Sushi and Tea

We watched a delightful film last night from Magnolia Pictures titled JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI.

Jiro Ono in JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This is the writeup on Magnolia Pictures website for this film:  JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is the (true ) story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious three-star Michelin Guide rating, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar ($300 per person) for a coveted seat at Jiro’s sushi bar. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is a thoughtful and elegant meditation on work, family, and the art of perfection, chronicling Jiro’s life as both an unparalleled success in the culinary world and as a loving yet complicated father.

This film is a small window into the mind and soul of a consummate artisan who believes that he has yet to reach perfection in his craft. Jiro has spent a lifetime making sushi, and in doing so has come to understand the texture, taste, and intricate nature of fresh fish and seafood as perhaps only a few other Japanese sushi masters do. He loves his work and believes that we should all love what we do. Simply, Jiro believes: “You have to fall in love with your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.”

Jiro’s goal in his work is not to wow customers with his skills or to concoct some modern new cross-global cuisine, but to serve the most delicious food he is able to. He is not a rock star chef, does not have a television show nor does he insist on pointing the spotlight on himself. For Jiro, the reason for his lifelong journey to perfection and craft is to bring a  ‘sublime’ experience to his customers with his pure, unadorned sushi. He shines the spotlight on the fish and seafood, and other top grade ingredients, not his accomplishments.

We learn in the film that the ‘sublime’ may become the most difficult part for Jiro to achieve in the future. In the past, one of the components that Jiro has always relied on as a steady ally in his quest to create ‘sublime’ tastes is in peril. In a scene with Jiro’s son Yoshikazu and their long-time, trusted fish dealer at the Tsukiji Fish Market, we learn that problems with the supply of top grade tuna are occurring in Japan. Unlike Jiro’s fish vendor, few others in the market handle top grade tuna. For now, the supply of fish is OK, but the future is cloudy. There are several reasons for this.

A scene from JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The first reason given is that there were fewer sushi restaurants (and other types of restaurants that now serve sushi) in the past, and the best tuna was used only by those restaurants. Back then, the tuna coming to market were mature fish that had developed rich and succulent fatty meat. Tuna that would, in the hands of someone of Jiro’s skill, yield a sublime experience. Today, the demand for tuna is high, and fish are being caught younger to supply that demand. So the percentage of tuna reaching maturity is reduced. The un-spoken message in the conversation is that the quantity of younger tuna in the market puts a question mark on the future of mature fish and perhaps even on the sustainability of all tuna. On all fish, in fact.

As I watched this film I began to think that some of the situations facing Jiro are true for those of us selling premium tea, too. I began to think about established tea gardens with mature tea bushes and tea trees such as those found in various regions of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  India and Sri Lanka, too, now have  mature tea gardens that were planted in the mid-to-late 1800’s in various locales. In the early 20th century these tea gardens were considered young and new, but over time these tea gardens have developed unique types of premium black teas which are essential to tea enthusiasts today.

But times have rapidly changed. Today, over 41 countries in the world grow tea. Many of these tea gardens have been planted in the mid-to-late 20th century. The majority of these tea gardens were planted to produce commodity tea, plain and simple. Some gardens were planted by commercial tea companies, other gardens by individual countries. At first this tea was intended to be incorporated into English-style tea blends to balance the cost of high-quality China, India and Ceylon teas.

But today, those same tea companies, and a fleet of new ones who supply supermarkets and quick marts with bottled tea drinks, have simply replaced the traditional teas with less costly teas from new places. It is a rare package of English Breakfast tea today that contains any India or Sri Lanka tea in the blend as it would have at one time – most blends now use tea from Africa and Indonesia.

The continued growth of these tea products requires that these companies concoct their blends without the addition of higher-priced teas. This is because established tea producing countries have neither the quantity of tea available nor tea at a low-enough price to be attractive to large tea companies. In order to secure enough tea for their needs, these companies must go farther afield and develop new tea growing areas and sources of inexpensive leaf. The historic context of fine, hand-plucked, mountain grown tea has becoming a myth in the world of general tea commerce.

The reality is that in these newly developed modern tea gardens tea plants are placed close together, fertilized heavily, and plucked intensively. Most are planted on pretty flat land. Much of this tea is harvested completely by machinery that cannot select  a specific leaf pluck – the machines simply shears off the amount that the machine is set to shear. As a result of all the above factors, these teas have a consistent style throughout the year but little in the way of flavor or distinctive characteristics. The objective here is high productivity, not sublime flavor. We know that Jiro would not be happy with those teas, and neither are we. However, we too, are determined to seek out and support as many artisan tea makers as we can, so that hopefully premium tea will continue to be sustainable far into the future.


Conversely, most tea from established tea gardens is plucked by hand over the course of one, two or three seasons. (Much high quality Japanese green tea is plucked using hand-held machinery, but that is another story for another time). Tea manufactured on a seasonal calendar brings a unique set of stunning flavor and characteristics to the tea table. Working with nature and not in opposition to it has always produced the tastiest foodstuffs. Tea bushes that grow at a natural rate, and develop good root systems deep into the ground, and that are pruned only as needed to maintain good plant health yield tastier teas than plants that are force fed to grow rapidly and over-produce fresh leaf.

Like Jiro, we still believe in sublime tastes and sensations. And authentic, traditional tea. We throw our hat in the ring of the top grade producers who make seasonal tea. We know that every tea enthusiast who falls under the spell of flavorful, traditional tea is another small victory for handcrafted, conscientious manufacture, and meaningful tea, and we support that.

The Real Milk Oolong

 

ool-jin_xuanThere is quite a bit of misunderstanding about what milk oolongs are, and sadly there are many low-quality examples of this fine tea dogging about, too. Milk oolong is really a buyer-beware situation, and as premium tea retailers we usually avoid walking right into the eye of the storm when it comes to tea controversy and confusion. (Perhaps the popularization of bubble tea, a Taiwanese milk and tea  drink that features the addition of colorful and sometimes flavored balls of tapioca may somehow be adding to the confusion).

But real milk oolongs are so good that we wanted to shed some light on what milk oolong is and what it isn’t and introduce the real-deal to our customers.

Simply put, milk oolongs are lovely, sweet, lightly-roasted semiball-rolled style oolongs produced in different regions of Taiwan from a particular tea bush cultivar – Jin Xuan (Tai Cha #12 ). This cultivar is sometimes referred to as Golden Lily.


All of Taiwan’s great oolongs begin with specific tea bush cultivars that, in conjunction with the unique terroir of each location, influence the flavor of the tea. Although Jin Xuan is a relatively new cultivar (developed in the 1980’s) it is now one of Taiwan’s four main tea cultivars (dozens of cultivars and varietals are grown throughout Taiwan) and the cultivar behind the marketing of milk oolong tea.

It is the flavor of the fresh leaves from these tea bushes that is transformed into the soft, creamy, ‘milky’ flavor which makes this tea so desirable. Try our milk oolong and you will see that it has very little astringency and an abundance of natural sweetness. This tea has been given a very light roasting, which enhances the milk fragrance – nai xiang – of the tea. It is from the same tea garden as our 2012 spring Alishan gao shan, and we highly recommend it to anyone looking to taste a delicious, easy-to-love Taiwan high mountain oolong.)

Real milk oolong tea is very appealing and delicious, and very popular in Taiwan and abroad. However, it is important to understand that absolutely no milk is involved in the production of real Taiwan ‘milk’ tea.

Spend 30 minutes searching the internet for a definition of this tea and you will end up with many rather silly explanations of what it is, such as:

  • tea that is plucked from tea bushes that have been irrigated with milk before being harvested
  • tea made from tea leaves have been soaked in milk
  • tea made from tea leaves have been steamed with milk in the manufacturing process
  • tea made from tea leaves have been dried with milk
  • tea leaves that were hung over a steaming milk bath before drying

Really? Milk….really? Milk is not abundant in Taiwan (or any parts of Asia, in fact), so how does this make sense?

Anyway, our customers can rest assured that our milk oolong is the real milk oolong, and should not be confused with Chinese imitations of milk oolongs or low-quality teas that have been artificially flavored with a so-called ‘milk’ flavor. Real milk oolong is a natural Taiwan original, and has never seen the white-soul of the inside of a bottle of milk.

This tea farm was awarded 1st Place for their 2012 Spring Jin Xuan tea at the Alishan Village Farmer’s Association tea championship in May. This is one of three prestigious competitions that are conducted by the National Agriculture Council and sponsored by the Taiwan government. Our Jin Xuan Oolong has been certified by the Agriculture Council and the County of Chia-Yi to be true to its origin and also to be free of pesticides. Each package features a certifying stamp to verify this.

