumental music and start looking through these photographs– take some time with those that interest you. Don’t rush because that’s exactly what most of these people were doing– they were not rushing. Even the fellow carrying things for sale down the street wasn’t rushing. But the people not rushing the most are those sitting at tables having tea. 

500 Tea Drinkers Part5 Xindai Village 五百茶客 浙江 新埭镇 2005[5]-164

What they’re doing is a lot of things. They’re eating (not much.) They’re resting. They’re talking. They’re smoking. But if you asked them what they’re doing what they would tell you is that they were drinking tea.

500 Tea Drinkers Part5 Xindai Village 五百茶客 浙江 新埭镇 2005[5]-158

Most tables have one large metal covered, insulated glass lined thermos, which holds boiled water. The tea drinkers typically bring their own tea, so they’re just paying a modest sum for that, the water, and not buying the tea there. These are not well off people, and they are thrifty.

500 Tea Drinkers Part5 Xindai Village 五百茶客 浙江 新埭镇 2005[5]-57

They bring tea from home, sprinkle some into the bottom of the porcelain coated metal cups, and add boiling water.  The cups tend to be small, so the tea can be easily consumed without having time to grow cold. (Cold is pretty much anything south of scalding.) If the talk at the table gets too involved and the tea goes undrunk too long, then the brew will be tossed in the street, and new boiling water added to the leaves at the bottom of the cup.

500 Tea Drinkers Part4 Shanghai Zhujing Village 五百茶客 上海 朱泾镇 2005[4]-24

This activity isn’t about special tea, at least not usually, and it’s not about thirst, and it’s not about hydration. It’s about the socializing, and the tea is the hook, the reason, the excuse, the justification. People like these wouldn’t be likely to say “Oh, I’m just chatting with my friends,” because that sounds a little too carefree, a little bit too indolent. But “having tea with some friends,” well that sounds a lot better. 

500 Tea Drinkers Part3 Zhejiang Tongxiang  Village 五百茶客 浙江 桐乡镇 2005-86.

You can see that it’s hot– the men are mostly wearing either undershirts or light cotton shirts unbuttoned. But they’re drinking tea as hot as it comes. Iced tea is unknown on these streets and if offered would find few takers. Hot tea is, according to the prevailing view, cooling. Tea is hydrating, and hydration leads to sweat and sweat leads to cooling. Whereas iced tea would lead to all manner of ills, starting with an upset stomach. Cold drinks, cold food, for these people, is very rare indeed. 

500 Tea Drinkers Part2 Zhejiang  Xinshi Village 五百茶客 浙江 新巿镇 2005-58

Tea, sitting and having tea with your friends, acquaintances, even strangers, tea provides a much needed break. Look at these guys– they have not had easy lives. They’ve spent most of their time out of doors and that time has not been easy. They enjoy few physical comforts and they don’t eat very much. In terms of ingesting, tea is the one constant, a companion every day of the year. The day begins with tea, tea is the work friend, the afternoon break, the evening comfort. Tea is something all these men know. Those discussions you’re looking at, they can get pretty rowdy, these people do not agree about everything, not by any means, but tea is a unifier, tea is not just something they could all agree on, it’s ubiquitous, so much so that it’s not even a question– everyone drinks tea. Maybe he likes his stronger than you, and that fellow prefers it weaker, but they all drink tea, as automatically as they breathe...

500 Tea Drinkers Part6 Zhejiang Ding Hu Village 五百茶客 浙江 丁河村 2005[6]-66

I’ve spent many hours at these tables. Different in so many ways, I’m peppered with questions– where am I from, is my wife Chinese, how many children to do I have, how much money do I make, what work do I do, do I like to eat bread, how do I feel about chopsticks, about Chinese food, about...tea? After all the answers then the conversation often turns to tea. The tea *these* people drink is very good, very good for you! (Wherever you go, this is how it is.) But don’t people where I come from drink coffee, no beer, no whiskey! The men start to argue about the question and when it finally comes to me I try to explain the custom back home, a place removed from these tables by thousands of miles and in a way by many years. The now back home is not quite the same now as it is at these dusty tables in this hot air, with these large, heavy thermoses filled with piping hot water, water that waits only to be released from its dark prison and mingled with a sprinkling of small dark leaves of a plant first described simply as “the bitter herb,” ages and ages ago...  We drink our tea, these men, or rather men like them and I, and even with the heat and the sweat eventually I have to make my excuses and head off. Maybe I’ll be back, maybe I’ll have somewhere else to go. But it’s been two or three or four hours and I probably have something else I need to do. Thanks for the tea, I’ll say, and they’ll call out, come back again! We’ll still be here!

All images copyright Yang Hui and used by permission.

— Michael C.


On Jasmine Tea

Jasmine flowers

The White Jasmine Branch, painting of ink and color on silk by Chinese artist Zhao Chang, early 12th century. 

At Little Red Cup, we focus on offering certified organic and Fair Trade, traditional Chinese teas, and what could be more traditional than green jasmine tea?

In China, one of the customary greetings is still “sit down, have some tea,” and in Northern China this tea is most often jasmine.

Our jasmine tea is from Jiangxi Province, but jasmine tea is  also produced in Fujian, Zhejiang, Hunan, and Jiangsu.

This is not to say that China is the only country that produces jasmine tea. The signature floral aroma and taste of jasmine flowers make this tea extremely popular all over the world, and significant amounts are also produced in Japan and Vietnam. Chinese jasmine tea is often made with green tea, but jasmine black and jasmine white teas do exist.

Many lower grade and non-organic jasmine teas are scented with artificial extracts and oils. Ours, of course, is not.  

The process for making this tea is quite fascinating. The green tea leaves are picked in the spring and stored until the summer, when jasmine flowers bloom. The flowers are picked very early in the morning, when they are still tightly closed. These harvested flowers are then kept in a cool room until they open during the night. Once the flowers have opened, the wonderful aroma of the flowers is ready to be infused into the tea leaves.

Two different methods are used to impart the green tea with the jasmine scent. One method involves placing alternating two-inch layers of green tea and jasmine flowers in a wicker basket. During this process, the flowers open up even more and release their oils into the leaves. The flowers sit with the tea for one day and are then removed.

In the second method, the opened jasmine flowers are piled next to a mound of tea leaves. The tea absorbs the jasmine scent for a few hours. The flowers release all of their oils and are then brushed away using large fans. This process is repeated at least twice, but can be repeated several times for the highest grades of jasmine tea. This is how our Jasmine tea is scented, and the reason that you’ll find a petal or two among the tea leaves. 

After the jasmine flowers are removed, the tea is then dried yet again, because it absorbs so much moisture from the jasmine flowers during the production process. 

Our Jasmine Green tea makes a comforting hot tea for all seasons, as well as a wonderful and refreshing iced tea for the warm summer weather we are having in Maine.

—Hunter W.