It’s worth hunting for a copy of the 1974 translation of the eighth-century The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu if you are fascinated by tea lore. Lu Yu was an herbalist and tea master who wrote the first and the definitive manual about Chinese tea preparation. His chapters include explicit instructions for the utensils used in preparation and every step of the ceremony involved in brewing fresh tea. The best ladles should be made from pear wood. The best water is from mountain streams. River water may do but it should never be from a part of the river that is turbulent or cascades. Well water is “quite inferior.”
Tea, according to Lu Yu, is best picked in the second, third and fourth moons, early in the morning when the dew is cool and only on a perfectly clear day. The finest tea leaves may “shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots…look like the dewlap of a wild ox…like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak…” Lu Yu was also a poet of some note and he waxes most eloquent about his favorite beverage.
Tea is a complex subject, the most common drink in the world beside water for thousands of years, and one that has elaborate rituals surrounding it in several cultures. The Chinese started the whole thing and Lu Yu’s “best seller” on tea spawned generations of competition to find and serve the most exquisite teas with the most extraordinary accessories. Tea is a culture and Lu Yu is its guru and he campaigned for purity in cultivation, roasting and brewing.
Not for Lu Yu were flavored teas with the base additions of spices or other herbs. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches…” So, let’s just be really clear about that.
There is some great dish about royal and distinguished tea drinkers of the time and careful lists of the best tea-producing regions–some of those areas still grow the most sought-after teas. I collected some rare teas on trips to China that are fun to brew and delicious to drink. I’m pleased that many of them would have met Lu Yu’s exacting standards. But his touchy spirit has infused the business of tea even today. I was able to find tiny-rosebud tea at a little shop in Hong Kong, along with some very fine white tea. The shopkeeper, however, made it plain that she was selling the rose tea to me under duress. I suppose ignorant foreigners get special dispensation. No true Chinese ch’a connoisseur would dream of polluting delicate taste buds with anything as fey as rosebud tea. Lu Yu, I’m reasonably certain, would be haughtily dismissive.
The Classic of Tea Lu Yu (translation by Francis Ross Carpenter) | Little, Brown and Company 1974