by kate on July 12th, 2013
This blog was originally written by Jane Pettigrew for Canton Tea Club back in 2013
With its instantly recognizable long, thin, flat, sword-like leaves, Taiping tea comes from Taiping county in the stunning Huangshan Mountains of Anhui province and is one of China’s Top Ten Teas. It is thought to have first been made around 1900 and in 1915 it was awarded the Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific International Exposition. The long blades of leaf are from the local ‘shidaye’ varietal (also spelt Shi Da Cha and in Chinese 柿大茶) of the Camellia sinensis and can measure up to 6cm in length. The beautiful, clear, yellow-green liquor has an amazing orchid fragrance and mellow flavour and will generously brew three or four infusions.
Like so many tea-making Chinese villages, Houkeng Village (the place where this remarkable tea originated) is so remote that when I visited a few years ago, it took us several hours to reach the tea slopes. We started off in a coach and at first sped along modern highways at a good speed. But then, the uneven rural roads demanded more cautious progress and so we bumped along at only two or three miles an hour. We then clambered down from the coach and boarded a small river boat that had just offloaded a group of tea brokers who had already been up to the village that morning to buy their tea and were heading off back to town with huge plastic sacks filled with the long green leaves. We glided quietly along the Huaihe River between steep terraced slopes of tea, then disembarked ready for our climb up to the village. Too far and too steep to manage on foot, we waited for tractors to meet us for this final stage of our adventurous journey. While we waited, we made friends with a bunch of the local children who were amused by this unexpected group of pale-faced people and giggled delightedly as they practised the odd few words of English they knew. Once the tractors arrived, we climbed on board and set off on a slow and bumpy ride up the steep mountain track, clinging all the while to a rather insubstantial handrail in an effort not to be shaken out onto the road!
Once in the village, we visited several of the small individual family manufacturing units where the tea is made. Each family employs three or four people and makes only a few kilos of tea each day in the short season. Once the fresh leaf has been plucked from the nearby terraced slopes, it is panned quickly to kill the enzymes that would otherwise allow oxidation to take place. This is done either in a wok or in a sort of hot box that is mechanized to move quickly from side to side so that the leaf is kept moving and only briefly touches the slats of hot dry metal in the bottom. The ‘fixed’ leaf is then handed to a group of workers who are seated in the corner of the room around a table on which there is a wooden frame fitted with a tight wire mesh screen. Nimble fingers quickly straighten out the leaves and place them neatly on the wire mesh. Then another wooden frame, fitted with a matching wire mesh, is clamped tightly to the first so that the leaves are pressed flat between the two screens, and the entire double frame is handed to the tea maker (usually the father of the family) who lays it on a home-made rolling table. The roller is brought down onto the frame and pulled several times across the tea to press the leaves, break the cells in the leaves, squeeze the juices out and thus develop the flavour in the tea. The dried leaf retains the criss-cross pattern of the wire mesh that is pressed down onto the leaves during the rolling process. Once the rolling is finished, the frame, with the pressed leaf still between the two layers of wire mesh, is placed in the charcoal-heated shelf oven to dry. When the tea is ready, the two halves of the wooden frame are unclipped and the tea is placed in large plastic bags ready for the brokers to inspect, taste and buy later in the day.
Brew this elegant tea in a tall glass and watch as the leaves slowly absorb water, gradually come alive and expand back to their bright green fresh state and infuse a wonderful yellowy green-gold hue into the liquor.
I thought I would comment, not so much on the tea, which is of course seriously good, but more generally on the nature of artisan products such as this. Jane has wonderfully described the painstaking and laborious process of production, which involves care and crafsmanship from start to finish, by people totally involved and commited to quality . The result is a world away from any mass produced equivalent. We should thank our lucky stars for the opportunity to enjoy such products and appreciate the difference. Of course, they do normally cost more, but if you can afford the extra it is worth while, and artisan producers are supported. LIke a lot of people I am coming to appreciate the downside of supermarkets, which see quality and value as meaning uniform dullness and paying producers the minimum possible. Long live the artisan producers all over the world, and the indepaendent retailers who sell their products (and particular congratulations to the villagers of Houkeng for this lovely tea!) .
I used up 2/3rds of my supply yesterday. I loved the initial (2 mins) and second (3 mins) infusions, but found that it had faded quite dramatically by the 3rd infusion, but on reflection think that the water was not hot enough.
Very refreshing and cooling, especially with the warm weather at the moment. Beautiful leaves that unfurled releasing their special aroma and taste. For me this was a really enjoyable tea.
I am typing this as I sacrifice my entire supply of this tea into my gaiwan. It looks like no other tea I have seen and the smell of the dry leaf is fresh and floral. is bright and green in the initial infusions, the sweetness following the initial savoury vegetal notes. As I move on to infusion 4 and 5 there is a developing cooling effect which accompanies the sweetness. Very interesting. The timing of these first infusions have been brief, 5, 10, 10, 11, 11 seconds, but plenty of flavour continues to come. Very good. I will update later on when I have exhausted what this tea has within.
After the last post I had to dramatically increase the time of infusion to 1 minute then a couple of infusions at 2 minutes each. The result each time was a pleasant green tea with a sweet aftertaste and a very smooth mouthfeel. Overall a very good tea.