Monday, June 25, 2007

TREASURE ISLAND: A Voyage to Taiwan [ii]

The next day, Will met me right after breakfast to take me to the Green of T, a tea-house and restaurant that is up a flight of stairs from its quiet street. The unprepossessing wooden door has a color photograph that announces precisely what awaits upstairs. Here Mr Tsay, the young manager, let us in and guided us upstairs, in preparation for the arrival of Will's childhood friend, the well-known artist and tea-master Alex Bai. Soft, calming music began, and we were seated on low benches at a long table of thick planks of old wood. Clustered everywhere, though without oppressive clutter, were ceramic pots and storage vessels of all shapes and sizes, some of them manifestly very old.

The mid-morning sun sifted softly through the slats of the venetian blinds at the windows. The air was already hot and humid, so while we were waiting for Alex, Mr Tsay poured us each a cup of very cold pale tea with a bit of ice in it. A single sip revealed a most refined, refreshing flavor. What was this tea, Will asked? A 50-year-old pu'er, replied Mr Tsay: because of the hot climate of Taiwan, he has developed the custom of taking the used leaves of aged pu'ers, and simmering them slowly, so as to extract their remaining essence. This simmered liquid was then iced for our pleasure. (Mr Tsay's simmering pot is a 砂銚 sha diao, a replica of the Qing-dynasty vessel used for boiling herbs for TCM.) The tea was more subtle than any pu'er I have tasted: presumably both its age and its previous infusions had divested it of any assertiveness. What remained was a brew of indescribable delicacy, as refreshing as any iced tea I have ever had. And of course hearing the purported age of this tea made for an arresting first event of the morning's session.

In preparation for the imminent arrival of Alex Bai, who indeed was Mr Tsay's teacher, the latter set up a small stove (with spirit lamp) and a kettle to heat the water. This kettle, of solid silver, was heating constantly during our session, and replenished with water repeatedly (and infinitely discreetly) by Mr Tsay. So smooth was the collaboration that only later did one reflect on how it contributed to the elegance of the rhythm of the session.

Mr Tsay also brought out a gaiwan, sharing pitcher, and tasting cups. Always interested in nomenclature, I asked what he called the sharing pitcher in Chinese: rather than gong dao bei, he preferred the term cha hai, 'tea sea,' which can also be used to describe other vessels. In addition to all this, he set out a cha dao set (i.e. the brewing implements -- tongs, scoop, etc) -- and a cha he or 'tea lotus,' that inimitable and useful dish that the one preparing the tea uses to display the dry leaf to the other drinkers. The cha he also has an opening at one end, through which one can use a 茶匙 cha chi ('tea scraper') to gently coax the leaf into the brewing vessel.

Soon Alex appeared and greeted us. Will had described him in admiring terms; they have known each other for many years, and he wanted to give me, in advance, some sense of the formidable personality that is Alex. He is a skilled painter and calligrapher, and these arts are in some sense an extension of his more specific skill in tea. He had brought me the gift of a booklet that documents a series of his paintings of tea regions, capturing in vivid color the lively beauty of these locations. His prowess in cha dao (in the largest sense) was acquired over a course of years, in which he came to know not only the tea farmers in Taiwan, but also the teas growing in the wild. Alex is of the strong opinion that wild tea is the best and most delicious, and that tea-makers can learn a great deal from the way that wild teas grow and taste.

After our brief introductions, we settled down -- over the next couple of hours -- to brewing a number of teas (five, in fact). The first was, strategically, the most delicate: a Long Jing (龍井) or Dragon Well tea, classed as ming qian (i.e. harvested before the qing ming festival). If this was not literally so, it was in any case a very early-spring tea. This was about as good as a long jing could be, which is to say, very good indeed: delicate and nutty and infinitely fresh.

