By Mary Lou Heiss
Mary Lou Heiss is the co-owner of Cooks Shop Here in Northampton, Ma a unique tea and specialty foods store established in 1974. She is the author of Green Tea: Hot Drinks, Cool Quenchers and Sweet and Savory Dishes, and co-author with Robert J. Heiss of The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide.
For me, there is no more splendid aroma than the rich, luxurious fragrance of jasmine blossoms (family: Oleaceae, genus: Jasminum). On a recent trip to a botanical garden I discovered that I had arrived at the perfect time. The various species of resident jasmine vines were in full bloom, and I was thrilled to be surrounded by such a concentration of this heady and exotic aroma. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and let the transcendent fragrance conjure up dreamy images of exotic places and warm sultry nights.
As I left the garden drunk on these exhilarating aromas, I began to mentally relive the visit I made last year to a traditional jasmine tea factory in Fujian Province, China. There, the pervasive fragrance of jasmine blossoms dominates the area during the hot and humid summer, and the gentlest breeze carries the lingering aroma of these blossoms great distances.
China's long and impressive list of exceptional teas is comprised of thousands of variations of leaf styles in six classes of tea -black, green, oolong, puerh, white and yellow. Flower scented teas such as jasmine have been enjoyed in China for centuries, and delicious examples of these seductive teas can be found in several of these different classes of tea.
Historically, different classes of tea became associated with specific tea producing regions, and within each class of tea many special teas developed. Many of China's revered teas still exist today - some of these teas are known as the 'Famous Teas' while others are more familiar to local populations of tea drinkers on a regional basis. Nevertheless, each of these teas reflects regional taste preferences and local tea making traditions in these regions.
Since the tumultuous days of the China Tea Trade in the 18th century, the West has embraced many Chinese teas, but one of the perennial favorites is China's heady and exotic flower-scented teas. The process of imbuing the lush, sweet perfume of aromatic blossoms to tea leaves was perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In the earlier Tang Dynasty (618-907) compressed tea cakes were flavored with sweet fruit pastes and sometimes flower oils, but the addition of fresh blossoms to leaf tea belongs to the flower-loving cult of Ming-era tea processors. Since that time the addition of the glorious perfume of fresh chrysanthemum, gardenia, jasmine, osmanthus, rose, and yulan (magnolia) blossoms has provided moments of delight to the relaxing pleasure of tea drinking.
Flamboyant and sweet-tempered jasmine tea is the primary jewel in the crown of China's scented teas, and in the north of China one is most likely to be served a cup of jasmine tea before or after a meal. Serving jasmine tea to guests is considered a sign of hospitality and welcome.
There are many quality grades of jasmine tea, determined by the fineness of the leaf pluck, the freshness and condition of the jasmine blossoms used and the number of times fresh jasmine blossoms are introduced to the prepared base tea. Different quality levels of jasmine tea are manufactured and range from the sophisticated and sublime to the mundane and cloying.
China is a vast country and many tea-producing provinces cultivate jasmine flowers and manufacture jasmine tea. These include Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Sichuan, and Zhejiang provinces. As with any commodity, standardization and uniformity of product produces common, undistinguished tea. Much of the lowest quality jasmine tea is made for general consumption and for use in Chinese restaurants both in China and the west. These teas use summer-harvest pluck (which is larger and coarser leaf) and are given only one or two scentings with fresh blossoms. Even worse, these inexpensive jasmine teas are often 'scented' in tea factories by simply spraying tea leaf (of whatever origin and class of tea) with jasmine extract.
But all Chinese teas have one special place where they are best understood and interpreted, and, accordingly, traditionally scented jasmine tea is historically linked to Fujian Province in eastern China. Here, jasmine tea has always been the specialty of tea factories located in the vicinity of Changle, on the outskirts of Fuzhou city. Fortunately for today's tea aficionados, skilled tea workers in small local tea factories located there take pride in their artisan grades of specialty jasmine tea and still follow the required steps of traditional jasmine tea manufacture to scent their exquisite teas.
When you experience just one taste of the delicate flavors and intoxicating aromas of these traditional jasmine teas you will appreciate the difference. I like to think that Ming-era tea lovers would be delighted to know that these teas are still being made today.
Since the days of the China Tea Trade, Fujian has been a treasure trove of key Chinese teas such as the broad-leafed, pine-smoked Lapsang Souchong, the revered Wuyi Si Da Ming Cong Cliff Oolongs such as Da Hong Poo and Ti Lo Han, traditional varieties of bud-set white tea and the ball-rolled Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) oolongs teas. Fujian jasmine teas are highly regarded not only for the quality of the leaf but also for the ethereal quality of the fresh jasmine blossoms (Arobion Jasmine Samboc) that are cultivated on jasmine bushes grown in the environs of the tea factories.
In Fujian Province, leaf from several different bush varieties of Camilla Sinensis is plucked to make various styles of jasmine tea. This includes leaf from white tea varietals such as Fuding Da Bai (Fuding Big White) and Fuding Do Hao (Fuding Big Sprout), which hail from the vicinity of the town of Fueling. This leaf is used to make white jasmine teas such as the long, downy-hair covered bud-only Silver Needles jasmine (Bai Hao Yin Zhen), and Jasmine Dragon Pearls, a leaf and bud-set white tea that is made from the Fuding Da Bai varietal. Jasmine Dragon Pearls requires the use of this slightly larger leaf, so that workers can successfully hand-roll the leaf into a finished 'pearl,'
However, these teas are the exception. The base tea used for most Fujian jasmine tea is special. Jasmine tea is often referred to as being green or white or oolong tea, but, while some specific varieties are made from white tea, most Fujian jasmine tea such as Jasmine Silver Hair (Yin Hao Jasmine) and Jasmine Spring Hao Ya are made from a base tea that it is similar to all of these but different from them. Correctly, this tea is Pouchong tea (not to be confused with Baozhong or Paochong oolongs from Taiwan which are true oolongs that have been given a light oxidization and which possess a visually different leaf style). Every province that manufactures Jasmine tea will use a different base depending on preferences of the local population, so in some places in China black tea is used.
Pouchong is best understood as a very lightly oxidized tea that is not bruised as in traditional oolong manufacture but is de-enzymed as in green tea manufacture. With the inception of the preference by locals in Fujian for drinking pouchong as finished tea, Pouchong tea is made solely for use in flower scented teas.
Jasmine tea is a two-step process that begins in the spring and is finished in mid to late summer. The tea is made from freshly plucked spring leaf but jasmine bushes flower on a different cycle and do not produce their famous blossoms until the sweltering, hot and humid days of late July.
Because of this offset in the timing of production, the base tea must be made ahead of time and packed up to await the arrival of the aromatic flower blossoms. When the time is right for the blossoms and the tea to be 'married' the base tea must be such that it is able to absorb the perfume of the jasmine blossoms as completely as possible into every pore of every leaf. And this ability is controlled by the nature of the base tea.
This base tea is called zao pei (tea readeied). Zao pei is made by first de-enzyming the fresh leaf, then by rolling the leaf to break up the cell structure within the leaf. The leaf is then quickly dried with indirect heat from hot air that is blown over the leaf as It travels through a drying machine. This creates a very different leaf style than leaf that is dried by direct-heat methods such as pan-firing or basket firing. These traditional techniques of drying would expose the leaf to heat that is too hot and the leaf would curl and twist; the object in creating zao pei is to keep the leaf somewhat straight and flat in in order to retain the maximum amount of surface area for absorbing the fragrance from the blossom.