A Sitting Duck for All the Tea in China

To the well-worn cry that everything nice is immoral, illegal or fattening has now been added a fourth category of restriction: unhealthy. So many formerly acceptable foods are now suspect, if not proven harmful, that it is a delight to explore the pleasures of one that is still regarded as thoroughly wholesome.

Going too far is often more interesting than moderation. I cannot claim that is was necessary to go to China to learn how to make a better cup of tea, but it helped. And when my escort was Sam Twining, whose family has been doing tea business there since the early 18th century, the invitation was simply irresistible. Which is how I came to be standing in a tea garden in darkest Zhejiang Province and staring at a large green frog which had hopped out from under a bush.

A flat grey sky threw no shadows on the serene stone walled terraces of tea bushes. They stretched away packed tight in lines, like some marshalling yard of suburban hedges awaiting postings. At a distance the effect was a neat patchwork of plump green quilts. Closer to, there were pop-eyed frogs, butterflies the size of sparrows, noisy crickets, and birdsong. The teapickers were at lunch.

Away from the gardens the hand-picked shoots are subjected to a variety of wilting, rolling and drying processes, and in the case of black teas to what in the tea trade is described as fermenting, but has nothing to do with reaching those parts that fermentation usually implies.

Zhejiang Province produces gunpowder, the best known of China’s green teas and named for the appearance of its tightly rolled leaves which resemble lead shot. When they uncurl in the teapot you can get a good idea of what the freshly picked leaves look like.

The smells in a tea factory are good ones. Most memorable was the stunning perfume of newly made jasmine tea, and the unforgettable sight of millions of double white jasmine flowers freshly mixed with tea leaves.

Teas, like wines, depend as much on the hazards of soil and weather as on the skills of the manufacturer, and like wine, tea repays appreciative attention.

In China poultry is smoked over smoldering tea leaves in the same way that oak sawdust or applewood is used in England. It is cooked too, usually by steaming either before or after smoking. Sometimes it is deep-fried as well which produces a crispy style duck which would be served in a restaurant with bland pancakes, shredded spring onions and plum sauce – the same accompaniments as for Peking duck. Iceberg lettuce leaves are an alternative to pancakes, but don’t forget China’s answer to tomato ketchup, the savory plum sauce.

I turned up half a dozen similar recipes in recently published Chinese cookery books and although none of them is quick, they are not difficult either. The only equipment required is a large wok with a lid (or a big pan), a rack or trivet which fits inside it, and kitchen foil.

Using a wok for all three processes – smoking, steaming and frying – is the traditional method and it produces meat that is moist, and crisp skin. Smoking followed by careful roasting is simpler. The skin will not be quite so crisp, but all the underlying fat will have melted away. Some cooks even use a vaporizer for a smokeless “smoke.”

Serve hot tea smoked roast duck in the Chinese manner with pancakes etcetera, or as an English cold cut with salads. I use barbary ducks because they are full-flavored and fairly lean, and Lapsang Souchong tea for its smoky taste.

Tea smoked roast duck Serves four 1 duck about 1.35kg (3lb) 110g (4oz) plain flour 55g (2oz) brown sugar 4 tablespoons Lapsang Souchong or other black China tea 1 tablespoon black peppercorns 1 whole star anise 2cm (3/4in) cube peeled fresh ginger 2 spring onions, chopped 2 tablespoons Chinese Shaohsing wine or medium sherry.

Remove any trussing strings from the duck to expose all its skin to the smoke.

Line a wok with foil. Mix together the flour, sugar and tea and spread it over the base of the wok. Add a rack on which the duck can sit above the smoking mixture and place the duck on it. Cover the wok with its lid, or with a well-fitting dome of foil, and set it on a high heat.

The tea mixture will quickly begin to scorch, producing plenty of smoke. Adjust the heat to keep it smoking well and leave the duck undisturbed for 15 minutes. Then turn it over on to its breast to smoke for a further 15 minutes.

While it is smoking prepare the flavoring ingredients. Pound the pepper and anise with a pestle and mortar then add the ginger and spring onions and grind the mixture to a rough paste. Dilute the paste with the wine. Paint the duck with the paste and spoon the remainder into the cavity. Roast the duck in a preheated moderately hot oven (200 degrees C/400 degrees F, gas mark 6) for about 1 1/4 hours, or until it is cooked and the skin is crisp.

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