Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Role of Stress in Tea Growth and Manufacture


Stresses & Their Relation to Flavour

Let us have a look at some of the factors observed by tea planters that give more flavorful tea.

• High-elevation tea bushes give more flavour
• Non-fertilised tea bushes give more flavour
• Tea bushes on rocky soils give more flavour
• A slow-growth period gives more flavour than a free-flush period
• Frost-damaged tea leaves give more flavour. Tea bushes affected by frost injury, have metabolites such as pyruvate, acetaldehyde, and ethanol accumulated in the leaves of tea manufactured from frost injury leaves gives better flavour.
• Insect-damaged flush in general gives more flavour
• Droughty conditions give more flavour

Stress Exerted on the Tea Leaf

My professional training in engineering led me to surmise that the common factor in all the situations listed above is stress. The stress exerted on a tea leaf can be of various types, as follows:

• Low-temperature stress (as found in high-elevation teas)
• Nutrition stress (as in the case of underfertilised teas, or teas grown on bad soils like rocky soils.
• Ultraviolet radiation stress: UV radiation is more concentrated in high elevation and on clear sky days. In India, it is also highest in south-facing sections of Darjeeling, and least in north-facing sections. Due to this factor only, Darjeeling’s sequence of initial or first of First Flushes follows the acronym “NEWS”: i.e. north-facing sections will flush first (since north-facing sections initially receive the least sunlight, and thus also the least UV rays), followed secondly by east-facing sections, followed thirdly by west-facing sections. Fourth and last to flush are the south-facing sections, due to the UV rays of the sun during the sunshine hours.
• Moisture-related stress, as in case of droughty conditions
• Mechanical-damage stress, as in case of frost-damaged leaf or insect-damaged leaf
• (And so on).

But the following fact must be kept in mind: Any time the tea plant faces stresses -- biotic and/or abiotic -- it tries to adjust itself to these: outwardly, by slowing the growth of the tea flush; and inwardly, in the quality and quantity of the biochemicals present in the tea leaf. If the stresses continue, the growing apical bud stops growing and thus becomes what in India is called a Banjhi Bud. (This term is derived from the Hindi word Banjh, which means a woman who can not have children: a non-fertile woman.)

I knew that the stress was the agent that causes the increase in a tea's flavour, but I did not know exactly how this occurred.

Long ago I had discussion on this topic with a Japanese scientist, Professor Kanzo Sakata of Kyoto University. It has now been proven by Professor Sakata and his team that stresses during processing, while the leaf is alive, induce the expression of various new genes in the tea-plant. These induced genes result in the enhancement of the aroma formation of oolong teas. (ref: Proceedings of the 2005 International Symposium on Innovation in Tea Science and Sustainable Development in Tea Industry, pp. 541-545)

Moisture Stress on the Plucked Leaf

When the moisture content in the tea-leaf is reduced to around 70%, the moisture stress developed in the leaf produces reactive species of oxygen such as super-oxides, peroxides, and other free radicals. If these do damage to the cell membranes, the cell structure will begin to deteriorate.

There is a minimum critical moisture level below which the cells of the plucked tea shoot cannot survive. The best telltale sign of the dead tea-leaf cell is that it not able to take atmospheric oxygen for respiration. Very hard withers will lower the moisture-level in tea-leaf cells to the point that some or all of them will die.


Friday, March 23, 2007

READER'S CORNER: corax on à la table de l'empereur de chine by william chan tat chuen

william chan tat chuen. A LA TABLE DE L'EMPEREUR DE CHINE. [piquier poche no. 283.] arles: éditions philippe picquier 2007. 237 pp. ISBN: 978-2-87730-921-9. paperbound 8 euros.

it is worth remembering, when it comes to reading about the teas of asia, is that some of the most interesting and useful books are not even going to have the word 'tea' in their title. A LA TABLE DE L'EMPEREUR DE CHINE is a case in point. this charming little pocket-sized book, published in french, opens by drawing a very apposite comparison between two imperial courts that existed simultaneously, though without any interaction: the versailles of louis xiv and the forbidden city of the qing dynasty. both marked the 'glory days' [in a very specific politico-cultural sense] of their respective nations; and each developed a system of social interaction [especially involving phenomena such as cooking and eating] that served both to provide a 'pecking order' for the noblesse, and to keep these under more or less constant surveillance by the monarch.

the author, william chan tat chuen [hereafter 'C'], concentrates particularly on the court of hongli, the emperor known as 'qianlong' [1711-1799], arguably the most important of the qing emperors. the length of his 60-year reign [beginning at age 25] was rivalled in this dynasty only by that of his doting grandfather kangxi. we have extraordinarily extensive records for the cultural history of qianlong's day, and these are a good source of information on what was eaten -- and drunk -- in this period; how it was prepared and served; who had the right to consume what [and how, and in what quantity, and when]; and so forth. we get a clear sense of the striking contrast between public dining, an exercise in excruciating formality at every possible juncture, and daily meals, which [for the sake of simplicity] were typically taken in individual privacy by each member of the imperial family.

C does an excellent job of sussing out the major topics and providing a basic collection of information that might serve as a springboard for further study. here you will discover how the tastes of the qing, who were of manchu rather than han ethnicity, were affected when they gained ascendancy over a nation that included ethnic han; how han chinese, in turn, came to appreciate certain manchu foods and methods of food-preparation; what an imperial banquet was like [apparently as huge an operation then as it is in china today]; what kinds of wine were used in this or that ceremonial procedure; what kinds of cooking utensils and serving vessels were employed in the forbidden city during this era; and even some specific recipes. there is a glossary of specialized ingredients at the end, describing such items as mu er mushrooms [known as 'wood ear' in english, 'champignons noirs' in french]. there are three pages of bibliography, principally in french and chinese, and an index to the recipes.

in keeping with the generalist nature of the book, there are no footnotes or endnotes. the text is sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations, including a fascinating photograph of cixi, the redoubtable dowager empress and coeval of queen victoria, and a detailed map of the forbidden city itself, carefully labeled in all its parts and sections. there are photos of a number of beautiful porcelain bowls, but one cannot be sure from these images that they were of a size for drinking tea. [the cover of this paperback edition shows, in beautiful colors, a painting by the popular contemporary painter jiang guo fang, titled 'the grand feast'; this one image portrays, with almost trompe-l'oeil realism, at least three types of drinking vessels, made of what look to be porcelain, glass, and solid gold.]

the book includes a section on 'les boissons sous les qing' ['beverages under qing emperors'], and, while the relevant paragraphs focus principally on different types of 'wine' [酒 jiu3, generically 'alcoholic beverage'] and their appropriate employ, this is in fact a topic that lovers of china tea should always pay attention to, if only to note the similarities and differences between the types of drinking vessels used for various beverages in chinese culture. a separate section focuses on 'la vaisselle de table' ['tableware,'] and here one reads some fascinating details: for example, that the imperial kitchens had some 3,000 items of tableware in gold or silver -- some of the gold ones weighing up to 140 kilos [308.6 pounds]. in addition to these, there were bowls of jade, and other dishes and implements in ivory, porcelain, agate, quartz, cloisonné, rare woods, and even [from 1696 on] glass. the best artisans from all the provinces were assembled in the forbidden city to do this work for the 'son of heaven' and his court. naturally the quantities permitted to each member of the imperial family were carefully dictated, reflecting their respective ranks at court; only on the emperor's allotment was there no limit. the colors used to decorate the various porcelains were keyed to the rank of their intended users. C tells us that the use of chopsticks was, curiously, rare in qianlong's day, and that in addition to chopsticks of gold and jade, he used knife, fork and spoon. some of these implements can be seen in the photo on page 136.

