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.
I got to know Xuan Dong Wu this summer. I met him in the Ming De factory he manages and where, that day, he was overseeing the withering of the tea leaves with the greatest attention. Xuan Dong Wu loves his job. He has not always been in the tea business. He started out in the army, and fought in the Sino-Vietnamese War in the early 1980s. He then returned to the village where he was born, and where tea provides the majority of work. He makes white teas, pu erhs, and black teas that are considered the best in Yunnan. He likes to introduce new ideas, and is responsible for several of our Mao Chas, the intermediate teas used to made Pu Erh. Xuan Dong Wu is a shy man, and didn’t say much when I asked him what he wanted me to write about him here. He simply told me about his life, and what he likes. He said he likes making tea with his heart and with his efforts, he said he wanted to do his best and make the best teas possible. And then he plunged his hands back into the withering leaves, and didn’t take his eyes off them.
Mao Cha – the raw tea from which Pu Erh is made – increasingly undergoes a rolling stage. Right after the leaves have been withered then heated in a wok, they are placed in a machine that shakes them from side to side, rapidly and regularly. The leaves hit the vertical sides and gradually their shape changes – they curl up gently lengthwise. Rolling takes place with most teas, it shapes the leaves. With green teas, for example, it breaks down the cells and releases the aroma compounds that oxidise or ferment.
La fabrication d’un mao cha se fait en 4 étapes. Rappelons tout d’abord que l’on nomme mao cha le thé qui va servir à fabriquer un pu erh, que celui-ci soit cru ou bien cuit. Précisons également que la façon de faire le mao cha a évolué avec le temps. Un simple flétrissage suivi d’un séchage au soleil est devenu plus complexe au gré des modes et de l’engouement incroyable des Chinois pour leurs thés sombres. Aujourd’hui, voilà comment cela se passe. Après avoir récolté les feuilles, on les laisse se flétrir durant environ 2 heures. Puis on fixe les feuilles au wok (photo) à 200 degrés durant environ 30 minutes. Ensuite, on va rouler les feuilles durant 10 minutes avant de les laisser sécher toute la journée au soleil. En théorie, le mao cha est destiné à être compressé, mais il n’est pas interdit de le déguster tel quel et de savourer ses notes minérales, fruitées, végétales et animales.
Tea has been consumed in China for more than 3,000 years, and it is only in this country that we find such a rich variety. It produces all colours of tea: white, green, blue-green, yellow, black and dark. In China we find a unique culture of terroir: one village might have been following a very specific tradition of tea shaping for centuries, while in the next village the leaves could be processed in a completely different way. Nowhere else in the world do we find such a variety of practices. This photo shows my 2017 selection of “new-season” Chinese green teas, some of which were harvested before the Qingming festival. From left to right: Pre Qing Ming Bi Luo Chun, Pre Qing Ming Long Jing, Pre Qing Ming Bourgeons de Jade, Pre Qing Ming Lu An Gua Pian, Pre Qing Ming Anji Bai Cha, Bai Mao Hou, Mao Feng Premium, Yong Xi Huo Qing, Huang Shan Mao Feng. It goes without saying that just as the size, shape and colour of the leaves differ so much, the tasting experience is equally varied among these premium teas.
For those who want to try spring – or first-flush – teas, here are some tips. Darjeelings harvested in March and April develop sustained floral notes accompanied by a touch of astringency and bitterness. For a combination of brioche and floral aromas, try Nepalese first-flush teas, which are harvested from the start of April. Those who enjoy chestnut, mineral and vegetal notes would do well with new-season Chinese teas. (The rarest and most sought after, and therefore the most expensive, are those known as pre-Qingming teas, harvested before Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day which takes place at the beginning of April). Lastly, for fans of iodine, cut grass and steamed vegetable notes, Japanese Ichibanchas are a pure delight. They are harvested between the end of April and the middle of May. Of course I haven’t covered them all here, and there are other countries to discover, but if we are talking about springtime and nature reawakening, and you want teas that evoke gardens and rising sap, these are the ones I think of first.
Pets are wonderful creatures that can show the greatest humanity at times when our fellow humans may be lacking. We find these friends to be so sensitive and loyal that the description of animal does not do them justice.
In China, all tea connoisseurs and enthusiasts who use the Gong Fu Cha to prepare their brew have one or more “tea pets”. The tea pet is a terracotta figurine placed on the tea boat, over which tea is poured from time to time, to share special moments with it. Over the years the figurine acquires a patina through repeated dousing. The tea pet can be an animal or a human figure, as seen here.
A tea pet, or company being, shares your day-to-day life. Like other pets, it is always in an agreeable mood and is good at listening. You know where to find it. It is always there for you, loyal and happy.
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.