Blog 163: Scented “Tea Piece”
Hi Tea Lovers,
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In our tea mountains, early summer is always a little more playful than other seasons. In Wuyi Mountains region, late April and early May are known for the tea harvest season. But to locals like us, early summer is also the time that flowers start to blossom.
Magnolia is one of many flowers that decorate our tea fields. The magnolia flower in our region is actually white magnolia. Although white magnolia is not as dazzling as its red siblings, it has a heavenly smell that occupies the entire tea field.
Maybe it’s white magnolia’s nice smell that gave people the idea of a “scented tea piece/香片”. A scented tea piece is not exactly a tea “blend”. In a scented tea piece, tea leaves are still the lord, and the purpose of all other processes is to serve tea leaves.
Historically, flowers are used to blend with tea leaves. When flowers and/or spices are used in a tea product, it becomes a “scented tea piece/香片”. The earliest record a scented tea piece goes back to China’s Song dynasty (960-1279). Back then, refined scholars would add some kapur in premium green tea to help enhance dry leaves’ aroma. At that time, making a scented tea piece was considered as a noble and elegant hobby among the educated class.
One thing worth mentioning is that a scented piece wasn’t considered as a premium tea product. Its social and cultural meaning was more significant than its actual taste. In his book The Record of Tea, Mr. Xiang Cai/蔡襄 said “tea has true aroma. Some royal tea tributes add a small amount of kapur to enhance the aroma. (But) in Jian’an (today’s Wuyi Mountains region) tea-making, spices (and flowers) are not used because (tea makers) are worried that the aroma of those (spices and flowers) might snatch the essence (of a tea)”.
The production of scented tea piece was further developed during China’s Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Instead of simply adding flowers into tea leaves, tea makers had a complex procedure to process raw flowers.
Mr. Yuanqing Gu/顾元庆’s edited version of The Score of Tea detailed the selection, the harvest, and the processing of a scented tea piece:
Clover, jasmine, rose, orchid, chrysanthemum, gardenia, costustoot, plum blossom can all be (added to) tea. When flowers are blooming, pick those half-opened and (those) with complete fragrance of stamen/pistil. The number of flowers needs to be calculated based on the amount of tea leaves. Too many flowers could destroy the essence of a tea, and too few flowers would not be enough to fully present the beauty of the nice floral aroma.
For example, to process a clover flower, (we) need to cut its branches and clean the dust, dirt and other signs of bugs. (Then) putting tea leaves and flowers into ceramic jars, one layer tea leaves then one layer flowers until the jar is full. Secure the jar with paper reed and boil the jar with hot water. After cooling down, take everything out, wrap and seal with paper. Finally, dry it on top of a mild fire.
And the most elegant scented tea piece might be the lotus tea. In Mr. Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life, his wife made a lotus tea by putting a small amount of dry leaves (green tea) in the center of a newly blossomed lotus flower in the evening. The next morning, she took the leaves out and boiling the leaves with fresh spring water. Mr. Fu called this tea’s aroma and charm “out of this world”.
Sometimes, I envy the slow life style of old scholars. Today’s fast world has destroyed most people’s spirit and passion for making a scented tea piece. Instead, people and businesses would rather just blend different “ingrediencies” to make a tea blend.
In my opinion, most tea blends lack “souls”. They might smell nice and floral, but the taste is always barely satisfactory. The aroma of theses blends float in the air, but it never falls into the tea soup.
The marriage between tea leaves and flowers is not a common one. And like all marriages, it needs to be managed and maintained carefully. I hope this blog can help better understand the amazing and elegant history of scented tea piece, and why a scented tea piece is not a “tea blend”.
Today’s tea blog is inspired by Ms. Xuanbin Ye’s recent article. Ms. Ye is our family friend and the daughter of legendary tea maker Mr. Qitong Ye. If like to read more about Ms. Ye’s journal (in Chinese), please contact us at email@example.com.
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