there are plenty more engaging details here, including discussions of the various rare delicacies served at court: monkey lips, camel humps, bear paws, leopard foetus, rhinoceros tail, and -- a particular favorite -- candied swallows' nests [the recipe for this, factum non fabula!, is to be found on pp 218-219]. but the CHA DAO reader is most likely to want to know what specifically is said in these pages about tea. there is an important section [pp 52-55] that discusses the yuchachanfang or 'service de bouche' ['culinary service'] of the emperor, composed [at the beginning of the qing period] of three departments: one was the shanfang, the imperial kitchen department, and the other two were the qingchafang and chafang, the offices devoted to the imperial tea service and snacks [french 'collations']. these offices alone had personnel of 78, 60, and 28 respectively -- which gives some idea of the scale on which the forbidden city operated from day to day.

the book is peppered with anecdotes taken from personal memoirs of the period, including those of dan shi, an imperial eunuch, and yuan mei, 'the chinese brillat-savarin.' one such snippet is from the memoirs of jin yi, whose memoirs of a lady of the court in the forbidden city recall the breakfast predilections of the empress cixi [pp 56-57]:

after the empress had smoked two pipes, the old eunuch zhang fu would offer her her milk tea. the empress favored human breast milk as much as cow's milk. you know that, for breakfast, the old manchu customs had been preserved, and so we would drink either human or cow's milk, to which some tea had been added. this milk tea was never prepared in the imperial kitchen, but rather in the little tea oven [[le petit four à thé]] inside the palace of the beauties. in this manner we avoided having to go a long distance, and the milk tea of the old eunuch zhang fu was very reliable! [[... details of the foods offered the empress deleted here ...]] after breakfast, the empress once again refreshed her palate, drank a half-glass of tea and smoked another pipe.

this is my translation of the french text, itself a version of the original chinese. it is evidently cited from the french edition by dong qiang, published in the same series as C's book [memoirs d'une dame de cour dans la cité interdite, picquier poche no. 54]. one would like to know more about what this le petit four à thé was like, exactly, and how one used it to prepare tea. my guess is that, as this was before the advent of electricity in china, the four was a wood or charcoal stove [灶 zao4, '[(kitchen) stove'] used to heat the water and milk in a pot on the top. these could be simply or elaborately made; examples from the han dynasty are formed roughly in the shape of a rectangular box, rounded at one end. these were made of clay -- presumably fairly high-fired -- and glazed on the outside. there was a doorway in the side through which to put the embers. the pot itself would have stood on one of the 'eyes' on the top surface [essentially chimneys for the rising heat of the stove]. [if you own a zojirushi or a braun, be thankful for the convenience.] the thermodynamics of such a system and its implements suggests that, unless a rather large zao were used, the quantities of fluid able to be brought to at least 'shrimp-eyes' heat would be relatively small -- which in turn suggests that the quantities of beverage that one could prepare at one time would be relatively limited. [innovations during the qing may have found a way to circumvent this problem.]

one would also like to know what the non-manchu chinese response was to this custom of taking milk [even human breast milk] in one's tea; how widespread was the custom outside the imperial court; and what other modes of tea preparation were as common as this in the daily life of the forbidden city. and, of course: what sort of leaf was used in this milk tea?

pages 142-147 are dedicated to a discussion of the 'tea ceremony' in the days of qing [though its roots go back to earlier dynasties, han to song in particular]. despite its name, the phenomenon C has in mind is rather a type -- or four types -- of ceremony characterized above all by the lubu or 'procession,' the grandest of which could entail as many 660 people. the lubu reached its most thrilling moment when the emperor himself, borne on a large palanquin, was carried out of the 'interior court' of the forbidden city and into the 'hall of protective harmony,' where in incomparable magnificence he was seated on his dragon throne. there, 'the emperor invited the princes, the mandarins of the first three civil and first two military ranks, and the foreign envoys, to come 'sit' (actually to kneel on cushions) in the throne room, where he offered them tea. before taking their places and drinking, they would kowtow three more times .... the tea offered to these dignitaries was omitted after 1797. and it was not even manchu milk tea!' [pp. 146-147]

the ambitious cook who wants to re-create [with or without solid gold chopsticks] the splendors of the imperial table can consult pages 155-224, which offer a broad variety of recipes. many of these are surprisingly uncomplicated and highly practicable. some have fanciful names ['the hundred birds return to the nest, pp 194-195']; others will be of current culinary significance [the 'original' gongbao chicken recipe?, along with a classic story of how it came into being, pp 191-192]. a selection of vegetarian recipes is included, reminding us of the 'fervent buddhism' [p. 91] of qianlong, who insisted that vegetarian meals be prepared [by buddhist monks] and served on the first day of the new year and on buddhist holidays.

the recipe for the thé au lait mentioned above can be found on page 156. for those who need to brush up a bit on their french, here is my translation of that recipe:

MILK TEA [naicha]

1/2 litre of water
1/2 litre of milk
50 grams tea leaves
20 grams of salt or 50 grams of sugar [according to preference]
50 grams of butter

boil the water and milk along with the salt [or sugar].
infuse the tea leaves in the hot liquid for 5 minutes.
pour the beverage into a teapot, filtering out the leaves.
add the butter to the liquid in the teapot. serve.

* * *

as i have often remarked, it is a tiresome habit of book reviewers to lie in wait for the unsuspecting author, and then [as it were] pounce when that author does not produce just the book the that reviewer [thinks he] would have written. i feel strongly that a book ought rather to be evaluated on its own terms: that is to say, how successfully does it accomplich what it purports to achieve?

one could easily fault this book for a lack of attention to pre-qing imperial china. but that was not C's brief to begin with; and the scope and nature of this sort of book would hardly allow it. indeed what surprises me most about it, given its limitations as to size and scholarly minutiae, is how much detail C manages to include along the way. there are other books [some of which we may encounter later on CHA DAO] that deal in much more detail with the diachronic spectrum and/or synchronic scope of the food and drink of china. A LA TABLE DE L'EMPEREUR DE CHINE might profitably be read as a sort of appetizer for those main courses.

the text is relatively free of misprints, the principal exception being in the romanization of chinese words. it may be that both the wade-giles and pinyin systems were developed specifically with an eye toward romanizing into english, and that other languages are not always the best fit with either option. but the convention apparently adopted for this book is pinyin, though it is not always deployed successfully.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Anodyne on High Congou (Gao Gong Fu) from Silk Road Teas

Silk Road Teas High Congou (Gao Gong Fu), numbered B-HC-1, is a pleasant enough China black (red) tea with hints of chocolate and spice and a sweetness that carries into the cup.

I tried this tea in 2005 and wasn't all that impressed. I liked it better the second time around. There is the same issue of getting enough leaf in the cup to get the flavors and aromas to emerge. When I "over-leafed" in 2005, the cup got rather astringent according to my notes. But without enough leaf, it was drinking rather thinly in 2005.

I actually found myself liking this tea better when I first purchased a 1/4 lb bag in January 2007. Now I am back to finding it pleasant, but I am not quite as enthused as I was in my January tastings. It may simply reflect my mercurial tea cravings rather than anything to do with the tea itself.

