April, 9 2015
Fujian is the Chinese province with the greatest diversity of exclusive tea. The most famous oolong teas, Tieguanyin and Wuyi Yan Cha (Rock tea), both come from Fujian. Minhong gongfu, probably the first black teas ever produced, are cultivated in the north of the province as well as the fine Fuding white teas.
So, where to start from? I start from Fuzhou, the province capital.
The first day, as usual, I look around and visit friends. I start from a small tea market I was not aware of. I drink the teas that I will search in the next days, mainly black teas and some tieguanyin. One tea is worth mentioning. Introduced to me as a black tea, it looks and tastes different from any other black tea I drunk before. It consists of fleshy grayish buds covered by a dull yellow down. The liquor is bright yellow, without the typical reddish shades of black teas (see picture below with two cups). The shop owner is not surprised when I tell him that the tea tastes like an aged white tea, rather than a black tea. He explains that it is a new development; the leaves are less oxidized than usual. The price is unfortunately too high for the western market, so I buy just fifty grams for my personal collection.
I drink tea all day, without breaks. In the evening I meet our supplier of Tanyang Gongfu, a traditional black tea much appreciated by our customers. The siblings run the shop in the city, while the parents produce tea up in the mountains.
April, 10 2015
In the morning I do my first shopping in Fujian. In the biggest tea market of the city I find a traditional Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong for a very affordable price. The leaves are a little bigger than usual, but this is also the reason for the low price. Attracted more by the price than by the tea itself, I enter the shop with a little skepticism, take a sit and taste the tea.
The owners are two relaxed young guys, intrigued by this foreigner at least as much as I by their tea. They are calm and have no hurry; although I asked a sip of the cheapest tea in the shop. One of them wears what I call a Buddha bracelet. Quite popular this year in China, it seems to be worn by persons with a common attitude and lifestyle. When asked about the reason for this showy ornament, most people say it helps keeping interior peace and the evil away; some admit wearing it just because they like it. No one really mentions buddhism, although it is where it comes from.
Anyway, if you end up in a big tea market in China and don’t know which shop to enter because they all look the same, search for the wooden bead bracelet!
Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong is known in the Western world as Lapsang Soughong. But, please, don’t merge the two teas into one kind. The latter is a smoked version of the former, produced industrially in large quantities. It might be a good drink in those cold winter days when you just want to warm up while drawing your attention to some other task. On the contrary, Zhen Shan Xiao Zhong is a whole leaf tea produced in the north of Fujian and requires attention. It is traditionally not smoked.
Despite the price, the tea is convincing! If asked, I would definitely bet for a higher price. Without hesitations, I buy half of their stock availability.
Before leaving, the owner asks me to try more tea. He doesn’t want to sell it to me. He is just afraid I got the wrong impression of his shop, since I tasted only the cheaper tea. Of course I have time for some good tea :) While drinking a floral Qi Lan, we discuss about Jin Jun Mei, a popular and mislabeled black tea. When I refuse to drink their Jin Jun Mei, pretending it was just one of the many copies, the owner disappears in the back of the store coming back with a sample of Jin Jun Mei produced by the company who invented it back in 2005! I take the sample with me; this tea deserves a special moment and attention. More about Jin Jun Mei later on.
The afternoon is dedicated to Tanyang Gongfu. I have the pleasure of comparing ten different Tanyang Gongfu at the same time. Half produced according to the traditional processing method (top row in the picture below); half in a similar fashion as Jin Jun Mei, with many golden buds and highly aromatic (bottom row).
The squared pictures show the dry leaves in details, from the top-left tea to the bottom-right one. This is also the sequence I follow for tasting them.
The teas are produced with different cultivars (variety of tea plant) but all in the same village, located in one of the highest mountains surrounding Tanyang.
The traditional tanyang gongfu are all but one produced with leaves of the Tanyang Cai Cha cultivar. Cai Cha are plants growing naturally, neither prone nor treated by humans. The first tea (top-left) is the tanyang that I bought last year. Both my interpreter -who worked for a tea shop- and I prefer the top-left tea, which is the tanyang that I bought last year for nannuoshan; an intense yet not astringent black tea, with a cocoa base and hints of cherry. The second tea is less complex and complete than the former, but still feature the strength and the fruity-sweetness that I aspect to find in a tanyang. The third is a surprise. It strongly smells and tastes like camphor, but without being oppressive. The peculiar taste is given by longer oxidation and drying. I like this tea, but it would be too odd for nannuoshan. The other three teas have their distinctive characteristics, but no one really emerges over the first.
For nannuoshan I confirm the last year’s choice buying all the tea left from the same batch you can already find in our shop. I buy also the second one because, despite clearly inferior, it is more affordable. Thus soon you will find two tanyang in our store!
And now let’s move to the teas with golden buds. They are more expensive and more aromatic than the traditional tanyang, but miss some strength. Three teas have similar taste, floral and lingering in an effort of copying Jun Jun Mei. The tea in the green bowl looks and tastes different than all the other. It is made of Jin Guan Yin cultivar, a tea plant originally used only for oolong tea. It is less oxidized than all the other. The leaves are somewhat dull. This is again a kind of white-black tea, as the one described above.
April 11, 2015
It is time to leave Fuzhou; I miss the countryside. The owners of the shop where I yesterday bought Tanyang Gongfu insist to drive me to their hometown, to show me the production of tea and their tea fields. Getting a ride is very convenient, for it is not easy at all to reach those places in the north of the province. The brother has heavy feet. The brake and gas pedals are either all down or all up. In the highway I feel like racing in a Formula 1 competition. Cars change the line abruptly, without any notice; taking over almost brushing against each other. While I wonder when the next incident will occur, here we are: three cars in front of us crash into each other in a tunnel. Nothing serious. The driver and his wife laugh and continue the crazy drive, which turns into a rally up the mountains.
After three hours in the car I can finally get my feet on the ground. Everything is calm and firm, again. The parents welcome me with big smiles. I have no interpreter today and smiling is the only way of communication we can both understand.
After lunch they show me the production of black tea in the ground level of their house, just behind the central courtyard with decorated walls.
Some tea was just taken out of the oven and is aired using rake and showel. Other leaves are still in the oxidation room, heated by lamps when needed and wetted with water vapor, like in a steam bath, or simply pouring a little of water on the towel in which they are wrapped.
On the roof, leaves in bamboo baskets are exposed to the sun to dry. This is the last step of production for white tea. Before being moved to the roof, the leaves are withered alternating exposure to sun and shadow. The sun drying last several days. The baskets are stored indoor during the night and laid under the sun during the day.
Tanyang, located between Zhenghe and Fuding, is in the middle of a white tea production area. The village is more famous for black tea though.
Before leaving, the mother insists to offer me a cup of her special, homemade soup. A very healthy concoction of local plants and livers.
After the special afternoon meal, I get a ride to Fu’an, where another tea producer picks me up and drives me further to Zhenghe. He comes with an interpreter! She teaches English in a middle school and will company me in the next two days.
Written by Gabriele