What a marvelous gift idea for inveterate tea drinkers, incipient tea-drinkers, and the culture chameleons among your friends and family. The book is perfect for the, dare I say it, coffee table (tea caddy?), giving the apperance of already being gift-wrapped in its attractive dark jacket with the heavy gold stripe. A tasteful book about taste.
The author is Michael Harney. His father, John, started a tea company in Millerton, New York, and Michael eventually became part of the family business, having grown up with tea leaves, blends, bags, crates and canisters
- and a famous tea garden as part of his playpen of ideas. In this book, he has tried to recreate for the average reader the ritual of tasting tea and the understanding to distinguish regions and types. Once you finish the book, you may not be able to tell the precise altitude where a tea was grown, but you will be able to make some knowledgeable conversation about its region, bouquet and color, from white to green to black.
I once had a friend visit me in southern Spain and ask if we could go pick some fresh olives for an afternoon snack. I had to quickly disabuse him of his romantic notion - olives fall from the tree as tart and green as unripe persimmons, and have to be extensively treated before they can be eaten. Similarly, a boiled fresh green tea leaf would be undrinkably bitter. Consumable tea presents as tiny dried curls, desiccated and dark.
Tea - camellia sinensis - is indigenous to China, as the name implies. Its cultivation spread to Japan, where the ceremony of drinking it became a highly stylized art form. The British tried it, liked it, and carried it to their colonies
of India and Sri Lanka. All of the teas in The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea are Asian, "with one Kenyan exception." Tea, Harney suggests, should make you happy. And rightfully so: it delivers caffeine but not too much, aids in concentration, and is an antioxidant.
Here's how to taste tea: get a white-lined ceramic cup or large ceramic spoon, and a ceramic or glass pot. Use water that isn't full of chemicals, especially chlorine. Experiment with the heat of the water and brewing time. Look at the tea to be sure you haven't overboiled it (it will be too dark) or underboiled it (too light). Keep trying
until you get that first perfect cup. Then lift it to your - nose. Inhale it before drinking it. "Do you smell gardenias in that oolong? honeysuckle in the white? papaya or some other tropical fruit in the Darjeeling?" You're on your way to becoming a discriminating tea tester. Then, and only then, can you go on to actually tasting it.
The book is divided into tea types: Chinese green, Japanese green, oolongs, British legacy blacks, and so on. There are maps and a little chart to go with each tea type: brewing temperature, brewing time, dry leaves (appearance, color, texture), liquor, aroma, body and flavor.
My lifetime favorite tea is Earl Grey, a tea blend but, as Harney points out, "one of the most widely known teas in the Western world" and therefore worthy of inclusion in his catalog. It has the sweet aroma of bergamot, a citrus plant with which it is mixed. Since bergamot is native to Italy, you can be sure that your Earl Grey has made at least one stop after leaving China. I confess, reading The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea made me want to branch out a bit, try a few more exotic tea types.
If you want to have some obscure tea lore with which to dazzle your friends, here's but one example of the charming stories that Harney has gathered: the Taiwanese oolong called Wehshan BaoZhong is grown around the tiny mountain town of PingLing, south of Taipei. PingLing is so tea-mad that it even has streetlights in the shape of teapots. Restaurants in PingLing serve pork cooked in tea and tea pudding for desert. According to Harney, fresh BaoZhong "tastes of nothing but honeyed flowers." If that doesn't send you rushing to your nearest tea specialty shop, I don't know what will. Unless you prefer the promise of a "soft spinachy flavor" (Tencha) or "the delicious meatiness of roasted eggplant" (Lung Ching). For me, it's no contest. I'm going to see if BaoZhong is available in Piedmont North Carolina. Or will I have to order some from Harney & Sons? Not a bad idea...the book is not an advertisement for the company but if you find yourself hooked on a description, like I did, you may want to try it rather than just reading about it.
Gunpowder tea, we learn, got its name because it looks like what it's named for, not because it tastes like a freshly fired rifle barrel. And how's this for a description of its taste: "the charred, barely vegetal flavor of heavily grilled leeks." Having tried it myself, I'd say that's pretty close, though I would have said parsnips rather than leeks.
As you can see, this is a book you can have fun with. But all kidding aside, Michael Harney has set out to educate us by offering "a compendium of the fifty-six best pure teas I think a tea connoisseur ought to know, with guided tasting notes for each." Read the book, try the teas, and tell your friends. Better yet, give them a copy for Christmas - or Chinese New Year.