I first made this by the pot and found it pleasant if a bit subdued in flavors and aroma. Brewing by the cup brought forth more than I experienced in my first trial run. The cup has a more expansive dark bitter cocoa and slightly spicy aroma. The toasty-grain notes are much more pronounced in the cup, and the sweetness definitely meanders into the finish. If you get too much leaf or brew too long, the tea does develop a “pinging” metallic note against the toasty-grain that can distract from the other more pleasant flavor notes. There is both a metallic note in taste as well as the astringency factor. I used about two level teaspoons of leaf in 6 ounce cup, water to boiling, three minutes.

In taste profile, this is actually somewhat like the Yangxian Hong teas. See March 9, 2007, Anodyne on Yangxian Hong.

Source: www.silkroadteas.com

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Story of the Qianlong Emperor and Jade Spring, First Spring Under Heaven

(An old tea tale retold on learning of Stéphane Erler’s acquisition of a silver teapot)


The emperors of China were among history’s foremost connoisseurs of tea. The wealth and power of the dragon throne granted them imperial tribute of the rarest tea, the best water, and tea brewed with the finest implements. In the art of tea, the use of metals -- bronze, silver, and gold -- was as ancient as the Warring States and Han periods when tea simmered in bronze tripods as a bitter herb in savory stews. The imperial ateliers of the Tang produced tea bowls and braziers, saltcellars and tea caddies of gold and silver. The poet and tea master Lu Yu made tea in a vessel cast of polished iron. But when at the emperor’s palace, Lu Yu called for the ultimate in aesthetic purity and elegance and chose a cauldron of silver for the brewing of tea. In the Ming, small gold teapots were used among high court officials and silver ones were favored by the most discriminating, while some preferred silver tea washers with which to rinse their leaves. The Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty made his tea with water measured in a flask of pure silver.

A connoisseur of the first order, Qianlong was very concerned about the quality of water for brewing tea and he made a special point of knowing about water and its properties. A story was told about Qianlong and his quest for tea, a curious tale that rested neatly on a heretical remark uttered as he drank Dragon Well tea: “The water from Jade Spring will do just fine.” The imperial non sequitur became important in the history of tea, but to understand why involved knowing of Qianlong’s silver flask and his search for the purest of water.

It was the practice of the Qing emperors to make imperial tours of inspection through the southern half of the empire. The progress took four months, the emperors often riding on horseback in the midst of a huge retinue of thousands. At the southern end of the tour was picturesque Hangzhou, an ancient capital celebrated by poets for its art and culture. Bounded by the shores of beautiful West Lake, the city was renown for its cuisine, pleasure quarters, and scenic sites. Over generations, the Qing imperial family built palaces and pavilions along the broad waters of the lake, decorating the halls with paintings and poetry inspired by its lovely views. When the Qianlong emperor made his southern tours, the pleasures of Hangzhou and West Lake were foremost in his mind. Of especial interest to Qianlong was to taste the tea grown in the lush gardens of the nearby mountains and to drink from the local sweet water springs. One famous spring named Dragon Well lent its name to a special green tea. The Ming literati described the taste of Dragon Well as “strong and rich, its color like light gold, its essence still and deep. It is long on the palate, and on the tongue, it is fresh and moist and full.” To taste Dragon Well at its most celebrated source, Qianlong called on the keeper of Hugong Temple, a place known for a reserve tea picked from eighteen special bushes.

When Qianlong arrived at the temple gate, the keeper ushered the emperor and his entourage into the hall and personally prepared the tea. Qianlong was first shown a small mound of loose tea and invited to inspect the leaves. The emperor was told that each possessed one tight bud and a single small leaf, a choice pick called the “staff and flag.” Each was pan-fired to a flat oblate, uniformly dark green. The keeper offered one for him to taste. As Qianlong nibbled on the dry leaf, he found the texture crisp with a pleasant nutty flavor. The tea was placed in a porcelain bowl that was filled with steaming water and covered. Lifting the lid, Qianlong admired the leaves unfurling like green banners against pure white. As the tea steeped, the keeper explained that the water had been taken just that morning from the nearby Spring of Running Tigers, one of the most famous sources of water in the empire. Crystal clear and tasting pure and sweet, the water brought forth the rich quality and color of the tea. So well-matched was the water to the tea that centuries of tradition deemed that only water from the Spring of Running Tigers was good enough to brew Dragon Well. So firm was the tradition that the tea and water were said in the same breath and known as the “twin absolutes:” “Dragon Well, Spring of Running Tigers.” Qianlong nodded, acknowledging the import of this local conceit. Then, the keeper bowed and tea was served. Gingerly, Qianlong sipped the hot golden liquid, its grassy aroma and robust flavor filling his senses. Delighted by the tea, the emperor proclaimed Dragon Well an imperial commission and ordered the abbot to send tea from the temple’s eighteen bushes to the Forbidden City. Pleased by his command, Qianlong cast about for approval only to find his entourage silently exchanging glances under arched brows. Finally, a senior courtier bowed and asked, “My Lord, how will Your Majesty brew Dragon Well tea without the requisite water from the Spring of Running Tigers?” Qianlong, with a knowing look, replied curtly, “The water from Jade Spring will do just fine.” Astonished and cowed by the emperor’s audacity, everyone bowed to the imperial will.

Qianlong’s abrupt and enigmatic reply left the poor keeper flustered and all wondering just what heresy loomed beyond by brewing “Dragon Well tea” without water from the “Spring of Running Tigers.” The emperor alone was unconcerned, confident in breaking with the vaunted tradition of the “twin absolutes.” So ended the tale, with Qianlong appearing capricious and arbitrary and just another imperious emperor getting his way. But the full story is more interesting by far, especially the emperor’s history with the sweet waters of Jade Spring.

Jade Spring was named in antiquity for a large stone around which its abundant waters flowed. In the twelfth century, the Chin dynasty created Beijing as its central capital, establishing the city as the imperial seat of four dynasties and spanning more than eight hundred years. Surrounded by dense forests in the suburban hills west of the city, Jade Spring was a tranquil place, one of eight scenic spots of the capital designated by the Chin emperor. During the Ming period, the Yung-lo emperor, noting the bitter-tasting water of Beijing, ordered that the waters of Jade Spring diverted to the imperial palace and reserved for the private use of the emperor and his family. In the succeeding dynasty, the Qing emperors inherited the Forbidden City and the imperial estates in the western hills where they hunted and played. By the eighteenth century, the emperors had all known of the fine Jade Spring waters for seven hundred years.

When Qianlong created the Summer Palace around 1750, he chose the cool and shaded woods surrounding Jade Spring for a vast pleasure ground of palaces nestled within its “three hills and five gardens.” The emperor had drunk the water from Jade Spring all of his life and could attest to the water being mild, and sweet, and “pure like jade.” When Qianlong made tea, it was brewed with the water from Jade Spring. Like all tea masters and connoisseurs, the emperor knew that water was essential to the art of tea. Sweet water for tea was pure, clear, and light. Superior water -- colorless, odorless, tasteless -- was the ideal medium for tea and allowed the manifestation of tea’s true flavor, color, and scent. Great emphasis was placed on using only the best for brewing tea, and for centuries no small effort was spent searching for the perfect water. In tradition, connoisseurs of water and tea named five springs that were highly ranked as sources of fine water: Zhongling Spring in Zhenjiang, Huishan Spring in Wuxi, Guanyin Spring in Suzhou, Spring of Running Tigers in Hangzhou, and Baotu Spring in Jinan.

