Wednesday, November 18, 2009
"Great with sweets."
Japan is a small island. Therefore, the tea farmers have to be very smart agronomers, making the most of the tight spaces they have to grow their crops. Kuki-cha is a crucial part of the system of making the absolute most of the resources they have. After the tender leaves are plucked every Spring, the Japanese choose to then pluck the green shoots and very frugally make that into a tea of its own: kuki-cha.
In this case, Maeda-en blends the shoots with a touch of matcha powder, which is made from the light-sheltered gyokuro leaves and ground into a fine tea dust. Matcha is typically used in the Japanese tea ceremony, but here is added to lend a bit of mellowness to the flavor and brightness to the color.
And brightness! The leaves are by far the lightest green in my tea drawer. When steeped, the liquor is an opaquely rich, saturated, radioactive green color that could easily have been accidentally created by Homer Simpson at the nuclear power plant. When I poured off the tea, I could easily see the sharp difference between the 1/2-inch, pale shoots and the darker leaf matter, which appeared much like cooked spinach.
When I first made the tea (80C, 1min), I found it to be a bit... well, weird and bitter. Sencha, I understand. Matcha, not so much, though I've tasted it at Japanese tea ceremony a couple of times. The tea was vegetal and a bit bitter. I went back to the Web site and read that this pairs well with sweets-- much in line with how the Japanese tea ceremony is designed, with dainty sweets accompanying the rather bitter tea, allowing for greater enjoyment.
So I pulled out our Toll House chocolate chip (on the theory that chocolate and matcha pair nicely together) and made the tea again (85C, 1min), and did have better results. The buttery quality of the tea was lovely and quite sweet (once the bitterness was taken care of), and I was able to enjoy the lightly vegetal quality-- a bit like asparagus.
Typically, I enjoy teas without accompaniment: just me and the naked leaves. In this case, the tea actually seems deliberately designed to be drunk alongside the sweets, much as British teas are cultivated to best survive the cultural habit of adding milk and sugar and drinking alongside scones and cream. Drunk on those terms, honoring the cultural heritage that brought about this tea, it's quite delicate and enjoyable. Drunk, though, in the raw (the tea, I mean: you can enjoy it in whatever state of dress or undress you choose), this makes much less sense and is not nearly as enjoyable.