Please visit: www.teatrekker.com for more information

2012 New Harvest Tea versus ‘New’ Tea

It’s the time of year when fresh tea from the new harvest in China and India begins to show up in the US. It is also the time when some tea vendors add new teas that are not from the new harvest. So it is important for tea enthusiasts to pay attention to harvest dates and know what they are purchasing. Some of you may know this information, many of you will not, so it is worth repeating.

It is helpful to know in what part of spring certain Chinese teas are made: some teas are made from the end of March into early April; many teas are made in mid-April; and others are made from the end of April into early May before the spring tea season comes to an end.

Tea production times follow the same pattern each year, so this information tells us that it is not possible to have certain teas ahead of their usual production dates.

The only 2012 China spring teas available now in the US are a handful of Pre-Qing Ming ( Ming Qian ) green and black teas ( tea plucked before April 5th ) that have been air-shipped over to a few eager tea vendors like Tea Trekker.  Teas from the 2nd seasonal plucking time (April 6th to April 20th) such as white teas, yellow tea, some black and early oolongs will be here soon.

2012 green teas from Japan and Korea have not yet been made – the tea harvest in these countries begins in late spring. These teas (with the exception of Japanese Shincha) are still 4+ weeks away from being harvested (depending on the region and location of the tea gardens).

Right now many tea vendors are introducing ‘new’ teas to their store and websites, and tea wholesalers are looking to move out last years tea at reduced prices. The important thing to realize about that is this – simply because a tea is ‘new’ to a store or website does not mean that it is new tea from the 2012 harvest, and tea enthusiasts should not fall into the trap of thinking that it is.

If the tea is not dated, it may be last year’s tea ( or tea from anytime, really ) that is simply ‘new’ to that merchant or tea vendor. Which does not mean that last year’s teas should be avoided – that is not the point.  Some of last year’s teas are still tasty. My point is two-fold:

  1. one should be an informed consumer and not assume that a ‘new’ tea is fresh, new harvest tea unless that tea is clearly identified as such
  2. do not  stock up heavily on last year’s green, white or yellow tea unless that is what you mean to do. Some of these teas will keep quite nicely for several more months or even a year if the weather in that place of production had all of the right elements going for it. But in general, one does not want to purchase large quantities of green, white or yellow tea when the new harvest teas are so close to being available.

Tea vendors who bring new harvest spring teas over in early April send this tea by air so that the tea arrives when it is just days old and super-fresh.  (Shipments of these same teas sent via sea cargo arrive at the historic ‘normal’ time in late July and August). Any tea lover who has had a chance to drink tea this fresh knows what a thrill it is!

So plan your tea purchasing accordingly and make sure that you understand what you are purchasing regarding the dates of harvest.

At Tea Trekker we have begun to list the season and year of the harvest on our green, white, yellow, and oolongs, and some black and Pu-erhs, too. We believe that when dating matters, it matters alot, and that tea enthusiasts who know what these differences mean are better able to make the right choices when purchasing premium tea.

Mindful Tea Drinking as Food for Thought

An interesting article by Jeff Gordinier appeared in today’s Dining & Wine section of the New York Times. It is titled: Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.

It presents the benefits of mindful eating – that is, eating slowly ( not hoovering in the chow ) while paying attention to the food on your plate. Without the distraction of watching television or being connected to various electonica while eating.

For those who gobble their food in order to move on to the next thing, this notion may come as a surprise. Mindful eating is about focusing on the qualities and attributes of our food: the taste, the textures, and the interplay of flavors between the foods on your plate. Aromas and colors, too, are there to be appreciated, and who knows, such mindfulness might start many thinking about what the food on their plate actually is and where it came from.


According to the author, this concept has roots in Buddhist teachings. Just as there are forms of meditation that involve sitting, breathing, standing and walking, many Buddhist teachers encourage their students to meditate with food, expanding consciousness by paying close attention to the sensation and purpose of each morsel. In one common exercise, a student is given three raisins, or a tangerine, to spend 10 or 20 minutes gazing at, musing on, holding and patiently chewing.

“The rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves,” said Dr. Cheung, who, with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, co-wrote “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” “That’s why mindful eating is becoming more important. We need to be coming back to ourselves and saying: ‘Does my body need this? Why am I eating this? Is it just because I’m so sad and stressed out?’ ”

I was interested to see  such an article in the go-go New York Times. Not so long ago the Times was filled with reports and stories about the latest ‘here-today- gone-tomorrow ‘pop-up store, or roaming bar. So this article comes as a pleasant surprise.

We stress this same type of mindfulness about tea in our tea classes and whenever we are speaking with a tea customer who we think will listen.

Why? Because we are obsessed with the qualities that make premium artisan tea so special, and much of the appreciation of the flavor of the tea begins with the appreciation of the appearance of the tea itself. After all, one of the reasons that artisan tea is so great is because of the careful handling and hand-skills of the tea makers who made the tea.

So if you drink tea for the deliciousness of it, or for it’s cultural importance or its social opportunities ( and not just for a cafffeine jagg), perhaps you already look at the beauty of the leaves in the tea that you are purchasing or will be drinking. Do you ever wonder why certain leaf shapes are the way they are, or consider all of the different shade of color that tea can be?  Have you learned enough about the characteristics of some teas that you can  identify them just by looking at the shape and color? By the aroma?

This is our mantra about steeping and drinking a delicious cup of tea:  See, touch, hear, smell, taste.

We put that simple phrase, repeated below, on one of the handouts for our tea classes. We explain it, and some in attendance listen to us, and some don’t. Nevertheless, those who pay attention to their tea will, we believe, ultimately,  have a richer tea drinking experience, and gain a deeper appreciation for the craft of making and steeping.

Mindful tea drinking – food for thought, indeed!

Tea Drinking Feeds All Five Senses

See: observe the color, shape, and size of the dried tea leaves, and then the color of the tea liquor in your cup

Smell: the aroma of the dried tea leaves before steeping and the aroma of the tea liquor in your cup

Hear: listen to the sound of the water being poured into the teapot and the tea liquor being poured into the cups

Touch: feel the smoothness or roughness of the teacup in your hand and against your lips. Admire the thin-ness of the lip and the curve at the base of the cup.

Taste: savor the sweetness or the bitterness of the tea liquor

Here is a link to the article in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/dining/mindful-eating-as-food-for-thought.html?ref=dining

Protected Origin Status Granted to Darjeeling Tea

In October 2011 Darjeeling tea was granted Protected Origin Status by the European Commission on behalf of the Tea Board of India, the Darjeeling Tea Association and all of the tea growers in Darjeeling, India.

Due to the unique and complex combination of agroclimatic conditions (terroir) Darjeeling tea has a distinctive and naturally-occurring quality and flavor which is recognized by tea lovers around the world. The combination of factors give Darjeeling teas qualities that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Essentially, and briefly, this protection, which will ease in over a period of five years, will, when fully in effect, once and finally protect Darjeeling tea producers and their tea from the labeling abuses of others. This is great news for all involved in the business of producing Darjeeling tea, and it is great news for consumers, too.

(In order to be absolutely certain about the origin of our Darjeeling teas, we purchase these teas directly from respected sources in Darjeeling. Our teas are air-shipped directly to our shop with no other parties involved in-between).

Abuses by unscrupulous companies marketing non- Darjeeling tea ( tea grown in other parts of India or in other tea producing countries )  as authentic Darjeeling, or touting tea blends containing a below-minimal percentage of Darjeeling tea in the mix as authentic Darjeeling tea are well-known.

These shady practices have gone on for years with little recourse by the Tea Board of India to stop it. But the Tea Board has been moving up the ladder, one step at a time, over the past dozen or so years, ticking off a list of the requirements and paperwork necessary to build their case for protected status for Darjeeling tea. While I am sure that the amount of time that it took for this achievement to be fulfilled must have been daunting, and at times produced moments of great uncertainty and near loss of faith, the triumphant result has made it all worthwhile.

This is what the group Property Rights Alliance said about the necessity of such legal protections:  “An adequate legal protection is necessary for the protection of legitimate right holders of Darjeeling tea from the dishonest  business practices of various commercial entities. For instance, tea produced in countries like Kenya, Sri Lanka or even Nepal has often been passed off around the world as ‘Darjeeling tea’.

