Archive for Tea
Hangzhou at Holiday or National Day here in China (see News story in the China View) is an experience in crowd control.Â If you have every been in South Beach Florida during Spring break you will know what I am talking about.Â Disneyland could not be busier on the 4th of July than the West Lake district of Hangzhou during National Day festivities that are just beginning here in China.
“October 1st in the year 1949 Chairman Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China and waved the first five-star PRC flag. The PRC’s National Day was declared at three o’clock on October 1, 1949, in front of 300,000 people during a ceremony in Tian’anmen Square” according to an About.com news story.
Traveling to Hangzhou from shanghai a day before the National Day was pleasant with relatively light traffic and overcast sky’s.Â Arriving in Hangzhou the weather in the West Lake district was decidedly cooler than Shanghai which was a treat.Â The following day, Monday, was the beginning of the National Day week holiday season and travel within the city slowed appreciably.Â The grid lock in the intersections between the buses and cabs with the pedestrians that are constantly criss-crossing the streets was chaos for drivers.Â Fortunately, traveling up Longjing Road to the hillside above Hangzhou was less of a mess than the traffic jams down by the lake proper.Â We were able to visit a local tea farm for lunch and enjoy a lazy cup of Longjing tea at 50 RMB a cup!Â The exchange rate is for the yen is 6.75 RMB to a U.S. dollar currently so figure that at about 7 bucks a cup twice the expense of a Starbucks coffee.
As I mentioned in a previous post, West Lake Dragon Well tea, grown on the hills surrounding the city, is Hangzhouâ€™s specialty. From growing it to writing poetry about it, Hangzhou green tea is consumed almost everywhere throughout China and abroad being highly prized where ever tea effectionados gather. Longjing can be ordered on-line from a very good tea shop in Arizona called Seven Cups.
High grade Dragon Well is expensive often displayed in luxury shops like jewelry. Yet many of the poorest local people consider drinking green tea a necessity.Â Hangzhou’s Longjing display’s its brilliant emerald green spears like leaves, especially in the Spring, boasting about three quarter inch long spikes.Â These treasured leaves are renowned throughout China for their beauty.Â Just recently I discovered that Longjing tea has 7 grades, really!Â So even the poorest can afford a lower grade of green tea.Â Tea made into tea bags is the leavings and sweeping of the sticks off of the floor, junk really for the uninitiated.Â There is a very good description of Longjing Dragon Well tea found at TeaGenius.com
Some of the data I gathered about the very long history of tea culture in Hangzhou was highlighted when Hangzhou was the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty 1127 – 1279. The Teahouses of Hangzhou are reported to have been decorated with fresh flowers and famous paintings to create a place of relaxation and pleasure for the guests at the tea house. Besides rare varieties of green teas, plum wine was served in the winter.Â What raised the Longjing Dragon Well green tea to be the most famous of Chinese green teas was the esteem of an eighteenth century emperor who visited Hangzhou and appointed a small patch of 18 tea trees to be his special tea garden.Â See the Teagenous for more infomation on Hangzhou green tea.
This morning we are traveling to Hangzhou by car.Â The couple hour drive to the East and a little South will take us to the lovely valley and the West Lake of Hangzhou.Â According to the Lonely Planet, Hangzhou is one of the most traveled to spots in China:
HÃ¡ngzhÅu, capital of ZhÃ¨jiÄng, is one of Chinaâ€™s most famous tourist sites. Located at the southern end of the Grand Canal and surrounded by fertile farmlands, the city has been a significant cultural centre for hundreds of years. Modern-day HÃ¡ngzhÅu, with its characterless architecture, has little to differentiate it from other Chinese cities. The main reason for coming here is to visit the legendary West Lake (XÄ« HÃº), a true beauty in the midst of a concrete jungle.
For Me the main reason to visit Hangzhou is for the tea.Â The Dragon Well or Longjing tea which is grown and roasted in Hangzhou is popular everywhere in China where tea is treasured.Â There are few places in the world that enjoy Hangzhouâ€™s reputation for tea.Â Think Napa Valley for wine and Hangzhou for tea.
Tea is used for daily drinking and for special occasions here in China.Â As an example, on the first day of the Chinese lunar new year a cup of spring tea is offered to the Goddess of Mercy in wish of yearlong well-being; another old custom is the gift of tea to the parents of a bride to confirm marital relations.
The tea houses that line West Lake and huddle in the valleys of surrounding hills of Hangzhou offer tea that has to be experienced. Every trip we make to China always includes a trip to the Hangzhou valley and a visit to the tea houses that are up country in the hills surrounding the valley.Â Brews of tea are not cheap, but the price of a pot buys hours of lazing around, a favorite activity of locals and visitors as well.Â We will be having lunch up-country and I will post some pictures.Â We are late in the tea season but its still worth the trip to Hangzhou.
