Suzhou and its famous Biluochun

March 28, 2015

Strong turbulence wake me up during the flight to Shanghai. Few seconds later I realize that it was not the turbulence shaking the plane, but just the contact with the ground. Still sleepy, I half open my eyes and a strong light dazzles me. The sun feels stronger here in China. Maybe because according to my biological clock I am still in the middle of the night.

I spend the first day in Shanghai for greeting, bureaucracy and of course I find also time for a cup of tea. Catherine and her boss delight me with Shan Lin Xi, the first high mountain oolong tea produced in Taiwan. A divine tea. Fragrant and light like a flowery meadow in early spring. Fresh and clear like mountain air. The fragile Yixing teapot is a perfect match and the tea is prepared with care to perfection. I would like to buy a little bag for that tiny space left in my cupboard but Shan Lin Xi is prohibitively expensive. At first I though that the price was for 500g, not 50g! I resist, but I might end up buying it in three weeks time, when I will come back to Shanghai.



March 29, 2015

Early in the morning I take a high speed train to Suzhou, where the Biluochun harvest just started. Last year I venture on the Xishan island in search for authentic, hand-made Biluochun. This year I intend to go instead to the Dongting peninsula, which faces the island; but not today.

Before going to the countryside I would like to visit the two main tea markets in town to get an idea of this year’s quality and prices. The leaves picked before the Qing Ming festival -April, 5- are renowned for being the most tender and tasty. Nevertheless the leaf quality is not sufficient to get superior tea. Proper firing in the wok is crucial.

With me there are not one, but two translators today! They study English at university and understand every word I say: a dream! We first walk through all the alleyways of the market trying to understand in which of the hundred shops the best Biluochun might be concealed. The shops all look very similar to each other, but one catches my attention. It is bigger, clean and tidy. We enter, have a look around and accept the invitation to sit down and taste some tea.

We drink several Biluochun; they are all expensive, as common in early spring, but only one is really worth my attention. I discuss with the owner why one of the tea was overly bitter and grassy, arguing that the firing might have been to short or done at too low temperature. His answer convinces me. He admits that the tea is not as good as it could be and that the firing depends very much on the personal skills. He refuses to give me samples and asks me instead to come back the day after tomorrow, when he aspects to have better tea. The seller was friendly and sincere; definitely deserved a second chance. I might come back.

In another shop I collect some samples to carry tomorrow to the mountain. It is always good o have some tea for comparison.



March 30, 2015

Today is raining, a reason more to be happy being already in Suzhou. The quality of Biluochun is higher in the first dry days of spring; the rain came unexpectedly early this year.



By subway, bus and car we go to our first destination on the Dongting peninsula. With me there is Gui Fei, who is helping me communicating with the farmers. Not far from the Dongshan village a farmer runs a small teashop, where he sells the Biluochun from his two tea gardens; one on top of the mountain, the other not far from the shop, where tea bushes are surrounded by mandarine and medlar trees.

We spend in the shop a couple of hours, have lunch with the farmer and visit also the tea gardens. Something is not convincing me. The answers to my questions are sometime contradictory and the amount of tea is too much to come only from the tea gardens we have seen. I prefer to move onwards without buying tea.





On another bus we reach the opposite side of the peninsula. We walk through the empty alleyways of an old village. Now the sun is shining and the farmers went to the fields to pick the leaves. So we do. We walk up the hill, speak to the farmers at work and walk with them back home to try their tea.

It is evening now. The sun is setting and we have been drinking Biluochun the whole afternoon. The prices are higher this year. Gui Fei heard from some farmers on the bus that sales are going very well this season. Some farmers are even not interested in selling us the tea. They produce a small quantity that is sold out even before the harvest.

The quality of the tea changes from one day to the next. Differences are driven by both environmental factors and manufacturing skills. Some teas taste too grassy, some other are over fired. Barely all farmers mix the harvest of different days to cover the differences and sell also the lower quality tea. I don't like it.





Disconsolate and tired, I am ready to give up for today and come back tomorrow. On the way out of the village a family at work attracts my attention. Son and mother are carefully screening the leaves picked during the day, one by one. They discard at least two third of the leaves and keep only the best ones for firing. At the same time, the father is roasting a small batch of leaves in the wok. The fire is lower than we have seen in other houses. He needs 45 minutes to process 200g of leaves. Longer than any other person we have asked in the village.

They are willing to let us try their tea. The son brings four batches of Biluochun, each carefully wrapped in a paper cloth; not in plastic bags as others do. On the cloth we read the harvest day, so we ask: "Don't you mix the leaves of several days?" The answer is the one we were hoping for.

The taste is also very convincing. Full, brisk but neither grassy nor bitter. Fruity notes linger on the palate.

I buy the entire production of 19th and 29th of March. The farmer organize for us a ride back to town. Busses don't run late in the evening.

After fifteen hours I am back home and ready to go to bed.


March 31, 2015

Sunny and warm! But also noisy! Despite the hear plugs, the horns of the cars wake me up. I live on the 21st floor of an anonymous building of this 10 million people city.



Which will be my next destination? Discover it in the next blog entry! 

Written by Gabriele