Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Thoughts on China and tea

Shanghai skyline by night
There are many things that can I could criticize about China, and my first criticism would be that it's not possible to write and publish a blog post like this one as long as you are behind the "big firewall"! But let me start with some positive words about what I saw. The development of the cities (Shanghai, Suzhou) I visited is more than impressive. In the matter of a generation, 30 years, the country has gone from third world to first world. The ride across Shanghai took an hour and there were only recent, big buildings along the way! It's one thing to read about the economic rise of China, it's another to actually see how modern and affluent the country and many of its people have become.
Old town of Luzhi, near Suzhou
A lot has been destroyed and rebuilt anew. However, I was pleasantly surprised that some ancient parts of town have been well preserved and restored. This was the case in the old streets of Luzhi and in the Humble Administrator Garden of Suzhou. Beautiful places!
Old street/canal in Luzhi
I haven't spent a lot of time in China (3 short stays in 3 different provinces in the last 3 years), so I give you these impressions without pretending to be an expert on China's rapid development.
Humble Admninistrator Garden
That's why I would like to also give you the perspective of my Taiwanese brother in law who has spent the last 15 years as an engineer in the booming construction industry. His major criticism is the lack of quality in all this development. Fake products abound: cheap USB sticks that only work for a couple of days (!), fake luggage, sold in an official shop (!), that rips after 2 months (it's when he wanted to use the warranty that Samsonite realized that the bag he bought in their shop was a fake), recent buildings that collapse a few weeks after inspectors declared them safe... Appearances are everything. Quality is always low compared to our standards. The house we stayed in is 15 years old only, but requires a lot of maintenance every year, because it's original quality is so poor. That's one reason why buyers systematically prefer to build a new house rather than renovating the old.
Humble Admninistrator Garden
This low quality in all their products makes sense for a country where the majority of people still have low incomes. The problem is that this low quality has become a way of doing business there. Even high prices don't mean better quality, only better packaging. It must look expensive is more important than quality and value.

2003 wild Yiwu puerh
All my Taiwanese tea friends strongly dislike going to China, but often their jobs don't give a choice. The teas they are bringing back and share are getting more and more expensive and their packaging is now much nicer that what we're used to in Taiwan. However, the teas are usually very disappointing.

In our most recent class, Teaparker let us taste a young raw puerh he received from a rich Chinese connection from a luxurious tea room filled with (real) antiques and overseeing a beautiful lake. The cake looked nice with lots of rather big tips and a strong flowery scent. Did I mention it's supposedly made from leaves from a single tree?
When we brewed this puerh, nobody in the class liked it. The taste wasn't smooth or pure at all. I felt a shrinking of my throat, the natural reaction of the body when it rejects something. The smell was still very strong and reminded me of scented jasmine tea. After everybody expressed his tasting opinion, Teaparker confirmed that this puerh was indeed a highly priced and deceptive puerh: the buds were not old arbor and the leaves had been artificially scented! It's a good example of how price and quality don't necessarily increase in parallel in China. 
Back at home, I'm brewing one of my favorite puerh: the wild raw spring 2003 Yiwu cake. Its taste is sweet, smooth and pure. The dry scents are faint, but they become alive in the brew. The aftertaste is very long and harmonious. It's naturally simple and delicious. It's getting more expensive with time, but here we have a rise that is justified by its improvement in taste. That's a solid foundation for real growth. Tea teaches you to disregard packaging, stories and price. What counts is the intrinsic quality of the taste and scents.
Always be cautious in China and when drinking tea!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Harvest Moon 7542 puerh Chaxi

Spring 1997 Menghai Tea Factory 7542 puerh
The Harvest Moon is the September full moon closest to the autumnal equinox. This year, it coincides with the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival. It's arguably the second most important festival in Chinese culture (after the New Year). It's not just a celebration of the harvests, but also a celebration of friendship and family, a time when people are coming together in harmony. This is the deeper meaning of the perfectly round and bright moon.