Spring water was considered superior to water from flowing streams and rivers, and water drawn from wells was ranked last, if considered at all. Spring water that gushed and spouted was considered superior to slowly flowing or seeping water. Qianlong was particularly interested in hydrodynamics and its natural expression. His own Jade Spring spewed forth with such force that the spray from the sculpted stone dragon fount resembled snowflakes falling into the pool below. The emperor had also experienced a spectacular water fountain on one of his southern tours of inspection. At Baotu Spring in Jinan, Shandong, Qianlong marveled at water that “springs suddenly.” Roiling and bubbling up like spinning cartwheels from a large, deep, blue pool, Baotu Spring periodically and abruptly forced columns of water high into the air. Impressed by the display, Qianlong also found the spring’s water tasted superb. It was said that Qianlong had carted his own supply of casked water from Jade Spring for his southern tour, but he was so taken with the local water that he quickly replaced the water with that from Baotu Spring.

Back in Beijing after months of travel, Qianlong returned to his Jade Spring to inscribe one of two inscriptions on a rock stele on site. On the back of the rock, he inscribed four characters, “Jade Spring springs suddenly” in admiration for the energetic waters of both Jade and Baotu springs. On the front of the stele, Qianlong bestowed his highest accolade on Jade Spring in five characters, “First Spring Under Heaven.” Yet, the many virtues of Jade Spring -- its purity, clarity, and mildness -- all remained guarded and hidden, secreted away from the world of tea by an opaque veil of imperial privilege.

Still, Qianlong was determined to include Jade Spring in the venerable tea tradition. When confronted in Hangzhou to make Dragon Well tea without water from the Spring of Running Tigers, he championed Jade Spring. His declaration for the water of Jade Spring was borne less of imperial conceit than meticulous inquiry. For Qianlong had an unusual scientific bent and was fascinated by Western studies in architecture, astronomy, time, and hydrology. But only those closest to the emperor knew of Qianlong’s silver flask, an instrument that literally took the measure of water. Created by the imperial ateliers to Qianlong’s design and exact specifications, the precise weight of the flask was known and its capacity minutely calibrated. When filled, the weight of the water held in the flask could be calculated to within a thousandth of a Chinese ounce. Qianlong believed that the lighter the water, the fewer impurities it contained; therefore it followed that the lighter the water, the purer it was. The first water he measured was, of course, his favorite: Qianlong discovered that the water from Jade Spring weighed one ounce exactly.

As he traveled on tour from one famous spring to the next, Qianlong tested the spring waters of the empire, particularly those several springs that had been revered in the history of tea for over a millennium, weighing their waters with his silver flask. Remarkably, the other spring waters all weighed more than Jade Spring by one to four thousands of an ounce. In Hangzhou, Qianlong visited all the famous springs around West Lake. In vindication of the emperor, the water from Spring of Running Tigers weighed one and four thousands of an ounce, much more than Jade Spring. To mark his triumph, Qianlong recorded his achievement in the Record of Jade Spring, First Spring Under Heaven; and by proclaiming, “The water from Jade Spring will do just fine,” he deliberately challenged and changed tradition, enriching the history of tea with a small silver flask and an imperial style that few emperors ever matched.

Notes and Suggestions:

The name Jade Spring is used throughout China for many springs. In fact, there is a Jade Spring in Hangzhou near West Lake just west of the Yue Fei Shrine.

After the Chinese Communists established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Jade Spring Mountain in the Summer Palace northwest of Beijing was used as a convalescent home for Communist Party members. The site is presently occupied by the Chinese air force, and is believed to be a restricted suburban retreat for high-ranking military officers and party members.

Baotu Spring in Jinan, Shandong was named “the spring that leaps or springs suddenly,” its geysers of water likened to the speed and sudden movements of a leopard.

For images of Jade Spring and environs see the Powerhouse Museum website and the three 20th-century black and white photographs taken by the German-born photographer, Hedda Hammer Morrison:

Jade Spring, ca. 1933-1946. Hedda Morrison (1908-1991).
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Gift of Mr. Alastair Morrison, 1992.

Jade Spring, ca. 1933-1946 (image 31). Hedda Morrison (1908-1991).
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Purchased 2005.

Looking towards the Summer Palace from Jade Spring (Yuquan) Mountain, ca. 1933-1946. Hedda Morrison (1908-1991).
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Gift of Mr. Alastair Morrison, 1992.

EDITOR'S NOTE: we are honored to have this contribution from steven d. owyoung. mr owyoung was assistant curator of asian art at harvard university's fogg museum before becoming curator of the asian collections at the saint louis art museum, where he continued for over two decades before his retirement in 2005. mr owyoung is currently at work on a new annotated translation of the cha jing of lu yu.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Anodyne on Hong Tao Mao Feng from Silk Road Teas, Redux

On October 24, 2005, I posted at length about this tea in an entry titled Anodyne on Hong Tao Mao Feng "Red Peach." I've tasted a recent sample shared by a friend and not sourced directly from Silk Road Teas (labeled B-KMF-O). I haven't any idea of the date when this tea was purchased.

I may be using more leaf than I did back in 2005, but the aroma on this tea is quite full as I've made it today. I've used two rather full teaspoons in a 6 ounce porcelain cup, water to boiling, 3:30 steep. This is my taller footed porcelain cup that has the fluted edge which seems to hold and concentrate aroma better for me.

The tea has those honeyed overtones with deeper dark bitter cocoa and an edge of something rather burnt-toasty or grain-like as well as a subtle hint of floral. This is pretty comparable to what I was finding in the autumn of 2005 when I first encountered this tea. There is, perhaps, almost a dark plum-like note in the taste as well as a light touch of iron-edged earth. The floral experience is quite subtle in the tea liquor itself but also comes into that in-drawn breath after you've swallowed the tea. The aftertaste of the tea does linger on a bit.

The "perhaps" fruity plum-like note in this tea is muted compared to the very distinct plum note I find in Imperial Tea Court's Hong Mei Mao Feng (from Zheijiang province). See July 7, 2006, an entry entitled Anodyne on Hong Mei Mao Feng from Imperial Tea Court.

I've not gone cup-to-cup (yet) on these two teas. But I have a feeling that if I could choose only one, my choice would be the more dramatic and concentrated plum-like presentation of the Hong Mei Mao Feng.

Tea Sources:


Monday, March 19, 2007

READER'S CORNER: corax on anthony zee's swallowing clouds

a. zee. SWALLOWING CLOUDS. a playful journey through chinese culture, language, and cuisine. seattle: university of washington press 2002. 384 pp. ISBN: 0295981911. paperbound $18.95.

i was thinking about a tea-related recipe [for tea-smoked chicken] that i had not seen in a long time, but it took a bit of rooting around to dig it up. i finally found it, in a book i had not opened in quite awhile; then, as inveterate bibliophiles are wont to do, i ended up rereading the whole book.

the book, by dr anthony zee [a theoretical physicist at UCSB, forsooth], is called SWALLOWING CLOUDS -- which happens to be the literal translation of won ton, as he explains in chapter 4. [others identify the term 馄饨, i.e. hun2tun2, as the name of a primordial god of chaos mentioned by the early daoist writer zhuangzi -- but where's the fun in that?] as soon as one attempts to classify or categorize the book, one runs into complications. but these are anything but haphazard or unintended. on the contrary: they are part and parcel of zee's intentions.

