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Friday, January 28, 2011

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By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri KrasovSold in dark bottles, poured in crystal stemware, and enjoyed in small tastes with appreciative nods, is tea a new wine? Royal Blue Tea produced in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, surely acts like one. Not your everyday tea, it grows in a controlled environment with measured periods of sun and shade. The highest grade blue (Oolong) and green tea leaves are handpicked at the peak of the season and brewed in cold water for 3 to 6 days to achieve the tastes of umami, and the colors of jewels.At a chaen (food and tea pairing) luncheon, provided by the Royal Blue Tea Japan (President Keiko Yoshimoto) and the Kanagawa Prefectural Government at Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley last week, I was lucky to taste several kinds of this delicate tea, brewed with cold or 40-degree C water. Arriving in America for the first time, the royal beverage couldn’t have made a more impressive appearance. King of Green, Masa was served as aperitif. It felt refreshing and faintly sweet, and to me tasted like mango in a sea breeze. A lingering aftertaste was as clean as morning dew.Before my curried butternut squash soup came to the table, I tasted Fall in Love, served at room temperature – a 30%-fermented golden nectar with floral notes.Blue teas are going through a partial fermentation process, producing topaz to amber color and deep satisfying taste. Stopped fermentation must happen at a precise moment; therefore blue tea production is labor-intense and involves skilled personnel. As a result, the world tea market consumes 80% of black tea, 18% green, and only 2% blue.Fish and mussels bouillabaisse with rich rouille sauce came right after Real Honey tea, 50%-fermented and slightly roasted; velvety, smooth, and mild. And just before dessert (yogurt sherbet with citrus compote) the Queen of Blue arrived – 70% fermented, fragrant, complex and robust. Tea leaves for Queen of Blue are picked only once a year (for other teas – 2-3 times a year), and only at a certain time in summer. Then the tea plants are being cut, and new ones planted.After dessert, a warm green tea was served, with an instruction card on “How to enjoy Susuri-cha.” Susuri-cha is an authentic Japanese tea, enjoyed as beverage and as green food. Tender Masa or Hiro leaves are covered with 40C water, and steeped for 2 minutes. After the first cup, slightly warmer water is poured over the leaves and steeped for 1 minute. After 3 times, the leaves are good to eat, tasty and filled with vitamins and minerals. Susuri-cha is brewed in a cup, so no teapot is necessary. The tea flavor varies between the first and the third serving. Even in the same cup the first sip differs from the last. This last sip of Susuri-cha is called “the jewel of tea.”
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