Lapsang Souchong Tea - Smoky, Rich and Unique
The rich, robust character and unique smoky flavour of Lapsang Souchong sets it apart from other black teas. It is thought to be the first black tea on record, and has been enjoyed by tea lovers worldwide for hundreds of years. Grown from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, Lapsang Souchong was created in the 17th century in the Wuyi Mountains of China's Fujian Province. The climate here is subtropical, and the landscape one of soaring cliffs, evergreen forests and winding rivers. The distinctive smoky taste and aroma of Lapsang Souchong is believed to have been produced by accident rather than design, but resulted in it becoming one of the world's most popular luxury teas.
There are various stories and legends of how Lapsang Souchong originated. One tells of how, during the Qing Dynasty, an army unit arrived to set up camp in the Wuyi Mountains at an area where Oolong teas were being produced. This disruption led to a delay in the leaf drying process and there was a danger the harvested leaves could be ruined. In order to speed things up, the workers dried the leaves over pine wood fires; the leaves became darker in appearance and absorbed the smoke, taking on the aromatics from the pine and giving them an intense smoky scent and taste. Far from being spoiled, this new flavour went down very well with the Dutch traders who had previously been supplying Europe with Oolong tea. They wanted more, so from then on the smoking process became part of production. It wasn't long before Lapsang Souchong became popular in Britain. In 1662, Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of Charles II, introduced the custom of drinking tea in the English courts, and was passionate about Lapsang Souchong. It was also a favourite of Sir Winston Churchill.
The name Lapsang Souchong (also known as Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong), is derived from 'Lapsang', meaning 'smoky', and 'Souchong', referring to the fact the leaves used are the fourth and fifth leaves down from the bud of the tea plant. These leaves are older and larger than the smaller 'pekoe' leaves above them. The leaves are hand-picked and usually harvested in early May. They are then withered, either naturally outside in the sun, or indoors in a heating room, where they are laid on bamboo matting placed on slatted racks, with pine wood fires burning beneath them. They are then rolled by a machine that breaks the leaf cell membranes, releasing their oils and starting the process of oxidation. The next procedure is pan-firing, before a second rolling to extract any residual juices. The leaves then are dried in bamboo sieves over smouldering pine wood fires. The end results are long, twisted leaves that are glossy in appearance. When steeped, the liquor appears clear and amber red in colour; in China, Lapsang Souchong is known as a red tea.
Although traditionally cultivated in China, other countries now produce their own versions of this tea. Formosa Lapsang Souchong Tea is one example. Lapsang Souchong works well in blended teas, such as Russian Caravan Tea, a delightful mix of Oolong, Keemun and Lapsang Souchong.
When it was first imported to Europe, Lapsang Souchong was considered to be medicinal and sold in pharmacies. Indeed, it does appear to have many properties to help promote good health. It's a good source of natural antioxidants, to boost immunity, minimise the risk of cardiovascular disease and protect against free radical damage. It has high levels of magnesium for healthy teeth and bones. It contains theanine, an amino acid known for its relaxing and stress-reducing effects. It is believed to help in weight loss, and has even been regarded as a hangover cure!
Although Lapsang Souchong is traditionally served on its own, milk and sugar can be added to taste. Because of its smoky flavour it's suitable to be used in all kinds of culinary dishes; the liquor is excellent for sauces and it works well as a dry rub for meats. It can even be an ingredient in cocktails. There is little bitterness in its flavour, and the leaves can be steeped again several times.
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