Too Good to Drink?


It’s much easier to get maple syrup these days. Canadian president Justin Trudeau just announced the construction of a new pipeline to export it to the rest of the world (…or was that another liquid commodity?)

Anyway, when I was a child, our family received a bottle of this treasured syrup. Before that day, we had only known the “simulated” stuff. We then waited months before opening this bottle of “the real thing”; no moment seemed important enough, no pancake perfect enough.

And then we did open it, only to find the syrup had grown hairs.

Were I the head of the household now, I would scrape off the mould and drink what remains. But the head of the household was my father. And, as he condemned the bottle to the bin, my dear father reminded us all to learn from this lesson. Seize the day; consume consumables according to our appetites, not ceremonies.

Obsessive sanitation, perhaps, followed by some good advice. Foods and drinks lose flavours over time, as well as accumulating microbes and fur. Tea is no exception.

And now I find myself in danger of making the same mistake with this Li Shan tea (梨山茶). It was brought over from across the Strait by a colleague who doesn’t know when her next chance will come.

Everything about this tea, from the beautiful red cuboid tin to the embossed yellow seal on the lid, says “once in a lifetime”. To my shame, it has stayed beside my desk for 2 years now, most sachets unopened.

And, oh no! The individually-signed stamp on the black base confirms my fears. Best Before January, 2018. I am the dog in Aesop’s manger. Time to open a pack and remind myself why I rate this tea so highly.

Immediately it takes me back to my first taste of a formosa oolong, in a tiny cup served by the enthusiastic Scottish proprietor of a London tea bar. As I said last month, there’s something of the sweetcorn-boiling water to it. Let’s add some parsnips (防风草) to that, too. The pale yellow colour of the liquor aids that impression.

Sweetcorn water seriously undersells that which is happening here, but how can I mention piña colada without making this sound kitsch? Anyway, that’s it; the coconut AND the pineapple! There’s even something analogous to the rum; a perfumed quality that only exists in oolongs of this type, and not always reliably.

I’m stinging the leaves harder to chase the perfume now. But, alas, it’s only just here. 2 years ago, I know, it was more virulent. Oh, what a fool I am; an idiot for squatting on this gold, an ungrateful friend.

But, you know what, even without that winey-perfume tang, this is still the best tea in the world. It still coats the tongue with that delightful caramel sensation; no, butterscotch; which stays there, comforting, long after swallowing.

And that’s the magic of Li Shan oolong; it is a voluptuous, gloopy syrup which somehow sneaks around like a mere slip of tea.