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THE TEA BUSH: QUEEN OF THE CAMELLIAS

All varieties of green and black tea come from the tea bush. This plant, a member of the camellia family, has deep green leaves with a glossy finish and serrated edges. It's botanic name is Camellia sinensis and has its origin in China. Today it is found in two varieties: Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica, Which is most often found in India and Sri Lanka. These two ancestral plants were frequently crossbred, in order to produce plants that combined their most desirable properties. While both varieties thrive in humid environments of up to 2,500 metres in elevation, they differ a great deal in their tolerance to cold, natural height and in the size and quality of their leaves. The Chinese tea bush is hardier and more resistant to frost, and can reach up to 6 metres in height. The Assam bush, in contrast likes warmer climes, and can grow up to 20 metres tall. Both types of tea bush are grown from cuttings, and they are harvested for the first time between three and five years after being planted. After the harvesting season, each bush is pruned back to 80 cm, in order to keep its shape and ensure the leaves are easy to pick. Regular pruning also prevents the tea bush from flowering, which means that more leaves are produced. A tea bush can live for about 100 years. During that time, it develops long taproots that reach depths of up to 6 metres. For this to happen, the soil must be rich, acidic and permeable, to avoid waterlogging. In addition the tea bush requires between four and six hours of sunshine a day, and evenly distributed rainfall so, it stays damp without becoming over-watered. While tea can grow on plains, it does best in mountainous areas. This because the conditions on mountain slopes suit its character, by draining water away from the roots and ensuring a substantial drop in the temperature at night time. In these surroundings, tea bushes grow at a steady pace, giving them plenty of time to develop their especially fine and aromatic leaves that go on to make the delicious brews enjoyed by tea lovers in the every nation.

TWO LEAVES AND A BUD

For the best-quality teas, only the two newest leaves and one delicate bud are harvested-and only as many of these as can be harvested without weakening the plant. Usually, this delicate work is performed by very experienced tea pickers, because the quality of the tea depends entirely on the quality and regularity of the harvested leaves. In tea-growing cultures, the men care for the plantations and work in tea factories, while the women are in charge of the careful picking process.

TEA VARIETIES IN BLACK AND WHITE

The tea bush is the basis for a whole range of different teas, each with its own distinct production process. This results in an apparently endless variety of colours, flavous and aromas.

BLACK TEA

Black teas are known as fermented teas and can be identified by their dark colour when brewed. During the fermentation process, which is in fact better described as "oxidation",the ingredients contained in the tea leaves are modified, and essential oils are released. This gives the leaves a coppery-red colour, as well as generating the aroma that most westerners associate with a cup of tea. The leaves are then dried, making them even darker.

GREEN TEA

The leaves used for green tea are not fermented, which is why they retain their original green colour. Indeed, it is vitally important to prevent any natural oxidation of the leaves, in order that their distinctive flavou is not impaired. China and Japan have each developed their own processing methods tor green tea. In China, the fresh leaves are stirred quickly in very hot woks for 30 seconds, while the Japanese method involves heating them in large drums using steam. These reach a temperature of around 100 degrees Celsius, meaning the enzymes in the leaves are deactivated natural fermentation is avoided. The whole process takes less than two minutes in total.

OOLONG

Oolong is a partially fermented tea, somewhere between green and black tea. To achieve this, only the outer cells of the leaves are broken open during production. The leaves are then left to wither naturally in the sun before being rolled up in large rolls of bast fibre. This is all done with extreme care, and the precise colour of the resulting tea depends entirely on the degree of oxidation.

RED TEA

Red tea is known as pu-erh tea (sometimes'pu-er'). The name comes from a city in the Chinese province of Yunnan. To make red tea, green tea is left to mature for a long period after the ripening and fermentation processes. This helps the tea to develop a strong earthy colour and taste, as well creating its characteristic red colour. Nowadays, this process is artificially hastened, but in the past, it would have taken many years.

WHITE TEA

The freshly picked tea leaves tram which white tea is mate are sun for 36 hours. They are then dried for the same amount of time again under carefully monitored conditions. The leaves which accidently break up in slightly amounts allow natural fermentation to occur. Because of the delicacy of this process, only the very finest tea leaves are used to create white tea.

ORTHODOX PRODUCTION OF BLACK TEA

When tea connoisseurs talk about the Orthodox' method of production, they have in mind a very specific way of preparing the leaves. This is the original method, used by generations of tea makers, and it remains the gentlest way of producing tea that is ready to be brewed. The orthodox production method is labour intensive and involves a number of stages that are watched over by experienced and specialist workers. It is far superior to the mass-production technique, known as CTC, which uses a mechanical crush before tearing and curling the leaves. Even the most unrefined palate would immediately spot the difference between a tea produced using the orthodox method and one produced using CTC.