Monday, May 13, 2013

Baek San Cha • 백산차

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Baek San Cha (White Mountain Tea) • 백산차

Thousands of years before the first tea seeds were brought from China, the earliest people on the Korean peninsula harvested a tisane that, according to historical documents was so revered that is was used as an offering in sacrificial and memorial ceremonies. Over time, this tea was forgotten and it began to be assumed that it was legend and perhaps never existed at all.

Lead by a trail of historical documents and references, in the summer of 2000, Korea rediscovered it's lost national tea on the slopes of Baek Du San, Korea's largest and most sacred mountain, along the border of North korea and China. It turns out that the plant is Rhododendron tomentosum, aka  Marsh Labrador tea, a common traditional medicinal herb across the far northern hemisphere, and was still being harvested on the Chinese side of the mountain.

When I came to Korea, this was one of the first teas I bought. Not knowing the language, I actually thought it was some sort of Korean rosemary tea, from the long, thin leaves and intense, herbal fragrance. Wild rosemary is also one of it's names, so I must not have been the only one to think so. A few years later, I hadn't forgotten this unique tisane, and went back to look for some more. That's when I was able to learn more of it's story. Though the vendor didn't give any reasons, he said three leaves is all you need in a small pot. Once I found the English name of this tea and started doing some readings, I discovered that though it's an ancient herbal remedy, it also contains ledol, a toxin that causes cramps and paralysis, and can be deadly in strong doses. I must wonder if this was to do with the disappearance of this time?

The retailers describes Baek San Cha as having a minty, pine scent and flavour. Personally, it reminds me of crisp fall mornings, when smoke from my father's coal forge hung low in the air. The scent and flavour are both intense and intriguing. A strong herbal spiciness and slightly salty. It's very cool and tingly in the mouth and throat. There's actually very little words can do to describe the over-all experience of this tisane. If you do find some, though, just remember to brew it with care.

from Wiki:

Labrador tea has narcotic properties. Evidence suggests that excessive consumption of the plant may cause delirium or poisoning. Toxic terpenes of the essential oils cause symptoms of intoxication, such as slow pulse, lowering of blood pressure, lack of coordination, convulsions, paralysis, and death. It is apparently safe as a weak tisane, but should not be made too strong.

In these photos, I used about six times the amount of leaves I usually use (they were taken before I'd read about the risks). I did feel drowsy and had slight discomfort in my stomach, so seriously, be careful. The extra leaves didn't affect the flavour but it did add a rusty tint to a usually clear brew.

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  1. Joseph,

    Can remember this Korean tea well. Actually the local aboriginal people on Vancouver Island also use the native variety for medicine and drink it as a tea as well.

    Another great post.


    1. Thanks, Matt!
      I had you and another West coast friend in mind while I wrote the last couple posts.
      I noticed that it also grows in Nova Scotia, where I'm from.
      I'm curious if I'd be able to find some the next time I'm home. I think my neighbors would really enjoy it!