Thursday, May 28, 2015

Da Yu Ling, sorrow and joy

The locations of Oolong plantations on Taiwan's highest tea mountain, Da Yu Ling, are known by the number of kilometers on the Road #8. Here, for example, we have the sign for the 103 K(ilometer) mark. And I remember clearly taking some wonderful shots of the nearby plantation some 4 years ago very early in the morning.
I shall never forget the density and luminosity of the morning blue sky. It felt like NYC! Big tea bushes, tall white trees. Everything feels bigger, brighter and more energetic in Da Yu Ling!

This week, I drove back to 103K with all these memories in my head.
The sky was still blue, but the tea trees are gone,
they are gone, uprooted. (Partis, disparus, y'a plus!)
The leases on these lands expired and the government took them back. The primary reason for this action is to prevent erosion. That's why trees have been planted instead.
This didn't come as a surprise. I had received a warning by tea farmers in Alishan. They told me that Da Yu Ling plantations are being closed and that this impacts the volume (less) and price (higher) of Oolong from this famous tea mountain. I had to see it by myself to really believe somebody would do such a thing. It's a very strange experience: my brain kept on bringing up images of the majestic tea bushes in my mind, but I couldn't match them with what my eyes were seeing.
This uprooting of tea trees isn't just limited to the 103K location. It also took place at 104K.
And around 101K we can also see the uprooted lines of trees from a distance:
The good news is there are still a few remaining plantations on Da Yu Ling. There, the leases have not expired, yet, or they are outside the area to protect.

The access to these high plantations remains very difficult and tiring. So, to get to the one near 100K, you need to use a little train on a monorail!
Who wants a ride?

The view from a Da Yu Ling Oolong plantation is magnificent and not something you forget easily!
How long can we still enjoy Oolong from Da Yu Ling? Who knows? So let's drink it while we still have the opportunity! That's why, this spring, I selected 3 different lots from Da Yu Ling:

These are the leaves from the 100K plantation.

Cultivar: qingxin (ruanzhi) Oolong
Harvested by hand on May 12th, 2015.
Elevation: 2500 meters!

The color theme for my Chaxi is sky blue! The leaves touch the sky and we're almost in heaven! This is how it feels hiking in the plantation and how it should feel drinking this tea.

As you can see, I don't use many leaves, but I do use my silver teapot, which helps get more out of the leaves (thanks to its heat conductivity).
The cups are my light celadon singing cups. Today, I'm using the big model. 3 cups are a good fit for the 20 cl teapot.
 The tea feels pure, energetic, sweet...
 Simply perfect.
 The fine energy of spring on Da Yu Ling.
So good that cups are emptied before I have time to take my shot!
Perfect score for this 100K!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Good morning Lishan!

In late spring in Taiwan, a common weather pattern is sunshine in the morning and clouds in the afternoon. So, this Tuesday, I got up at 3:30 AM to drive to Lishan in order to take these pictures of Taiwan's highest tea plantations! Alone on the small mountain road, it feels like a privilege to experience the beauty of these amazing landscapes. "The world belongs to those who get up early" is a popular saying in France and it never felt more true for me!
It's a feeling of something new, like the very first sip from the newest tea you have just received. It's fresh and crisp, full of energy. Just like my early morning touring of Lishan plantations.
Turning tea passion into a blog and later into a new career, I always thought I had chosen a peaceful and calm activity. Driving on mountain roads can be a little bit dangerous, but not when you are well rested. Drinking tea is good for your health! However, that day I found out that tea can also extremely dangerous. This is what I encountered while walking in the tea mountain:
Always wear trousers and good shoes! And look where you're walking! This snake didn't prevent me from visiting more plantations that morning, but I decided to have tea under this safe pavilion after my lunch.
I found this nice spot on top of Fushou Shan, which is also the top of Lishan. From there, I had a nice view on the Oolong plantations and on the nearby mountains.

