Fatigue from our journey southeast across the African plains and the maelstrom of travel stresses had pushed us to the brink of silence. As we bounced along the scrubland, mesmerized by the expansive horizon, she spoke one short syllable, “tea.” I glanced in the rear-view to see if I’d missed some weathered sign or an invisible lodge, but found only the looming shadow of Mt. Kenya vanishing into the dust of our recent memory. Ahead of us appeared vast fields of chest-high purple plants like an alien landscape in a 1950’s Technicolor sci-fi B-reel.
“Darling, please have some water,” I said. “I think the sun may have baked your potato.” She was in no mood for humor. I was in no mood to be teased by the prospect of tea in such weary conditions.
“No! Purple tea! The crops!”
There we were, hundreds of miles from an infirmary, and my sweet wife was hallucinating imaginary tea fields. “Let me pull over. Surely there is some emergency water in the back. Don’t worry, dear. We’ll get you some tea soon enough” I said with genuine concern.
“We certainly will!” she exclaimed.
And, we certainly did! A minute later we had arrived at a Kenyan tea processing plant with a jovial Kikuyu guide. He explained to my thick dismay, and my wife’s smug satisfaction, that the purple leaves from these particular plants were colored by their abundance of anthocyanins. These compounds are flavonoids that reduce damage to the leaves caused by ultraviolet light. They also combat pests and insects as well as strengthening the plant against extreme temperatures and droughts. The healthful-looking attendant seemed convincing as he touted a laundry list of medicinal benefits from consuming this delicious antioxidant-rich brew. Though, I suspect his vigor may also be a testament to the Kenyan climate and beautiful landscapes that surrounded his daily physical labor.
We brewed western style on the veranda overlooking the endless stretches of purple and green. Between mouthfuls of earthy sweetness and mineral depths, my wife confirmed the sci-fi notion of my initial response was not far off from the reality of these fine plants. Having only been discovered in the last quarter century by the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya, this hybrid (TRFK306/1) is the cutting edge of biochemical tea technology.
Admittedly, it took some time before my dense palate grew accustomed to the complexity of flavor. It had a thick velvet mouthfeel that coated the aperture with a long-lasting finish of sweet potato, plumb, and collards. Impressions of a deeper, more rich, white tea wu-long finally grounded my confusion of tastes. There is a delicate first couple of steeps that may leave the consumer a bit disappointed. However, as the hui-gan kicks in and the flavor begins to emerge stronger with each new brew, they will detect the dark black African soil balanced by occasional bright surprises of tartness. Later, I’ve come to realize that this tea is more pronounced through gong-fu steeps, but is a bit of an acquired taste due to the unfamiliarity of the terroir. Once one has a firm acquaintance with its unique profile, it becomes a regularly stocked item in the pantry. The effects are invigorating, euphoric, playful, and creative. They are usually more pronounced when coupled by Afro-Cuban jazz like Bobby Sanabria or Machito. In my experience, this tea has the unusual power of humbling my condescension, particularly when traveling with the fairer sex, and may occasionally taste a bit like crow.