Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Taiwan East Coast Tea Pickers

The focus of this blog is Chinese tea, its successful brewing, appreciation and all the tea culture that tea has inspired.

Today, though, I just want to post a few recent pictures of those brave, strong, happy Taiwanese women who pick our leaves when the sun is high in the sky. Without them, still willing to do a tough manual work, picking leaves one by one, we would have to satisfy ourselves with machine cut leaves. So, if your hand harvested tea is particularly sweet, it's in small part thanks to them.
Most important to them is a good protection against the strong sun.
A well deserved pause after the first round of harvesting. Here comes there second breakfast at 9AM: congee (overcooked rice). This will give them strength to continue the harvest while being easy to digest. And they love it!

Like everywhere else on the planet, most young people don't stay to work in the countryside. Besides, tea picking is very seasonal. So, the farmers are relying mostly on 55+ year old women to harvest their plantations. Most are family related to the farmer or (old) friends with the farmer's wife.

There were some who were shy and didn't want to have their picture taken. But most were happy and proud to show a foreigner what they do and how they look like in their outfits.
Below is the only young harvesting woman I saw in this group. She's a Vietnamese and married a local Taiwanese farmer.
Thanks to all of you and bon appétit!

See also this beautiful picture of a picker in Ali Shan.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dynastie Ming, répétitions

Dimanche dernier, j'ai montré mon set-up pour le Cha Xi inspiré de la dynastie Ming à Teaparker. Comme je m'en doutais, ma théière est un peu trop petite pour symboliser les grosses théières Ming. Il m'a prêté une des siennes, en duanni, pour que je m'entraine cette semaine en vue de notre Cha Xi au Taipei Story House dimanche prochain.

N'ayant pas assez des coupes vertes, j'ai opté pour des imitations de coupes qinghua (bleu sur blanc) d'une forme de la dynastie Ming.
Teaparker m'a aussi prêté 5 Cha Tuo, c'est à dire des soucoupes pour les tasses. Celles-ci sont anciennes et ont un papillon gravé au milieu. Joli symbole pour boire du thé vert léger. On se croirait pousser des ailes!
Un autre changement dans le thé que je préparerai, le Bi Luo Chun de San Hsia de ma sélection. Ayant déjà vendu tout mon stock, j'en ai racheté un autre chez le même fermier: il s'agit d'un Bi Luo Chun qui obtint la seconde place à la compétition de la coopérative locale. Il est très bon, bien plus parfumé.
Cela donne faim ces répétitions!

On ne mange pas durant un Cha Xi, afin de ne pas se mélanger les papilles et se concentrer sur le thé. Mais il n'est pas inhabituel de manger une petite chose gourmande après le thé. Celle-ci me vient du Japon (mais en on trouve des semblables à Taiwan). Sa pâte est faite de pois rouges (hung dou) sucrés. C'est un peu étrange les premières fois, mais après 11 ans ici, je m'y suis habitué.

A la vôtre!

Monday, May 26, 2008

He Gang Ruby Red Tea

He Gang was once a major red tea producing region in Taiwan. This can be traced back to the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), when Japan didn't want to rely on the British to import Indian red teas. But after the second world war, cheaper Indian red teas and an emphasis on Oolong led to a continuous decline of Taiwan's red teas.

Recently, though, red teas are experiencing a strong come back on the East Coast. (I recently showed another example with a red tea that has its leaves bitten by tea jassids).
Today, I'm taking you to a breathtaking tea plantation of ruby (Hong Yu) tea trees. This is the cultivar No. 18 from Taiwan's Research and Extension Station. They obtained this cultivar by crossing a Burmese Assam tree and a Taiwanese wild tea tree. Thanks to its Assam characteristics, this cultivar is very well suited to make red tea.

