Golden Week has arrived and with it, anticipation of the year's first tea harvest as blue skies and vibrant, lush fields welcome dancing streamers of colourful carp to play. The crowded cities of Japan meanwhile heave a collective sigh, bidding farewell to salary men and women, as packed trains whisk them home to pastures green and fresh.
Camellia sinensis has to be one of the most popular crops on the planet. The small leaves picked from seemingly never ending rows of bright green shrubs, which line the landscape of tropical Asian climes, provide so much more than a warming drink on cold days of drizzle and grey. Drinking tea has become completely ingrained in our daily routines, a habit that survives throughout the year and one which can comfort, calm, cheer and console us. The Japanese have even woven the ritualized ceremony of sado, 'the way of tea', into their rich culture of traditions. Matcha (powdered green tea) is served in an elaborate and elegant manner where the surrounding aesthetics, a scroll hanging in an alcove, an assortment of flowers arranged carefully so, are appreciated and imbibed along with the tea, in an experience that can touch on the spiritual.
There is a rich assortment of tea grown in Japan, with Honshu's Shizuoka and Kyushu's Kagoshima prefecture being the biggest producers. Kyoto meanwhile is famous for its focus on cultivating high-quality green tea and as home of the traditional ceremony of sado. Step into any prefecture's main train station however and the smell of green tea will not as much waft around you as wake your olfactory sense with a start, with gift shops packed with bags of loose leaf tea and a sample cup or two ready to reinvigorate commuters. Restaurants will also ply customers with free tea, usually bancha, whilst the summer months see mugicha (barley tea) take up residence in fridges across the country in order to refresh weary and tired souls from the hot, humid weather.
Whether tea fields are left to bask in the sun or grow in the shade affects the final flavour, as does the timing of when the leaves are picked. Tea leaves can be harvested at least twice during the year but the first harvest, usually around the beginning of May, is deemed to produce the best quality leaves. Gyokuro, meaning dewdrop, has long been considered the finest of Japan's green teas, whilst matcha is the tea used not only for sado but for flavouring a variety of desserts (green tea flavoured KitKats included). Cultivated in a covered environment, both teas are characteristically sweet as well as having the increasingly recognised fifth taste of umami. Sencha meanwhile is the 'everyday' tea of Japan and the most widely consumed. Grown without any shade, most of the rows upon rows of tea shrubs you see in Japan are left uncovered to produce a sharper, more astringent flavour, great for clearing sleepy heads in the morning. Tea leaves which are left to grow larger and picked later in the harvest cycle are used for bancha, another common green tea. Light and sweet in flavour this is the free tea found in jugs along the restaurant counters of many a fast food chain in Japan.
Health-wise, green tea has a range of health boosting properties. Vitamin C, which helps protect cells in the body and boost our immune systems, is found in all types of green tea (although more prevalent in sencha), whilst bancha has a high concentration of polyphenols which give it powerful antioxidant properties. If caffeine is a problem for you, try hojicha. Brown in colour, hojicha is made roasting sencha and bancha leaves, which reduces levels of caffeine and makes for a much milder cup of tea.
The Secrets of a Good Brew
When breaking out that fresh pack of green tea leaves, there are three points to remember to get that cup of tea perfection.
1. Quantity of tea leaves.
Don't be shy with those leaves, get a good two-three heaped tablespoons into the pot. If you are going for full out Japanese style tea, with regards to cups and teapots (much smaller than typical British sized tea-ware), use the following measurements as a guideline: For gyokuro and sencha, use two heaped tablespoons (about 10g) per 80ml/210ml of water respectively. Even if your pot of tea is just for your own pleasure, keep to these measurements.
2. Temperature of the water
Pouring just boiled water into your teapot doesn't bode well for the delicate nature of gyokuro and sencha leaves. For gyokuro, try 60˚C and for sencha, 80˚C. To get the approximate temperature without having to get the thermometer out, just transfer freshly boiled water between cups. Each time the water is poured into a new cup, it cools by about 10 degrees. Bancha is a robust type of tea, so freshly boiled water is fine to use. If you prefer your tea much sharper, a high temperature will bring out the astringency.
3. Length of steeping time
Green tea doesn't need to steep for long. A minute for gyokuro and sencha is fine and around thirty seconds for bancha will suffice for a really quick and no hassle cuppa. Don't swirl, shake or stir the pot while the leaves are steeping, as doing so will bring out the bitterness of the tea. No one throws away the tea leaves after just one round; some say the best flavour comes out in the third pouring. If going for another round of tea, don't steep the leaves again, just pour water into the teapot (at the same temperature used the first time) and enjoy.
As mentioned, green tea leaves are rather delicate. Exposure to hot, humid conditions, light, moisture and even strong odours (which the leaves can absorb), is best avoided. Store opened packets in airtight containers, (and don't keep in the fridge!)
One hour of grinding dried tencha leaves makes thirty grams of the green aromatic powder that is matcha. It's vibrancy gives a great visual impact and it has long been used in desserts in Japan. Try some of these tea treats for summer!
Matcha and White Chocolate Truffles
Created and showcase by Elsa Gleeson at HYPER JAPAN Spring 2012, these truffles are super simple to make whilst looking anything but! Impress your friends with this bitter, sweet and indulgent treat.
Green Tea Pudding
Creamy, chilled custard dessert with matcha goodness!
A savoury option here to experiment with your matcha, not just for sweets!
If you're not already a fan, get the kettle on and try a switch to green tea this summer. Try warm or chilled, and sip your way around Japan from the comfort of your home.