Monkey See, Monkey Pick 

click to enlarge food33_tea_100.jpg

Somewhere atop China's Fujian province, a weary traveler gathers leaves from tea trees growing along a ragged peak. He's dizzy from the height and tired from the climb, but this tea -- this tea might be worth it.

The altitude and mountain water ensure a high quality, and the taste is distinctly fruity and sweet. Adding cream to this tea would be criminal. Satisfied, our traveler — all of 4 feet tall and 80 pounds — turns and begins his long descent. He is a monkey.

No, really. In addition to speaking sign language, riding in space ships and starring in '90s comedies such as "Ace Ventura," monkeys can be trained to pick tea leaves. According to myth, it began with Chinese monks in the 18th century. They wanted to save themselves the trouble — and the sacrilege — of climbing the Wuyi Mountains, which they considered holy.

So 200 years later, are monkeys still picking tea? It depends upon whom you ask. At CaryTown Teas, the differing opinions of owner Patricia Adams and her employee Mistie Roundtree reveal a workplace divided.

In one corner is Roundtree, who believes that monkey-picked tea is not always picked by monkeys. "The term 'monkey-picked' generally refers to the highest quality [of tea] possible," she says. And that's a high-end subset of a tea called Ti Kuan Yen, she says, part of the oolong family ("the champagne of teas"). Such quality runs at a high price: A two-ounce bag costs $42 at CaryTown Teas.

In the other corner we have proprietor Adams. Calling other teas monkey-picked, Adams says, is like calling silver a type of platinum. Adams calls her Chinese tea mentor to confirm she has her facts straight, reporting back to Style that monkey-picked tea is only a specific type of Ti Kuan Yen, the same type monks trained their furry friends to pick back in the day. That being said, monkeys aren't necessarily the ones picking it. "It's still very high up on the tree," she says, "but I believe now that they have different methods to do it." Meaning primates can stay in Hollywood, where they belong.

But the fact remains, the tea is good. Monkey-picked tea can withstand five or six infusions (normal tea leaves are good for two, if you're lucky), and each infusion produces a different taste. "It's popular among connoisseurs," Adams says. "As soon as people taste the tea, they love it." S

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