02 July 2008

Wild Tea, or How Sweet It Is

Or, how I risked my life to document this post. Wild, indeed.

I hit Ito En (822 Madison Ave.) yesterday to replenish my tea supplies. Talking with the knowledgeable employee who was waiting on me, he asked if I'd heard of something called wild tea.

There were so many terrible jokes I could have made at this point, but I was actually quite curious, so I just admitted that I hadn't.

He pulled out a giant, sealed bag from their refrigerated case and opened it up to reveal what looked like small clods of dirt (or worse). This tea is found growing wild in wooded areas in China, he told me. Processed as an oolong, the dark, cherry-sized clumps of leaves have a naturally high glucose content.

It didn't smell very sweet to me, but he offered to brew some up. I was a bit skeptical, but I've made it a rule to never refuse an offer of tea, especially in a shop this good.

He began by dipping a bamboo hishaku, or ladle, into a kettle of hot water and pouring a little into a gaiwan (the popular Chinese lidded teacup) that was holding the tea, to open the leaves a bit- which he also recommended for extracting maximum flavor out of any oolongs. This was quickly poured off, using the lid to hold the tea inside the cup.

The gaiwan was then filled again, covered, and swirled for a minute or two to brew the tea.

Three new cups were then lined up on the counter, and the tea was poured into each a third at a time (so each would have an equal balance of tea, as the brew became increasingly strong while he was pouring). Truly, a spread fit for Goldilocks, or one thirsty tea addict.

However, I noticed there was another customer hovering nearby at this point, and one cup was for him, so I pulled just one toward me.

And it was bizarre- the tea tasted like someone had been pouring spoonfuls of sugar into it every time your back was turned. It was uncannily sweet, with an almost syrupy texture.

As I neared the end of the cup, finding only a neglible trace of an oolong's characteristic astringency or pleasantly earthy flavor, I found the tea a bit cloying. But I'd imagine after a savory meal, or for any avowed tea haters, it would be perfect. It's a strong tea, but there's just no bitterness.

One last note: I know these photos are not up to my usual standards, but it turns out my quick, surreptitious snapping had been a good idea. Just after I took the one above, I was coolly informed by a different employee that photography was not permitted.

OK, fine. It's your business, so you can make the rules. But this got me thinking about the recent issue of food photography being banned by a certain imperious chef here in Manhattan.

Is freedom of blogging protected under the First Amendment? An excellent question for all your Fourth of July parties. Well, depending on what kind of party you find yourself at.

In the meantime, more forbidden photos are coming, along with a list of the rest of my tea haul.


christine said...

They probably didn't want you to document all that blood around the three cups of tea in your second photo. Did you murder the tea guy or does my monitor need to be calibrated?

ana dane said...

no murder. the tea in jail isn't so great, i've heard.

the mess is actually part of the process for chinese-style teas: the pour is done very fast and back and forth between all the cups several times, until each is full.

Jason Fasi said...

In all your pictures, those "wild oolong" lumps look suspiciously like lao cha tou, a type of pu'er tea that's also very high in glucose.

Dave's Blog said...

Anything that takes that kind of carfeful preparation must be good.

ana dane said...

hmm, if it was pu-er, that would explain why i didn't like it very much. i can't say i've ever appreciated that particular tea.

after doing some research, the closest type i've found today, in appearance, is regular chinese oolong, though: wild tieguanyin, or "monkey-picked oolong," allegedly so-called because of the traditional method of employing simian harvesters.

what lucky monkeys.