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Pu-erh in tangerine peel

by Lydia Kung

Because some of our customers send their tea products to Europe, bringing in EU compliant teas is now more routinized. The EU standards for acceptable pesticide levels not only demand lower residue numbers than the FDA,but the EU tests for some components that the FDA does not. Once upon a time there was an FDA Tea Examiner who inspected a sample of every tea that was imported into the U.S. As an importer, we would send a small packet from each batch and the tea could not be distributed until we received the Examiner’s stamp of approval.

Once a year, Mr. Robert Dick, who held that Tea Examiner position for many years, met with a board of tea importers, and somewhere in our office there is a photo showing them at one session. That year, the others included Mike Spillane, my business partner, and representatives from Lipton and Tetley. Unfortunately, after this meeting was featured in an ABC news segment, reaction to tax money going to tea sippers led to the eventual disbanding of this office at the agency. This was a true shame because Mr. Dick was not only knowledgeable about teas but he was generous in sharing his broad,deep store of tea lore and extraordinary cupping skills. (The FDA, of course, still oversees all tea imports, but not every lot is pulled for sampling.)

I had the good fortune to travel with Mr. Robert Dick to China. (Accompanying an official with a U.S. government passport definitely conferred some benefits.) At the time, Mr. Dick was not a fan of Puerh teas and it was a challenge in those years to import this aged tea. My business partner and I therefore designed a trip to Yunnan with Mr. Dick so he could see Puerh processing and perhaps could be swayed to approve this category. Mr. Dick was delighted by the many molded forms in which Puerh ends up: inside bamboo poles, in gourds, and I was reminded of our trip when this year I started receiving more and more puerh teas “packed” in dried tangerine peels.

As the photos below show, the tangerines are still green when picked for this purpose. The fleshy part of the fruit is removed (and it’s more easily done when the fruit is still green) by a specially designed machine. Most of the tangerines come from Guangdong.

Once this puerh in tangerine peel became popular in the domestic market, it was inevitable that other teas would be packaged the same way, and we now see oolong and especially white teas presented this way.

Dried tangerine peel has long been an ingredient in Chinese cooking (authentic orange chicken), and salted tangerine peels are sold like dried fruits, similar to salted plums and such – good for long road trips.

During the drying process, the idea is that the tea inside will absorb the flavor of the peel. The intent is the same behind aging puerh: the natural dynamic alters the final flavor and tea character.

There is, of course, a story that goes with this packaging: A scholar (Luo Tian Chi) leaving Yunnan in the Qing dynasty took some puerh with him. Having caught a cold as he reached his hometown, his household staff prepared hot water with tangerine peel, a traditional remedy. He used this citrus infused hot water for his puerh and was delighted with the result, recognizing later that both the peel and tea would store well.

I consider this noteworthy only for its packaging. Each “tangerine” holds between 25 grams to 50 g of tea and they are not expensive. For true Puerh fans, I am not sure these rounded bundles of tea will satisfy. What is of interest is the current, ongoing development of trying various teas in combination with the dried citrus, paralleling the trend of aged white teas in cake form.