When tea is harvested, different parts of the plant are plucked, depending on the quality of the tea to be produced, the type of tea, the country etc. Tea picking is an important stage in tea processing and historically much has been written about the activity and the women who carried it out. Chatterjee (reference below) for example, mentions one account of labour management in the Tang Dynasty where tea pickers were required to abstain from eathing fish and certain kinds of meat so that their breath might not affect the bouquet of the leaves. He also talks about how women’s hands and fingernails were inspected to ensure body oils and perspiration would not contaminate the leaves.
Today, it is generally accepted that for high quality orthodox tea, the leaves at the tip of the stem are hand-picked. Plucking the bud and adjacent leaves encourages new shoots to grow. Dexterity and speed are required, as the pickers snap the top, tender stems using the index finger and thumb and breaking the leaves off with a quick snap although many farmers have adopted the time-saving method of attaching a blade to the index finger for snipping the stem.
The tender leaves at the top of the plant are the freshest growth and the most tender and are the richest in catechins and theanine. Imperial plucking involves just the bud and one leaf. Fine plucking takes the bud and the two adjacent leaves at the top of the plant stem. Average plucking takes the bud and three leaves.
Below are two photos of a jasmine pearl tea. The photo on the left is before steeping and the one on the right is the unfurled leaf after steeping. The beauty and perfection of the unfurled bud with its adjacent leaf or two leaves strikes me every time I make this tea.
A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation By Piya Chatterje, Duke University Press Books, 2001
Last week I received an invitation from Louise Walsh at LMFM to come into their studio and do some tea tasting with presenter, Deirdre Hurly on the radio. It sounded like a great idea but I’ve never done tea tasting on the radio. What could possibly go wrong (apart from drawing a blank on a really obvious question or scalding the presenter with a pot of tea)?
Selecting teas was a challenge though. I didn’t want to start messing with different temperatures so I chose only teas that would need boiling water (i.e. no green or white tea). Myself and a friend spent an afternoon drinking 20 teas and debating the merits of each. We both got jittery from caffeine but decided on one tea and one herbal infusion that the presenter would probably know (earl grey and rooibos) and two teas that she probably wouldn’t (Taiwanese oolong and a pu-ehr).
During the interview I more or less forgot I was on radio, which was great but it also meant that I kept forgetting to describe the various leaves and liquid. Tea tasting involves smell, sight, taste and touch much more so than hearing so I was handing the cups and dried leaves and wet leaves to Deirdre (as I would in a tea tasting) and she described it to the listeners. She was very patient!
I tried to have all the teas brewed beforehand to avoid spillages and calamities but trying to unpack all my equipment and prepare the teas in 80 seconds before the show was a lot of pressure. Next time I’ll brew as I go.