'there are,' as zee says in his preface, 'three leading characters in this book: the language, the food, and the culture of china.' he confesses his inability to concentrate on any one of those at the expense of the other two; and this is in fact a principal source of the book's charm. zee hopes that you will not 'just sit at home and read this book. take it with you whenever you go to a chinese restaurant ... order some of the dishes mentioned ... i hope to see your copy of this book stained with soy sauce.' having read it several times over the years, i can testify that this is a very realistic vision; SWALLOWING CLOUDS would certainly make any trip to a chinese restaurant fascinating, alone or in the company of friends. it has a kind of alluring fun about it that only the best glimpses into another world can give.

so if you're fascinated by the way life in china has evolved; by the way the cuisine, and the tea, of china mirror its overall culture[s]; or by the way in which the hanzi actually picture ideas, this book is destined to become a favorite of yours. it's no wonder that zee has garnered blurbs from both ken hom and nina simonds; and as a writer, he is thoroughly engaging. reading SWALLOWING CLOUDS, you come to feel as though you know him. [it's also no wonder that it has been reprinted a number of times since its original publication in 1990 by simon & schuster.]

readers of CHA DAO will be particularly interested to learn that the book devotes an entire chapter [chap. 14, 'the sublime faith in illusions'] to the role of tea in chinese culture. in this chapter you will learn, among other things, how the written character for 'tea' -- 茶 -- is composed of the ancient chinese symbols for 'grass' and 'wood'; what the word 'book' in lu yu's book of tea [cha jing] has to do with 'silk'; in which year [729 CE] the emperor of japan took his first taste of tea; the literal meaning of gongfu and its etymological relation to 'work/skill'; and how the tradition of yixing pottery developed. there's a great tea anecdote cited from the classic dream of the red chamber. and so on, and on. i can't begin to capture for you how beautifully zee writes about all this; let me just mention that another of his books was nominated for a pulitzer.

incidentally, that tea-smoked chicken recipe i was looking for turned up in appendix B. you begin by steaming a chicken with scallions and sliced fresh ginger, letting it cool, and cutting it in half. in your wok, under a bamboo rack, you put a mixture of 1 T raw rice, 2 T loose red tea, and 1 T brown sugar [zee sensibly suggests lining the bottom of the wok first with tinfoil]. place the halves of the chicken on the rack, cover the wok, turn on the flame, and smoke the chicken for 10-15 minutes on each side, or until it is golden brown; then let it cool some, and slice it into 1.5" pieces. [zee recommends using jasmine tea; i think it might be prudent to start with something less floral-scented.]

-- corax

Monday, March 12, 2007

Anodyne on Guangdong Black Tea from Silk Road Teas

I’ve had a rather lukewarm reaction to Silk Road Teas Guangdong Black (B-GDB-5) tea in times past. Giving it another go here, with a sample courtesy of a friend (purchased January 2007), I find I am still not much moved by this tea. It yields a cup with pleasant enough aroma—perhaps a hint of milk chocolate sweetness (?), touch of floral-spice, and a bit toasty.

The cup itself moves toward a pungent edge of earth with those iron metallic notes I find not as pleasing as some of the more mellow rounded China black (red) teas. Earth can be a positive sun-washed freshly-tilled earth experience, which I refer to as “good earth,” courtesy of author Pearl Buck ("and he smelled the fresh smell of the fields"). But it can also be muddy (actually clings to the palate), cellar-musty, or even metallic. The latter is what I find in this particular tea, and it just sits more harshly in my interior than other China black (red) teas.

In January 2000 I tried this tea and commented: The aroma is a mild earthy/floral sweet that gains some light spice notes as it cools. Not unpleasant. Just not particularly interesting to me. I am not zeroing in on what the vendor’s description of "lots of character" is referring to in this tea. The aroma gains more character as it cools down and sweeter/deeper notes are being added, but I don't find them coming into the taste. It has a definite edge of astringency. Too bad the sweetness of that expanding aroma (still gaining spicy notes) isn't in the cup itself. This just doesn't do it for me.

The aroma of the tea promises something that just doesn’t come through well in the cup itself. The metallic note, which is part taste and partly a sensation related to pungency, really just “zaps” this tea for me. I keep tasting it, but I just can’t find reasons to drink it, especially in comparison to some of the other SRT black (red) teas which I do enjoy.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Anodyne on In Pursuit of Tea Royal Yunnan: Redux

Through much of 2005, I was happily drinking the Royal Yunnan from In Pursuit of Tea. I posted on this pleasure at length on December 16, 2005, in A Yunnan Comparison and Farewell Salute to the Woodwose Yunnan and also on October 11, 2006, in The Shape-Shifter: Anodyne on the Many Tastes of Golden Yunnan. As noted, I found that this tea changed radically in January 2006 from the profile it had retained during much of 2005.

I tasted this tea a year later on January 10, 2007, in Anodyne on Assorted Golden Yunnan Tastings or The Illusion of the Questing Beast and found my impression had not changed. I had not ordered the tea since, but a friend recently sent me a sample of the IPOT Royal Yunnan purchased in November 2006.

The November 2006 purchase of Royal Yunnan from In Pursuit of Tea does have that aroma I have referred to as woody. The woody character is one part of the Woodwose equation, but it has to go up against a sweet dark forest honey-molasses sweetness and a certain depth of other flavors. The November 2006 sample is an odd tea in that it expresses the woody note quite dominantly (perhaps too much so). There is definitely a level of sweetness. And yet this particular sample doesn't fill in with the depth and bass notes I've previously associated with this tea. It almost tastes oolong-y in some ways, like a highly oxidized oolong. There's a sense of something fruity going on and a hint of a wheat-grain note, perhaps even a hint of malt. When the tea cools down, there is more an impression of wheat-grain than malt. This tea inches a bit toward Woodwose but then fizzles out and loses some characteristics that need to balance out in the cup. There is quite a full aroma and even some dark molasses-like sweetness. What seems so odd is the way the body just drops out of it, even while it retains an aftertaste that lingers a bit.

This is an entirely different tea than I had in January 2006, but it is still not the beloved “Woodwose” tea of 2005. My impressions now are mostly a moot point, since IPOT no longer seems to even sell a Royal Yunnan. Instead, they offer an even pricier Yunnan Gold Black which I have not tried. Its description is "honey and earth tones." For the price, I would rather hope it was doing something more than what the description suggests.


Anodyne on Yangxian Hong

Prerequisite reading for the following tasting notes is corax on yangxian hong, posted March 3, 2007, in which he gives in-depth information about these teas. As corax notes, the teas in question are “yangxian hong from three different sources: grand tea, taishuanhe, and a third unnamed source [call these #1, 2, and 3 respectively].”

I am merely adding in my own tasting notes here from samples I received from a friend, not sourced directly through a tea vendor. I have prepared the teas rather differently from corax. In my case I brewed each tea with 2.3 grams of leaf in 6 ounces of boiling water for a 4 minute steep in a porcelain cup. I chose this particular cup as it has a way of catching and holding onto aroma better than some of my other cups. It has a narrower base and more fluted mouth that somehow really helps concentrate aromas nicely. I chose this particular brewing as it was the way I’d most likely brew the teas on a first encounter. Alternate brewing methods are indicated as well.

#1 Yangxian Hong from Grand Tea

While steeping, the tea first shows a light honey and fresh flower-still-in-the-bud scent. This is not as pronounced as full floral but a more muted floral. Think of how smelling a bud differs from the actual flower in bloom. It can smell almost more fresh and green than floral, yet with a hint of what is to come.

As the tea steeps 2-3 minutes, it develops that familiar light toasted grain note.

Once the leaf is removed, the liquor retains a subtle honeyed sweetness in scent. As the tea cools slightly, the honey sweetness fills in with some spicy notes. The mellow toasted grain fills in the background of the taste and some of the honeyed sweetness lingers briefly. As I brewed it today, this cup stays quite mellow with a refined rather than a rustic character.