Alex brewed deftly and smoothly, with an elegant minimum of hand movements, speaking briefly about each tea as he brought it out. Mr Tsay silently removed used tasting cups, and replenished the hot water as needed. From the Long Jing we moved to some Taiwan teas. This second tea was a Da Yu Ling (大禹嶺), which comes from the area close to Li Shan -- which is to say, Li Shan and Da Yu Ling teas are both grown in some of the highest-altitude growing areas in Taiwan. This earned them the label of gao shan or 'high-mounain' oolongs, thus to be distinguished from those teas grown at lower altitudes. It is not only their provenance but also (and especially) their complex flavor that sets gao shan teas apart. The great heights (1000 meters and higher) afford a particular climate that is particularly favorable for such teas: early morning mists, which provide moist air; sunny days punctuated by nourishing rainfalls; and cool evenings. This is not to say that one cannot grow very good tea at lower altitudes -- say, the hilly areas at the northern end of the island. But the truly extraordinary teas always turn out to be the gao shan teas. Among these, Da Yu Ling is surely one of the most prized (and thus, inevitably, one of the most costly).

After the Da Yu Ling, we sampled a Hong Xiang Wen Quan (紅香溫泉), grown in the area around Puli. At an altitude of about 1700 meters, this region is not as high as the highest Li Shan or Ali Shan growing areas; but the tea from this region is nonetheless highly sought-after because of the unique taste that comes from particular trace minerals found in the soil there. It is a new tea, having been developed only about 15 years ago.

From Taiwan teas, we moved to oolongs produced in mainland China: a Tie Guan Yin (鐵觀音, Iron Bodhisattva of Compassion) from Anxi, and a Da Hong Pao (大紅袍, Big Red Robe) from the Wu Yi Shan region of Fujian. It was so interesting to compare the flavor profiles of these teas to the distinctive teas of Taiwan. The so-called 'oolong process,' previously elucidated for readers of CHA DAO by Sanwar Changoiwala, can produce a whole spectrum of teas, based on the amount of (partial) oxidation; obviously the percentage of oxidation (or 'fermenting,' as they frequently call it in Taiwan) that the leaves undergo will directly affect the taste of the brew. The Tie Guan Yin Alex brewed for us (a 2004 harvest) was what he referred to as qing xiang, 'clear fragrance,' a term used in contradistinction to nong xiang or 'dense fragrance,' a set of visual metaphors used to describe the relative darkness or lightness of the flavor. The Da Hong Pao was especially fascinating to me, in that it was brewed from leaf that Alex had wildcrafted himself in China. As we sipped this tea, with its unmistakable flavor and yun or 'aftertaste,' Alex showed us photographs of his last visit to the Wu Yi region of China, and told us about how he met with some of the Da Hong Pao farmers there, actually helping to educate them about the nature of tea and its growing processes.

By the time we had progressed through these five teas, almost three hours had passed, and it was time for lunch; taking our leave of Mr Tsay, we found a nearby restaurant that specialized in local dishes, and ate to our hearts' content. Then we took a cab to 唐人 (Tang Ren, i.e. 'people of the Tang Dynasty'; the English sign hanging outside the store reads simply 'tea pot'). Tang Ren describes itself as a 茶藝會館 (cha yi hui guan) or 'tea-art club house' -- an interesting and somewhat hybrid concept, which shows how cha dao is itself continually evolving, in Asia as elsewhere. I had voiced to Will my desire to have a look at the sorts of tea books that are published in Taiwan. While Tang Ren is a place that sells tea and teaware, it is a place to go principally for books on such topics (see I spent a long time here, poring over the various books on offer, but we did also sit and drink tea -- an eighteen-year-old pu'er, in fact -- with the proprietor, whose husband is studying for an advanced degree. Together they set up this shop in celebration of cha dao. It took us a long time to tear ourselves away from the tea, the conversation, and the shelves and shelves of books.

-- corax

[to be continued]


samarkand said...

At Tangren, did you notice the shop nearby that has a huge display of pu'er on the glass window?

corax said...

samarkand, i did see it ... and i was champing at the bit to go in ... but my hosts needed to go, so we couldn't stay around any longer ... and i never did get back to that part of town. next time, i hope!