Come with me to a tea bush high up in the fog-laden mountains of China. Come on a journey of transformation across thousands of miles. A journey that ends in your cup.Now, imagine you are a tea bush. Stretch out your arms. Put your feet in a bucket of water (entirely optional).You stand, gnarled and wind-beaten, on a slope some 4000 feet above sea level. You know silence and winds and rain. This is the terroir, your home.
Your Latin name is Camellia Sinensis. We will call you Camilla for ease.
You thrive here. There is high moisture in the morning mist and dews. Then long afternoons of tropical sun. It is early April and your body is waking up with the signal change of seasons. New growth is sprouting all over your body.
They will come soon. The women and children will come and pluck your tender spring leaves: just the top two and the buds. The work is exact and done by hand, the traditional way. For the finest green teas there is a strict two week harvest.
Your dark-green sprigs are heaped into baskets and carried onto the backs of tractors. These mechanical beasts saunter and lurch down the slopes and switch-back roads. Some teas go down the mountain by hand, by donkey, or aerial tram. Even here there is care to provide you with air circulation and minimum compression. But, separated from your body, you begin to wilt.
Upon arrival, you are sorted for debris, small stones and twigs. In China it is essential that your appearance is looked-after at every stage.
Inside the factory you are spread out on racks or mats on the floor and left to air-dry. This removes the moisture held inside your veins. It could take either minutes or hours depending on the air circulation and temperature.
Then, your verdant colour must be preserved. This is one of the major ways green tea differs from oolong and black tea. If left to dry for longer (a process called withering) oxidation will occur. Enzymes in your leaves will begin to change your chemical make-up, creating tannins which darken your leaf and give your liquor a more astringent (bitter) taste.
To halt oxidation your leaves are now dried quickly via one of several processes. One of the most common is panning, where your leaves are tossed into metal pans and a gentle heat removes 60% of the moisture. This seals in the ‘juice’ of the leaf and ensures the final quality of the tea. Pan firing gives a slight toasty flavour to the tea.
There is one final stage. A final firing process fixes your leaf, and ensures that your tea can be stored and kept for years. Here all the work on your legacy comes to a close. You are now immortalised in tea.
Across a thousand miles you may travel by ship. Your artisan roots, your premium grade has marked you out. You have been chosen to join the tea family of the Exotic Teapot. You dream away the days in your snug little tin; waiting, waiting.
Then one nameless day the top screws off. A finger and thumb pinch a handful of your silvery-green locks, and drop them into a gorgeous glass teapot. A steamy tempest rains down and you are jolted into life. You unfurl and dance around with vigour, sharing your store with the water: breathing out your delicate flavours, amino acids and minerals. The water darkens, mirroring your essence.
The teapot is poured by unseen hands. A part of you is born into the cup, a pale golden liquor that tastes of flowers and grassy notes and the mother tree still standing on that plateau of mountain wreathed in fog.
Your journey has come to an end only to start at the beginning. The tea plant renews and regenerates. It gives life to tea.