Yu Hui Tseng and Her Shangri-La of Tea

Yu Hui Tseng and Her Shangri-La of Tea

Grown in the mountains and formed with nature’s anima, tea is the essence of China. History has it that tea was first discovered in the ancient era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (circa 2852 BC - 2070 BC). The Tang Dynasty sage Lu Yu (733-804) wrote in his masterpiece monograph The Classic of Tea, “Shennong (one of the Three Sovereigns) tasted hundreds of herbs. He encountered 72 poisonous herbs in one day, and used tea to detoxify his body”. In ancient China, tea was a necessity for the literati and intellectuals. Procedures and sophisticated tea preparation would rule the tea culture. For instance, which type of water to use in making tea, when to drink the tea after several brews and so on. However, the Chinese tea culture has gradually died out. It is little known in continental Europe, where the so-called Chinese tea refers to the jasmine tea and kungfu tea served in Chinese restaurants. Yet there is a gentle lady called “Maître Tseng” who has spent two decades teaching this art of living in France. She possesses a delicate and critical sense of taste, such as how to savour tea by using a method similar to wine-tasting. She is the owner of a tea paradise on La Rive Gauche (the left bank) of Paris. Her name is Yu Hui Tseng. Childhood Memories Enshrined in Her Heart Yu Hui Tseng was born in the scenic Nantou County of Taiwan. Her mother’s family previously immigrated to Taiwan from Anxi County, Fujian Province in Mainland China. Three generations of her family inherited and further developed their tea manufacturing process. When she was a child, she would go out alone into the mountains. There, she would stroll in the aroma of Mother Nature. She was imbued with the scents of the limpid mountainous streams, the fruits swaying on trees, unknown wildflowers and the forest after the rain. To Yu Hui Tseng, who loves good food and relishes flavours, the mountains were a natural “amusement park of flavours”. The young Yu Hui Tseng would watch the entire tea manufacturing process all day long in her family’s tea plantation. Spellbound, she would sample and savour various processed tea leaves. When asked about her understanding of tea, she replies, “It’s simple. Tea is cuisine.” Yu Hui Tseng’s sense of smell and taste is her innate talent. According to her, high-quality tea is very fragrant, and from the moment of being brewed, the tea’s aroma changes every single second. She also invited us to taste Wuyi Rock Tea, which is a kind of Oolong tea. After the tea was poured from a fragrance-smelling cup into a drinking cup, we smelled the empty fragrance-smelling cup. Surprisingly, the cup was still filled with a rich and intense scent. Although we could sense the smell, we couldn’t distinguish the sources of the fragrance. However, Yu Hui Tseng could identify the source of the scent, every time the flavour changed. “The smell of the earth after the rain, the taste of fungi, the scent of Grandma’s place, the smell of the forest, the taste of the ores”… Every comment she made about the flavours was amazing. No wonder the three star Michelin chefs in Paris hold her in high esteem. Making Friends through Tea Yu Hui Tseng believes that without tea, she could not survive. She always carries tea with her. Even when she goes to restaurants, she brings her own tea. However, the tea fragrance often attracts the chefs who come out of their kitchens and talk with her. Many people have come to her teahouse by word of mouth. She has made many friends through common love for tea. Now it can be said that she has friends all over. Yu Hui Tseng is confident in promoting the Chinese tea outside of China. She believes that although the Chinese tea products are different from their foreign counterparts, as long as they possess superior flavours and fragrances, they can be perceived as the best quality tea, especially by the French, who are renowned for their wine-tasting tradition and who are skilful gourmets knowing how to appreciate refined tastes. Her unique way of making friends through the common love for tea is like a heart-warming adventure. Several years after Yu Hui Tseng started her campaign to promote Chinese tea, many well-known gourmets have started to admire the tea master’s great skills, and they come one after the other to work with her. Among them, you find the famous master cheese maker Philippe Olivier and the perfectionist chocolatier Jacques Génin (see Taste of Life, issue number 1). Some like to create refreshments to accompany her tea, some seek her advice in composing recipes, and some only want the tea leaves supplied by her teahouse. To Yu Hui Tseng, studying cuisine arouses true happiness. She enjoys analysing the unique flavour of every dessert or delicacy, and then selecting a kind of tea to go with the dish. The spice master Olivier Roellinger once asked Yu Hui Tseng to select a type of tea to accompany one of his most famous dishes. The dish used about thirty kinds of spices, and its taste was rich and varied. Yu Hui Tseng only tasted this dish once a decade ago. She listed all the ingredients on a piece of paper from memory. After spending much effort and time, she finally discovered a type of tea, whose scent varies in the exact same manner that the dish’s flavour changes. Both Olivier Roellinger and Yu Hui Tseng became pleasantly surprised after tasting the combination of the dish and the tea. And after the combination was introduced