I haven't been to the tea lands yet, but my friends have. In fact, somehow I stumbled into this tea karma: I have one friend who makes semi-regular excursions to India, and another who travels occasionally all over China. Both recently sent me some teas they bought in each locale. Here's a run-down of a few wonderful teas we Yanks don't get to taste that often:
First, there's Brad. Good ol' Brad. I could tell you some stories about Brad. I'll keep it to this pertinent one, however. In fact, I'll let him tell it. He wrote:
I was in Beijing and went to an official Tea Store run by the government. It was a great experience, albeit a sales call. They went through a bunch of teas, how to make it and how to drink it as well as their "health benefits." I love the fermented ginseng oolong. Probably my favorite. ... They also had a great story on how the lychee tea was developed for a "princess" in Beijing. She loved lychees and the emperor would have them carted in fresh from the south everyday. But in the winter she couldn't get them, so the scientists of the time figure out how to ferment the lychee juice with tea so she could still enjoy the flavor, stay happy and in turn keep the emperor happy. All in all, I probably tried 8 different teas over a couple hours with a good story on each of them.
The ginseng oolong he mentions is one strange tea. It looks like the droppings of a rodent that lives on a diet of very green grass. Each leaf seems rolled up and fermented on its own, resulting in dusky green pellets. Pouring a spoonful into the pot sounds like you're adding kibble for the dog. As they steep, they don't unravel. They make a nice light-green brew with a dry, dusty scent, but they remain little pellets at the bottom of the pot.
Flavorwise, the ginseng oolong gets even weirder — but not unpleasant. It's naturally sweet — very sweet — with a round, herbal taste, not unlike chamomile. I only found the ginseng in the scent, though the tea seems fairly energizing. A wild one.
The lychee black he sent is another eye-opener. The rosy scent of the lychee fruit charges out of the pot and cup; I mean, it really comes after you. It's perfumey, like Tea Rose, though despite its bold introduction it doesn't hog the cup. The black tea has its own brass, presenting flavors of raisins and rose hips. A beautiful caramel color, too.
Denise, Denise, sender of postcards, inhaler of grapes. Denise spent a year in India some time ago doing mission work — the real kind, the get down into amazing levels of poverty kind — and goes back once in a while. Dolly's Tea Shop is something of a word-of-mouth institution in Calcutta, an apparently splendid shop overseen by Dolly Roy, a woman who knows a lot about tea. (Read about her here and here.)
Some of Denise's photos from Dolly's ...
Denise sent more of Dolly's delicious Darjeelings, including a "Muscatel Clonal" that's pretty superb. This time of year, I'm hardly ever drinking the champagne of teas, and its trademark musk is a rushing sense memory.
The real surprise was a shiny, silver mylar bag makred from Balmer Lawrie & Co., with a label that read only, "Contents: Tea." The company's website makes it sound like a dreadful, gigantic government food factory. The tea, though, might be my favorite of this particular batch. It smells exactly like ... fresh peanut butter! The brew is a walnut color, the flavor is a little nutty; it's got a tang to it, like a Darjeeling. Whatever the style or blend, it's crazy tasty.