#2 Yangxian Hong from Taishuanhe

While steeping, this tea isn't showing the more pronounced honey and fresh floral bud notes of #1. The aromas are heavier and a tad more earthbound. There is a sweetness to the scent. It is not the pungent honey sweetness but a sweetness I associate with grains (think of those tiny toasted wheat puffs).

Once the leaf is removed, this tea has a heavier and thicker scent than #1 with more emphasis on the bass. There is just a hint of that slightly woody note I find in some of the China black (red) teas.

As the tea cools slightly, the aroma deepens even more and the sweetness does become lightly honeyed. If #1 was a lighter floral clear honey, this tea is more like a darker and more opaque Forest Honey with hint of molasses and tree bark, malts and grains. With this brewing, the cup remains quite smooth and mellow. This tea registers as a thicker and darker flavor than #1 which had the honey and hint of floral dominating. The heavier toasted grain lingers into the finish with just a hint of the woody-bark sweetness. This tea has a more rustic (though still mellow) balance of flavor and aroma than #1.

Alternate brewing of 4 grams per 6 ounces water (boiling) and a 3 minute steep in porcelain cup: The aroma comes up with an immediate sweetness that is reminiscent of a darker honey set against the smooth and mellow note toasty-grains and slightly woody note. It is still quite mellow and smooth with a touch of an iron note in the finish (not metallic or harsh at all) that goes up against the grain and light note of a darker honey. This brewing, for me, brought forward more distinct aromatics and heightened that hint of Forest Honey.

#3 Yangxian Hong from Unnamed Source

This is the tea that shows the most golden tip and smallest leaf size. While steeping, this tea (like #2) isn’t showing the floral-bud fresh note of the #1. There is no honeyed sweetness, just the sweetness of toasted grains and, perhaps, a subtle hint of milk chocolate.

Once the leaf is removed, the aroma falls somewhere between #1 and #2. This tea isn’t quite as deep or rustic as #2, nor is it as fresh floral-bud as #1.

As the tea cools slightly (and for most teas, this is where the “magic begins” for me), more sweetness pulls forward. It’s not so much the spicy honeyed notes of #1. This range of sweetness is more associated with toasted grain and a hint of chocolate. #3 does not have that hint of wood or bark that is in #2, so it falls out as more refined and less rustic in character as I experience it. Again, we have a very mellow cup with the sweet grainy taste lingering into the finish. Of all of the teas, #3 edges more toward briskness, though it still remains mellow as I brewed it. If there is any floral in #3, it is not in the immediate aftertaste but in that indrawn breath one takes and experiences what is left on the palate.

Alternate brewing of 1.8 grams in 3 ounces (brewed in a cebei and decanted into the same porcelain cup with fluted edge I’ve used for all the teas), water to boiling, 2:30 steep: Aroma is not as full or pervasive as #2. It has a similar character, but is softer and more muted with that light hint of milk chocolate against the grains. This tea doesn’t have the more honeyed sweetness of #2, nor does it have the more rustic woody note. It has a similar “voice” as #2, but the voice simply has a softer edge. The grains note comes into the finish, but an indrawn breath after swallowing the tea gives the impression of a light floral note that I didn’t detect in the liquor itself.


#1 stuck me as being the most “youthful” profile with #2 being the most rustic and deep. #3 shares the refined character of #1 but shows more depth of flavor than #1. Tea #3 (the smallest leaf size and with more gold tip) edges more toward pungency than #1 or #2, but you can mute this by tweaking leaf amount and brewing time.

I found these teas all quite pleasant. I have a preference for #2 with the more pervasive aroma, depth, and hint of Forest Honey. None of these teas achieve, for me, the “wow factor” of a high grade Keemun that unfolds in complexity like that mocha-colored scarf shot through with golden threads.

Alternate brewing: After getting some email advice from someone more intimate with these teas, I’ve tried #1 with a different brewing method, water 175F and 4 grams leaf per 6 ounces water, steeping initially for only one minute. I did use a porcelain brewing vessel in lieu of clay. This particular method mutes the aroma compared to my original brewing. In the first one minute steep, it brings the grains forward against a muted hazelnut note. More aroma comes through in the second (one minute) steep with a toastier sweetness and more toasted grains in flavor as well. Hazelnut seems to have been taken over by the grains. Sweetness is a touch more honeyed than in the first steep but not as pronounced as in my original brewing with hotter water and with less tea to water proportion, and longer steeping time. For my own tastes, I seem to find more in these teas with the hotter water and longer brewing times. That is not an indication that this is a better way to steep the teas but probably a reflection of my comfort zone with what is more familiar to me.

Anodyne on Gift Grade Keemun Gongfu and Top Grade Keemun Gongfu from Jing Tea Shop

I am generally quite fond of Keemun and must have it as a staple tea. But there is always the search for the Keemun that is performing in a certain way. The Imperial Tea Court's Imperial Grade Keemun Mao Feng that I tried most recently was just flat out too smoky. Not smoky in an unpleasant way by any means, but I didn't find it filling in with the other softer more seductive elements I wish to find in a Keemun (and especially in one in that price range).

I know some of us perceive smoky in different ways, but a Keemun like this Gift Grade Keemun Gongfu strikes me more as that "used tobacco box" sweet-rich-dark scent. Not smoky, but sweet and deep in the way tobacco scent will residually fill any container in which it used to reside.

This complexity of aroma and the way it spreads out reminds me of that image I've used before for a particular Yunnan aroma that had complexity and depth. Picture a silky brown scarf being tossed in the air. It unfolds as it descends revealing an inner pattern of golden threads mixed in with the deep mocha color. I think of the mocha brown base/bass color as that unmistakable Keemun aroma that sometimes edges on what I personally register as residual tobacco box scent (not smoke). The golden threads are the fruity and very light floral and honeyed notes that waft in and out and lighten the mocha brown, giving it a sheen. The body of the tea (that silky scarf feel) is quite smooth and pleasing, and it does leave a lingering aftertaste.

Smells are very evocative, and I suppose it doesn't hurt that the Keemun aroma sometimes takes me back a considerable distance in time to young love—an image and tactile feel of silky dark brown hair and a coat that smelled residually of sweet tobacco. Keemun is said to be a tea that gains a pleasant winy character with aging, perhaps like young love gaining a certain depth over the years.

Instrumentally, a complex Keemun is always a cello for me--particularly making me think of the Bach Cello Suites (Anner Bylsma). Many moons ago I wrote that a particular Keemun Hao Ya A was like:

… the deep resonance of the Bach Cello Suites, but played by Anner Bylsma on a particular Stradivarius "Servais" violoncello. I have been told it's the antique version of our modern cello. I have both the Bylsma and a Rostropovich recording of these Suites, and you can hear such a difference in the antique instrument—more depth and resonance, less refined, less smooth than a cello of today...more mystery. That is also this tea. Without the element of "top soil”—the stuff of life, this tea would be more the modern cello—smoother, but less resonance and depth and mystery. This Keemun Hao Ya A is the Suites played on the "Servais."

Going cup-to-cup with the Gift Grade versus Top Grade Keemun Gongfu from Jing Tea Shop: the Top Grade is a nice Keemun, though the depth and complexity of the Gift Grade does shine through in aroma and most particularly in the cup itself. I don't have the musical background to fully articulate what I mean, but these two teas give me the strong sense of Beethoven's Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92 in the Allegretto as I have it here on the Immortal Beloved soundtrack (this selection is the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Georg Solti). You have that powerful driving musical theme that begins with strings and then with each progressive repetition fills in with more strings and then other instruments added. The Top Grade tea is this theme before it is fully filled in by the rest of the orchestra. The Top Grade carries the musical theme, but the Gift Grade adds the complexity.


