While researching the world of tea for my food column that appears in the May 2011 issue of the magazine, I discovered that Ottawa is actually home to one of the top world experts on tea, Jeff Fuchs. Fuchs is an explorer and the first westerner to have ever traveled the entire 5,000 km of the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Road on a trip to Yunnan. In his book that came out of the journey, he describes how he retraced portions of the road, sampling teas at their origin and studying the road’s impact on ethnic minority villagers. These days he calls the northwest Yunnan province home, but he comes back to Ottawa regularly to visit his parents, who still live here.
The Exposure Gallery, located on the second floor studio at Thyme & Again will be exhibiting Fuchs’ photographs of The Ancient Tea Horse Road from June 9 – August. 2. He will be speaking and leading a Tea Tasting at the Museum of Nature on June 22.
I reached Fuchs by email while he was travelling and sourcing tea in Sri Lanka to discuss tea culture in Ottawa and around the world. Here is part of that correspondence:
City Bites: Where does your love of tea come from?
Jeff Fuchs: Tea was always around in the house when I was young, as we weren’t a coffee- drinking family, but my first visit to Taiwan cemented an almost obsessive interest not only in consuming the ‘green’ but in the culture and various aspects of it in Asia.
Where I live in Yunnan is not an accident. Yunnan is both the entry to the Himalayas and the home to the planet’s ancient origins of Camellia Sinensis [tea], so great tea from the source is readily available to me. I now source from regions just hours south of my home — small villages that host the ancient tea forests.
City Bites: what are your tea-drinking habits today?
JF: I primarily drink green unfermented Pu-erh — a bitter-sweet tea that is grown on ancient tea trees. Over years of visits, slurps, and sampling the tea with the indigenous growers I’ve established a direct line, so to speak, to teas that are rare outside of tea-obsessed circles. I’ve learned more from them in 20 minutes of unpretentious surroundings than in some so-called ‘tea houses’.
City Bites: What is the most important thing we can learn from tea today?
JF: From what I’ve seen, tea and its nutritional and curative abilities, and the way it is seen as something that is communal and social by the people who grow and produce in the ancient tea forests – these aspects stand out for me. Another aspect that I treasure, is the manner in which locals will unceremoniously prepare a tea that sells for hundreds of dollars per kilogram. They simply grab a handful of leaves throw them into a kettle and serve the nectar while sitting on the floor. Tea for them isn’t about pretense or lavish ceremonies without meaning – it is rather about an intense and informal understanding of the value of this ancient green necessity. The meaning for them is in the tea and the offering to share.
City Bites: What are your impressions of Ottawa as a place for people who are interested in tea?
JF: Like with all things, more knowledge and tangible experiences expand one’s understanding, and in tea’s case, one’s palate. Ottawa, with places like ‘World of Teas’ on Richmond Road and Cha Yi, Daniel Tremblay’s shop on Eddy Street in Hull, is allowing people to sample an ever-widening array of stunning teas without the heavy sales hand. ‘Blended’ teas have become the rage, but while easy on the senses, they are unfortunately rarely ‘natural’, and viewed by any serious tea drinker as being fraudulent because they cover up the inherent tea qualities with synthetic flavours.
One of the great things about tea in Ottawa is that people now can sample to their heart’s content at an ever increasing number of shops – especially the small shops that source directly from particular gardens. It is in these shops that some sort of tea’s spirit is kept: intimate, social, and where time to take is the most important thing. Ottawa is coming along in terms of tea and in some ways the slower and more subtly it comes the better as trends inherently run their course and disappear.
City Bites: I understand you are an expert in Pu-erh. What can you tell me about the growing popularity of this particular tea?
JF: Pu-erh has been the tea that has had me in its arms for years now. One of the strange aspects of Pu-erh, is that its rise to cult status in the west has been in its black, fermented form – an artificially accelerated maturation process that actually leaches much of the beneficial properties out of it. For locals who grow, harvest, and produce it they only consume it in its raw, green, unmolested form. It is simply picked, fried, dried, and consumed.
Crucial is to know what makes a Pu-erh tea a Pu-erh tea. The name Pu-erh is simply the name of a market town where the tea was brought to be sold. Pu-erh is the big-leafed Camellia Assamica varietal, which should be grown and produced in Yunnan, and should be sun- and shade-dried. Pu-erh drinkers will often say that a true Pu-erh should have the smell of the sun upon it. The tea has become synonymous with weight loss, though any decent tea that hasn’t been over-processed will aid as tea acts as a diuretic. With Pu-erh I think people need to trust in the source, trust their tongue, and understand what makes the Pu-erh special. I would also warn against becoming obsessed with a Pu-erh tea’s age as this means nothing to the health-giving properties of a tea nor does it necessarily coincide with the views of wine drinkers that age makes a wine/tea better.
Aged Puer does often make a tea smoother in taste, but it loses in many essential qualities as well. A friend from China who knows tea intimately, visited a tea shop that was part of a chain in Canada and tried a Pu-erh blend – he instantly dismissed the tea as definitely not a quality Pu-erh and most likely not even from Yunnan. His reaction was: “these blends simply confuse and cover an already inferior fraud of a tea.” Enough said.
City Bites: For most of us in the West, tea has been packaged up into something new — even hip and trendy — and it is available everywhere we turn. What do you make of the modern “reinvention” of tea?
JF: I suppose that any tea trend is a good trend if, and only if, it stimulates more interest to expand and challenge the tongue and our western notions of taste. This involves reading and an infinite number of tea tastings and sips. There is a need to sort through the hype, cosmetics, and sales aspects, to eventually find a tea (and tea provider) that opens doors to the simple qualities of tea. There’s a great saying referring to Pu-erh in Yunnan’s tea fraternity: “the better it looks the worse it will taste and the worse it looks, the better it will taste”. A good tea should be slightly bitter in the mouth but finish sweetly. Western palates have become slightly numb or averse to anything bitter, sour or off-putting so now companies often sweeten and alter a tea’s true taste to the point where one is drinking an essentially different beverage.
My selfish hope is that some of tea’s basic and simple elements come back to the foreground. Fewer additions, fewer flavours and blends, and more simple unsprayed and unaltered alternatives would — I think — be a better place to start. For health, tea falls under that unwritten law ‘simple is best’. I often wonder when I come back west how a curious consumer in a teashop is supposed to differentiate between rows upon rows of teas. Tea isn’t coffee, it isn’t wine, and while everyone compares it to these two stalwarts, it should be looked at for what it is: a bitter vegetal matter that was once used more as medicine than luxury item. And, as with food, one should know the source.
For more information about Fuchs’ photography exhibit or the vernissage on June 9, contact the Exposure Gallery: www.exposuregallery.info