Having travelled around the region where Pu Er is grown, I moved further south, to Laos. There, I discovered, halfway between Paksé and Paksong, on the Boloven plateau, a small-scale factory making a very good black tea with aromas of cooked fruits, leather and spices, which will delight fans of Grand Yunnan Imperial.
Curiously, the tea plants here grow in the middle of coffee plantations. In fact, to enable the local rural population, who earn very little, to generate some extra income, the Lao Farmers Association has taught them how to grow tea, and has opened a cooperative whose purpose is to support the community rather than to make a profit.
As I walked for a few hours among the tea plants and luxuriant vegetation, I noticed two things in particular: the bomb craters left by the Vietnam war, and also the incredible number of leeches you must pull off as you walk. Not only do they climb up your shoes and trousers, but the creatures even manage to drop out of the sky, or rather, the trees, and land all over you, even in the palm of your hand.
In many of the countries I travel in, the water is not safe to drink unless it is boiled first. So people always have water on the boil, day and night, at home, at work, in the shops, and even on the road, like here, al fresco.
Just after arriving in Sudianlisuzuxiang in Yunnan, while some of our party went off to pluck the birds and others cut fine sticks of bamboo on which to grill the meat, I lit the fire to make tea. On this high and peaceful plateau, once we had eaten our fill and drunk our Pu Er, we stretched out on the grass for a nap. Except for one, who took a stroll with his water pipe.
Kyoto is undoubtedly a traditional city, but that does not exclude a certain sense of fun. I have chosen these happy Japanese women, who must sometimes wear less classic outfits than these, to be my ambassadresses in wishing you a wonderful year in 2011, a year in which we might allow ourselves to express our “joie de vivre” in front of a passing photographer, a year in which we might take the time to observe such delicate things as the petals of cherry blossom.
In the West, tea is often prepared in a teapot, usually containing between 50cl and 150cl of tea. In Asia, however, where tea is very popular, the use of a teapot of this size, or even of a teapot at all, is not as common as here. In China, for example, where there are probably the most number of tea drinkers on the planet, tea is traditionally drunk from a zhong (a small bowl with a lid) or from tiny cups filled from a tiny teapot. These utensils – some of which you can see in this photo – comprise what is called Gong Fu Cha.
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.