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Few periods in history have equaled the Ming in their obsession with flowers: most floral porcelain patterns trace their descent to this time, for instance, and flower paintings, embroidery, and even epics written on a single blossom illustrate the fascination. It is not surprising that the Ming Cult of the Flower produced the first flower-scented teas. Previous emperors had known teas scented with prohibitively costly essential oils, but flowers were abundant and inexpensive to use in making a scented tea the Chinese middle classes could afford. The Ming dynasty tea manual Cha Pu distinguishes between Lotus Flower Tea and all other types made from “sweet blossoms, “ including osmanthus, orchid, gardenia, orange and rose as well as jasmine.
It became too much of a good thing, no doubt, and this led the upper classes to disdain scented tea as “servants’ tea” by the late Ming and early Qing (Manchu) period. A discouraging word has seldom been heard since about jasmine tea, the favorite tea still throughout northern China and easily the most popular scented tea in the world since it was first exported to the West on clipper ships in the nineteenth century.
Jasmine-scented green tea comes from seven provinces, at least, in China but the best is produced in Fujian around Fuzhou across the straits from Taiwan (where notable jasmine is also made sometimes). The best is made from “before-the-rains” green tea plucked from early April to late May which is then steamed—only steamed leaf absorbs scent well—and stored until August when the blazing summer brings the jasmine into flower. The blossoms are picked when tightly closed, around noon; as the temperature cools in the evening they begin to burst open (with a faint popping sound, it is said) and the scenting operation begins. Flowers and tea are mixed nowadays in machines that control temperature and humidity. Some teas are scented just two or three times, but the best receive five or six repetitions using twice as much jasmine as tea. To remove the flowers’ moisture and prevent molding, the tea must then be refired. Sometimes a few dried jasmine blossoms are left in the tea to add charm to its appearance.
Poor jasmine tea can be foul-tasting but the uncommon delicacy of a top grade like Yin Hao jasmine is an instant reminder of the joys of life. Ian Fleming’s James Bond is a Yin Hao devotee. The grades in descending order from Yin Hao (Silver Down) are Chung Feng (Spring Wind), and Chung Hao (Spring Down). For sheer intensity of scent, a recent innovation now beats all of these: Jasmine Pearls. Of limited production, these are pellets (often hand-rolled) that unfurl to release clouds of perfume in your cup. Only hearts colder than frozen children could fail to be enchanted.
Read next: Scented Teas – Part 2