You can see that the leaves are quite big. The bud is of a lighter color and is very thin. These buds are not very fragrant (contrary to most Oolong or green tea cultivars), so the harvest only happens when the leaves have grown to a certain size, but before they are old and hard. This ruby cultivar plantation in He Gang is a real gem by itself! The trees are growing on a previous field of Jin Zen (gold needle) flowers. These flowers are still growing there, even if they are not harvested, because their presence helps to reduce the proliferation of herbs and other unwanted plants. This way, the trees grow in a natural, organic environment and the farmer spends less effort to maintain the field.
Below, I took panoramic shots all around this plantation. Click on the pictures to enlarge. This gives you a good overview of the field and the surroundings where this tea comes from.

These long, black dry leaves have harvested early April 2008. The dry scents remind me first of a mellow high grade Indian red tea.

For testing, I brewed 3 grams for 5 minutes in a competition set (10 cl). The color I obtained was dark red with a good transparency and white fog on the surface (see last picture below).

The fragrances are rich and complex. I smelled licorice, honey and cinnamon. It reminded me of breakfasts on the Côte d'Azur, when I was a kid, because it also smells warm and mellow, like the morning air in Provence.I found the taste truly remarkable. The tea enters the mouth without any reaction on the tongue. It feels as pure as the plantation where it grows. Then, I feel that it's mellow and sweet. And a fraction of a second later, I also sense a hint of bitterness. The aftertaste is very long. This brew is strong, stronger than my other East Coast reds. Still, thanks to some roasting, this red tea is very sweet and enjoyable without milk or sugar.

To optimize the brew, I recommend to shorten the brewing time a little or use fewer leaves.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ming Dynasty Cha Xi practice

On Sunday 1st of June, 3PM, Cha Ren Ya Xin will perform a Ming dynasty Cha Xi (tea party) at the Taipei Story House (next to the Fine Arts Museum). This time, the Cha Xi is supposed to take place indoors.

Here is my latest set-up that I have thought of for the occasion. Teaparker suggested we use a green Cha Bu (so I made this new one!). The main reason for green is that we will all brew loose green tea (as fits the current spring season). I liked this green cloth, because its dark roughness has a certain 'authentic' depth that should fit an ancient Chinese dynasty quite well.

Silver would be the best fit for green tea, but we thought that silver teapots are not very particular to Ming dynasty. Ming teapots used to be big and roundish in shape. And most were made of clay. Teaparker told us that duanni clay is the best match for green tea. I thought that a harder clay would brew the light fragrances better. So, I compared brewing my San Hsia Bi Luo Chun in the zisha Chun Si and in this 20 cl duanni Yi Li Zhu. And to my surprise, the result with the duanni was nicer. It was rounder and lost less fragrance than I had feared. That's why I decided to use this teapot, the biggest duanni teapot I have (so far).
We will use an old white plate to present the dry leaves. After they are inserted in the teapot, I'm thinking of bringing my second old tetsubin on the Cha Bu.

For this practice, I could use these wonderful handmade Korean tea cups (thanks again to the dear reader who gave them to me). They are really very special with their color variations. And they fit this Cha Xi very well. Unfortunately, I won't have enough for the Story House Event. So, I still need to find other cups until then...

There's another interesting Ming dynasty habit I learned from Teaparker. In those times, each participant would have his own teapot and make his own tea! If you want to make your own Ming dynasty event, this is tradition can help it make it more interactive. But for this Story House event, we will retain the usual format of one brewer and 5-6 drinkers for more convenience with the water (and teapots) preparation.

See also my previous attempt at making a Cha Xi with Ming dynasty inspiration (in French).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cha Bu - créations Tea Masters (4)

Ce quatrième Cha Bu est probablement familier pour ceux qui connaissent déjà le blog de Thomas. La face principale bleue provient d'un tissu japonais. Les motifs ressemblent à des feuilles, des vagues ou des coquillages. Cette confusion nous emmène dans un monde assez féérique et ancien. De plus, la couleur change beaucoup avec la luminosité. C'est un vrai tissu caméléon. Les tons, eux, sont doux comme le toucher.