Green Tea is harvested in two main seasons according to my father-in-law a tea connoisseur.Â The first and best tea is harvested “before the rains” in Spring time up until April the second week of May (referenced by The Leaf article Mary Lou Heiss) which starts the Monsoon Season.Â The second tier harvest is “after the rain” from June till about now in late September.Â So the tea that is available now is of lesser quality than the fresh Spring “before the rain” tea but its what we got so it will be enjoyed very much.Â Over the past seven years drinking real tea and listening to the experts like my “Baba” Jennifer’s dad, I have developed a real discrimination for good tea.Â There is nothing worse than a wine snob unless its a tea boor.Â I try to stay away from snobbery but definitely stay away from ignorance first.
So its off to the car and a 2 1/2 hour drive to Tea Heaven.
Our trip to Hangzhou will include a visit to the hospital for Jennifer’s Uncle who has been ill for the past two years with prostate cancer.Â Jo is now every bit of 90 years old and doesn’t get around much.Â After we pay our respects and spend some time catching up with the family in Hangzhou we will hit the road for the hills.
The clay tea pot center of the world is a hundred miles plus north west of Shanghai in the small town of Yixing. The history of Yixing clay pots is reported to date back to the Ming dynasty when the special qualities of the clay found here were first appreciated. Archeologists have found pottery shards in the area of Yixing from as far back as the Neolithic age – thats about 5000 years ago. The mining of Yixing clay and the tradition of pottery making in this region is a very old one and rooted in the history of China. Most scholars attribute the founding of the Yixing tea ware to monks during the Song Dynasty (960 A.D – 1368 A.D.) while the art of Yixing pottery (tea pots) reached its peak during the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D. – 1911 A.D.).
Over the centuries the technology of tea pot creation has changed very little but each generation of potters has built on tradition of those who have gone before. Currently the artistry of tea pot creation has evolved, become richer and more varied leaving the traditional forms which I love the best. At this time of individualizm in China the emphasis in clay pot creation is less technological and more artistic. The Yixing clay artists of today strive to capture a mood, idea or story in the simple lines of the Yixing tea ware. Of course there are production pots but my interest is with the Master artist level creations.
Today was a wonderful day and my first visit to this artist haven in Yixing. The full story will follow after a bit of research. I would not be guilty of passing out false information….hahahahah.
Our neighbor Zhou Zong Qi here in Shanghai has been an art collector and antique affectionado for many years. One of his passions has been the special Yixing Master level clay pots. As will be discovered there are many levels of clay pot production from consumer goods to grand Master works of extreme value. Just imagine a David Hockney original in your posession. Stirs the imagination doesn’t it a bit. The fortunate thing was that Mr. Zhou aggreed to accompany us in our quest of Yixing clay tea pots and took us to the Master artist Pan Jun’s studio in Yixing for a look see. Mr. Pan is a mid-level Master who has studied under his father and both of his in-laws – all considered high level Masters – not the highest but after 50 years are well known and their chops are respected. What we found was an impressive display of art work at prices that were manageable – high but manageable. I was able to purchase two wonderful pots while I lusted after several others as well from the Baba Master (Pan Jun’s father). Next year Jennifer says I can get a couple more. In fact our Master artist host Mr. Pan invited me to stay with him and his family for a couple of weeks to learn the basics of Yixing clay pot construction. What a gift that is. Next year when we return to Shanghai I will take a side trip to Yixing and spend a week or so with him and get up to my elbows in clay.
There are many links on the web that describe the special qualities of Yixing clay and report the history of these wonderful little pots. After collecting them haphazardly for the past 5 years now I am hooked on the higher level of these art pieces. Here are some of the links that I have found:
A couple more pictures from flickr are here.
Hangzhou China is the green tea capital of the world and the capital of Zhejiang province. . Maybe that is too much to say. Maybe another way to think of Hangzhou and green tea is to consider the Napa Valley and fine wine. Some of the greatest wines are now harvested and produced in Napa Valley north of San Francisco. In the same way the green tea know as Dragon Well or Longin comes from the Hangzhou valley. We were fortunate enough this trip to China to take a few days and revisit this enchanted place. Two hours by train and 180 kilometers later after leaving Shanghai we were greeted at the train station by Jennifer’s cousin Fung Fung. We spent the next three days and two nights entertained and dined to Hangzhou’s finest.
We took a trip to visit the Temple overlooking the Hangzhou West Lake were we again lit incense in gratitude for a great year and future bounty as well as to petition for health and recovery for Jo Ni Ni. Jennifer’s Uncle Jo Ni Ni at age 86 is again in the hospital for a recurrence of a bladder cancer that he has struggled with for the past 10 years. The Hangzhou valley proper is hidden among the hills and requires a trip up a winding road.
The day we visited the higher mountains the muggy air felt oppressive near the lake but up at the tea Chateau we have frequented in the past the air was cool and fresh. Chickens with their wings cut wander though the tea fields fattening themselves and running quickly lest the pot catch them. Our lunch at the Tea Chateau found one of them in a broth that was incredible. They say chickens fed among the tea bushes of Hangzhou are the tenderest and most delicious. I can not dispute this. Our lunch was finished with an outside fresh pot of Longin tea sweet and fragrant. I have to say that the last time we visited was nearer the spring and the fresh crop so the tea now in late fall is not as fragrant but still refreshingly wonderful. We are bringing back a few kilos of fresh Dragon Well from the Hangzhou valley. All of the pictures can be viewed at flickr.