What possible connection could there be between these tattered old cloths and tea? Simple: these thick cloths are used to cover piles of tea leaves, keeping the oxygen out. In the damp, dark environment, the tea will ferment. This is a crucial step in processing cooked pu erh teas. Every day, someone will check the temperature of the leaves, letting in a bit of air if they get too warm. They will also dampen the leaves several times over the forty days or so of ripening, covering them again immediately each time. In the cup, cooked pu erh teas develop notes of wood, undergrowth, caves, damp earth, straw, humus, leather, and liquorice, and it makes me smile to think that these cloths with their shades of brown express the same sense of autumn as the scent bouquet of the teas they cover.
Recently a blogger asked me what my favourite tea was. I couldn’t answer, as is the way every time I’m asked this question. I love so many different teas! How could I choose just one among the most remarkable teas? How could I choose one when they’re all so different? How to choose between a Japanese Ichibancha, for example, a Dan Cong, a Jukro, a Pu Erh Sheng, a Darjeeling AV2, an Oriental Beauty, a Taiping Hou Kui and an Anxi Tie Kuan Yin, to name just a few among my essential favourites? And that’s leaving aside all the other teas that can also be classed among the best in the world! Then there are the less well known ones, which I’m proud to have discovered in regions unknown by connoisseurs, such as Africa, for example.
No, I don’t want to answer that question. I don’t want to choose. Every tea has its moment, its day, time and surroundings. This morning, for example, a cold rainy day in Paris, the day of the American presidential elections, I warmed my body and soul with a Pu Erh Shu, a dark tea with earthy, animal notes; disturbing, powerful notes. A tea that is initially scary; a tea that smells of stables, leather, worm-eaten wood, cellars, moss, undergrowth, humus and decomposing plant material. A tea that nonetheless has a wonderful richness and is special because it improves with age. And that’s what I wish for the new American president: to improve with age.
At this time of year, I particularly enjoy drinking Pu Erh after a meal. Firstly, it is said in China that this tea “dissolves fats” and helps prevent cholesterol. Secondly, I like its aroma of wet earth, rotting wood and damp straw; its smell of cowsheds, mushrooms and oak moss; its aroma of cellars, dry wood, liquorice, manes, wax and flint; its vegetal, fruity smell.
From one Pu Erh to another, the variety of olfactory notes is wide, another reason to try this fascinating group of teas, the only ones that undergo real fermentation. It is available loose-leaf or in a “cake”. It can be “raw” or “cooked”, depending on whether fermentation is done in the traditional manner or accelerated. It can also improve with age, like good wines.
2007 saw the start of a spectacular craze for pu er in China. In the space of a few weeks, this previously barely-known tea became the subject of frenzied speculation, and it took two or three years before prices came down again. Now it seems this same phenomenon is about to be repeated. Once again, the Chinese are queuing up to buy cakes of this tea, which is said to improve with age. As before, the cause is speculation. At the Canton Tea Fair, which has just taken place, we saw pu er cakes selling for over €1,000 each.
When I arrive in Hong Kong I go straight to one of the tea houses; they’re such havens of peace. People go to them to buy old pu er; traditionally, the vendor sits opposite you and, after looking at you for a few moments, puts the water on to boil. They break off a piece of the tea cake, and you talk together about this and that, and about tea of course. You compare the different waters, because the same tea is infused several times over. From one tea to the next, one cake to the next, the minutes – sometimes the hours – pass by, interspersed with the sound of our little gulps: here, tea is drunk from tiny cups, like those used in the Gong Fu Cha.
A student of Yip Wai Man, Eliza Liu has one of these tea houses in the Mongkok district, and teaches her many devoted customers all about tea in an informal manner. Yabo Cha Fang is a friendly place with a special atmosphere, a mysterious charm, like Eliza’s smile which I have captured here, as she crosses her hands in the style of the Mona Lisa.
You can’t serve a slice of Pu Erh “cake” on a plate. Nonetheless, this tea is traditionally consumed on feast days in China.
The Pu Erh cake used to be known as a Tribute tea and would be offered as a gift to the Court, in honour of the Chinese Emperor. It is a tea with a long and venerable past.
La fin de l’année se caractérise souvent par des excès alimentaires puisque dans cette période où l’on se reçoit beaucoup les uns les autres on prend souvent plaisir à cuisiner des mets raffinés à ses amis et à ses proches. Non seulement la qualité mais également la quantité sont dans la plupart des cas au rendez-vous. De mon côté, je n’hésite pas à terminer un bon repas par une tasse voire un bol de thé afin de mieux digérer. J’ignore si ce bienfait est purement psychologique mais il est réel et cela me satisfait ainsi. En Chine, le Pu Erh est réputé convenir le mieux en période de faste. L’une des particularités de ce thé est de fermenter sous couvert pendant 45 jours minimum. Durant ce laps de temps on va contrôler la température, d’où ce thermomètre planté ici dans un tas de feuilles de Pu Er recouvert d’une bâche. Le mercure indique 53 degrés.
I know that your main objective at the moment is to wrap your purchases so they are ready to go under the Christmas tree in a few days’ time. Well, in China there’s a tea called Pu Erh which requires wrapping with just as much care. Pu erh can be bought loose, but it is mainly found in the form of a compressed cake. Having been left to dry on racks, each cake is wrapped in a sheet of printed rice paper, as you can see in this photo. The protected cakes are then wrapped in groups of seven in a dried banana leaf. The tea is then ready to embark on its journey and arrive with you after the festivities, which is just at the right time: in China, Pu Erh is said to lower cholesterol. Rightly or wrongly, it is sometimes known as the “fat-eating” tea.
Are the Chinese right to call Pu Erh the “fat-eating tea” because it apparently aids weight loss and lowers cholesterol? I have no idea, and have to say that I am not particularly interested in the health-giving qualities of dark teas, which I enjoy for their flavour. Pu Erhs have an incredible aromatic richness, taking you through wood and undergrowth, with the whiff of stables, leather and damp straw. A pure delight!
In this photo you can see freshly moulded “cakes” of Pu Erh. This is a green (or raw) Pu Erh, as you can see from the colour of its leaves. It has not been covered for the fermentation process. Depending on the conditions in which it is stored, it can continue fermenting year after year, often improving with age.
This is not a particularly attractive photo, but it will interest fans of Pu Erh. It is quite a rare image, in that until recently it wasn’t easy to get inside Pu Erh factories, and it was even more difficult to take pictures of them. The manufacturing of Pu Erh was supposed to be a secret, or at least it was one of those things that are not revealed to outsiders. Why is this? I don’t know, although I suspect it is due to the fact that there is little visual interest in a tea gradually going mouldy.
Pu Erh is the name for fermented tea. As a reminder, black teas are oxidised, and dark teas (Pu Erhs) are fermented. While we are on the subject, the difference between oxidisation and fermentation is that the former is a process that requires exposure to air, whereas the latter takes place in an environment deprived of oxygen. Now you understand better why these leaves have been deliberately damped down and covered: to allow the tea to ferment for around 45 days. A thermometer, which you can see in the foreground, is stuck through the canvas to check the temperature, which can rapidly reach 50 to 60 degrees centigrade.
This is the fast method. Another time I will tell you about the other method used to make Pu Erh, the slow method…