Thursday 23 June 2011

Spot the difference

So went the longest day of the year. In small groups around the world there exists a following of herbalists that drink a certain herb to celebrate. This herb (the ball like appendages pictured above) has a long history in Chinese medicine, it is unfashionably hot and drying that goes against the current trend of cold and fluid engendering herbs. It was even accused, for a while, of being the poison that gave Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer a heart attack. It's toxic without preparation, but nothing returns warmth and function quite like it. It is 附子, aconite. It is to herbs as the Rolling Stones are to rock and roll.

Why take a hot herb at the most yang time of year I hear you say? Because in summer, all your yang is at the surface of the body, so logically it is not at your centre. You may feel warm (British summers withstanding) because your warmth is exactly where you can perceive it but inside you are stone cold.

Above is a picture of two almost identical teas. Both are Xiaguan 8653's, are from Essence of Tea and for those who know Nada's catalog well might of guessed the difference between the two. They have been stored differently, one dry and one not so dry. Neither are cheap and retail for about £550 a bing I remember but I thought it, well, fun to fork out for 5 grams of each to see just how the storage has changed this tea. I won't mention which one I tried first, but these are my notes.

This tea comes in a chunk, a solid dark lump that Xiaguan squeezed together when I was in my teen ages, there is no discernible aroma. For some reason, after a single rinse, I infuse for a brief five seconds despite the tight compression. The result was a soup of golden yellow, empty in my fragrance cup with a flavour that could of been mistaken for honey water.

Ten seconds pass for the second infusion but does little to change the soup apart from a slight change to amber. I swiftly move onto the third, at fifteen seconds, yielding more amber but still holding a yellow glint, but not much to write about other than appearance. The fourth infusion turns pure amber and the aroma starts to hold in my fragrance cup. The soup is very smooth, especially noticeable in the throat and I am gifted the lightest but sweetest huigan. The fifth becomes cooling on the tongue and lips, it really doesn't strike me as a tea from the eighties, more like a particularly smooth and fine tea from the turn of the millennium.

On the sixth (pictured above), and now at a time of sixty seconds in my yixing pot, the tea is becoming more solid and I am gripped by it's superb qi. I am quite becalmed but in no way could I say that I feel fatigued or sleepy. Inside my thoughts are alive and vibrant. Finally the terrific compression has started to give way and the leaf begins to spread.

The amber becomes mahogany, it has taken an hour to get this far! I notice a slight sourness. Another brew and the tea is squarely in the nineties, oily and thick but never overpowering with a dark fruity spice. As I drink the postman drops off some medicinal dit da jow I ordered from Plum dragon Herbs in America. I have a quick sniff, I just love the aroma of Chinese herbs. It reminds me of my young adulthood in Hong Kong, great years of my life.

Nine infusions in now and the sourness is back with some astringency on the tongue, that caught me by surprise a little. This is the only imperfection against what is an enormously enjoyable session of tea drinking and the sourness doesn't last into the tenth infusion, the final infusion before my stomach calls for a late breakfast. Anyway, feeling the tea in the head a little too I take a break.

I have read some criticism of Xiaguan's compression in that it stops this tea from ageing at the same pace as looser teas. In brewing it too, it took the fourth infusion to actually produce anything of note. Slowly the water started to penetrate and as it gradually did so I was transported back through the years until it's real age was on display. Some patience is required before I try the other sample I must make sure I have at least a good two hours clear.

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