to the public, it received great acclaim from the gourmets. Nowadays, Yu Hui Tseng and her teahouse “La Maison des Trois Thés” (The House of Three Teas) are known far and wide. However, when her teahouse was first established in 1994, there were few visitors. Withstanding pressure and loneliness, how did Yu Hui Tseng persevere? Unique Taste and Uncompromising Spirit In the early 1990s in Paris, almost nobody understood what means Chinese tea, needless to mention the scanty few that were interested in tea tasting in a teahouse. “There were more reporters than patrons at that time,” recalls Yu Hui Tseng. However, she never compromised or lowered the quality of her tea. By employing the simplest method, she tried her best to make people aware of the purest, richest, most precious and most meaningful Chinese tea. At her insistence, her teahouse’s interior design has always remained the same. The tables and the wooden stairs were made from an ancient wooden door; the paper lampshades were handcrafted by her; the tea altar is custom-made; and the balance is a genuine antique. Upon entering the teahouse, the guests are greeted with the flavour of antiquity. Like the Wuyi Rock Tea, whose strong mineral flavour is the taste of the soil that nurtured it, classic things all have their origins. Without any polish, they are permeated with the weight of their history and the richness of a culture. Speaking of the spirit of persistence, Yu Hui Tseng comments : “It should be the consistence in the quality of tea, the adherence to the art of tea, the insistence on perfection and self-perseverance”. Therefore, tea nourishes people both externally and internally. The tea leaves silently unfold in the water, emanating delicate aroma. In the tea drinkers, it nourishes a personality, which is tough but not fierce, even-tempered but persistent. Yu Hui Tseng considers that “If you want to do something, you have to carry it out from start to finish.” There are thousands of teas in her teahouse. There are hundreds of Oolong teas alone. To ensure quality, she insists on participating in the entire tea manufacturing process from planting to making. For instance, in order to process newly plucked Oolong tea leaves, she needs to work from around noon until 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. the next morning, without any sleep. It can be said that in order to produce the best quality tea, sparing no efforts is the key. By contrast, the commercially-produced teas are made by programmed processes. Unfortunately, they have lost the unique taste generated by precise manual kneading. Yu Hui Tseng also invited us to taste Jin Mei tea (Golden Plum tea). Although this tea is made with flowers, it possesses a unique scent different from the other flowery fragrances. This kind of tea is made by steeping special roses and tea leaves five times in water. Previously, she had hoped to create a type of scented tea with fruit flavours. Eventually, she found the perfect blend of sweet lychee and aromatic chestnut flavours. To create this taste, she spent five years searching for the right combination. Making the Best of Life The Chinese name of Yu Hui Tseng’s teahouse, La Maison des Trois Thés, is Peach Blossom Spring Teahouse. It is named after the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming’s (365-427) well-known fable Peach Blossom Spring Story. In this story, a fisherman discovered by accident a Shangri-La undisturbed by the outside world. The teahouse’s name signifies the owner’s intention to make the best of things, to remain undisturbed by the noisiness of the modern world and to taste tea with a peace of mind. In French, Trois Thés (Three Teas) is pronounced the same as “Trois Ts” (Three T’s). The three T’s stand for “Thé” (Tea), “Tseng” and “Taiwan”. In classic Chinese, the number “three” represents endlessness. It symbolises Yu Hui Tseng’s constant search for an inexhaustible number of new teas, year after year. Sitting in her teahouse, Yu Hui Tseng says that she has never thought about rising to fame. When asked about her future development plans, she admits “One will always encounter different people and things, when coming to a different stage in life. Wherever you are, just do what you are supposed to do”. Regardless what she does, Yu Hui Tseng insists on achieving the very best. She can then relax and maintain her elegance. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, “Do one’s level best and leave the rest to God’s will”. She simply makes the best of life. Outside her teahouse, there is Tao Yuanming’s fable Peach Blossom Spring Story; inside, there is the Seven Bowls of Tea poem composed by the famous mid-Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tong (795-835), who was also a scholar of tea culture. In this unique and peaceful tea paradise, you can forget all the hustle and bustle of the mundane world. Then, you can leisurely savour the tea and its fragrance. After drinking a cup of hot Chinese tea, your eyes become bright and moisturized; you can feel warmth in your stomach; and your mind becomes clear and refreshed. You can also forget about your worldly gains and losses. Then you raise your eyes and read the Seven Bowls of Tea poem on the wall : “The first bowl of tea moistens the throat and lips. The second bowl of tea destroys the solitude and boredom. The third bowl of tea makes me rack my brain, only to find five thousand volumes of literature…”

 
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