Pas étonnant que j'en sois déjà à ma seconde version! J'ai effectué deux
changements par rapport à la première:
- le tissu absorbant du milieu est plus dense et donc un peu plus épais. Cela permet d'absorber plus de liquide (l'eau et le thé qu'on renverse toujours un peu durant le gongfu cha),
- la seconde face reste noire, mais c'est maintenant un tissu épais de Taiwan et non un tissu artistique noir japonais. Cela me permet de réduire le prix plus accessible tout en gardant sa fonction réversible qui permet de varier les émotions.
Dimensions: 70 x 52 cm (270 grammes).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Galerie de photos du Xishuangbanna

J'ai le plaisir de vous signaler que Philippe Coste a mis en ligne une galerie de superbes photos prises au Yunnan. Petit rappel: Philippe Coste est l'aimable photographe qui m'avait envoyé plusieurs articles illustréssur le puerh le mois passé. A ne pas manquer!

Thé rouge de Tse Ke Shan (1100 m)

Ma seconde découverte de mon périple sur la Côte Est, est ce thé rouge fait avec du luanze Oolong (qingxin Oolong) cultivé, sans pesticides, sur la montagne de Tse Ke de la Côte Est de Taiwan. L'hiver passé, je vous avais déjà trouvé un thé rouge organique fait avec ce cultivar. Il venait de Nantou, d'une élévation plus basse. (J'avais lancé un concours pour lui trouver un nom, mais le fermier n'arrive pas encore à faire son choix parmi tant d'excellentes propositions).Récolté le 28 avril 2008, Ce thé rouge de haute montagne a la particularité d'avoir reçu la visite de nos minuscules criquets verts (Jacobiasca formosana Paoli). Leur morsures conjugées avec la hauteur de la plantation lui confère un arôme à la fois fin et prononcé. Il est plus proche du thé rouge fait avec Da Ye Oolong, puisque tous deux sont mordus par le même insecte.
Les feuilles sèches sont torsadées. Elles sentent surtout le pain grillé (torréfaction).
L'infusion donne un orange doré d'une bonne transparence. Les odeurs sont plutôt légères pour un thé rouge. Un peu acidulé, mais surtout très sucrées. Miel et melon viennent à l'esprit.

Au niveau goût, le moelleux est très présent. Il a très peu d'amertume. En même temps, je le trouve très vivace en bouche. Et, comme tout bon thé, il a de la longueur qui fait durer le plaisir.

Les feuilles ouvertes sont grandes et un peu abimées. C'est du au processus de fabrication du thé rouge qui est plus long et ardu pour les feuilles que celui du Oolong. Peu de tiges, car ce thé a fait l'objet d'un tri manuel. La couleur des feuilles infusées plusieurs fois tend à redevenir vert foncée. C'est le signe que l'oxydation est 'à point'.

Paramètres de la dégustation: 3 grammes pendant 5 minutes dans un set de compétition en porcelaine blanche.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Organic Red Tea from the East Coast

I'm back from a 3 days trip to the East Coast. On the way, between Su-Ao and Hualien, the views are amazing: high cliffs of dark green forest and rocks falling almost directly in the blue Pacific Ocean. These mountains make Taiwan's East Coast difficult to access. That's why, very few industries have settled here. It's mostly a local tourist destination well know for the Taroko Gorge, aboriginal tribes and delicious tropical fruits.

In recent years, the East Coast has also known a tea revival thanks to several new red teas that have achieved rapid recognition. Many tea plantations in this wonderful setting try to make fully organic tea, like in the picture below. You will notice the presence of lots of grass between the trees. This shows that no herbicides were used on this plantation.What are they harvesting?
They are harvesting the bush's upper leaves that, with some luck, have been bitten by this Xiao Lu Yeh Cong (small green leaf insect) or tea jassid (Jacobiasca formosana Paoli). They are the same small insects that bite Oriental Beauty and Concubine Oolong. Their bites start the oxidation of the leaf early and gives a special flavor to these teas. Therefore, to have a chance to attract these tea jassids, no pesticides can be used on the fields. And when the farmer also only uses natural fertilizer, then the tea is fully organic.
Can you spot the insect on the leaf?