So, I decided to brew some leaves I had taken with me: this winter's Da Yu Ling Oolong! I was wondering how this 2000 m + Oolong tastes at 2500 meters altitude. It would be different than at my place, because the water would boil at a lower temperature at this elevation (91.6 degrees Celcius only)!
Being outdoors also contributed that I use more leaves than usual. As expected, the tea felt very different. Softer and lighter. It also cooled down much faster.
The connection with the mountain and the air was perfect! I called it the 'trinitea' of Taiwan high mountain Oolong: a view of Lishan, on top of Fushou Shan and tasting Da Yu Ling!
My Chaxi:
- green color Chabu for spring,
- a simple porcelain gaiwan that is easy to carry and neutral in taste,
- classic qingbai cups that add a green touch to the brew,
- pewter Cha Tuo for a touch of elegance,
- a black glazed bowl by Michel François. It hides the waste water with grace, like a dark mountain.
Experiencing how different this tea tasted here, I knew I had to be very careful when tasting Oolongs in Lishan. It's easier to judge when you don't drastically change your testing environment. But it's still an unforgettable tea experience!
So, I didn't select any Lishan Oolong while I was on Lishan. But I did select one that I tested back at my place. I compared it to other spring Oolongs and liked it a lot. You can read more about its sweet aftertaste here. (It's only 1 week old and it could be in your cup in one more week thanks to EMS!...)
Here is a short video to share what it feels to be in a (just harvested) Oolong plantation on top of Lishan:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Deux maitres de la santé et le thé

Docteur Sharon Moalem et docteur Bernard Erler
Quel est l'impact du thé sur la santé? Mes lecteurs réguliers savent que c'est une question que je n'aborde pratiquement pas ou alors de manière oblique. En effet, mon intérêt pour le thé est gustatif et esthétique. C'est le plaisir avant tout. Et quand des fermiers/vendeurs parlent des vertus médicinales du thé, j'ai du mal à m'intéresser à leur discours pleins de clichés car ils n'ont pas de formation médicale.

Or, juste avant mon départ pour les Etats-Unis, je reçois la visite de Dr. Sharon Moalem de NYC. Il est médecin, chercheur et auteur de livres sur la santé. Il se spécialise notamment sur l'impact de notre histoire génétique sur notre santé. J'invite mon père, médecin, à joindre notre discussion. A 67 ans, il adore le thé et exerce toujours en Alsace. Médecin généraliste, il a aussi étudié l'accupuncture et a mis au point une technique (innovatrice et très efficace) de soins des douleurs qui repose sur le massage des muscles trop contractés.

Concubine Oolong de 2015
(Durant notre conversation, nous buvons de mon Concubine Oolong organique infusé dans une grande théière en zisha d'Yixing. Aussi, pour illustrer cet article, j'ai choisi ces photos de la version du printemps 2015 de ce même thé.)

Pourquoi Dr. Moalem vient-il me voir alors que je ne parle pas de santé dans mon blog? Je lui pose la question directement. Il nous explique qu'il traite ses patients qui ont des problèmes liés au surpoids (cholestérol, diabète...) avec du Oolong!

Son diagnostic est que les habitudes alimentaires d'un grand nombre de personnes ne correspondent pas à leurs gênes. Ainsi, les populations afro-américaines qui ont des ancêtres 'chasseurs et ramasseurs' digèrent bien la viande, mais pas les féculents, par exemple. De plus, la plupart des gens mangent trop gras et sucrés de nos jours. Les sodas sucrés sont particulièrement néfastes.
Cependant, il trouve difficile, voire impossible, de changer les habitudes alimentaires des patients qui viennent le voir au Mt. Sinai Hospital. Mais il arrive parfois à les convaincre de faire un petit changement: boire du Oolong à la place de leur boisson habituelle. Et il constate alors une amélioration très nette du cholestérol, de la tension artérielle, voire même du poids... chez ses patients!
Au départ, il avait prescrit du thé vert suite aux nombreuses études japonaises sur le sujet de la santé. Mais certains patients ne le supportaient pas et rencontraient des problèmes gastriques. Pour Dr. Moalem, cette réaction s'explique par un système de protection génétique chez la feuille: afin de ne pas être mangée par les insectes ou animaux, les feuilles de thé sont un petit peu toxiques à l'état cru. C'est pour cela que le thé vert est agressif pour l'estomac (surtout quand on en boit beaucoup et/ou de manière concentrée). Or, pour que le thé fasse un effet, le patient doit en boire 4 verres (= 1 litre)!
Dr. Moalem recommande maintenant de boire du Oolong torréfié, et ce, durant les repas. Selon ses recherches, le Oolong a plusieurs effets sur le corps:
- il augmente un peu la faim, mais active aussi le métabolisme, ce qui fait que le corps consomme plus de calories,
- il empêche le foie d'absorber toutes les graisses du repas. Le gras finit donc évacué avec les selles au lieu de faire grossir.
- l'impact sur la prévention du cancer est relativement faible, cependant, selon son expérience.
Il y a aussi l'avantage de remplacer une boisson (trop) sucrée et froide par une boisson sans sucre (ou peu sucrée) et chaude. (Quoiqu'en été il conseille aussi de boire du Oolong glacé avec les repas).

Le premier but de la visite de Dr. Moalem chez moi est d'apprendre à mieux motiver ses patients de boire du Oolong torréfié. Qu'est-ce qui fait que j'aime tellement en boire (sans penser à ses bienfaits)? Je lui explique que le thé, quand il est de bonne qualité, me donne énormément de plaisirs. Préparer un Chaxi, c'est faire s'exprimer tous sens du thé: ses odeurs, son goût, ses couleurs, le toucher (des ustensiles et des feuilles) et le entendre silence feutré et apaisant autour de soi. Bien maitriser les gestes, c'est apporter une note de grâce et de bien-être mental. La joie devient particulièrement vive quand j'ai bien réussi mon thé. C'est ce qui me pousse sur la voie de l'excellence à chercher (et trouver!) des thés sublimes.
Nous en arrivons donc au second but de sa visite: savoir où trouver du bon Oolong. 3 catégories conviennent particulièrement à sa recherche:

1. les Hung Shui Oolongs. Ce sont les Oolongs torréfiés traditionnels dont les plus typiques proviennent de l'appelation de Dong Ding (Yong Lung, par exemple). Leur oxydation n'est pas trop faible et cela permet de mieux les torréfier. Ces Oolongs se bonifient avec le temps. Plus on les conserve, moins le côté sec de la torréfaction sera perceptible. Ils deviennent donc plus doux et moins tanniques.
Concubine Oolong du printemps 2015
2. Les Oolongs à morsures de criquet. Le degré d'oxydation de ces thés est élevé et ils sont donc particulièrement digestes, mais gardent la complexité et la fraicheur d'un Oolong. De plus, comme l'on recherche la morsure des Jacobiasca Formosana Paoli pour donner un goût plus mielleux au thé, ces plantations fonctionnent sans pesticides et certaines sont même bio, comme c'est le cas pour mes Concubine Oolong, par exemple. Celle de ce printemps est particulièrement fine et proche d'une beauté orientale...

Et si l'on veut boire du thé pour la santé, le mieux est d'en choisir un qui soit si bon et naturel qu'il est facile à infuser en grande théière également. C'est pourquoi je l'avais choisi pour accompagner notre discussion avec Dr Moalem.
3. Les Oolongs âgés. Ils combinent l'avantage des Hung Shui Oolongs ou d'une concubine avec la bonification du temps. Ils ont plus de finesse encore et sont encore plus simples à infuser. Car même à haute dose ils n'ont pas le caractère agressif d'un thé jeune. Ils sont peut-être un peu trop bons (et trop chers) pour une consommation quotidienne. Mais ils permettent de marquer des occasions spéciales avec des saveurs particulièrement uniques.

Conclusion santé: buvez du Oolong, mangez moins de sucre raffiné et bougez!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Yixing teapot Exhibition at the Tea Institute at PSU - The clays

To understand the complex world of Yixing teapots, the best is to go back to the basic ingredient that makes these teapots so special: the clay. Many mines may now be depleted, transformed into lakes, but it's still in the ground where everything begins.

Through a nice coincidence, a student who comes from Yixing joined this very first lecture about clays. And despite growing up there, it's the first time he saw so many Yixing clays. In the box below, Teaparker was able to gather clay from 19 different locations (or sometimes from the same mine, but from different layers).
It's not enough to simply identify the original location of the clay. The information about the layer is also very important. When you dig a hole in the ground, various layers with different colors appear. The deeper we dig, the further we go back in time, since these each layer is accumulation of sediments from a certain era. Not all layers are equally suited to make clay. The most suitable layer with the finest clay in a certain location is often called Nen Ni (fine clay).

But let's not throw too many confusing names around. What we need to know is that all these Yixing clays from these different locations and layers can be summed up with 3 colors:

Chalin clay area
1. Hongni (red clay).

What is the characteristic of hungni when it comes from the ground? It's yellow! And it's very soft to the touch! It's so soft, it seems there's some powder that rubs off on the skin of our finger as we touch it. It feels powdery like talc.