That's the reason why I'm using so many round accessories on my Chaxi. They are displayed on a dark (night) background. It almost seems that you can see the moon rising!
For this special occasion, I'm particularly thankful to brew an aged Menghai Tea Factory 7542 cake from 1997. The scents of the cake are intense camphor, old wood, incense and dark cave. It doesn't smell like 19 years of age, but closer to 30 or 40 years! Taiwan's climate seems to have performed miracles with these leaves. The tea is clean, crisp and energetic, but aged at the same time.
 The brew has the color of the Harvest Moon as it rises above the horizon!
The celebration of friendship on this festival is the occasion of giving gifts, preferably round like this moon cake or the pomelo: 
A round cup of puerh is also a fitting Full Moon festival gift, especially when the taste is so thick, pure and long lasting. It has a richness and depth that no other tea has (when using so few leaves). It brings a tickling feeling to the palate. The whole body feels warm and relaxing. Fantastic!
By the way, this 7542 puerh is a perfect match for this moon cake, because its strong aromas mix nicely with the rich flavors of the cake. The aftertaste of the tea prolongs the creamy and sweet tastes of the cake.
The mid autumn festival is also reward and celebration for the hard work done during the harvests of fall. While most of us don't work in fields anymore, autumn is still a time of busy work after the relaxing summer season. As the temperatures drop, a good cup of puerh provides warmth and energy. And an aged puerh will have the dark color and round feeling of the Harvest Moon!
Enjoy the dark autumn nights when your aged puerh is shining in bright cups!
Engraving found in Suzhou's Humble Administrator Garden

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Morning Beauty during summer vacation

This Chaxi was one of the highlights of my summer vacation on Taiwan's Pacific coast. I brewed a high oxidized Oolong, the type of tea I typically choose for the morning. For this trip, I had my 2013 summer Oriental Beauty.

Since it's not possible to bring all my teas along, I usually restrict myself to 4 or 5: a high mountain Oolong or 2, a Hung Shui Oolong, a raw puerh and a high/full oxidized tea. As for the setup, I have downsized it to a gaiwan, 3 dragon cups, a mini display plate, a Chabu and 3 Chatuo (made of fabric). (A gas heater and stainless kettle are always in the trunk of my car). The lack of Jianshui (waste water bowl) is remedied by emptying the water on the ground directly (when outdoors).
The Chaxi seems even simpler than usual. It's a nice contrast with the lush surroundings. There's the Pacific Ocean on my left:
And mountains in front of me and on my right. The surroundings are one of the main source of change for the vacation Chaxi. That's why it's not a big problem if the setup itself doesn't change much.
Brewing the same Oriental Beauty every morning (during the vacation) may seem repetitive, but it's possible to vary the way you brew it. I usually brew few leaves with long steeps, but I also experienced using more leaves and shorter brews on this trip.
In the morning, outdoors, more leaves allow for stronger brews that can rival in strength with the power of the light, color, scents of this amazing location. The other advantage is that you make plenty of tea to drink at a moment when you are thirsty after a night's sleep.
A high leaf to water ratio requires faster action to empty the gaiwan. It's still a skill to do this without splashing much liquid on the Chabu!
If you have time for slow tea, fewer leaves are probably preferable because this way you can afford better ones! However, during this vacation, I have experienced a time when lots of leaves and a short brewing time is an excellent thing: in a restaurant that doesn't provide big teapots. When all you have is boiling water 15 meters away from your table (near the buffet area) then it's ideal. Within seconds your tea is ready to be poured! When food is the main focus, the tea should be as simple and fast as possible.
High quality teas have a greater tolerance for brewing variations. They'll taste good light or strong. The right degree of concentration will vary from person to person, the time of day, the season... This is what you need concentration for when brewing tea: finding when the tea is ready for your taste. 
This traditional 2013 Oriental Beauty from Hsin Chu is not as tippy and lightly fragrant as competition grade OBs. Its scents are deeper, ripe fruity and perfume like, but not overwhelming. What I really like about it is its clean, sweet and rich mouthfeel. It even has some refreshing aftertaste when done right!
In the morning, it's powerful, warm and soft on the stomach. It warms me up with its golden brew!
It's my daily connection to nature and beauty!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Vacances pacifiques

La côte Est de Taiwan, entre Hualien et Taitung offre des paysages magnifiques: falaises et précipices côté terre, et océan Pacifique indomptable côté mer.
L'arrivée d'un tourisme de masse de Chine Populaire a permis la création de nouveaux hôtels ces dernières années, mais la meilleure façon de découvrir la beauté de cette partie de l'ile consiste à louer une chambre dans une petite résidence privée.

Cette propriété-ci dispose d'un grand terrain entre mer et montagne. Un grand bloc de pierre au pied d'un arbre m'offre un lieu tout indiqué pour un Chaxi matinal plein de fraicheur.

Je choisis d'infuser ces quelques feuilles d'Oolong de haute montagne, de Shan Lin Xi. D'habitude, en extérieur, j'utilise plus de feuilles, mais je n'ai pas encore pris mon petit dej'... L'autre avantage, c'est que j'ai le temps (vacances!) et que je peux donc faire quelques de longues infusions avec ces quelques feuilles avant de passer à un second thé! (Avec plus de feuilles, je pourrais faire tellement d'infusions que je n'aurais plus assez soif pour un différent thé).

