by kate on December 28th, 2012
Canton Tea Club Week 13: Da Hong Pao
Our special guest this week is Benjamin Presland, head of catering for the Tate galleries. Here he introduces his favourite oolong – Da Hong Pao – and tells us why he drinks whole leaf tea.
Ben: With all the talk of the weight-shedding benefits of drinking oolong teas, people are missing the main attraction – the taste. As with green and white teas, it seems to take a health craze or mention of antioxidants to get people trying something other than their favourite builder’s tea.
Oolongs offer some of the most interesting variations in style of any type of tea, sitting somewhere between green and black teas with varying levels of oxidation. Oolong tea may be light and fragrant (green oolong) or deep and highly roasted (dark oolong) or somewhere in between. The flavour profile will depend on the variety of tea plant, the area where the tea is grown and the goals and skills of the tea maker. The finest teas are picked during spring in South Eastern China and Taiwan.
In Taiwan, premium oolong tea tends to be very fragrant, with characteristics similar to green tea. A classic example of this is Li Shan, which is grown in a cool climate and is extremely floral. In mainland China, where the preference tends toward a more roasted style, the oolong teas are more full-bodied with a flavour that lingers longer on the palate. One of the most famous is Da Hong Pao, otherwise known as Big Red Robe, from Wuyi.
The story goes that the original Big Red Robe trees gained their name after a Ming dynasty mandarin stopped in the Wuyi Mountains on the way to Beijing after falling ill. A local monk fed the mandarin a liquor made from the leaves of some tea bushes growing on a cliff. The mandarin returned to Beijing after a miraculous recovery, telling the story to the emperor who immediately sent his scarlet robe to be draped over the trees, protecting them. Three of these trees survive to this day and still produce a small amount of tea each year.
The Big Red Robe tea is picked from tea trees located in the exceptional terroir of the Wuyi Mountains. After picking, the leaves are allowed to wither before being turned in a bamboo drum, bruising the leaves and encouraging oxidation. After rolling, the tea is allowed to oxidise a little more before being fired. Finally, it is dried over warm, soothing charcoal fires. These days, simple-to-manage electric heat is often substituted for charcoal, but the result is never as impressive. This whole process is, of course, rendered pointless without the use of exceptional raw tea leaves.
Da Hong Pao is considered one of the strongest full-bodied oolongs, comparable to an ‘espresso’ in the coffee world. As with all oolong tea it is best drunk using a large amount of leaves over many infusions to bring out the rich aromas and flavours. It has an intense mineral depth with hints of cedar and a very viscous texture. As you would expect with a great wine, this tea draws you in and makes you search for the different flavours.
I was lucky enough to visit a Buddhist monastery near the 400-year-old trees in Wuyi and enjoy the famous Da Hong Pao made by the monks with the local Abbott. He spoke of the importance of the ritual of preparing and drinking tea, how it helps to make the mind quiet and focused. He also talked of the interaction between nature and man and how they are interlinked when producing tea. The knowledge and methods behind the way the tea is made has been developed over centuries and represents local history and culture, while the environment expresses itself in the tea leaves. Through drinking the tea, you are actually in touch with nature, history, culture, past, present and future.
Maybe these teas can offer health benefits but surely the benefits come from enjoying the amazing flavours and aromas and getting back to the ritual that is sometimes forgotten.