Below are examples of high grade tea buds and leaves that have been bitten by the insects. You see them during their wilting stage under the afternoon sky. You can see how the bites impact the leaves and how some leaves are more bitten than others.

Let's review the batch I selected.

Harvested early April in the fully organic plantation of Da Ye Oolong (second picture above). Da Ye or big leaves Oolong is just the name of the cultivar. These dry leaves are not considered Oolong, because the oxidation is complete. The leaves are indeed quite big and contain few buds.
The color of the brew is orange with brown tones. Very good clarity.

Compared to last year's batch, this one is less aromatic, but sweeter, calmer and with more depth.
The scent reminds me of buttery cookies and melon. Scents of rich fruits and soil.
The sweet and sour opening taste quickly transforms into calm sweetness. The tea slips down the mouth and throat without encountering resistance. The mellow aftertaste lingers. Now, I also smell some of the roasting (baked bread).
For the tasting in a competition set, I used 3 grams for 5 minutes. A sign of high quality, this tea performed very well during long brews. Beside the aroma, this is another amazing feature of these Taiwan reds: they can brew long and remain sweet like Oolongs (and unlike most non-Chinese reds I know). I recommend brews of several minutes with this tea. Use the weight of the tea to adjust the concentration you want.

Note: Thanks to closer ties with this farmer, I will try to obtain a more aromatic batch closer to last year's. New harvests were under way this weekend, as you can see.
Note 2: French readers may also want to refresh their memory with last year's article.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Water from different kettles

In Japanese, 'Chanoyu', the tea ceremony, actually means hot water for tea. This is a powerful reminder how important hot water is when we make tea. Each water has different minerals and tastes a little different. But does it also matter which kettle we use to heat the water?

From left to right: a stainless kettle, my Lung Wen Tang tetsubin, my silver kettle, my (cracked) Dragon tetsubin.
Experiment background:
- Same mineral water ('Yes', from Taiwan),
- Heating with gas up to boiling point at the same time on my kitchen stoves,
- Same 'singing' cup to taste the waters
- Unable to do this experience in 'blind' conditions, I have repeated the experiment 1 week later.

- Each cup of hot water tastes different. The differences are big enough to be noticed quite easily. What were those differences?
- The stainless kettle produced a water that was more closed. I felt the stainless steel left a somewhat unpleasant, unnatural taste. In this experiment it wasn't too bad, because the water didn't stay in the kettle very long. I experiment this unpleasant taste with water coming from a stainless 'always on' hot water fountain.
- The old tetsubin makes a rounder, more lively, not closed hot water. The slight iron taste brings more body and sweetness to the water.

However, it has some odd, old smells. I also noticed that there are some iron deposits at the bottom of my cup (I didn't drink those). This is quite normal, because I have just bought this pot and it accumulated some smells during years of storage and lack of use. One week is not enough to get rig of those. I need to continue using it regularly.

I also noticed that the vendor had placed some charcoal inside the kettle. I should probably do the same with my bamboo charcoal when I'm not drinking.

- The silver kettle gave me the water with the fewest alterations. It tasted very pure, light and 'fresh', vibrant (as opposite to closed).

I also noticed that the water from this kettle was the hottest. This is consistent with the fact that silver is more thermoconductive than other materials.

(I also tasted the waters after letting them cool down and comparing them to the cold mineral water).

- The dragon tetsubin also had a sweet iron taste, but it felt a little less round than with the old tetsubin. (Maybe it's because this tetsubin is modern or because I recently overheated it.) I also noticed a strong and bad small of licorice. Its water didn't use to smell bad. What happened? After the second failed attempt to cure the crack, I have purchased another tetsubin. Since then, I had put back the dragon tetsubin in its original box, next to my stash of medicine. And this first aid closet smells very much like this licorice smell! So, within a week, the tetsubin has picked up these bad smells (iron is somewhat porous). A week later, after keeping it outside, this bad smell is still there. (I should have opened the cover! I have done so now).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tetsubin, on craque

English summary: my repaired tetsubin is leaking again, after two repairs. The first time, it held quite long (2 months), but less the second time. Also, after the second repair failed, the water seemed to leak even faster. I probably didn't let it dry long enough (I was too thirsty!). Anyway, now I had the perfect excuse to upgrade to an older tetsubin!

