In ancient China, tea was a necessity for intellectu-als. The sophisticated process of making tea was akin to composing and appreciating an outstanding essay. Which water to use? How many cups could a pot achieve? A pot of tea had meaning, to be scrutinized just like poetry.
In today’s China, authentic tea culture is slowly fading away. It is little known in the West. But Yu Hui Tseng, with a passion comparable to the French passion for fine wines, has spent two decades planting her love of tea on the Left Bank or La Rive Gauche of Paris. Her garden is known as La Maison du Trois Thés and 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. Her mother’s family immigrated to Taiwan from Anxi County, Fujian Prov-ince, mainland China. Three generations inherited and developed their family’s tea manufacturing process in Taiwan. Starting at 4 years old, she played in the moun-tains that surrounded her home. The mountainous aro-mas sparked her initial exploration of tastes.
The young Tseng spent a lot of time on her family’s plantation. She watched tea manufacturing spellbound. She sampled and savoured every blend.
Her comprehension of tea is perfect. Maître Tseng ex-plains, for example, that from the moment it 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 unhurriedly identified every flavour change. “The smell of earth after rain”, “the taste of mushrooms”, “forest scent”, “a hint of minerals”… Spare and appropriate.
Making friends through tea
Cherishing tea as she does, Maître Tseng always carries leaves. Even at restaurants, she brews her own. As de-licious dishes pair perfectly with her tea, the bouquet attracts chefs and diners to her table. They converse, and, through their mutual passion for flavorsome cui-sine, Maître Tseng makes friends.
Tseng is confident in Westerners’ appreciation of Chinese tea, especially the French, renowned for skill-ful cookery. Well-known French gourmets seek her out. Master cheese maker Philippe Olivier, perfectionist chocolatier Jacques Génin… some only accept tea sup-plied by her house, some seek her advice in composing recipes, some create dishes to accompany her tea.
Spice master Olivier Roellinger requested Maître Tseng select an infusion to accompany one of his famous dishes, which used 20 or 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 whose scent varies exactly with the dish’s flavour changes. Roellinger and Tseng them-selves were amazed at the result.
Fragrance from the heart
When La Maison du Trois Thés first opened in 1994, it seemed deserted. “There were more reporters than pa-trons for a while,” Maître Tseng recalls. La Maison of-fers a traditional Asian setting for service. Its tables and stairs are made from ancient wooden doors; the tea altar is custom-made; the tea-weighing balance is antique; Maître Tseng crafted the paper lampshades herself.
Despite the pressure and loneliness, she never lost her passion. Maître Tseng advises, “If you want to do something, then you have to carry it out from start to finish.” There are thousands of teas in her teahouse, hundreds of Oolongs alone. To ensure quality, she sometimes participates in every step from planting to preservation. Newly plucked Oolong tea leaves re-quire a day and a night without sleep to process prop-erly. We tasted her exclusive Jin Mei (Golden Plum), made by steeping special roses and tea leaves in water five times. It is unique, but the epitome of her art is a blend of sweet lychee and aromatic chestnut five years in development.
When asked about her future plans, she admitted, “One always encounters different people and things, at different stages in life. Wherever you are, just do what you are supposed to do.”