Love at First Flush

TeaSource
752 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; 690-9822

Heard the legend of the origin of tea? An early Chinese emperor, Shen Nong, who had decreed that everyone should boil their drinking water for health reasons, found himself on a summer's day in a garden, boiling water, when some leaves fell off a tree, and into his pot. The emperor, being adventurous, tried the infusion. And thus, tea!

Though probably some pretty weak tea, if you do the math--what with two tea leaves and a whole pot of water. But it's a good story. So I posited it to Bill Waddington early one morning, as I settled in at his counter at TeaSource for a a morning of tasting teas and spying on his customers.

Kristine Heykants

Waddington immediately offered me a much better story. A Bodhisattva (an enlightened Buddhist who is qualified to enter nirvana, but chooses to remain on Earth to bring enlightenment to others) was trying to meditate, trying to meditate, trying to meditate, but he kept getting sleepy, sleepy, sleepy. Finally, in deepest frustration, he ripped off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. They became the first tea leaves.

Not only does this story have a couple of nice touches--tea leaves are, in fact, vaguely eyelid-shaped; the story references tea's rousing properties; and there's that gruesome bloody-eyelid thing--but it also illustrates Waddington's propensity to upgrade everything in his purview. It was the same drive that 10 years ago led him to renounce the tea aisle at Byerly's and start on a campaign of reading about tea, researching specific teas, and writing to tea importers and tea plantations to request samples.

"I started out being a pest, really," Waddington says. "I'd read about a first-flush [first growth of the season] Darjeeling and I'd write to whoever had it, asking: 'Could you send me a quarter-pound?' And these were people used to dealing with 1,000-kilo orders." Two years ago Waddington founded TeaSource as a Web-based company, www.teasource.net, to test whether there were enough people interested in fine teas to support a full-fledged business. He found there were, and opened his Highland Park tea room this September in a onetime baseball-card shop. In the store, porcelain canisters on maple shelves hold nearly 200 teas and tisanes, all of which you can sample on the premises and buy in bulk. ("Tisane," pronounced "tiz-ahn," is French for "infusion," and means a brew of something other than the 2,000-plus varieties of the evergreen shrub camellia sinensis.)

These 200-odd options are truly dazzling. Merely approaching the 20-some green teas is an exercise in idiosyncrasy; some are as plain as Genmaicha, the toasty green tea blended with roasted rice that so many Japanese restaurants serve. Others are as exquisite as Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearl, hand-rolled snails of jasmine flowers and long green-tea leaves that unfurl in hot water like sea blossoms, releasing a scent like woodland flowers in a shady valley and offering a taste like a drift of smoke on a pond with just a hint of floral sweetness. In fact, Waddington says he has at least half a dozen people a day coming into his shop in pursuit of green tea and its medical benefits.

Speaking of which, just a few weeks ago a press release crossed my desk promising that with green-tea pills I could once and for all eliminate that pesky "taste of sweat socks" while reaping all of green tea's health benefits. I didn't pay it much mind, lumping its authors with the bozos who are trying to get red wine into pill form, eliminating all that irksome taste and tactile pleasure.

Then I went to my local health-food store and saw several varieties of green-tea pills, so I am now forced to take the matter much more seriously. To green-tea-pill poppers I say: You fools! It seems so obvious that the heart-calming and stress-reducing benefits of these beverages are at least partly associated with the simple acts of sitting back and relaxing, breathing deeply, and enjoying stress-free time--and yet the pill-making goes on. (As I write this, someone, somewhere, is probably busy grinding up all life's health benefits for your gel-cap pleasure. Coming soon to a Walgreens near you: Pills full of Adidas, soil, and Pekingese--for all the health effects of running, gardening, and spending time with pets without those annoying sweat, dirt, and dog-hair odors!)

Bill Waddington prides himself on helping people understand that "drinking green tea shouldn't be a medicinal pursuit, it should be a pursuit of the tea," says Waddington. Anyway, the only way your green tea should ever taste like sweat-socks would be if you treated it the way you would black tea--drenching it in boiling water and steeping it for five minutes. Green tea should be heated with water at around 180 degrees and steeped, depending on the specific tea, for between one and four minutes. The leaves can be--and this was news to me--re-steeped as many as six times. According to Waddington, many tea connoisseurs don't even consider that first brew worth drinking because of its raw, unrefined edges.

