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.
The mountains covered with tea plants rise so high and the clouds sometimes fall so low that there is no room left for the sky. The clouds cover the green blanket of tea plants with mist, envelop them in a layer of cotton wool, caress them, and then disappear. I could stay for hours, in each tea field I walk through, contemplating the beauty of the landscape. And the more I climb, the greater the reward. Tea doesn’t grow above 2,000 to 2,200 metres, but at those altitudes the views are breathtaking. If the mist lets you see them.
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.
It’s true that preparing tea consists simply of placing tea leaves in contact with water, an encounter that produces a delicate, fragrant drink. The process can be more or less simple, more or less delicate. In China, in the space of barely 20 years, preparing tea using the gong fu method, which is slow and controlled, has become incredibly popular. It is often young women who perform the task. They are always elegant, and every movement is carried out with precision. We can admire their agile fingers that trace beautiful smooth arcs in the air before depositing a few drops of the precious nectar into your tiny cup.