Lapsang Souchong, the tea that infuses fear and terror into the most seasoned tea drinkers. But why?
This time of year my tastes change and I begin looking for deeper, darker, richer flavors – regardless of what foods it might be. Light, refreshing salads are gone from my table to be replaced by hearty soups and stews. The seasons have changed. The sun sets earlier and earlier every day. The days are cooler and quite often damp and at night I just want to curl up with a good book, a blanket . . . and a cup of Lapsang Souchong!
Have you ever been camping . . . especially in the Fall? Is there anything more comforting and inviting than a campsite on a cool October morning when someone has just started the fire for breakfast . . . or in the evening after a day of hiking and the smoky fire just envelops you. You can’t help but be drawn to it. The billows of heady, smoke that comes from a fire is so welcoming. That same smoky flavor gets imparted into our food (and sometimes into our clothing) and we love it. So why then do so many tea drinkers say “no thank you” to a cuppa Lapsang Souchong!
Lapsang Souchong … I just love the name! It’s exotic, unique, rhythmic. The name comes from the Chinese Fuzhou dialect combining “la” or “pine” and “sang” or “wood” with the size of the leaf, “souchong“, which is the largest or third leaf in a fine pluck. The trade name for this tea then became Lapsang Souchong or “smoky, piney large leaf” tea.
This dark, rich black tea is said to have originated in the Wuyi Mountains of China, as so many distinguished teas have. The legends about how this tea originated are many. The one I like most says that during the Qing dynasty in the early 17th century, the Wuyi area was overrun with Manchu soldiers who were terrorizing the local villagers. The tea growers were already selling teas to the Dutch by that time. Gathering all their belongings to flea this invasion and not knowing how long they were going to be gone, the farmers quickly dried their tea leaves over open fires in order to speed up the drying process. Throwing the tea leaves into sacks, they were then able to bury the sacks of teas to keep the soldiers from getting them. When the farmers returned to their village, they found that their teas were dark and had a smoky flavor . . . ruined, or so they thought. But to their surprise, not only did they preserve the tea leaves, the Dutch buyers actually liked the flavor better.
The truth, however, is that the Dutch had been importing Lapsang Souchong or bohea tea since long before then. By the time the East India Company began trading in tea, Lapsang Souchong, was already being drunk in Europe . . . and happened to be Princess Catherine of Braganza’s favorite tea. It was, in fact, this Portuguese Princess who is credited with making tea the sought-after beverage of aristocrats in England. Catherine had grown up drinking tea in Portugal, and in 1662, when she was betrothed to British Prince Charles, along with her other possessions was a chest of tea. Then, as Queen Consort of England, she helped promote tea into upper-class society with her much-sought-after afternoon tea parties.
Lapsang Souchong is available everywhere, on supermarket shelves, through Amazon and from your local tea purveyor. If you are still unsure about whether or not you might like it, do yourself a favor and invest in the best quality you can find. There are ways to produce Lapsang Souchong, which I really don’t want to get into, using artificial smoke flavorings and additives, but you can still find high-quality Lapsang Souchong made the traditional way . . . in China, in wooden smoking sheds.
After plucking, the large leaves are heated and rotated every 20 minutes until they are pliable. They are then rolled and, after panfrying, are placed into wooden barrels and covered with canvas, until they are copper in color and have a pleasant fragrance. The next step is to spray the tea leaves with water, place them into baskets over smoking pine fires to dry and absorb the smoke flavor. Controlling the withering, oxidation as well as the amount and timing of smoke is critical to producing a great Lapsang Souchong. A tea which I love.
In the culinary world, the complex piney flavor of Lapsang is a great flavor enhancer. Add it as an ingredient in marinades or in your next dry rub for meats or fish, or toss a teaspoon into a pot of stew. The richness and depth of flavor it imparts is wonderful. Even vegetarian recipes can benefit from a bit of Lapsang Souchong.
Here are a couple of ideas for you. For a dry rub, mix one tablespoon salt, 3 tablespoons each of brown sugar, paprika and Lapsang Souchong with 2 teaspoons black pepper and ground cumin. Grind them all in a mill and keep in a closed jar in the cupboard until you’re ready to use. Or try infusing olive oil with this tea to be used in marinades or to dress vegetables or fish – 2 teaspoons crushed Lapsang into 4 oz. of olive oil, let sit for a week or two and then strain out the tea leaves. Wonderful!
But, of course, I divert from what is the best way to experience this dark, piney, smoky-flavored tea and that is in your cup! Steep with boiling water for approximately 3 to 4 minutes. No milk, no sugar, just hot, comforting and wonderful!! And should you want to experience this full-bodied brew for yourself, I can recommend the following tea purveyors: