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Tea, cooking and gadgets

by on June 6th, 2014

Canton Tea Club Week 88: Special Mao Jian Green

This week’s Tea Club tea is a piece of individual artistry from a tea master named Mr Xia – his own take on a famous tea called Mao Jian, a famous green tea from Xin Yang in Henan. Made to order for Canton, it is a single parcel from a small farm in Zhejiang, the area most famous for Long Jing, and it is the very first harvest of 2014. It is a Chao Qing (pan fried) green tea, made from start to finish in a wok: the process and the final tight curled leaves are reminiscent of Bi Luo Chun.  Mr Xia is a well known tea maker from the region, famous for making both this style and traditional Long Jing.  This tea is very unusual because Canton asked him to experiment using the Long Jing #43 varietal but make in the rolled leaf style. The result is something unique and very special. I’m not sure that it should be called Mao Jian, because the leaf is not the ‘hair point’ style, but maybe I should just relax about that. The flavour is remarkable – apologies to those of you who haven’t seen and tasted it.

As I mentioned a few blogs back, I saw Bi Luo Chun being made by hand in 2012, and I was captivated by the artistry involved: just a tea master kneading and twisting leaves in a wok. The basic simplicity of the hand-frying of the leaves, followed by watching the leaves slowly unfurl in tall glasses, made me think about the complexity of what we can do to tea over here (wherever ‘here’ is for you) and how we can lose that intimate contact with the leaves.

It made me think about cooking, and it made me think about gadgets.


Tea and Cooking

Most of us have our TV guilty pleasures. For a vicar friend in the 1980s it was The Professionals – he felt the need for a dose of used cars for sale in florida, guns and simple goodies v. baddies at the end of a trying week – and for my wife it is Holby City, even though she spends much of her working week in hospital. For me it’s Masterchef – I know it’s cheesy and contrived but I enjoy every minute of it. In particular, I like the invention tests, where contestants have to think quickly and create something from an unexpected set of ingredients. What comes across with the good cooks is an innate knowledge and feel for food, and how to bring the best out of it, even when conjuring up interesting dishes from leftovers and kitchen scraps. The only point when I start to lose interest is when they stray into using fancy techniques and equipment. Sous Vide cooking – vacuum sealing a piece of meat and leaving it in water bath for hours – doesn’t feel like cooking to me, it feels like a science experiment. Where is the interaction, where are the aromas, where is the artistry? It might come out perfect, but it all seems a bit clinical and impersonal. And don’t get me started on ‘foams’ or ‘airs’.

There might be a bit of the chef in all tea tasters, especially if they have been involved in creating blends. I’ve done a bit of that over the years, and one particular project comes to mind. I had just joined Ringtons, and one of our high profile supermarket customers wanted a herbal infusion range. The normal way of approaching such a task was to phone up one of the big German companies and to ask for samples of their off-the-shelf blends – they were (and are) dominant in the sector and excellent at what they do. But we didn’t want to do that, we wanted us to do it ourselves. So we got hold of a bright orange food-grade cement mixer and some herbs, and set about creating our own blends. It went surprisingly well, although as I recall we had a bit of trouble with ginseng root. The customer was happy and we had learnt some new skills that made it possible to develop flavoured tea blends for a new business project. I am particularly proud of two of them – Snowflower Earl Grey and Bird of Paradise, which are still sold by Ringtons today. Purists might be a little sceptical, but there is something special about creating blends in that way, mixing the leaves with your hands and experimenting with different flavours. It’s the closest we get to being chefs.


Accessories and Gadgets

Being in close contact with tea is important. There is something about handling the leaves, their shapes, their aroma and the sense that someone has crafted them. The way they respond to the water and release their secrets as they infuse: being able to see this happening and sample the aromas is very much part of the enjoyment. This is not at all the same as loading them into some clever bit of kit, which does all the infusing for you and delivers a liquid at the end. It doesn’t matter how clever it is, it takes away most of the sensory pleasure of the process. Somehow we have come to accept that making tea in a pot or gaiwan with leaves is too complicated and too messy. How did that happen?

Fortunately, science and innovation have come to our rescue, and there are many gadgets available now to help us avoid such unpleasantness. You can put the leaves inside a foil tube, or a steel ball, or a plastic submarine, or even a shark. Or you could buy Heston’s very clever kettle that brings the water up to the chosen temperature, lowers in a basket of leaves, infuses them for a set time and then removes them: it’s a very neat bit of kit. The leaves won’t be able to expand or infuse properly, you won’t get to see them reveal their colours as they unfurl, you won’t be able to breathe in their aroma. But on the other hand it’s very clean. It’s a bit like having a hug in a germ warfare suit. I imagine.