Zhaozhuang Nen Ni clay
Zhuni clay belongs to the same category as Hongni. It's also yellow when it comes from the ground (and will also turn red once it's fired). What characterizes zhuni over hongni is that the original clay is finer than regular hongni.
 
Jianli Nen Ni clay
2. Luni (green clay)

As you can see from the picture, green clay has a more granular feel than hungni. It's the roughest, but also the one that it crushed the most easily. It's friable, brittle. Its color is the least even.
This green clay will turn into yellow when it's fired and will give us the pot color called 'duanni'.

Taixi clay well (top of mountain)
3. Zini (purple clay)

Purple clay feels the hardest and doesn't brittle or turns into powder like luni or hongni. However, despite the rough look, its surface is also very smooth.
With zini, the color remains purple after firing.

Touching the 3 different types of clays proved very interesting and different from what we thought these clays would be like.
Touching a zhuni teapot right after touching a zhuni grade hungni clay also helped understand how the finesse, the smooth touch of the clay translates into the skin of the teapot!

Note: My spring 2015 Wenshan Baozhongs are now available here! And for further reading on Yixing wares, I've added this book with pictures of the National Palace's Yixing collection.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

High mountain Oolong from Changshu Hu, Alishan

Alishan is one of Taiwan's top tourist attraction. When Japan occupied the island from 1895 to 1945, the Japanese developed this area mainly to log the huge cypress trees that are growing here. They also built a railway to better access the forest and transport the huge logs. That's why most tea packs from Alishan feature its cute red train!

Old and big cypresses are the stars of Alishan. The one pictured on the left is approximately 2,500 years old and over 10 meters in diameter. It's called 'Shen Mu', holy tree, as a sign of reverence for its size and age. Groups of tourists flock to this tree in order to take pictures. However, this is by far not the only old cypress in Alishan. Lots of 800 to 2000 years old trees can be seen along less touristy trails in the recreational area. It's difficult not to be moved by these living giants.
Alishan's Oolong plantations don't grow in the national park, but are located on the way leading to Alishan. The name Alishan Oolong therefore includes lots of very different locations and soils. While it would be useless to try to say which one is truly Alishan (since none is grown in the Alishan Park stricto sensu), it is still important to know exactly from which place the tea comes from. 
My favorite spot is Changshu Hu, a small village not far from Fenqihu. Its mountain there vaguely resembles an elephant! (See the picture above). The elevation varies from 1100 meters to 1500 meters.
The Changshu Hu area is rather small in terms of surface. What I like about it are its stunning views and the fact that it doesn't lie on the main road between Chiayi and Alishan. There are almost no tourists who come here. This means a cleaner environment and less distractions for the farmers.
The main plantations in the village face south and get most sunshine.
The colors that dominate on this sunny day are green and blue. While we are still much lower in elevation than in Da Yu Ling or Lishan, the proximity of Alishan and Yushan change the way the altitude is perceived.
It feels higher than it actually is. 3-4 weeks ago, some trees were hurt by freezing temperatures, which shows how cold it can get (similar to places above 2000 m).
A walk in the plantations is like a bowl of fresh air. It feels a little bit like Da Yu Ling, even though we are 1000 meters below. This is another reason that makes me love this place: the energy and taste of the Oolong reminds me of the highest plantations, but the price is much more reasonable.
This year's sunshine is particularly strong and the harvesters have their tricks to avoid a sunburn!
My Chaxi's inspiration comes from green mountain surrounded by the blue sky!

Cultivar: Qingxin Oolong
Harvested by hand on April 13th, 2015
Origin: Changshu Hu, Alishan
Elevation: 1300 meters
Process: low oxidation, rolled leaves, no roast.

This spring High Mountain Oolong isn't roasted and therefore isn't suitable for long term aging. Its emphasis is freshness and is meant to be drunk within 2 years.

The dry leaves have a wonderful scent of fresh lavender.


The brew's clarity and light golden color are signs of great quality. The taste is buttery, sweet and long.
The sun shines in the mellow aftertaste of Changshu Hu Oolong.
Light floral scents dance between palate and nose...
Their presence lingers on and on.

It feels like Oded Tzur's neverending melodies on his saxophone. His debut album has just been released and I am so glad to enjoy it together with my Chaxis. Knowing that Oded finds inspiration in (my) teas and that I participated in the CD's crowdfunding only adds more connections between the tea and the music.
Levitating with music and Oolong!