Les longues ombres et la présence de la lune (en haut à gauche sur la photo ci-dessous) montrent qu'il est encore tôt!
Il fait rapidement chaud sous les rayons du matin, mais j'ai la chance d'avoir cette place à l'ombre d'un grand arbre rempli de cigales. La fraicheur et la douceur du Oolong de Shan Lin Xi résonnent longtemps en harmonie avec ce spectacle de la nature.
Finesse des arômes, des couleurs et du toucher de la porcelaine. Le thé fait lien entre l'extérieur et l'intérieur. C'est une façon de créer un moment magique et unique pour mieux se rappeler de ses vacances d'été (quand l'automne pointe son nez),

Thursday, September 08, 2016

East Formosa vacation

Qingxiu temple in Jian township, near Hualien
In the early 20th century, Japan promoted the 'Formosa Oolong tea' brand while it occupied the island (1895-1945). During my vacation on the East Coast of Taiwan, I visited this well preserved  Japanese Shinto temple. It is a beautiful reminder of Japan's presence on the East Coast until 70+ years ago.
On the East coast, the Japanese developed the production of rice, sugar and wood logging. There was no significant tea production during the Japanese era on the East Coast, but this would change today, as you'll see at the end of this post.
The Japanese didn't just appreciate the fertile lands between Hualien and Taidong, they also loved the the beauty of the majestic Taroko gorges. See this picture:
The Taroko gorges are located at the end of the mountain road that leads from Lishan, Da Yu Ling to the East Coast of Taiwan. It is the end of the central cross-island mountain highway.
On the right hand, in the middle of the next picture (click to see the details), you'll see cars on that road. This will give you a scale to appreciate the size of these huge cliffs.
The Taroko gorges offer lots of trails and walking possibilities. The lush landscapes of tall mountains, frentic rivers and huge rocks are majestic.
You might even come across a group of monkeys jumping from branch to branch in the dense forest!
The last sight on the way out of the gorges is the Eternal Spring (Changchun) shrine built in 1958 to honor the 212 workers who died building the cross-island central highway.
It's not a small monument, but it is dwarfed by the size of the mountains. This could be a classic Shan Shui painting
After Taroko, let's have a look at the other beautiful East Coast landscape: the Pacific Ocean! There are stunning views along the coast:
View from Baqi
The steepest cliffs plunging in the ocean are found along the dangerous road between Suao and Hualien:
Between Suao and Hualien
The East Coast is where most earthquakes occur in Taiwan. That is where the Eurasian plate meets the Philippine plate. What I didn't know (before this trip and a visit to Taitung's National Museum of Prehistory) is that the stretch of land on the east coast of Taiwan actually belongs to Philippine plate, while the west coast and the mountains in central Taiwan belong to the Eurasian plate.
This explains the very different landscapes between western and eastern Taiwan. Add the large presence of Aborigines on the East coast and you feel more a Pacific than a Chinese culture!
Ba Xian caves
The sun is particular strong around noon in summer. Like prehistoric humans, we were glad to find shade in the Ba Xian caves, a prehistoric site.
The mountains are covered by a jungle that is difficult to penetrate.
North of Taitung
The site of this home stay is wonderful:
The forest and the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other:
In another article I will show the morning Chaxi I made at this location! But now it's time to visit some tea fields. South of Ruisui township we can see the Tse Ke mountain, the origin of this fine spring 2015 red and this summer 2016 competition grade red.
TseKe mountain
Ruisui is famous for being crossed by the Tropic of Cancer, just like JiaYi on the west coast. This means that it is at the same latitude as the Alishan!
Da Yeh Oolong plantation in Ruisui
The summer season is a peak season for red tea harvests. We were lucky to arrive on time to see these harvesters at work.
You can see weed growing between the tea trees. The farmer produces organically, because his red tea will have a better honey fragrance if the leaves are bitten by the green jassids (jacobiasca formosana paoli).
The most suitable cultivar for this red tea process is the Da Yeh Oolong. The big breakthrough for this tea came 10 years ago, in 2006. The farmer won the 'best tea in the world' at an international competition (held in Taiwan). Many Oolong producers were stunned. How could a red tea beat them on their own turf?
This red tea is actually a clever innovation. It is built on the traditional principles of Oriental Beauty (organic farming, insect bite, high oxidation), but it is adapted to a cultivar and process that is better suited for the Pacific terroir of the Taiwan's East Coast.
I hope you've enjoyed my summer vacation pictures. Stay tuned for more in the coming week.