Drink Challenge #2: Game, set, matcha

My chief tormenter friend Emmy has stepped up to the plate yet again, with a nutritious matcha tea smoothie that will no doubt do wonderful things for my digestive system while simultaneously making me want to gag my digestive organs out.

Matcha, if you’re bewildered, is merely powdered green tea. When prepared in the traditional way, it looks exactly as if someone has eaten the contents of a lawn mower catcher, chugged a handle of vodka and regurgitated the contents into a cute earthenware bowl. It resembles the insides of a caterpillar and is half as tasty.

Matcha-Set

Be still my beating taste buds.

Now what Emmy doesn’t know is that in my late teens, I spent a year in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, and therefore consider myself an absolute matcha master. I went into this challenge feeling confident.

Konnichiwa, bitches.

Unfortunately, confidence was not high on my list of attributes at 17.

That is, until I tried to source ethical ingredients that complied with our (arbitrary, undefined and frequently changing) Drink Challenge rules. When Emmy first crowed “Haaa, this bitch is never going to find matcha in that culturally stunted backwater of a nation!*”, I smiled to myself because we have a chain of tea stores called T2, which stocks more tea and tea paraphernalia than you can poke a Scotch Finger at. T2 started as a single store in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, and its unrivalled inventory of flavoured teas and gaudy tea-themed curios guaranteed a proliferation of T2s across the country, including our easternmost island, New Zealand. T2 is a big deal in Australia at the moment, and you’ll find one in virtually every shopping centre…so I wasn’t entirely flabbergasted to discover the Aussie start-up had been bought out last year by Unilever. Yep, the same delightful folks who are chewing through thousands of hectares of Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest in the name of palm oil (fun fact: they also used to be the largest purchaser of whale oil) now own most of our favourite tea brands (they also own Lipton and Bushells).

With T2 now firmly indexed in my novelesque boycott  list, I turned to the local tea shops, and  stumbled across Tea Leaves in Sassafras. Through them, I found out we have tea plantations right here in Victoria. The Japanese beverage company Ito-En has a processing factory up in Wangaratta, and exports Aussie tea leaves to Japan. About 10 years ago when they were running out of prime tea-growing real estate in Nippon, they cast their eyes to our temperate pastures and found a handful of sheep farmers who were happy to turn their hands at a livelihood that didn’t require fencing, dipping, and crutching.

All of this means I was able to find me some fresh, locally grown green tea in a little store just up the road. Now who’re you calling backwater, Emmy? Hmm?**

All Australian ingredients, astonishingly.

All Australian ingredients, astonishingly.

The catch was they only had matcha mixed with sencha – so what you’re looking at is a bag of half powder, half dried leaves.

I steeped the tea in boiled water for a couple of minutes, threw everything into a bottle, shook it like a polaroid picture, et voilà:

Needs more vodka.

Mmm, insipid.

It was disappointingly un-green, despite the random tea leaves floating in it. But it tasted surprisingly pleasant, even with the oleaginous mass of chia seeds settled in the bottom of the glass. Fun fact: Australia is the biggest producer of chia seeds. Let me know if you ever need chia, and I will hook you up.

Verdict: Matcha is not as disgusting as I remember from 1999. Also I’m glad I learnt early in life that a yukata does nothing for my figure.

*Possibly paraphrased slightly.
**Ok fine, she never said this at all.

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Things I learnt during my tea-quest

Anyone who’s followed Emmy’s blog for any period of time would know she’s a big ol’ groupie for intercropping. For the non-agricultural amongst us, it simply means planting a mixture of crops together, rather than sowing great, sweeping windrows of corn or wheat. Sure, a nicely manicured plantation is gorgeous to behold (ever seen a canola field in full bloom?), but it bears absolutely no resemblance to a natural eco-system and subsequently refuses to act like one, thereby creating problems like soil erosion, nutrient depletion and pest proliferation. Of course the accepted ‘solutions’ to these issues result in a whole new batch of environmental complications, and so the cycle continues.

Intercropping doesn’t appear to have taken off in the commercial farming sector just yet, at least not in Australia. Tea especially is a bit of a sticky wicket in this department, because tea consumers would probably not be thrilled to detect overtones of date palm leaf in their English Breakfast. It’s easier to avoid contamination when you can hire workers for $2 a day to hand-pick tea tips, but here in Australia, worker exploitation is generally frowned upon, so our tea picking is done mechanically. Mechanical harvesters are yet unable to tell the difference between a tender new tea shoot and a koala-piss soaked eucalypt leaf. Not unlike our current Prime Minister.

On the other hand, intercropping is a fabulous way for newbie tea farmers to make some cash during the two or three years it takes for tea bushes to produce anything resembling yield – when the fledgling plantations are nothing more than a capital-sapping ornamental garden. One field experiment found that a multitude of vegies can be grown in between bushes without compromising the happiness of the baby tea plants – in fact, it actually boosted yield down the track.

Of course, I’m more than happy to take my new-found knowledge on the road to educate the new generation of strapping, sun-bronzed farm lads…

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