In ancient China, tea transcended a mere drink; it was a fundamental ritual of intellectuals. The sophisticated process of making tea was akin to composing and appreciating an outstanding essay. What water to use? How many cups could a pot deliver? A pot of tea had meaning, to be scrutinized just like poetry.
In today’s China, authentic tea culture is slowly fading away and is little known in the West. Yu Hui Tseng, whose passion for tea rivals her French friends’ penchant for fine wine, has spent two decades nurturing her beloved tea plants on the Left Bank, or La Rive Gauche, of Paris. Known as La Maison du Trois Thés, her garden is sought out by famous chefs and tea connoisseurs the world over.
Flavours of Childhood Memories
Tea Master Tseng (Maître Tseng in French) was born in scenic Nantou County of Taiwan, where her mother’s family had immigrated from Fujian Province, China. Three generations inherited and developed their family’s tea manufacturing process in Taiwan. As a little girl, Tseng played in the mountains that surrounded her home. The mountainous region’s complex aromas sparked her initial exploration of tastes.
The future tea master spent a lot of time on her family’s plantation. She watched tea manufacturing, spellbound; sampled and savoured every blend.
Outstanding Tea Comprehension
Maître Tseng explains that from the moment tea is steeped, a leaf’s aroma changes subtly every second. We tasted Wuyi Rock Tea, an Oolong, first poured into a fragrant cup, then a drinking cup.
Once emptied, the fragrant cup exuded the rich Wuyi Rock aroma. We hurried to catch the fleeting perfume, forgetting to savour layers of scent. Maître Tseng, in contrast, unhurriedly identified every flavour change with spot-on epithets: “the smell of earth after rain”, “the taste of mushrooms”, “forest scent”, and “a hint of minerals” were among the different stages.
Tea Brings Friends
Cherishing tea as she does, Maître Tseng always has her leaves on hand. Even at restaurants, she brews her own, each cup paired perfectly with the flavorful dishes. The fragrant bouquet attracts chefs and diners to her table, leading to conversation and, through their mutual passion for cuisine, eventual friendship.
Well-known French gourmets, from master cheese maker Philippe Olivier to perfectionist chocolatier Jacques Génin, seek Maître Tseng out for her expertise. Some only accept tea supplied by her house; others seek her advice when composing recipes, or create dishes to accompany her teas.
Spice master Olivier Roellinger requested that Maître Tseng select an infusion to accompany one of his famous dishes, which used 20-30 spices for a complex, varied taste. Tseng tasted the creation only once, a decade before, but remembered the ingredients nonetheless. With great care, she discovered a match, with a scent varying precisely alongside the dish’s flavour changes. The astonishing flavours and fragrances of the combo exceeded even Roellinger and Tseng’s own expectations.
Fragrance From the Heart
When La Maison du Trois Thés first opened in 1994, it seemed deserted. “There were more reporters than patrons for a while,” Maître Tseng recalls. The parlour offers a traditional Asian setting: the tables and stairs are made out of ancient wooden doors; the tea altar is custom-made; the tea-weighing scale is antique. Maître Tseng crafted the paper lampshades herself.
We tasted her exclusive Jin Mei (Golden Plum), a unique blend made by steeping special roses and tea leaves in water five times. To ensure quality, Maître Tseng regularly participates in every step, from planting to preservation. Newly plucked Oolong tea leaves require a day and a night without sleep to process properly.
There are thousands of teas in Tseng’s teahouse; hundreds of Oolongs alone. The epitome of Tseng’s tea art form is a blend of sweet lychee and aromatic chestnut that took five years to develop.
“If you want to do something,” she states, “you have to carry it out from start to finish.”