Anodyne on Sichuan Black Tea from Imperial Tea Court: Redux

On April 2, 2006, I posted a review of this tea under the title "Sichuan Black" Tea from Imperial Tea Court. I ordered a small amount to try here again in February 2007. The tea has, alas, shape-shifted quite radically from that profile of April 2006. It has lost that Darjeeling-esque quality I previously referred to and is no longer showing the fruity-floral-toasty range with honey and spice. Instead, the cup characteristic is a flat earth-malt with only very light spicy notes.

As the tea cools slightly, the spicy notes do shuffle into the aroma, but reluctantly, like that student sent up to the blackboard to do a math problem in front of the class. The brighter qualities this tea had in April 2006 have dulled out, and the signature earth is more dominant. This tea's performance in 2006 encouraged me to seek it out again. What it is doing here in 2007 is just not particularly exciting.

Back in 2006, the Sichuan Black was a China black tea that actually made me think of the flavor notes I experienced in a Castleton Estate 2nd Flush Darjeeling yet with the mellow character I associate more often with a China black tea. Whatever distinguished it in 2006 just isn't there in this particular 2007 tea.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

READER'S CORNER: corax on beatrice hohenegger's liquid jade

[EDITOR'S NOTE: with this entry we inaugurate what we hope will be an ongoing, if not always frequent, feature of CHA DAO: reviews of books that are relevant, in one way or another, to china teas. we begin here with a very recent release, but we expect to be delving into older works as well.]

beatrice hohenegger. LIQUID JADE: the story of tea from east to west. NY: st martin's press 2007. xxx + 326 pp. ISBN: 0312333285.

hohenegger's [hereafter 'H'] new book is a most welcome addition to the shelf of literature on tea, particularly asian teas. indeed for aficionados of this blog, LIQUID JADE is spang on-topic.

as is often the case with labors of love, H did not originally intend to write this book as it now exists. she began, instead, with the intention of researching the opium trade and its baleful effects on chinese culture [p. xi]. but she soon found herself lured into the fascinating history of cha dao, from its earliest mythic beginnings down to the present day. she has laid out her material under four broad headings, as follows.

part 1 ['from east ...'] explores some of the earliest origins of camellia sinensis, and its use in brewing a beverage, in china and japan. you will find some [if not all] of the usual suspects here: shen nong; lu yu; gloved virgins plucking tea-leaves at dawn; the tea/horse trade; the eyelids of bodhidharma; and the rituals of the cha no yu. of particular interest to this reader was the explicit connection drawn between tea culture and the daoist tradition, as well as the connection to zen buddhism.

part 2 ['... to west'] narrates 'the traumatic encounter and clash of cultures between east and west' [pp. xi-xii]. here is where we learn more about 'the opium factor,' as H calls it, and the way in which china was approached by occidental traders on the hunt for exotic goods such as silks and spices. [occidentals, i fear, come out looking rather bad in this squalid chapter of history.] reciprocally, H spends a good deal of time documenting how, where, and when tea began to impact western culture. her narrative is lightened by such irresistible diversions as an account of how the east/west porcelain trade parallelled [and complemented] the tea trade; a brief history of the willow pattern made popular by josiah spode and others; and the exciting story of the clipper-ship races from england to china and back.

part 3 ['curiosities, obscurities, misnomers, and facts'] is what H describes as 'a small, and certainly not comprehensive, collection of diverse and informative topics around tea' [xii]. here you will find items, for example, on the discovery of the tea plant; the etymology of the word tea; anecdotes on tea customs ['milk in first?']; the origins of iced tea and the tea-bag; notes on caffeine content and on misnomers such as the widespread use [in the USA] of the term 'high tea'; and some data on the role of tea in sustaining health.

in part 4 ['tea today: the people and the earth'], H explores 'contemporary issues and circumstances around today's tea trade .... what is the state of things in the world of tea today? in what practical ways can we in the west begin to address the social inequities initiated by colonialism and perpetuated in today's trade practices? and what is the condition of the earth, of a soil dried out and deadened by decades of chemical agriculture in the large tea plantations?' [p. xii]

the conception of H's chapters is sensible and clear. she knows how to organize her information, how to present it, how to embellish the larger flow of prose with the occasional small fillip of information, and how to keep sight of both the forest and the trees. there is also a lot of meticulous learning underpinning this text, although she never belabors that point. to take a single example: hei cha and pu'er cha are not in fact the same thing, though most people [including many chinese] group them in the same category; it is clear [p. 203] that H understands the distinction between them, though she does not make heavy weather of it.

the four main sections of the text are followed by an epilogue in which H follows up on ideas introduced much earlier -- the possibility that there can be a philosophical or even a spiritual dimension to the drinking of tea. H calls this 'tea meditation,' and in less than two full pages she sketches -- with exceedingly light touch -- what the experience of 'tea meditation with friends' might be like. the epigraph to this section cites the japanese proverb ichigo ichie -- 'one time, one meeting' -- which is the heart and soul of H's idea here.

there follow two appendices: the first offers a list of imperial chinese dynasties and key japanese historical periods; the second, a parallel romanization table rendering her most commonly-used chinese terms according to both the hanyu pinyin and wade-giles transliteration systems. next comes a section of end-notes, keyed [without numerals in the main text] to the appropriate chapter and page. the book concludes with an extensive and useful bibliography, and an index.

the volume itself is a pleasure to hold, designed with dimensions approximating the golden section, and cleanly printed on creamy paper. it is furnished with numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout, many of which images i had not seen anywhere else. [as the back dust-jacket flap advises us, H is curating 'a traveling museum exhibition on the history and culture of tea, slated to open in 2009 at the fowler museum at UCLA'; so she knows a thing or two about the power of the graphic image.]

in sum, this is an engaging and informative book, produced with both elegance and care. it manages to be thematically substantial without miring the reader in pedantry. it is written in a lucid and readable style that occasionally attains to real eloquence; my rather nuts-and-bolts account here does nothing to suggest the charm of H's prose, which is compulsively readable. moreover, without the slightest heavy-handedness, H gracefully negotiates the tricky balance of social conscience [and even metaphysical awareness] against the luxuries of sensory aesthetic delight. if i had been H's editor, the only real change i would have urged upon her would have been to transliterate chinese words using hanyu pinyin instead of the wade-giles system [though she has thought even about this, as evidenced in appendix B]. but this is to cavil. make no mistake: this is one of the very best books on tea to appear in a long time.

more about H [including a schedule of public appearances] at her website, liquidjade.com.

