Subtle Teas

Story Jennifer Nichols
a Chinese tea set

Taoist philosophy explains that preparing tea leaves brings the five elements-earth, wood, water, fire and metal-into harmony. The tea plant, camellia sinesis, is born from earth. Wood represents tea’s organic origin. Water, the friend of tea, brings out the flavour. Fire becomes the teacher of tea by taming the brew through heating. And a metal kettle is needed to boil the tea in.

The Varieties Of Tea

Chinese tea, like all tea, fits into three main groups: black, oolong and green. What separates them is how long they are fermented. Fermentation affects the flavour, hue and effects of the drink. Black tea is fully fermented and smoky oolong is semi-fermented. Green tea is unique-it is not fermented at all.

Many of the green and oolong varieties are Chinese teas. Green tea is said to be an anticarcinogen. Since it is unfermented, it is rich in polyphenols, tough chemicals that could combat cancerous mutations. Oolong is semi-fermented, with approximately half the polyphenols of green tea. Therefore, it too could help to prevent cancer.

Health Benefits

More health benefits rumoured to be in this ancient beverage range from cavity prevention to cholesterol reduction. Small amounts of caffeine can jump-start your blood circulation and essential oils may help digestion after a big meal. Drinking these teas could thus reward you with a longer life to enjoy them.

Another category of tea simmering with longevity is herbal tea. Herbal teas can soothe the soul. Jasmine, ginseng and plum are all promoted for relaxing, reflecting and stimulating the spirit. Lately, ginseng has commanded special attention. It is regarded as an excellent additive to any diet due to its perceived healing and energizing effects. This herb can be procured as a powder, in fresh slices and, of course, as one of the superior herbal teas.

Finding The Right Tea In B.C.

Thirsty? Those on Vancouver Island interested in Chinese tea and tea-ware can check out the Silk Road Tea Company (1624 Government Street) in Victoria. This stylish store, right around the corner from Chinatown, blends both traditional and unique tea varieties in-house. The Silk Road Tea Company always offers a variety of samples for customers. When I visited one rainy day, Nikki was working. Offering a steaming sample of one of the store’s green teas, Westcoast Peppermint with Chrysan- themum, she said encouragingly, “It’s good for sniffles.”

The art of tea drinking can be practised by anyone. The Best Tea House Company at Central Square (4231 Hazelbridge Way) in Richmond also awaits you. There are six private, red-oak booths in the back where classes teaching the Chinese tea ceremony are given in Cantonese. Or, the booths can be rented for $9­$50 an hour (depending on the type of tea).

This classic tea house offers a variety of quality teas and tea tools, as well as a wealth of knowledge. On our visit, staff suggested Longin from the many kinds of green tea. Tikuanyin is an oolong that they have also noticed their customers rarely pass up.

I found Wun-San Leung, managing director of The Best Tea House, getting ready to show me and my companions the proper way to prepare Chinese tea. He began with water. The tea cups and the tea pot were drenched with hot mineral water to warm them. (The tea tray had a deep bottom to store all the water that dripped from the exterior of the tiny pot and cups.) He then held the cups with a pair of bamboo tongs and set one in front of each of us.

Mr. Leung carefully dropped about a tablespoon of loose tea into the smooth, squat teapot. While adding the water he talked about the importance of keeping it just under boiling. “If the water is too hot, it spoils it.” He poured about an ounce of the fragrant brew for each of us. Grasping the tiny, handleless cups with both hands, we eagerly sipped the flowered green tea.

During my visit to Richmond, I realized that tea time is not just a Chinese tradition. It is a form of greeting and an excuse to get together for a chat, a friendly social custom that might be reason enough to keep a small reserve in your cupboard. Now, having taken an intimate look at a modest pastime, perhaps you will select a new flavour to brew in your teapot.