James Norwood Pratt closes his eyes in reverie. We are six in all, huddled over our first glasses of sparrow’s tongue tea. “Look at the leaf,” says Pratt, finding one small specimen in his glass and holding it up for us to admire. “Three little branches, open and perfect like a little bird’s mouth.” We sniff. We sip. We admire color and clarity. But mostly we listen. We have the second pour. In the glass, it looks like a single-malt scotch. When I voice my comment to the group, Pratt laughs. He’s heard the comparison before. “Tea,” he says, “is God in a cup.”
Pratt, along with Boston-based tea importer Mark Mooradian, has invited a few of us to a clandestine tea tasting in Somerville, Mass. Pratt is an oracle in the tea world: the tea world’s Robert Parker, the historian, the cataloguer and the bard. Every time I’ve met him, he’s wearing a silk ascot. Today it is pink with polka dots. This does not give him an effeminate appearance; instead, it makes Norwood theatrical, and matches the oratorical quality of his slightly Southern delivery.
Pratt literally wrote the book on tea — two actually: “The Tea Lover’s Treasury” and his newest “Tea Dictionary,” a volume so complete that it took him 12 years to write. Pratt, who lives in San Francisco, is in town for meetings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in preparation for a show he is readying about Kakuzo Okakura, a 19th-century Japanese-born tea expert. His masterpiece, “The Book of Tea,” is an enduring classic in the world of tea — a mash-up of “The Art of War” and M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Art of Eating” in one slim, tea-focused volume. “Okakura wrote the way Strindberg wanted to write,” Pratt says.
In this group, I am the only one who has never heard of Okakura and does not own multiple copies of the book. (Okakura’s day job was as the Asian art curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he was quite possibly Isabella Stewart Gardener’s lover. “We can only speculate on what she taught him and what he taught her,” Pratt says with a finger to his lips.)
Searching for drinkable treasure
Mooradian is a passionate procurer, and I mean that in the best possible way. Mooradian finds teas that others only hear whispered about, the kind of teas that are produced in China or Crete on perhaps one day a year, and only in some years when local climate conditions are exquisite, the day that yellow flowers first burst forth on the green stems. Mooradian finds these teas through tips from a friend of a friend, or a chance meeting in an airport or a conversation with a grower in a tiny village deep in the heart of tea country. “Who else gets yellow tea?” Pratt says admiringly.
Mooradian’s company, MEM Imports, specializes in providing teas to the restaurant industry. He began as a coffee fanatic, and his timing was exquisite. On the cusp of America’s love affair for fine coffees, he sold his coffee company, ditching espresso grinders for teapots. During a trip to Armenia and Turkey, Mooradian, a natural best friend, started meeting the locals who picked leaves along the roads and the riverbeds. They invited him to come to their homes and taste their own unique tea blends. A cocktail of seven herbs in this one; oregano and Moroccan mint in that one. Mooradian smelled a new tea party brewing in America.
A tea even an insect can love
We return to the tea. Our second cup will be a bai hao, a “white tip” tea from Hangzhou, China. Mooradian explains that the tea was formerly known as Formosa oolong and is presently marketed under the name Oriental Beauty. “You have to know somebody to get this,” Pratt says admiringly. He tells us the tea comes from the old imperial capital of China, which is located in the foremost tea-producing province of Zhejiang. We learn that the tiny leaves are folded in half by hand, pressed flat under a wok, and dried by wafting them through the air.
White tip is picked during the summer in Taiwan. The tea makers wait for the precise moment in June (in some years July) when the tea leaves are sufficiently ripened to attract insects to nibble at the tips. The bush defends itself from the insect infestation by secreting a fragrant chemical. The insects begin to “nibble” the edges, and this turns the tips white. The sage tea maker knows the exact moment for harvest. “Another name for the tea is Garden of Eden Tea, since tea makers pray for divine intervention to invite the insects in to eat,” Pratt jokes. Once the tea is harvested and dried, it is handled with extreme care, since the leaves degrade every time they are touched, they degrade. The maximum yield in a good year’s harvest is 8 to 10 kilos a year. In China, this tea is so prized that a packet of 300 grams can net price of $15,000.
We move on to our third tea as a conclusion. It is a Mount Olympus herbal tea from Greece. “Sideritis syriaca,” Mooradian says, giving us the Latin name. He got this brew from a friend names Pericles in Crete. “What else would he be called?” we banter. “Agamemnon or Socrates?” The tea is citrusy and pungent, somewhere in between oregano, lemon and thyme. When I put my nose into my cup, I can feel my eyes clear, and my caffeine buzz slows to a murmur.
As I get ready to go, the conversation turns to the chi of tea. The collective is now ruminating on the possible effects of the earthquake on Haiti on the quality of this year’s tea in China, a serious line of discourse. A tea sage in China recently asked Pratt if he tasted the Taiwan earthquake in the tea he was drinking. “The energy from the earthquake travels through the Earth and from the plants to the tea,” Pratt explains. I’m out of my depth now. But entirely sucked in. I want to be able taste the chi in my next cup of tea.
Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer and former restaurant owner. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.
Photo: Tea expert James Norwood Pratt, left, and Mark Mooradian, an importer, in China. Credit: Courtesy of Mark Mooradian