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Tea time

Tea is one of those things that is so omnipresent you rarely stop to think about it. Wikipedia is one…

By Kate Allen , in The Masticator , on January 26, 2009

Tea is one of those things that is so omnipresent you rarely stop to think about it. Wikipedia is one of those things that provides hours of distraction to the very bored and the very unwilling to do their readings. Put them both together and you, too, can have more information about tea than you know what to do with.

I started researching tea because I realized that I had no idea what it actually was. A flower? A bush? A tree? Does green tea come from a different part of the flower/bush/tree than black tea, or is it a different species of flower/bush/tree altogether? For something most of us having been drinking our entire lives, tea, at least for me, was a major blindspot.

I was surprised to learn that every type of tea comes from the same plant: camellia sinensis (and it is a bush, although it can be grown into a tree).

The difference between white tea, green tea, black tea, oolong, and fermented tea (pu erh) is entirely derived from how the plant’s leaves are processed. Tea leaves can be wilted, oxidized, crushed, and fermented, and each process, or combination of processes, produces a different flavour. Like wine, tea releases tannins as it is exposed to air. That in itself is kind of weird: wine inspires a cultish devotion in many (mainly Western) cultures, and tea is the second most consumed beverage on earth after water. What is it about those tannins? But that’s a whole other blog post.

The other reason I was interested in tea is because I’m heavily into eating local. So are lots of people in BC: the Okanagan valley is one of the most fruitful places on earth, and the fish out here has made me swear never to eat fish in Ontario again. But when we think about non-local food, we often think about huge tankers bringing huge shipments of unseasonal food produced by huge industrial “farms.” In other words, we think about globalization.

Tea doesn’t seem like it would fit into that vision. But it is nonetheless something fundamentally foreign. Tea was one of the first goods to be traded by sea. The tea market may be pre-globalization, but it’s certainly not pre-industrial. For someone who claims to eat local, it’s kind of embarrassing that until I looked it up, I had no idea tea could only be grown in very hot places.

I did some extra research, and found that it actually might be possible to grow tea here. Camellia sinensis likes mountain air and needs a “plant hardiness zone” of 8 or higher–and Vancouver is the only place in Canada that has both. So I’m working on possibly growing some local tea. But until then: how many other foods do we put in our bodies daily without really thinking about them?

More Links:

A fascinating story in the New York Times about the boom and bust of pu erh tea, which I invested in for my house after reading that article. I’m drinking it for the first time right now. It’s…different.

I highly recommend you play with that plant hardiness zone map up there. Hours fun for the whole family! (Assuming your whole family also doesn’t want to read a book about Galileo for their History elective.)