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Early morning, one would row their boat to the center of the pond, leave a little bit of tea inside the lotus petals and stamens, and then use a golden straw string to mark the lotus. Then, one would continue to row the boat in the pond to collect drops of rain resting on the petals. When one would take it home after having collected enough raindrops for a small kettle, one would wait about half a day or overnight to retrieve tea within the lotus, and then infuse that tea with rain water boiled on Chinese ember. A gulp of such tea can turn a human into a fairy!
The process of infusing tea with lotus fragrance is very intricate.
The first step is to choose the right lotus.
Red lotus is used to embalm tea leaves due to its fragrance which “attaches” well to tea leaves. Since antiquity, Hanoians have only used the lotus flowers that grow in Tây Hồ – Quảng Bá for this purpose, in particular Tây Hồ’s lotus from Trị Pond, or Thủy Xứ Pond. These two yield lotus flowers with larger petals and a more outstanding fragrance.
All flowers must be picked at the right time.
Those that bloom the earliest are the ones with the most redolent fragrance, and should be used to infuse tea. After a few months, when the weather becomes windy, around the middle of June of the lunar calendar, lotus flowers are in full bloom, and the infusion process of tea ends. Otherwise, the west wind will shrink the lotus flowers and slowly dissipate their fragrance in the strangest way!
Women in the areas of Tây Hồ, Quảng Bá, Nhật Tân, have to wake up very early, and row their boat to the pond to pick up lotus. After sunset, the lotus fragrance will somewhat have dissipated. They deliver the lotus to their loyal vendors in the city. Sometimes, to gain the vendors’ favors, they would stay to assist the vendors in splitting the petals to gather the pistils. This has to be done quickly, otherwise the petals would become stale. The whole residence is redolent with fragrance like a Fairy’s Cove.
They have to sieve a few times to get rid of the petals and filaments to collect only the clean pistils, and that concludes the preparation of lotus.
Next step is the tea leaves preparation.
Tea leaves from Hà Giang, also known as Trà Mạn, must be stored away for a few years before infusing to get rid of the acrid odor. That’s why people buy tea leaves every year, but store them for 3 to 5 years before using them.
There you have it, and try to remember, the flowers must be always fresh, while the thing used to infuse with the flowers’ souls must be mature and sophisticated by manifolds.
Infusing tea leaves is the act of combining the two essential elements of the universe. One layer of tea leaves followed by one layer of lotus pistils.
After a day and a night, used lotus pistils must be replaced with fresh ones. It’s important that the process must be performed in a closed space with no circulating air, for fear of losing the fragrance.
After each batch of tea leaves, one must remove tea leaves from the old lotus pistils, dry the tea leaves, and then infuse them again in a new batch of lotus pistils. Drying tea leaves is a specifically intricate process, since it contributes to the long-lasting fragrance of the tea in the future. The ideal drying material is Chinese coal. Tea leaves are put into pouches made up of thick paper, sealed and put on a copper tray, then covered with pail of coal. All are put on the simmering coal stove. One must keep moving the pouches on the tray to prevent them from catching fire.
A Monk in Phụng Thánh Temple said that it is alright to dry the tea leaves at 50 to 60 degrees, and you have to do it very thoroughly. If done in haste, the tea leaves might smell fragrant, but will get moldy in the long term. Although drying them for a longer time wastes more lotus pistils, it will ensure that the fragrance will last.
Each batch of tea leaves need to be infused and dried from 3 to 7 times. On average, one kilogram of tea will need from 1000 to 1200 (maximum 1,500) lotus flowers.
The next step is to separate large tea leaves from small ones and bottle them in glass vases that have been boiled and left dried under sunlight. At the final step, the bottles are sealed with wax, and stored for as long as one wants.
To brew lotus tea, people use rain water or morning dews collected from lotus leaves. Nowadays, we make do with purified water. However, people often leave this water in the open overnight to evaporate a bit.
Lotus tea is brewed in a stout kettle. The kettle and cups are rinsed with boiled water, and the kettle must be dipped into a bowl of boiled water or stored in a basket to keep warm. The properly-brewed lotus tea must have a brownish pink color and be as transparent as amber; a sweet and fresh taste, with a swelling lotus fragrance.
Enjoying the fragrance of a cup of lotus tea is somewhat similar to reciting an ancient T’ang Dynasty poem. First water, the opening of the poem; intimation. Second, water; the description, the condensation of fragrance and taste. Third, water; the opinion of the poet, coalescing color and mesmerizing fragrance. Fourth, water; the conclusion, the absorption of the essence of the tea.
Such a small cup of tea contains in itself not just the essence, the fragrance of the earth, the sky, the lotus, or the tea leaves but also something else… For those who are in exile, such a cup of aromatic tea could ameliorate their nostalgia.