In Taiwan and in some regions of China, tea is prepared according to the Gong Fu method. This requires a very small teapot, smelling cups, tasting cups and a tea boat, a hollow vessel into which you pour the water used to rinse the tea and the cups.
The Gong Fu method consists of infusing the same tea leaves repeatedly for just a few seconds at a time. Each infusion, known as “water”, releases new aromas, until there are no more.
This method is particularly appropriate for the preparation of certain Wu Long or Pu Er teas. On Sunday I tasted a 2008 Pu Er Xiao using this method: it was a real treat.
If you want your tea plant to produce plenty of leaves, you need to take good care of it. Every five or ten years, for example, it will require pruning to a greater or lesser extent, to keep the plant in healthy condition. If it requires “hard” pruning, the main stems of the bush are cut back in the autumn to around 10 cm off the ground. It’s quite a sight to behold on a large scale: everything is grey and appears burnt, as if fire has ravaged the mountainside. It looks quite depressing. But a few months later, the plants are bursting with life again as their beautiful pale green shoots herald the arrival of spring.
Does tea help the kidneys work better? Does it aid weight loss? Fight cancer? Do some teas contain more or less theine? These were some of the questions posed by the audience in the French television programme “Allo Docteurs”, which I appeared on last week. A nutritionist was also in the studio to answer health-related questions.
It’s always good to know that tea is a healthy drink. “A little tea every day keeps the doctor away,” say the Chinese. However, as far as I’m concerned, the most important quality of tea is the gastronomic pleasure we derive from it.
As I don’t have a photo showing the condition of the arteries of a regular tea drinker, I’m instead showing you this hand reaching for a cup, which I think perfectly reflects the pleasure of drinking tea.
I stand back to let the little Darjeeling train past, the famous “Toy Train”. I do so quickly as it isn’t always easy to know which direction it is travelling in. The whistle blows and amidst a terrible racket, here it is starting to gather speed. It is manoeuvring right in the middle of the street, surrounded by people and traffic. We can guess from the tense face of the driver, who has his back to the engine and is steaming straight ahead, that it isn’t an easy task.
During the winter months, tea plants grow very little, if at all. So this is the time to work on maintaining the fields, such as in the wood park, for example. The term “wood park” denotes an area planted with bushes from which cuttings are taken. The plants are therefore chosen with great care. Each parent tea plant, like here in the wood park at Namring Tea Estate (India), can provide between 50 and 300 cuttings a year.
I’ve witnessed a curious spectacle in the streets of Hong Kong on many occasions in recent days. A large, peculiar-looking animal performs all sorts of contortions and dances, surrounded by percussionists playing the cymbals and other instruments. Then it rises up on its hind legs and stands very tall, to the roar of the drums which gains in intensity to increase the air of excitement. It then gulps down a bunch of vegetables hanging high in the air, before spitting out the leaves a few moments later.
The lion’s dance is part of the Chinese New Year festivities. In Hong Kong, no shop or hotel misses out on a visit from this strange creature. Inside the beast are two Gong-Fu experts, and this exercise demands great skill.
With the cold you are battling in France at the moment, you need to keep warm. Always have to hand a kettle filled with fresh water, for example, a singing kettle whose song warms the soul and lifts the spirits.
A song calling you for tea.
Everywhere in India you see tea vendors in the streets and on the roadsides. With a kettle purring over what are sometimes simple wood fires, they are always busy. On the roads of the Himalayas, they might set up stall on the corner of a rock. You squat down next to the vendor and take your time sipping the scalding blend of tea, milk and spices. You simply take time to do yourself some good.
When I arrive in Hong Kong I go straight to one of the tea houses; they’re such havens of peace. People go to them to buy old pu er; traditionally, the vendor sits opposite you and, after looking at you for a few moments, puts the water on to boil. They break off a piece of the tea cake, and you talk together about this and that, and about tea of course. You compare the different waters, because the same tea is infused several times over. From one tea to the next, one cake to the next, the minutes – sometimes the hours – pass by, interspersed with the sound of our little gulps: here, tea is drunk from tiny cups, like those used in the Gong Fu Cha.
A student of Yip Wai Man, Eliza Liu has one of these tea houses in the Mongkok district, and teaches her many devoted customers all about tea in an informal manner. Yabo Cha Fang is a friendly place with a special atmosphere, a mysterious charm, like Eliza’s smile which I have captured here, as she crosses her hands in the style of the Mona Lisa.