This tea is a result of a tangent.
I was leaving Taiwan. I wanted to buy some Oolong tea to bring to the U.S. I am a coffee lover, really. But Taiwan is known for tea, especially Oolong.
I left in a frenzy. So I said to my husband that he had to get me some when he came back. He must have asked his colleagues which ones to buy. As a parting gift, he received two tins in a satin-lined box, sealed, and with serial numbers – winner of a tea competition.
“Oriental Beauty?!”, I frowned, “I wanted Oolong.” I have given Oriental Beauty to friends, not because I knew the difference but because its name sounds better than, say, “Hairy Tip.”
On this snowy day, I was looking for comfort in the cupboard. I took the tins down. Today is not a day for green tea, I thought. But the fire-red color, the seal, and the serial number were speaking to me.
Without knowing why, I sat down by the fire and thumbed to p.91 in The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea by Michael Harney, a Christmas present I received this year. There, the heading read, “Bai Hao, or Fanciest Formosa Oolong, Oriental Beauty.” In less than a page, it put me to shame for not knowing what I was holding in my hands.
Harney wrote that this tea is, “extraordinary not only for its flavors, but for the way it is made. Most teas rely on human manipulations to develop their flavors… Bao Hao is harvested in June, after the leafhoppers have emerged from winter dormancy… The leafhoppers feast on the tea’s sweet young leaves, puncturing them lightly. Their munching breaks down the plants’ cells in the same way rolling does, releasing various bug-repelling, flavor-filled compounds.” When the leaves withered, the leafhoppers left, and there is my tea.
For the first time ever, I brought the tea to the window to see what I was supposed to see. I have been to tea plantations in Taiwan and Malaysia. I have served and gifted teas, because it goes with being Chinese. But I have never looked at tea this closely as I did today.
The only tea cups with white insides I have are clearly too big if judged by the connoisseurs. They said this tea is to be sipped, little by little, from a small cup; it is to be rolled on one’s tongue.
For the first time ever, I followed the brewing instructions religiously: I rinsed the pot and cups with warm water, turned off the water before it boiled, steeped the leaves for 30 seconds and poured out the water, and drank the 2nd steep.
For the first time ever, I smacked my lips to feel whether it indeed left an aroma “like a cream”. It did. I wiggled my tongue to feel whether it sizzled like champagne. It didn’t.
For the first time ever, I spread the wet leaves in my palm, just to make sure that they were indeed consisting of the tip and the immediate two leaves. They were.
By the time the tins are empty, I hope that I can taste the hint of guava and ripe white peach, that the tea will really sizzle on my tongue.