Monday, September 2, 2013

Professor Ahn's Scholar Tree Tea • 회화나무차

Not long ago, I dug out a small package of tea that Mrs Kim (Mr Ahn's wife) had given me a few years ago. It was a special tisane, handmade with leaves Mr Ahn had harvested and roasted from his Scholar Tree (회화나무, Hwei-hwa namu).

In days of old, Scholar Trees were reserved for the royal courtyards and it was forbidden for common folk to own one. It was believed that Scholar Trees were a source of power and the king did not want to share. It was, however, permitted for temples to keep them and just up the block from Kkik Da Geo, at Jogyesa, the head temple of Korea's largest order, there is a massive Scholar Tree in the courtyard that blossoms in August, filling the entire ground with little light-yellow petals.

Emblematic of Mr Ahn's scholarly character (professor of calligraphy, tea master, traveler, patron of art), he keeps some Scholar Trees in his home, as well as outside the teashop, and in spring, when the leaves begin to bud, he crafts his own tea from it.

The leaves had reddened noticeably since she gave them to me six years ago, and I was concerned that maybe time had wasted them. Something I've learned is that some of the best teas are best enjoyed quickly even though there's an urge to treasure them slowly.

The tiny, curled, dusty leaves reminded me of a high-quality green tea. I gave them a quick rinse then steeped them for about 90 seconds, which was much too long. The colour was more ochre than I remembered, consistent with the change of the leaves, but it may have been a result of over steeping. The scent and flavour were as they were when fresh, though; reminiscent of autumn leaves, deep grassiness, slightly sour, with a strong herbal sweetness that emerges late.

The leaves yielded three full-tasting infusions, fading to a gentle, grassy sweetness at the end. I tried the tea a second time using fewer leaves, and the sourness did not appear. The brew was also much greener than the first tasting.

In traditional medicine, Scholar Tree leaves are one of the fifty fundamental herbs. It's notable medicinal properties include antibacterial, anti-cholesterolemic, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic.