Throughout my adult life, I have been on a tea-related quest, of sorts.
I am in search of real lapsang souchong, of the kind that one finds in good hotels during afternoon tea. "Lapsang" has a firm grip on the subconscious of my nation, being a charmingly smokey tea beloved of many good Englishmen throughout the years. As a boy, I read that it was Tolkien's favourite tea, and I have consequently been hooked on it every since.
Our local arbitor of pinyin, Lew, would undoubtedly correct the vendor's spelling of "zhengshan"
It is a rare treat, because supermarket "lapsang" is simply low-grade hongcha scented with an artificial chemical. It is much like Earl Grey, the charlatan of English teas, in that it is beloved, as far as I can tell, by people that enjoy watching actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company who should know better than to play space-captains in Star Trek.
Thus, we only get to drink good, real lapsang in hotels. Lei and I sometimes head for a quiet session in our local (The Randolph), which provides afternoon tea in the manner of London's famous Savoy and Ritz.
I have bought lapsang from all manner of vendors, and all have been rough, chemically-scented affairs. Where is my sweet, smokey favourite? Does it even exist in retail vendors' stocks?
Beautiful hongcha leaves
I have long eyed the variety offered by Essence of Tea, and have been considering buying a small sample to see if it is "the real thing", though find myself pausing at the price. By a stroke of luck, it seems that the network of Chinese wives have been sending one another tea, and so I found myself brewing this welcome treat immediately after its arrival. To Mrs. Nada, many thanks! We are very grateful. What follows are merely my own notes to myself, as recorded in my journal for information's sake - if you are the proprietor of Essence of Tea, or happen to be married to him, please feel free to stop reading at this point.
Anticipating a solid lapsang experience, I brought out our gaiwan, pictured above. The result was a slick, mouthful of a brew, with a charmingly sweet hongcha aroma. In character, it was similar: deliciously sweet, and elegantly delicate, as I find many of the teas from Essence of Tea.
And therein, for me, lies the minor issue, as a man hunting for his long-lost lapsang.
This is a delicious hongcha, but it is not lapsang souchong. Yes, I know that it was plucked by the thighs of young virgins from the finest tea-bushes in the Wuyi mountain range, and then was gently passed over the combusting branches of pine trees through which ambrosial scents whisper throughout the long, spring evenings. It is an excellent "Zhengshan Xiaozhong". It is first-class hongcha.
However, it is not lapsang souchong, as English culture has long appreciated it. This is not to say that English culture has been raised on inferior product - merely that this particular variety is too light, not sufficiently pine-like, not sufficiently sweet-smokey, to be an Englishman's lapsang.
If I were to taste this in a line-up with, for example, a first-class Fujian "Bailin Gongfu", I don't think that I could tell the difference. I really enjoy hongcha. While I don't write about it very often, as I buy good quantities of it from Maliandao, which doesn't lend itself to interesting tea-articles, I spend quite some time with it. This charming tea is, undoubtedly, just a hongcha, albeit a mighty fine one.
My hongcha pot (a Xishi from Teamasters) is my second-favourite pot, next to Zidu, my puer-pot
So, I retrieve our hongcha pot, and continue as if drinking Bailin Gongfu. It lasts well, and provides much enjoyment, in its sweet, candylike, accomplished manner.
However, my quest for lapsang souchong continues...