I tried re-steeping a Bai Mu Dan (Jasmine Wheel), a fascinating little contraption in which tea leaves are tied together into a flat disc which, upon immersion, expands into a bristly, elongated ball resembling a cross between a blowfish and a porcupine. (Jasmine tea is green tea scented with jasmine blossoms; in the better grades the actual flowers are removed.) I couldn't honestly say that later brews from this creature were better or worse than the initial cup, because my palate isn't that well-trained. But I can truthfully tell you it's a most amusing way to pass an afternoon in your kitchen with nothing but hot water and a glass. It also goes a long way toward explaining how I can now justify spending $28 on a quarter-pound of tea--you must get 50 pots of tea out of that quantity of Jasmine Wheels, maybe even 100, if you're really into those later brews.

All of TeaSource's teas are priced by those quarter-pounds, but on my visit Waddington seemed to try hard to steer people toward smaller eighth-of-a-pound purchases for fear of saddling them with a tea they didn't want. Tea is also sold by the to-go cup and, for consumption on the premises, in two-cup and four-cup pots. These pots follow a pricing schedule that reflects the cost of the tea leaves; a two-cup pot of a relatively common tea is $2, while the same quantity of a particularly rare brew runs $4.50.

This works out such that some of the pricier teas are sold significantly below cost. For example the precious "Silver Needles," made exclusively from the new buds of a growing tea plant--buds that, not yet having unrolled and toughened, are pliant, downy, and silvery--retails for around $150 a pound, which means most of us would never try it. But at $4.50 a pot, it becomes quite accessible.

You might say that offering fine teas at steep discounts is akin to drug dealers giving "free samples"--a small investment in creating lifelong dependence. But such cynicism fades after a morning of watching Waddington evangelizing tea and searching for each customer's perfect brew with questions like "what sort of coleslaw do you like--creamy or vinegar-based? What beer--a light, crisp lager, or a deep, malty stout?" If you answer "Guinness and creamy slaw," Waddington might steer you to a malty assam tea, something with a big flavor that goes nicely with milk and sugar. If you respond with "Kirin Dry beer and vinegar dressing," perhaps you'll want something more astringent, like a Darjeeling.

Whichever you choose, chances are you'll never go back to Lipton--especially if you mention that dreaded name to Bill Waddington, whom it sets to shuddering. "Lipton makes some good teas, and sells decent mass-market teas in the rest of the world," he says, "but what they sell here is literally dust. My thinking is that Lipton figures Americans aren't tea drinkers so they can just dump dust here." Shudder.

Let's hope that the lowest-common-denominator attitude is on its way out. We probably will never equal the elite Germans and Saudis who, Waddington says, regularly corner the market on single-estate first flush Darjeelings, driving prices into the $20,000-a-pound range. But at least it looks like we'll be drinking our teas, not popping them.

 

TABLEHOPPING

THE TREND IS...GROUPIES! I was fairly doubtful when the Napa Valley Grille launched its "Women's Afternoon at Napa" series of wine lunches. I mean, this is a land so steeped in recovery-think that my health-care provider thinks she can determine whether her patients are alcoholics by the simple yes-no answer to the question: "Have you ever done or said anything you regretted while under the influence of alcohol?" I think if you haven't said at least two dozen things you regret by the time you're, say, 25--well, then you're just not giving matters around you your full attention.

So I thought it would go without saying that hereabouts nice girls don't have wine with lunch. Once again, shows what I know, because these women's wine lunches at the Mall have become the hottest ticket since outpatient liposuction. Unlike traditional wine dinners, where the chef is hidden in the kitchen while someone chats about the wine, these are demonstration events, with Grille executive chef Eric Scherwinski leading ladies through the preparation of every dish, and the ways in which wine can enhance it.

After a season of getting established, the events are selling out months in advance. "Yeah, it started out slow," says the cherub-faced chef. "But I've got groupies now. They don't let me make a move without them. I don't even have menus written. People who've been to the lunches say they've become a unique experience, less like a lecture and more like a dialogue, with regulars critiquing Scherwinski's recipes and growing ever more opinionated about their wines. (Still, in my book they won't be real dialogues until people start saying things they later regret.)

While the November 18 Ferrari-Carano lunch is already sold out, you can call 858-9934 to reserve your place at the December 1 and 2 Alexis Bailly luncheons; the December 22 holiday lunch including wines from the Simi and Chandon wineries, with a focus on holiday appetizers and desserts; or the January 27 Oakville Ranch Vineyard event. Most luncheons cost $29.95, a price that includes tax and tip, but the expensive sparkling wines at the December 22 event will push its price tag to $32.95

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