Friday, October 19, 2018

A tea workshop at Windham Public Library introduces the history of an ancient beverage

Ray Marcotte on a tea sourcing trip in India
By Lorraine Glowczak

For those who were able to attend the workshop, “Tea: History, Types and Tasting” at the Windham Public Library on Friday October 5th got to experience a real treat. Not only did the participants get the opportunity to explore the beverage’s history, but they were also introduced to varieties of tea leaves and the processes to which the leaf is transformed from tea bush to cup.

The workshop was led by Windham Library’s Ray Marcotte, a Reference and Technology Assistant, who is also a tea connoisseur. Marcotte and his wife are co-owners of an Asian-style teashop in Portland’s Old Port and they have studied the history and art of tea for over seven years. Marcotte travels annually to various Asian countries such as India, China, Korea and Taiwan on tea sourcing trips to learn the details of tea production.“Despite popular perception, tea does not come from England,” Marcotte said. “The small leaf variety tea bush (Camellia sinensis sinensis) was discovered 5,000 years ago in China, and has been transplanted all over Asia, the Middle East, and even the United States.”

Marcotte stated in the workshop that Chinese legend has it that the mythical emperor Shennong, the “father of Chinese agriculture”, was sitting under a camellia bush when a leaf dropped into his cup of boiled water, thus discovering tea and its restorative and healing powers.

Workshop participants learned that there are two main varieties of tea: Camellia sinensis sinensis (small leaf variety from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Vietnam) and Camellia sinensis assamica (large leaf variety from India, Ceylon, Sri Lanka and Kenya, Africa).

“From those two main varieties, there are six classes of tea,” Marcotte explained. “These include green, black, white, yellow, oolong, and Pu-er teas. Each tea class is produced and processed differently.”

Tea is a highly managed product and the method from plant to cup of boiling water is a long and sometimes arduous one. “There are very specific methods of picking tea leaves and the process to which each class of tea is produced.”

Marcotte further explained the details of picking tea leaves by expert hand pluckers as well as the process that occurs after the leaves are picked. “Most green tea comes from the bud, first and second leaves only. The top shoots provide the best quality tea, and therefore produce the most pleasant and refreshing taste. Once the leaves and bud have been picked by hand, then the processing of the leaf begins. For Chinese green tea, that includes withering, heating (pan-firing), shaping and drying (unoxidized).”

Tea productions and processes for other classes of tea include a variation of the following: pan-firing, shaping and drying, sun baking, rolling, tumbling, roasting, withering, fermenting and smothering.        
Marcotte also shared with workshop participants how the misconception that tea comes from England came to be. The story states that the popularity of a mid-afternoon English tea began only 200 years ago by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. Supposedly, she is the one who coined the phrase “sinking feeling”, referring to her energy as it began to wane in the middle of the afternoon after breakfast had worn off. At that time in England, dinner for the upper classes wasn’t served until approximately 8pm, so Anna started having afternoon tea with desserts to relieve her hunger. She enjoyed her new daily routine and as a result, began to invite friends. By the 1840s, the afternoon tea became a high society social event among the wealthy. The tea that was most often served and consumed was Darjeeling (from India.)

The transformation of loose-leaf tea into tea bags happened quite by accident. “A New York tea merchant by the name of Thomas Sullivan sent samples of tea to his customers in small silk bags as an easier way to send the tea leaves,” Marcotte stated. “His customers assumed that they were supposed to put the entire bag into the pot of boiled water, rather than emptying out the contents, and thus – the teabag was born.”

Marcotte stated that the teabag grew in popularity in the 1950s. “It is important to note that the contents in a teabag are not leaves but are actually the ‘dust’ from the leaves which is what’s left over from the sifting process.”

The hour-long workshop participants, after discovering the many interesting facts about the ancient beverage, got to enjoy and sample a variety of high-quality teas. No teabags were used, of course. more information about how tea became popular in the West, Marcotte recommends reading the book, “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History “by Sarah Rose. It is available to check out at The Windham Library. Marcotte is also available to answer any questions.

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