In China, Fujian is one of the most important tea-producing provinces. Important from a historical perspective, because the first shipments of teas bound for Europe left from its ports; important also in terms of the tea itself, because Fujian is the country’s only province that grows Oolongs and the legendary white teas, as well as green teas, black teas, smoked teas and the finest jasmine teas in the country. It’s an incredible variety.
When I’m invited into farmers’ homes in China, I sometimes find myself confronted by Chairman Mao. I don’t know if he’s worshipped or idolised, but in any case, the offerings and lights are there, beneath his portrait that presides over the main living room. A divine Mao.
Last week I wrote about “rock teas”, because I had just returned from that region of China. When you ask local farmers where the name comes from, some talk about the fact that the tea must be rocked at a particular stage during the processing. But others draw an analogy between the tea’s smooth flavour, its minerality and strength, and the amazing rocks around which the camellias grow.
In China there is a very famous group of teas called “rock teas”. These semi-oxidised teas come from Wu Yi Shan, a mountain range in the north of Fujian province. The best known is Da Hong Pao. You have to taste it at least once in your life to realise what an exceptional tea this is. It has a rare strength and length in the mouth, yet remains subtle. It is fruity, toasted, woody and sweet at the same time.
Calling all smoked teas connoisseurs! It is here, in a Chinese regional park in the north of Fujian province, that all lapsang souchongs were produced for two hundred years. The origins of this tea date back to the 19th century, when a high-ranking Chinese army officer requisitioned the tea factory that stood here before this one, to house his regiment, leaving the farmer no choice but to dry his tea outside, over burning spruce roots. Which is how smoked tea came about.
My selection of first-flush Darjeelings is over, the Nepalese season is in full flow, and then it’s the turn of the new-season China teas, before the first Japanese Ichibancha are ready. Between 1 March and 10 May every year, I can taste more than 100 teas every day, not counting the ones I infuse several times, when I’m deciding between different batches. The peak of this pleasant activity, which I always look forward to, takes place around the end of April. At this time of year, so many samples pile up every morning in the packages sent by express mail from Nepal, India, China and Japan, that I sometimes don’t know which way to turn.
Every year my friend Gary, who lives in Kunming and runs a tea store there, sends me lots of pu erh samples. Raw pu erhs, cooked pu erhs, pu erhs in cake form or loose, pu erhs of every age, from very young to very old. I always look forward to receiving them. I’ve known Gary for more than 20 years. He was young when we met and was working for the state organisation in charge of exporting Yunnan teas. He has an excellent knowledge of all the teas produced in south-west China. Tea is his life.
The process of buying tea in China is not what it used to be. Only 20 years ago only the state had the authority to export tea, and every Chinese tea was given a specific reference. Expert tasters would travel the whole country, visiting each tea factory and tasting each tea before giving it a reference number. For example a Grand Yunnan Imperial was given a grade of 6112.
Things have changed a great deal since then. Today those Chinese experts have gone, no doubt to the private sector, and domestic consumption has increased dramatically. Demand now outstrips supply, pushing prices up. And nobody thinks to remember how it was done 20 years ago.
Feng Huang Dan Cong, or Phoenix Tea, is one of the rarest China teas. Just a handful of farmers, including the Huang family, seen here, whom I was delighted to photograph, process these large leaves whose lingering bouquet evokes flowers, fruits, wood and spices by turn. If you love fine teas you should taste this at least once in your life.
A while ago, in Tunxi in China, I was eating my evening meal in a tea house. Outside it was raining. I used a slow shutter speed to photograph the movement of passers-by, and the reflections of the city on the wet pavements. The window reflected the interior of the establishment. Feeling mischievous, I took a photo of the teapot on the neighbouring table, walking over the silhouettes of people outside.
Tea follows us. It accompanies us. Sometimes we don’t see it but it is near and does us good.
I wish you a very Happy New Year for 2014. I hope you enjoy discovering new flavours. I hope that every day you find a moment of harmony. I invite you to share these moments of happiness with your loved ones. Vivre le thé.