Sunday, December 3, 2006

Liquid wisdom

I had read that tea is really good for you, because of the high content of flavinoids (antioxidants that come from plants). Catechins, found in green tea, pack a more powerful punch than vitamins C and E; and studies find that tea reduces the risk of several cancers, including skin, breast, lung, colon, esophagus and bladder.

Tea also reduces heart disease, as it helps block the oxidation of bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, improving artery function. It also reduces the risk of hypertension. (Source: Harvard Women's Health Watch).

For these reasons, I tried to drink it for years. I just couldn’t pick up the habit. I’d fill a cup and leave it, untouched, on the table. Then, recently, coffee started getting on my nerves (literally). I vowed to give it up and turned to tea to take the edge off. I noticed tea was offered everywhere – and most frequently with a choice of flavors, from mint (more of a tisane – more about that later) to earl grey. I even found that if I followed a meal with a cup of tea it curbed my sweet tooth. I was suddenly the proud owner of a three-cups-of-tea a day habit (a welcome replacement to my former two-coffee-several-chocolates-a-day habit.)

Soon after this took root, Luca went to China and brought me back a tea set, which included seven beautiful boxes of loose tea that you spoon into a tall cup with a built in filter. Every morning, we enjoy a speedy, mini tea ceremony. I look at the leaves (some are tight little balls that unfurl in the hot water and turn into flowers), smell the fragrant steam, and glance through the newspaper as it seeps. Then I sip it. It’s outlook transforming.

This morning, as we drank, Luca asked me what tea was, and if there was a “tea plant” (one of his favorite musicians, Ivano Fossati, has an album titled “the tea plant”.) It turns out that there is. (And I’m embarrassed I didn’t already know this.)

“Similar to the way the thousands of different kinds of wines all come from grapes, the thousands of kinds of teas all come from the same plant, Camillia Sinensis. The differences in taste, color, shape and smell are a result of different soils, climates, harvesting and cultivation processes. The types of tea are basically broken down into White, Green, Oolong, Red, Scented and Pu'er, the biggest difference between them being the degree of 'oxidation' in the process, (oxidation is often incorrectly known as "fermentation"). Oxidation happens when the membranes in tea cells are broken down (by rolling, tumbling or tossing), mixing the cells' polyphenols and the enzyme polyphenolase, which acts as a catalyst in oxidizing the polyphenols by oxygen. The leaf is bruised and darkens (like a banana), and starts to acquire unique flavors. The trick is to halt the oxidation process the perfect moment when the best flavors have been acquired. Green tea is not oxidized at all, whereas Oolongs are partially oxidized (look at a brewed leaf and you'll see a green center with red tinged edges from the oxidization) and Red tea is 100% oxidized. Lastly, the category Red tea is often called Black outside of China, leading to much color confusion.”

(Source: )

Any infusion that does not come from Camillia Sinesis (such as chamomile) is not a tea but a tisane.

Brewing tea is an art. To do it properly, different infusions require a different temperature and different seeping times.

According to the Japanese “If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.”

You can’t help but feel particularly bad for poor Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in that famous tea party she attended, uninvited:

“Take some more tea”, the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet”, Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter. “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

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