Appropriate legal protection of this GI can go a long way in preventing  such misuse. Without adequate GI protection both in the domestic and international arena it would be difficult to prevent the misuse of Darjeeling Tea’s reputation, wherein tea produced elsewhere would also be sold under the Darjeeling brand, causing damage to consumers and denying the premium price to Darjeeling tea industry. The industry is now waking up to the fact that unless Darjeeling Tea is properly marketed and branded, the survival of the industry may be at stake and GI protection along with stringent enforcement can go a long way in helping the industry to improve its financial situation.”

The European Commission (DG AGRI) has operated three registrations for  agricultural product and foodstuffs worldwide since 1992:

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
Open to products produced, processed and prepared within a specific geographical area, and with features and characteristics attributable to that area.
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI or GI)
Open to products produced or processed or prepared within a specific geographical area, and with features or qualities attributable to that area. The difference between PDO and PGI products is that the latter can receive that characterization as long as a certain stage of the production process takes place in the pre-determined region (whereas for PDO products, the entire production process must take place within the pre-determined region).
Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG)
Open to products that are traditional or have customary names, and have features that distinguish them from other similar products. These features need not be attributable to the geographical area the product is produced in, nor entirely based on technical advances in the method of production.

When a food product is granted protection under one of these schemes, the producer is allowed to place a colorful logo on its product to  announces this distinction.

Hundreds of well-known and loved European products have received these protections. So when I shop for French Champagne, or French Roquefort Cheese, Italian Parma Ham or Basmati Rice from India, or many other products, I always support the products bearing one of the EC’s logos.

EU agricultural product quality policy
Quality is an issue for every farmer and consumer/buyer, whether dealing with commodities produced to basic standards or with the high-end quality products. EU farmers must build on high quality reputation to sustain competitiveness and profitability. EU law lays down stringent requirements guaranteeing the standards of all European or EU protected products. In addition, EU quality schemes identify products and foodstuffs farmed and produced to exacting specifications. Better product protection will ultimately result in better prices for the tea, better economic health of the industry, sustainable educational and health systems resulting in a better quality of life for the tea workers.

Protected product status for noteworthy tea is much more than a mere badge of vanity, or the trumpeting of self-promotion. Here are a few examples of what product protection offers both producer and consumer.

  • First: The certifying mark on packages of these teas is a value-added incentive recognized in the marketplace, that, along with other certifications such as organic, fair trade, etc, allow producers to obtain a fair price for their products and maintain a healthy share of market. These products provide support to a larger piece of their agricultural economy by casting a spotlight on that local industry, and this in turn protects the livelihood of local producers and workers.
  • Second: Value-added incentives have a great deal of customer appeal too, as these certificates offer reassurance to consumers that the product they are purchasing is the real deal, and that cheap ingredients or raw materials have not been used.  And, that the product has been made in a manner that is in accordance with the tradition of a specified place.
  • Third: Protected status is essential in combating counterfeit or copycat teas, as well as intentional or accidental  mis-labeling of tea on the wholesale or retail level.  As more and more tea producing countries move outside of their usual tea manufacturing methodologies and produce their versions of another country’s famous teas, the true origins of certain teas (white tea is a good example) will become confusing and murky for consumers to discern.

Darjeeling has been granted a PGI or GI, which is wonderful news for these growers. In fact, it is good news for the future of all producers of authentic, unique, terroir-specfic, teas who will, I hope, feel empowered by this judgement and follow the long road and apply for protected status for their teas, too.

China’s prized Longjing tea is the only other tea to receive a Protected Origin Status, and they were granted a PDO.

Darjeeling tea is the first PGI status product for the entire country of India. Italy, on the other hand, has dozens upon dozens of protected status food products in all categories from wine to olive oil to bread to legumes, etc. For example, Italy has:

  • 42 PDO’s and PGI’s for cheese alone, with 6 more pending
  • 43 PDO’s and 1 PGI for extra virgin olive oil from different geographic regions, with 4 more pending.

Products grown outside of the borders of the European Union have only recently been  able to qualify for this protection, so tea is new to this scheme. But I believe that it is crucial that tea boards and government agencies take the threat of copy-cat tea and mis-labeling abuses seriously.

I hope that the tea industry will learn from the Darjeeling example, and realize that their is something that can be done to protect unique tea. Just imagine how wonderful it will be someday to see a listing of teas protected with PDO and PGI status, and to know as a consumer that you are purchasing the real deal and indeed  supporting the workers whose livelihood you think you are supporting.