|Upon confirming the unthinkable--that the Chinese add Sprite to their dry table wine--I resolved myself to seek out other epicurian delicacy. And this afternoon, perhaps by accident, I stumbled into one of Kunming's (and by extension the entire Yunnan provence) most revered tea purveyers, Tianfu Mingchai. In the cool and quite of their showroom, I would enjoy a rare experience, one that I can only equate to barrel-tasting Burgundy in France.
There I was, round eye in a foreign arena, following my nose (quite literally), sniffing cannisters filled with wonderfully aromatic teas. I was very happy--beak busily working, mind engaged, making all kinds of olfactory distinctions. The tea merchants, all women in traditional Chinese dress, looked upon me with great interest. Apparently it is somewhat uncommon for foreigners to proceed in such a way. But I was undaunted by their stares and whispers, and continued along the long line of offerings until I happened upon a few teas that really intrigued me.
Then the fun began. I explained in great detail that I would like very much to taste some teas before making my purchase. After a good ten minutes of charades, they finally conceded, and escorted me to a small table and chairs, resting upon which was some mysterious looking tea paraphanilia. I thought to myself how the lay person would similarly view a wine tasting, with differnet shaped glass ware, decanters, funnels, corkscrews, pressure tops, etc.
We sat at the Barbie-and-Ken-scaled dining set, and I watched the tea ceremony ensue. First the water had to boil, and while we waited, my host prepared the table. She scooped out some green tea from one of the canisters I had selected with a cherry wood "tea scooper" and deposited the tea in a white porcilin tea cup ("tea steeper"). Next she placed in front of me a mini tea saucer and cup. When the water was aboil, she calmly poured abit into the white porcilin tea cup (containing the tea), and moments later, SEASONED the glass demi-pichet (which would serve as the middle-man between tea steeper and my tea cup). Then she seasoned my tea cup. Okay, "seasoned" you say? Yes, it's that silly thing I always do to wine glasses to remove any dusk or residual soap from an otherwise clean glass. Apparently, seasoning a glass (tea-cup) is a non-western convention.
Well, now the little glass demi-pichet and my tea cup were ready to recieve the tea, which she transferred from the porcilin "steeper" to the glass pichet, and the pichet to my mini teacup. I was all hers at this point. Giddy and salivating like a Pavlov dog. Over the next 20 minutes or so, she proceded to repeat this process three times, so that I could taste the tea at various stages of "steeping." Again, I recalled a wine analogy: tasting a wine just after pulling the cork, then again, after a few swirls in the glass, and then finally when the wine is fully airated, after 20 minutes or so.
The tea was really good. Complex and layered. I was getting wet earth, and dried flowers, and something gun-flinty. Knowing almost nothing about how to critically taste tea, I relied on my wine tasting experience to deduce that I had selected a tea that was, in the words of one British wine critic, "very fine indeed." And more importantly, I had been schooled about the proper service of tea, which is nothing like the Western method. I deduced that if the Chinese can forgive our sin of microwaving a mug of water and adding a tea bag, then we can forgive them for their Cabernet-Sprite cocktails...