21 March 2009. What an amazing start to a tea tour! We received a background education at the Lu Yu Tea Museum and were treated to a private tea ceremony. In Changxing, we interrupted the wedding preparations of Mr Wong. The Purple Bamboo master took us into the bamboo forest (we met harvesters along the trail) and up into his wild tea gardens on Gu Zhu Mountain. His mother and aunt showed us how they process the tea in woks and how a fire is stoked to keep the wok to the perfect temperature.
22 March 2009. Overnight rains clung to the tea bushes of Mrs Qian Qun Ying An Ji Bai Cha’s tea garden. We suited up in huge plastic rain pants, tied tea baskets around our waists, hiked up the tea hills and learned the delicate method of snapping the bud and one leaf from the plant. With much direction from real tea pickers, we sort-of got the hang of it. After lunch, we headed to the mechanized tea processing factory where workers started up drying machines and put a batch of tea through some of the drying processes. Dinner was at Mrs Qian Qun Ying’s amazing tea house. See photo of tray with many different dishes including bamboo shoots and wild vegetables harvested while we were picking tea.
23 March 2009. We walked through the loquat, chestnut, ornamental and fruiting plum, and peach trees not yet blooming. When in full bloom, they all contribute to the flavor and aroma of Bi Lou Chun which are planted throughout the trees. Tea pickers showed us their method – much less specific than the method we’d been taught yesterday. There is a cleaning step that the leaves go through before frying; all but the first leaf and bud is removed from what has been harvested. Mr Lu started with the usual batch of 650 grams and roasted the leaves – varying his crushing and turning of the leaves depending on their moisture level, but always going clock-wise – for about 40 minutes. You better believe we drank the tea that he made. Still hot from being fired, the leaves immediately sank to the bottom of the hot water.
24 March 2009. After a local green tea served from her own work, Zhao Min Ming showed us how to hand-form a pot. Instead of using a wheel, she pounded chunks of clay flat and cut them into circles and other shapes. She then formed the body, spout, handle and lid with bamboo, water buffalo antler, wooden and metal tools. Her husband, Mr Tang, took us around the China Yi Xing Pottery Museum that was full of ancient and modern pottery. A short walk brought us to the top of an old kiln dragon. Once home to over 40 such kilns, Yi Xing now has only two remnants of these dragon-like kilns that begin at the base of the hill with a parent fire and travel upwards, ending at the top of the hill with a chimney that draws the heat upwards through 200 meters of kiln. At one meter intervals along both sides of the kiln are fire holes where workers took direction from a leader and stoked the fires. Back to Zhao Min Ming’s studio, we energized with black tea from Mr Tang’s family and set to a purchasing frenzy of pots, gaiwans, and a cool frog that changed color when hot water is poured over it. Over another amazing dinner, Mr Tang told us stories of his youth – seeing the dragons light up from afar and then joining others watching over the process to make sure nearby houses did not catch fire, playing hide-and-seek among the piles of pine ready for the firing of the dragon and his fear that the last two kilns would be ruined by land development efforts.
25 March. We started the day with a hike up to visit Lu Yu’s Tomb at Miao Xi Temple in Huzhou. Zhuping’s friend, Mr Da Cha (such a lover of tea, he changed his name!) guided us through an appreciation ceremony at Lu Yu’s tomb. We spent the afternoon wandering the streets, old homes and canals (on a small boat) of Nanxun – a city lined renowned for its silk trade affluence during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
We’re having a great time enjoying Chinese tea, culture and food. Zhuping works wonders ordering food that is at the same time local and appetizing to our Western pallets. She makes sure to order wild harvested vegetables (most only available in the spring and some for only a couple of weeks) and local delacacies. She remembers our favorites (eggplant) and works around food preferences (no worries about MSG and happy vegetarians).