TEA TRAVEL STORIES
Travel and first hand experience has certainly been at the center of my passion for tea and I needed to discover as much as I could about this refreshingly simple brew of tiny leaves floating in my tea strainer or teapot. It is imbued with well over 3,000 years of history, technique, botany, geography, trade routes, and of course world cultures. Teatime has found itself to be a unique pause in the daily routine to be served or to be taken for many reasons, such as an expression of hospitality, or as a part of a business transaction, or as a reflective respite.
Roadways to some of the best tea plantations coursed up through steep mountains. It is terraces and hillside planting which help contain the run-off of frequent rain, and the rain, which mists the tea plants for multiple flushes. It was on the Dewata Tea Estate where our tour included the processing facility, and the tea taste testing facility where we donned white suits and booties to ensure each facility met the highest quality standards. Our host extended the greatest hospitality and included a picnic near the plantation’s spring water facility, and where trees are planted in honor of guests, both contributing to the environmental conservation mission of Dewata.
It was in this pursuit of my passion that I quite logically began to purvey the fine teas in China, the country where the first tea trees blossomed into tea experiences. Partaking of tea in the Chinese manner opens the way for chatting and socializing to learn more about the tea plants, types, seasons, trade, preservation techniques and the beliefs of natural health benefits for tea drinkers.
China is considered by most to be the cradle of tea culture, tea travel. Could there be any better place to begin than on the Tea Horse Road? My Chinese-speaking cousin joined in as a travelling partner and the journeys began.
TEA PLUCKING PROCESS
It was in a tea garden near the town Dali near of Xizhou where we tried our hand at the age old tradition of hand plucking delicate tea leaves, gathering an hour’s worth. In the village home we crushed, rolled, and pan fired the leaves and took in the wonderful scent, like that of roasted nuts. When it was time to brew and serve, we gathered around the tea table, which was in fact a finely finished tree stump slab with twisted grain and natural divots.
The Xizhou, Yunnan tea trade included teas of all seasons. The cycles of tea budding new leaves is called a flush, closely coinciding with the lunar calendar and hence teas are celebrated and labeled as spring, summer, fall and winter. Seasonal Pue’er tea is a specialty of the Bai people. Age improves the taste of Pue’er and the annals of history tell stories of packing tea into cakes, to improve the horseback transport of tea. Who would have thought I would find my very own antique horse saddle?
The packing of Pue’er tea gave birth to useable art forms such as chairs, or household decor, or even towering sculptures. Who would have thought one could sit on a tea leaf settee?
POINT OF INTEREST, NO TEA INPUT
The tea horse route courses high up through the beautiful town of Lijiang, home of the Naxi people, nestled near the mountain ascent to the Snow Leopard Mountains. The gondola rides climbs to 1500 feet (4636 meters) above sea level. Naxi women are uniquely well known for loom weaving, and men for training falcons, and yak meat or butter is key to food dishes served, of course, with tea.
SHENG PUE’ER TEA DISKS & DIAN HONG
It was in Menghai, Yunnan province where while visiting small teashops, we tasted our first excellent Dian Hong tea and found our first Sheng Pue’er tea disk to age, weighted at 357 gm.. Aged tea plants standing for 100 years here are still plucked, and as such, those picking must climb up the trees to find the best leaves since the trees are not pruned or kept to specific heights. I wonder if climbing skills prepared the women for their cultural group dances that entertained us later?
PROCESSING TEA (DA HONG & LAPSANG SOUCHONG)
Immediately after harvest, tealeaves must be manually sorted to remove stems and graded for size and color. We fortuitously came upon Wuiyshan, a tea town dedicated to production of Da Hong Pao and Lapsang Souchong teas. Sharing the freshly harvested fragrant teas with Chinese ladies was delightful on all counts, meal included. Grading of the tea by the local cooperative assures quality taste and we discovered this first hand when we tasted not so delectable home grown tea at a village farm, unlike our American experience of where the freshest corn comes straight from the farmer!
Provinces through out China compete for excellence through sponsored annual tea exhibitions; teas are awarded as “best in year”, “best in province”, and “best in class”. Often referred to as Dragon Well, Long Jing tea comes from an ancient garden near Hangzhou, West Lake. It was here we found delightfully tasting tea in the home of a 3rd generation gardener of tea plants.
Tea is ceremonious in Hangzhou, where historically tea surrounded most business transactions and student study groups. To this day, a group could easily spend the better part of a day sipping and nibbling in a lovely teahouse filled with ancient or modern Chinese art, music, interior design, and tea customs.
TEA POTTERY/TEA SERVICE
Design and artistry in Chinese tea ware cannot be separated. Regional materials come to the forefront, and acclaimed local artists contribute to both historical and modern tea ware. It was in the Jingdezhen pottery school where we visited some of the oldest pottery kilns, now museums, and saw galleries and cafes, which feature famous teapot designs. It is no surprise that regional opinions about tea ware abound: which teas taste best in ceramic, pottery, or cast iron brewing?
Steeped in precision is one way to describe a Japanese tea ceremony. It takes the highest attention to detail for the preparation of ceremonial foods, the dress attire, and for the actual event itself. Japan offers picture perfect photo ops. Plan for a lengthier afternoon if a Japanese ceremony is in order. One of the valleys a bit outside of Nagoya features some exquisitely earthy signature hand thrown pottery and tea bowls fired in family run kilns.
Our search for tea cups took a house-to-house route in Korea. In the back of some kitchens, artists make and fire their own tea cups with pottery strainers fitting into the rim. Finding these few of a kind teacups for Chariteas was a reward unto itself.
Food and specialty items encompass teatime in so many countries, extremely so in Sri Lanka. Beautiful hills and climate nurture tea plants at the Matakellie Tea Plantation sets the tour on course with an in-factory guided tea tasting, all the while enveloped in the aroma of freshly harvested, pan fired and roasted black teas. Once a crown colony, tea purchases here are coursed through an elaborate auction system. The auction house features rooms for tea grades, plantation lots (batches) by name for quick sales/purchases/distribution. Famous estate names here include Kenilworth and John Keels.