-- corax

Saturday, March 03, 2007

corax on yangxian hong

if you brew a lot of oolong or pu'er, chances are that you have taken to doing so in either a gaiwan [cha zhong] or in one of those cunning little clay teapots made of zisha ['purple sand'], the most famous of which have been made -- for hundreds of years now -- in yixing [宜兴], a county-level city in jiangsu province. the humblest of these, poured from slip rather than moulded by hand, can be had [even in USA] for less than the price of a meal; the most skilfully-made of them can command hundreds or even thousands of dollars; it is a dangerous addiction to begin collecting them. they have been a source of study since at least 1640, when in the ming dynasty one zhou gaochi wrote his treatise 'on yixing teapots' [阳羡茗壶系]. today the most exacting collectors will insist on certificates identifying the pot's provenance, its date of creation, and the name [perhaps also the photograph] of the potter, who hovers somewhere between the status of artisan and that of artist.

tales and legends abound in connection with these pots. my favorite is the one about how the emperor of china, traveling [as he was wont to do] incognito, was received in the humble cottage of a peasant, who of course hastened to serve tea as he would to any guest. he took his old zisha pot from its stand and filled it with boiling water. when he filled the cup, the brew was so astonishingly good that the emperor could not contain himself. 'this tea is extraordinary!' he exclaimed. 'where did you get it?' to which the peasant replied, 'i used no tea at all. i am too poor to buy more tea. but this pot has been in my family for generations; over the years, it has seen so many potsful of tea that now, i merely have to fill it with hot water and it makes tea.'

the tale, while surely apocryphal, is ben trovato. whether or not this incident ever actually occurred, the narrative serves to remind us that zisha is highly sought after on account of its porosity. traditionally unglazed inside and out, it indubitably does absorb the essential oils [and some of the pigmentation] of the liquor -- and arguably, thus, some of the flavor of the tea brewed in it. those who love zisha teapots swear that once they have been 'cured' [or 'seasoned' or 'raised'] with one particular type of tea [shu pu'er, say, or da hong pao], each subsequent potful of that tea is noticeably richer, more nuanced, and just better than a tea made in a new pot [or in a non-porous vessel such as one made of porcelain or glass].

these pots come in a myriad of sizes, from very small -- an ounce or two in capacity -- to great family-sized pots. they come in even more shapes: indeed it is no exaggeration to consider their making as an art-form in itself, a type of ceramic sculpture. anything that can be fashioned of clay, and fired successfully in a kiln, is fair game for a zisha teapot. these creations will range from the purest, simplest, and most austere shapes to the extremes of fanciful and outlandish.

they also come in a variety of colors. the commonest are, well, what you would call 'clay-colored': hongni [红泥] or 'red mud,' and zini [紫泥] or 'purple mud.' but one can also find pots made of duanni [缎泥], usually yellowish; luni [绿泥], 'green mud'; and heini [黑泥], 'black mud.' [these colors can occur naturally, but the occurrence is rare, and the pottery is correspondingly expensive. more commonly the colors are the result of, shall we say, chromatic enhancement by the potter.]

the famous 'vermilion' or zhuni [朱泥] clay, so prized for the making of unglazed teapots in yixing, is now reported to be extinct [though some potters are rumored to be hoarding unused stores of it still]; but other types of zisha, as mentioned above, are still commonly dug and used for the pots, and it's quite possible to purchase one, at a reasonable price, that will perform very well for you. indeed you can do so without leaving your computer: a simple search on ebay will direct you to numerous vendors, including yunnan sourcing, 5000 friends, chinese teapot gallery, and pots & else. [off ebay, be sure also to check out jing tea shop, teaspring, silk road trade, and asia chi -- just for starters.]

* * *

have you ever wondered what sort [or sorts] of tea the potters of those pots prefer to drink from them? i suppose it doesn't necessarily follow that those who craft the pots will infallibly know which tea is best brewed in them; but i surmised nevertheless that those who are around such peculiar teapots all day, every day, might know a thing or two about how to take them out for a spin.

it struck me that if the good potters of yixing should happen to favor one particular type of tea, this would be almost the 'eponymous' tea of yixing pots. i consulted a colleague, a true aficionado and collector of both china teas and zisha teapots, and sure enough, it turns out that the yixing potters do in fact drink one tea almost exclusively. it may surprise you to learn that it is neither a wulong nor a pu'er cha, but in fact a hong cha: a 'red' tea [what the english call 'black']. it is known [by one of yixing's ancient names, 阳羡] as yangxian hong cha. this tea is generally not even available outside of yixing itself; there is indeed little call for it except to stock the private reserves of the yixing potters, as this region of china drinks mostly green tea.

my colleague, who is as generous as he is learned, went further still, and supplied me with yangxian hong from three different sources: grand tea, taishuanhe, and a third unnamed source [call these #1, 2, and 3 respectively]. i thus had the luxury of undertaking a cup-to-cup comparison of three different yangxian hongs.

<<< yangxian hong no. 1

the dry leaf was worth inspecting. you will see from the photos here that #1 and 2 look remarkably alike -- enough so that i could believe they came from the same garden. #3 is noticeably different -- the leaf-size is smaller than in the other two, and there are gold tips in it, whereas #1 and 2 are pretty much monochromatic.

<<< yangxian hong no. 2

i prepared all three at the same time, each in a porcelain gaiwan [not a yixing pot -- i wanted to experience each one on equal ground, as it were, its own flavor pristine and unmingled] -- four grammes of tea to four ounces of water. the temperature was about 185°F. the infusion was for a full three minutes. they were immediately decanted into good-sized plain white porcelain sipping cups.

<<< yangxian hong no. 3

with three or more exemplars of any given type of tea, it is possible to look not only for what distinguishes them one from another, but possibly also what is the common thread that unites them in their genre. in my tasting, i was indeed able to discern a common flavor among these three teas. and, not surprisingly, some differences as well. all three of them evince the sort of nutty/toasty sweetness that one finds in a good keemun, but not that 'dying rose' fragrance [to borrow a metaphor from norwood pratt] that characterizes the high-end 'hao ya' keemuns. #1 and 2 shared a nutty flavor, though this was more pronounced in #1, whereas #2 had rather [or was it my imagination? i did go back and forth between sipping cups, several times, to check this] a floral note not noticed in #1. and #3 had the most vivid cocoa flavor of any of them.

interestingly, despite the markedly different appearance of the dry leaf in #3, all three teas produced a liquor of virtually identical color: a strong dark-red brew, somewhat duller than the sheen one finds on a top-grade dian hong. the infused leaves brought yet another surprise: #1 and 3 looked more alike than #2, though [based on the dry leaf] i would have expected identical aspect for #1 and 2. the one thing that did remain the same in #1 and 2 is that one can see some of these leaves are a bit longer. those in #3 are uniformly quite small.

* * *

this is not the most distinguished tea to come out of china. true to its quotidian employ, it is an honest workaday red tea. apart from the keemun, i was reminded of other fairly ordinary hong cha, the kind one might source from sichuan or fujian. i could happily drink this one daily, though i am sure i would also find myself yearning for other flavors as well. but it was a memorable experience to be able to taste the tea that the potters of yixing insist on brewing in the very pots they make. it was like a wee trip to yixing itself, a momentary journey to the pottery markets where, surrounded by shelves and boxes of pots, cups, trays, and other unglazed ceramic teaware, i might glimpse the potter pausing to refresh himself with a cup of this fragrant red tea.

it also made me think back to the legend of the emperor and the peasant. in pondering this oral tradition about the special virtue of unglazed clay teapots, so imbued with tea essence that just to fill them with boiling water will induce them to create a pot of tea, i cannot help but wonder whether it reflects the practice of using zisha pots to brew this very yangxian hong cha. certainly the residue from a tea this rich, thick, and dark would infuse hot water with something more immediately recognizable as 'tea' than a paler wulong, for example; more so still than a green or white tea. but such speculation must forever remain precisely that. what is possible for us is to enjoy our tea daily in such a pot, and to observe how patient daily use will, over time, turn it into something entirely different: a vessel capable of affecting the very brew it produces. in that way, it can become an integral, and beloved, part of the tea experience.