'Sharky' tea infuser

‘Sharky’ tea infuser

Tea Submarine

Tea Submarine

Heston and the Sage Tea Maker

Heston and the Sage Tea Maker

The same goes for coffee. Personally, I like coffee made with a drip filter – it takes a bit of time, but the aromas are all around, the anticipation builds and is followed by long leisurely enjoyment. Some of the coffees I have had in the last 12 months have been staggering and changed my expectations of what single farm coffees can deliver. I’m not averse to the occasional espresso or similar but it’s a very different experience.

I’m trying to imagine a discussion that goes like this. “You know how good the aroma and taste of freshly ground beans brewed with filter is? Well how about if we could remove that sensory experience altogether and replace it with a sterile little capsule of extract? Wouldn’t that be great? Sure, it would cost more, but it would be worth it.” That is not a conversation between coffee lovers is it? It’s a strategy meeting in a corporate R&D department. And yet people buy into the fake sophistication and elegance. George, what were you thinking? Haven’t you got enough money?


The ultimate tea gadget?

There are two challenges with serving tea in smart cafés and bars – how to avoid mess, and to make it sexy. The gleaming steel and retro styling of the kit used in coffee making causes a lot of machine envy, and over the years we have seen a few attempts in the tea sector to dress themselves up and hang out with the cool kids. For example, the Lipton Tea-Bird machine in the early 2000s was like something from a 1950s US Diner.

Lipton Tea-Bird

Lipton Tea-Bird

The latest example is the spectacular and technically advanced BKON, at $13,000 a go. It sounds good though, according to the website:

People of the world rejoice. You’re about to embark on a new adventure of the senses.

The BKON Craft Brewer creates perfectly infused premium tea more purely than any other brewing method – letting the world experience tea like never before. “How?” the ever-epicurious want to know. By throwing out the rules of brewing. Thanks to a little something called RAIN™ technology, tea’s true flavor DNA is extracted and unlocked in its purest form – serving up a beautiful, balanced cup of perfection in just 60 seconds.

Welcome to a new world. Prepare your palates. And go boldly toward tea enlightenment.

Tea can finally realize its full potential.

The BKON Craft Brewer

The BKON Craft Brewer

Hooray! We’re saved! I’ve read this through a few times on the website. At first I thought it was all a bit tongue in cheek, but I think they might mean it. Is that possible?

Do you remember Garry Kasparov playing chess against IBM’s Deep Blue computer? I have this picture in my head of a tea master making tea in a gaiwan using an old kettle, facing off against the BKON team of guys in white coats and their gleaming machine.

Making tea in Yunnan

Making tea in Yunnan

Whose tea would you rather drink?

  1. tomfreeman says:

    in close contact with tea is important. There is something about
    handling the leaves, their shapes, their aroma and the sense that
    someone has crafted them. The way they respond to the water and release
    their secrets as they infuse: being able to see this happening and
    sample the aromas is very much part of the enjoyment.”
    Agree 100%.  It’s a delight 🙂
    It’s also the ritual of making the tea.  I’m old enough to remember the days before tea bags became prevalent, when making tea meant putting tea leaves in a pot and brewing up – for everyone, not just tea connoisseurs!  Something great about it that throwing tea bags in a few cups just doesn’t match.
    Tea made by technology: “It’s
    a bit like having a hug in a germ warfare suit. I imagine.”  Great analogy.  The next step, I suppose, will be digital tea, produced by computer to digitally match whatever tea you want, just as a synth produces music….

  2. Jennifer Wood says:

    Love this blog. Perfect example of why we at Canton enjoy working with Phil so much and trust his judgment. 

    Highlighting the simple, sensory experience of being in touch with the leaf – that’s key.

  3. tomfreeman says:

    I had a look at the BKON website and watched their video.  Actually I think they might be on to something.  Obviously not for home use (at £13,000!), but maybe for larger retail outlets.  Shark gadgets and weird infusers etc. have no advantages (and several disadvantages) that I can see over just putting leaves in a teapot (or gawain), which is simpler, easier, and better than the alternatives.  But if you are running a largeish tea shop with a rapid turnover of customers, it’s actually quite difficult to provide authentically brewed tea, with the right temperature and timings etc., given the variations of different teas requiring different temperatures and length of infusion, number of infusions etc.  I have been in really good tea shops in Hong Kong, where they do this, but it requires a temperature controlled kettle on each table, and is probably quite labour intensive to get it right.  I have thought a bit about running a tea shop, or chain of tea shops, in the UK, providing a range of really good teas, made properly, and this issue is one of the things that puts me off doing it!!  How the hell would you manage it in a high street Costa or Cafe Nero type environment?

    If what they are saying is true (and obviously we would have to taste the tea to be able to say it is), then the BKON machine might give more consistent and better results when trying to provide many different teas to a large number of customers quickly.  They do seem to be sincere and to have done their research – I would like to taste the tea that their machine delivers 🙂