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…
In the past, Pu Er cakes were compressed by hand using a large stone with a handle and convex underside to weigh down the leaves.
Today, it is carried out in a similar manner. Once the tea leaves have steamed, they are wrapped tightly in a cloth. They are then compressed mechanically, as you can see in this photo taken in a suburb of Kunming, at the Gu Dao Yuan Tea Factory.
Traditionally, Pu Er tea is sold in “cake” form that weighs 357 grams. Here, you can see the first stage in the manufacturing process: the woman weighs the tea to the nearest gram, then tips the exact quantity into a metal cylinder with a perforated base, which she places above a source of steam. On contact with the steam, the tea leaves soften and are then are ready to be compressed.
The Pu Er plantations are not an easy place to visit, but they are worth it. The tea leaves used to make Pu Er grow in the remote regions of Yunnan, mainly in Simao, Lincang, Xishuangbanna and near Da Hong. It was Da Hong I visited this month, an experience I shall never forget. Da Hong is an hour’s flight from Kunming, which is nothing, but you then need to drive for at least eight hours to see the famous tea plants. At first you drive along a motorway under construction, so all you see is the golden dust thrown up by the vehicle in front. Visibility is reduced to just a few metres, and what’s more, you have to swerve around all the potholes. These testing conditions last for a good 100 kilometres, and you must hurry as the road closes at a set time to let the bulldozers in. If you arrive at the barricade too late, you have to do a U-turn and try again the next day. But if you get past all these obstacles in one piece, a magical landscape awaits you the other end. With the altitude, the air cools, and the stunning mountain drive makes you forget what came before. The vegetation changes, conifers appear, and then you come out onto the magnificent high plateaux.
Buffalo and horses roam free, and donkeys cross the pretty paved road whenever they feel like it. It gives you an overwhelming sense of freedom. It is time to take a break. It is a long road to Pu Er. The day has been exhausting, so we walk a little, filling our lungs with the pure air we lacked during the day, and allowing our gaze to wander to the distant horizon. Tomorrow we will be back on the road and cross a few more mountains to reach Su Dian, a few dozen kilometres from Myanmar. There, waiting for us, are people who are little known outside their region.
The harvesting of leaves used to make Pu Er is interesting. Here, in the west of Yunnan near the border with Myanmar, the tea plants are left in a semi-wild state, and the plucking consists of a walk through the forest. Instead of keeping the tea plants cropped at a convenient height for harvesting, as is usually the case, they are left to grow into trees, or always have been, and the workers walk around them to pluck the bud and the next two leaves, as is the practice with all other teas.
If you ever go to Xishuangbanna (I wish you to because this region of southern Yunnan (China), watered by the Mekong, offers landscapes of great beauty), you might see these mats set on the ground, on which tea is dried.
This is the first step in the making of the famous Pu Er, both considered great for some, terrifying for others, because of its strong smell. Here however, it’s only the first stage of production: the leaves wither in the sun for 24 hours, giving off a delicious perfume. It’s only later, when the same leaves will ferment 45 days that their smell will change considerably. I’ll talk to you again later about it. Meanwhile, enjoy this Xishuangbanna I love, this Celestial Garden as they sometimes call it, with its mountains covered by jungle, its breathtaking gorges. It is both wild and calm. In this part of China, we can really breathe.
In China, in Yunnan province where they produce Pu Er, tea plants are sometimes left to grow into proper trees. It is thought that the leaves of these “wild” tea plants are better. But this makes harvesting perilous: the pluckers have to climb a ladder into the tree and harvest buds and tea leaves, while remaining balanced on the top. Impressive.