On tasting the first cup of 녹차 in Lent

Lent started today. And like most years, it’s time to prove that I can manage without those daily treats on which I suspect I’m becoming rather too dependent. So, no alcohol: I’ll give my liver a break for a few weeks. And no caffeinated coffee or black tea, which I usually rely on to kick start the day and keep me going throughout: days are not long enough to fit in everything I want to get done, so inevitably I end up not getting enough sleep.

During Lent, I allow myself decaf coffee, or Redbush tea, from the in-house coffee bar at work. This makes my tastebuds think I’m getting caffeine, which sometimes confuses my brain for a short while that it’s had genuine stimulation. I steer clear of what our baristas call green tea, because it tastes completely unlike green tea.

But during Lent I do allow myself a treat at my desk: proper Korean green tea.

Green tea plant

I make it in a way which is totally sacrilegious: I get a plastic cup of hot water from the coffee vending machine, put the tea leaves into an infuser, and put the infuser into the cup for a few minutes, dunking it occasionally.

At home I do make Korean tea properly, but only on special occasions, when I have guests who take an interest in unusual flavours. My wife isn’t a fan of Korean green tea, and to be honest the palaver of making tea for one in the traditional way (getting the water to the right temperature, warming the pot, bowl and cup properly) is a bit of a disincentive. I only do it for myself if I’m in a particularly Korean frame of mind, such as when I’m watching an Im Kwon-taek film or quietly listening to gayageum music, and I don’t get much time to do that.

Whenever I’m in Korea I always buy some decent green tea to bring back with me, but I drink so little of it at home that the unopened packets pile up. Lent is a good time to make some inroads into the stockpile.

Korean tea set

Today, I opened the packet I bought in May two years ago when I visited Korea’s premier green tea festival, in Hadong County, Gyeongsangnam-do. I had been swept away by the sense of occasion and splashed out a huge amount of money on a packet of the prizewinning tea. Yes, I know I should have drunk it the same year, and with great reverence and ceremony too.

But the thing is, despite the dreadful way I made it, my first cup of Korean green tea this morning tasted absolutely fantastic.

The great Seon tea master Choui Uisun (초의 意洵, 1786 ~ 1866) wrote

The Tea Scripture says: tea is the god of water, water the body of tea. The god does not appear in water that is not pure, and water does not manifest the god if the tea is not pure.

But whatever the dire quality of the coffee vending machine water, exactly half way up a 42-storey office block which happens to be owned by the Korean National Pensions Service, the tea god manifested itself very nicely. Rich, complex, refreshing, with that strange additional savoury taste that I’ve only ever found in the best Korean green tea. The efforts of the fine women who laboured in the foothills of Jiri mountain in the early morning dew in April 2010, picking those precious fresh green shoots, and who then roasted them, rolled and dried them in the Spring air before sealing them in foil for my delectation nearly two years later, have not been wasted. Their labours were rewarded with a top prize in 2010, and in 2012 the tea is still just about the finest I’ve tasted, despite all the indignity I heaped on it. Quality will out.

But by 4pm I was really needing a decent caffeine kick.

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