Ma tetsubin dragon a craqué et je l'avais réparée. Le premier colmatage avait bien tenu pendant 2 mois, mais le second seulement 2 semaines. En plus, au lieu de suinter, l'eau commençait carrément à couler par cette craquelure!

Pour me remettre de cette perte, j'ai décidé de m'équiper d'une tetsubin ancienne. J'ai d'abord hésité entre ces 5 tetsubins de la période Meiji (1868-1912) au Japon.
Finalement, j'ai craqué pour pas une, mais 2 tetsubins: la première et la troisième sur la photo ci-dessus! Aujourd'hui, je vous montre celle du milieu, la plus petite:

D'après la calligraphie sous le couvercle en cuivre, celle-ci est faite par Lung Wen Tang. Situé à Kyoto, l'atelier de Lung Wen Tang a été créé en 1867. C'est l'un des ateliers les plus célèbres de la période. C'est lui qui a lancé la mode du couvercle en cuivre/bronze, par exemple. (C'est donc aussi celui pour lequel il y a le plus de faux.) Plusieurs de ses apprentis ont ensuite créés leurs propres ateliers avec des noms du style X Wen Tang.

Selon ce que j'ai pu lire sur le sujet entre-temps, Lung Wen Tang est surtout connu pour faire des tetsubins avec des formes ou des ornements spéciaux. Celle-ci m'apparait trop sobre pour être authentique, à moins que cette forme atypique ovale soit de lui. Mais l'important est qu'elle me plaise esthétiquement et fonctionnellement.

Les premières tetsubins datent de 1780 environ. A l'époque, on a simplement ajouté une anse et un bec verseur au cha fu, le pot en fonte dans lequel on chauffait l'eau, puisé avec une louche en bambou, pour la cérémonie de thé japonaise traditionnelle. Ce modèle à droite est un bon exemple de la forme de ces premières tetsubins. Mais ces tetsubins sont aussi très lourdes. Aussi, l'un des critères pour la qualité d'une tetsubin est son poids. La fonte est un matériau lourd et peut donner l'impression d'un haltère, surtout lorsque la bouilloire est pleine d'eau. Or, quand on fait son thé, on n'a pas vraiment envie de crisper son bras pour verser de l'eau chaude!

C'est pourquoi, j'ai choisi ma tetsubin pour sa finesse: elle ne pèse que 980 grammes pour 65 cl.

Un autre endroit central d'une tetsubin est le haut du couvercle. Lorsqu'on fait rapidement tourner cette boule, elle se refroidit et il est alors plus facile d'ouvrir le couvercle chaud.

Chez Lung Wen Tang, le couvercle est en bronze ou en cuivre, mais on peut aussi trouver des petits ornements en argent, voire en or, sur les couvercles d'anciennes tetsubins. L'utilisation d'un différent matériau que la fonte opère un joli contraste des couleurs et est plus agréable au toucher.

Sous la tetsubin, on a le 'nombril' de la bouilloire. Le fond, en contact avec le feu, est renforcé et constitué de plusieurs couches de métal. L'artisan fait exprès de laisser un peu d'espace entre ces couches afin qu'elles vibrent lorsqu'elles chauffent. Cela accentue le chant de l'eau frémissante.

Précautions d'emploi: ces tetsubins anciennes sont plus fragiles. Il vaut mieux utiliser un feu moyen diffus (la lampe à alcool est à proscrire). Ne pas rajouter d'eau froide dans la tetsubin chaude à vide.
Ne pas boire l'eau si elle est trouble ou remplie de résidus. Pour éviter cela, le mieux est de l'utiliser régulièrement. Et pour la sécher après chaque utilisation, il suffit de la vider quand elle est chaude et d'enlever le couvercle.