The winter in general and especially the festive season is an ideal opportunity to explore dark teas, which have been fermented. The best known come from Yunnan and are called Pu Erh. They are sold in loose-leaf form or compressed into cakes (see photo). Dark teas undergo a slow ageing process (sheng) or an accelerated one (shu). They are prepared in a teapot or a gaiwan (gong fu method). Pu Erhs give off powerful aromatic notes of wood, undergrowth, spices, damp earth and animal aromas. And if I add that these dark teas are popular in China to help ease the effects of overeating, you’ll understand why this is a good time of year to discover them!
In China, the best jasmine teas come from the Fujian region (photo). They are made using the finest green teas in the province, harvested in April. The jasmine flowers are picked between July and early September. But if we go by volume rather than quality, the biggest producing region is Guangxi. There, they use green tea of a lower quality, while their jasmine flowers from early May to the end of September, hence the high volume, which is double or triple that of Fujian.
Mr Huang is one of millions of Chinese workers who have decided to leave their native region to earn a living elsewhere. It is much easier to find work in the wealthier coastal provinces than in the interior of the country. So every year, Mr Huang leaves Guizhou, where he was born, and where he grows vegetables in a mountain village, and travels to the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian. There, inhabitants’ incomes have increased significantly, and people no longer want to work in the fields, preferring to live in the city. So Mr Huang goes there to work on a wonderful organic plantation. He tends to the tea plants and helps with the harvest from early March until the end of September, before returning to his family in his own province. And every year, he never hesitates to repeat this journey, for a monthly wage of 5,500 yuan.
Smoked tea, or Lapsang Souchong, is a speciality of Fujian. It is not very popular with Chinese people, and so it is exported. European food safety regulations were tightened a few years ago, and it is now very difficult to find a smoked tea that meets those standards. This is not due to specific pesticides, but because of a molecule called anthraquinone that forms naturally during the smoking process. For several years I’ve been encouraging a number of farmers to modify their smoking technique so that their tea can be approved. This is a slow, ongoing process, but there have been some positive results.
This year, I have chosen ten Chinese new-season green teas. They include well-known names such as Bi Luo Chun, Long Jing, Huang Shan Mao Feng, Ding Gu Da Fang and Yong Xi Huo Qing, as well as some rare pluckings. There are three aims with a selection like this: the teas must be exceptional, clean, and offer value for money.
I’ve travelled enough in China over 30 years to know where to find the best teas. However, every year, more and more Chinese people are buying these rare teas, and domestic demand has gone from non-existent to high, which has, of course, pushed prices up. Also, although European standards on pesticide residues are the strictest in the world, which is a good thing, they put off a number of farmers due to the long, costly analysis process involved, first in China, then in France.
So the 2019 Chinese new-season selection features teas that are rare, clean and the best possible value for money. Happy tasting!
Tea can be complicated in that you cannot rely on a name as a gauge of quality, for the simple reason that tea grows in regions which often experience significant variations in weather. This results in variations in quality. One example is that during the monsoon, it rains non-stop for weeks on end, and the tea is obviously not good. A prestigious plantation that sometimes produces remarkable teas in the best seasons is not capable of doing the same during the rainy months. So a prestigious garden can also produce bad teas. This means it’s important for a tea researcher like myself to taste every tea before buying, and never rely on a name. And it’s also important for the customer to be well informed and guided by skilled sales advisers.
For centuries, tea travelled on the backs of donkeys, horses and yaks. There were a number of tea routes. They started at the Chinese provinces that produced compressed teas (Yunnan, Sichuan, etc.) and led to Tibet. In those days, tea was traded for salt or horses.
To perpetuate this tradition today, some people hold re-enactments, and you can watch hundreds of animals file past, carrying cakes of tea.
The world’s finest jasmine teas are produced in August and September in Fujian province (China). They are made using a green tea base, and as the best green teas are harvested in April, the necessary quantity is reserved at the time. The jasmine flowers on the other hand, are picked at the end of summer. Jasmine flowers open in the evening, when they release their fragrance. When this happens, they are placed in layers with the tea leaves, impregnating them with their heady scent. Throughout the night they are mixed together to ensure the leaves have absorbed as much of the fragrance as possible. When day breaks they are separated, before the jasmine flowers turn bitter.
Wen Rong Tian has had two lives: the first as a physical education teacher; the second, which began 27 years ago, as a tea producer. From the first he has kept his love of a healthy life, and follows a daily programme of vigorous exercise and a strict diet. The second came from his father, who managed a tea factory for 20 years. However, son has surpassed father: today, Wen Rong Tian is one of the main, if not the leading, producer of black tea in Yunnan. He makes excellent teas and even claims to have created the famous Yunnan Golden Buds and Golden Needle teas produced in the province. I visited him near Baoshan, where he lives. His passion lies not so much with walking though tea fields as spending all his time tasting his teas and improving production processes. He lives, sleeps, eats and breathes just a few metres from his factory. What gives him the most pride is to make some of the most amazing teas in the world, just from simple leaves. And unlike many Chinese producers, he prefers black teas to green teas, for their generous aromas and smooth presence.
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.