By the end of March, spring has sprung in central China. It is a time of new growth, youth and life.
Pond on the island in Xihu (West Lake), Hanzhou, Zhejiang Province near the home of Dragon Well (Longjing) Tea
Nevertheless, it is on April 5 each year that the Chinese pay homage to their dead. April 5 is tomb-sweeping day, the holiday Qingming [pronounced "chingming"]. The most valuable teas in China are picked before that date; and premium tea from the spring is accordingly called pre-qingming tea. Pre-qingming is the first flush of growth after winter: tender, beautiful leaves that, during steeping, display the youth, beauty and promise of spring, with all of its gentle aromatic excitement. The Chinese are still the biggest consumers of pre-qingming tea, and North Americans are largely unaware of young growth tea and the esteem in which it is held by the cognoscenti.
Fresh shoots on Xihu Longjing bushes beneath Longjing Village March 27 2014
On the hills, the local and migrant pickers move quietly among the rows, visible in the distance by their large straw hats glinting in the sun. They descend the winding paths for lunch and again at the end of day, like ants taking a favoured route down the side of an ant hill.
Tea picking at Shifeng (Lion's Peak) near Longjing Village
Below the hill tops, at the homes of the tea growers, the front of the ground floor does double duty as a store front. There you will see Chinese tea lovers buying for their families and often for their own small retail businesses, sampling the tea in plain glass cups by taste, smell and visually, discerning the subtle differences between tea picked on one day in late March and tea picked a week later and offered to them at very different prices.
Freshly picked, cured and infused tea for us to taste at a tea grower's house in Longjing Village
In the area near Hangzhou where Longjing (Dragon Well) green tea is grown, the customers may be served their tea by the women while the men cure a batch of tea beside them, stirring gently with a bare hand in the hot cone-shaped curing pan, adding a few drops of walnut oil from time to time. The Longjing tea from the Shifeng mountain is very valuable, and we buy from a grower who is proud to have 5 mu of land under cultivation, of which they have owned 3 for generations. Since a mu of land is 0.165 acres, the family's land holdings would not be capable of subsistence farming here in Canada, but the family's house is modern, spacious and clean and there can be no doubt about the financial viability of their tea growing.
Our shy tea-grower pan-firing Longjing by hand at the front of his house
In the Fuding area of Fujian Province, where white tea is grown, first we visit the famous picturesque mountain of Tai Mu Shan around which the tea is grown.
Taimushan where Silver Needle, a Fuding White tea, is grown
This tea requires natural air drying when weather permits; otherwise it needs a furnace or oven to finish the process. Consumers and wholesalers therefore generally buy from processors who have large furnaces fueled by blocks of coal, rather than buying from the individual farmers who sell their tea before processing. In the nearby town of Dianto, the processors are family run operations occupying several consecutive blocks and on a sunny day the tea is pre-dried on the street on large trays with a bamboo frame, and finished on racks exposed to the hot-air furnace.
Fuding White Tea Drying on Racks in the street at Dianto, Fuding, Fujian Province
The Silver Needle tea from the area is famous across the world. The needle shape of the leaves (resembling a silvery fir or spruce needle) is attributable to the tea being picked before the leaf has unfurled. The white tea from the leaves which have matured to the point of unfurling is called MuDan, and like many tea varieties in China can be bought loose or in a pressed cake.
In Anji, in Zhejiang province, the tea is confusingly known as Anji White tea, but is actually a green tea as it is cured by more than air drying. It has a pleasant flavour and a beautiful appearance loved by young Chinese. From the centre of the model plantation in the nearby village of Dazewu, the view throughout a 360 degree rotation is of nothing but curvaceous, almost sensual tea hills.
The model tea plantation in Dazewu, Anji, Zhejiang Province
In the village we are accosted by a dynamo of a woman who draws us into and through her house to the processing building at the back. This woman, whom I will call "Qun", refuses to sell to us unless we come to a lunch with her and some of her other customers from neighbouring Jiangsu Province. Her lunch is at the village restaurant and involves about 15 varied dishes, certainly big enough that no rice is served. She acts as our host for the whole day driving us around the village at breakneck speeds in her new white Cadillac, while talking on the phone constantly and giving orders to her many workers. She has about 100 Mus under cultivation. Qun is not alone in the village in having a side-line of processing some of her tea in the manner of Longjing (by flattening it at an early stage of processing). Qun is not misleading her customers, as she openly tells us that the tea being used for that purpose is the same as that being processed and sold as Anji White. The flattened variety is marketed within China as White Longjing but is not a true Longjing tea.
Tea pickers on the road in Dazewu in front of Qun's car
Chinese travel to Longjing village, Dianto, Dazewu and countless other tea growing areas to buy their fresh tea. The customers load up on their selected tea, often from the same grower or processor from whom they have bought for years. They may stay for a meal or get on their way quickly to another destination as circumstances warrant. But in either case, by the end of the day, the expedition to buy the early tea has satisfied its purposes. It has guaranteed the buyers that the tea is of the highest quality and they have incidentally enjoyed an outing, sometimes with family members, with sights to see, tea to drink and prices to haggle over.
Teenager shows us her turtle at Longjing Village
This period from about March 20 to April 5 is but a brief moment of the year. It is one of exquisite taste, smells and sights.
Magnolia and Meat in Longjing (Dragon Well) Village
We felt honoured to witness it this year. It is one that we will look back upon with satisfaction many times during the year as we drink our pre-qingming tea. We hope our photos have allowed you to share in some of our experience.
Peter and Stella
All photos and text copyright of Mateasse Inc.