Marmite, that most British of foodstuffs made from yeast extract, divides the nation into two warring camps.
There is no middle ground, no grey area, no ambiguity at all when it comes to Marmite. You love its tangy, savoury gloopiness with a passion, or loathe it with a fearsome zeal, wishing nothing more than for it and its foul stench to disappear back into the putrid, overflowing, septic drain of hell from whence it came.
In some respects Lapsang Souchong, the famous smoked tea from Fujian, is the Marmite of teas. As James Norwood Pratt says in “The Tea Lover’s Treasury” “..you love it or detest it…”
There is a sub-category of Lapsang Souchong that is a little bit more “out there” than the regular variety – Tarry Souchong, which is the tea I’m writing about today. Not content with smoking the tea leaves over regular pine wood, at some point in the past someone came up with the idea of smoking the tea over burning pine resin, for an even more intense, smokey flavour.
If judged by the appearance of the dried leaf, or the colour and clarity of the tea liquor, this would be just another black tea, but that’s not what Lapsang Souchong is all about. This tea is all about aroma, and lots of it!
I purchased this particular tea at Five O’clock Te, a local tea shop, and paid 59 Swedish Crowns for a 100g packet, which at the time of writing equates to £5.00 GB, or $6.96 US.
The fragrance of this tea comes at you like a tidal wave the split second you open the packet. It’s not unpleasant, mind, there’s just so much of it. It’s a bit like listening to your favourite song at a very loud volume, not so loud that it hurts your ears, but loud enough to make it hard to hear what someone stood next to you is saying.
The funny thing is that this tea’s aroma relates to its taste in a similar way to Roquefort cheese. I remember being appalled by the smell of Roquefort the first time it was shoved under my nose, but then go on to recall that seconds later I was left amazed by its subtle, complex taste.
In a similar way this tea has a taste far less overbearing than its aroma suggests.
The key note is of course the smokiness, reminiscent of a fine single malt whisky. There’s an earthy, woody, feel to the taste, too, and a long, lingering, hard-to-pin-down taste that I can only describe as almost pepperminty.
Every time I drink this tea it presses memory buttons. Bonfires, fish smokeries, barbecues, that last tot of whisky in the pub near to closing time with my dad before the walk home.
The smokey feel also reminds me of all things maritime and nautical. This is not so strange as it may seem – tar resin from Swedish pine trees – “black gold” – has been waterproofing ships and the jetties they moor up alongside for centuries. There’s a small restaurant on the outskirts of the town where we holiday for a week or two every summer. It’s situated near a working harbour, on a pine covered island, and the interior is filled with all sorts of boat related bric-a-brac. Sometimes, when I drink this tea, I can close my eyes and I’m sat at table 12 one August evening, watching the boats come and go.
I like to drink this tea if I ever feel that my regular teas are in danger of becoming a bit predictable – it’s almost like electro-shock therapy for the palate, a hard reboot for the tongue.
“The Tea Lover’s Treasury” describes Tarry Souchong as “..the best possible outdoors tea…” noting that Sam Twining, a ninth generation member of the famous Twining tea family, drank it during breaks in tennis and gardening.
I can only agree. I’m already looking forward to drinking it later this year when the weather’s better, and we can play outside, sat around the fire we like to build in our old barbecue pit, as the logs burn down to embers, and the sun slips silently behind the trees.
If nothing else, the smokey fragrance might help keep the damn mosquitoes away…