Making Bi Lo Chun tea
If you are familiar with Bi Lo Chun (green snail spring) tea you know it has a wonderful, big, sweet aroma and a distinctive snail-like curl to its dried leaf shape which gives it its name.
View from atop Dong Ting mountain looking out over the tea bushes.
A few years ago I took an unforgettable trip to China for a guided tour of their tea industry. It was led by knowledgeable and gracious Tao of Tao Tea Leaf and my fellow travelers included two of my fellow tea sommeliers with whom I’d studied. We were only five altogether plus a driver so we were pretty light on the ground allowing intimate, low-profile visits wherever we went. The small group also meant we could be nimble in our schedule and respond to invitations and spur-of-the-moment opportunities.
This was the case the April evening we arrived at Dong Ting Shan on the east side of Lake Tai in the province of Jiangsu where Bi Lo Chun originates. This was our driver, Mister Goo’s, home town and during dinner he took a phone call which alerted him that his father was about to process the last of the Bi Lo Chun from the family plot. Mister Goo promptly invited us to come and watch.
We were told that it is usual for the local farmers to plant their plot of land with a variety of cash crops and food so that they will always have something in season. The tea trees were often over-planted with taller fruit (?) trees. Notice how they are interlaced with bamboo poles which allow the pickers easy access.
The Goos have two pans — one gas-fed and one wood-burning. Mr. Goo’s father runs the wood-fired pan. It takes about 45 minutes to make the tea — here the fresh tea leaves have just been put in the pan. At the beginning of the one-month picking season it takes less time because the leaves are smaller and have less moisture after the dry winter.
The pan is the hottest at the start — note his gloves — and the tea leaves are kept in constant motion being tossed and turned until enough moisture is lost and then the hand-rolling began.
Daughter-in-law loads wood into the stove to keep the pan hot
Hand rolling the tea leaves.
Mister Goo on the gas fired pan.
A few minutes later we tasted the fresh Bi Lo Chun tea. The wood-fired brew has a fuller, thicker mouth-feel, and more baked popcorn on the nose. Definitely a difference between the gas and wood fired. Is that because Mr. Goo’s father is a more experienced tea maker or that the wood fire allows for more character?
The Goo family tea plot produces 15 kilos of finished tea a year. It takes about 6 kilos of fresh leaves to make one kilo of finished tea.
The Bi Lo Chun season had just ended, but the next day we were able to visit one of the local tea factories to see their set-up, now quiet until the next tea harvest. Tea is harvested most of the year but made into different kinds of tea.
The wicker drying racks for the fresh tea.
A line of wood-fired baking pans. The square holes in the walls allow the baker to converse with the person putting the wood under their pan.
Attached to the baking room was the sorting room. Under each bowl the paper was numbered to indicate which baking pan they came from.
Bi Lo Chun is a spring tea made from the season’s first, tender, very small and delicate leaves. It’s manufactured to seven different grades in decreasing order of quality and this factory made five of them. I want a set of these mugs!
Even at the factory level, making the tea involves alot of hands — there is very little mechanization.
Sunset over Lake Tai near Dong Ting Mountain.
If you drink oolong tea you’ve probably heard of yixing clay teapots. They are small unglazed teapots for preparing small, fresh infusions and reinfusions of oolong tea and come in a number of different natural clay colours from the region of Yixing in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu on the west side of Lake Tai. Mostly they are a purply-brown clay but can be reddish-brown and an ochre-yellow shade. I don’t know how long they’ve been being made in Yixing but they continue even today to be made there by skilled, master potters.
When I was there in a few years ago on one of Tao’s small tea tours, we visited a master potter, Master Zhou, who had a workshop in the beautiful and preserved old town of Yixing where many master ceramicists work with Yixing’s famous clay. He welcomed us with a fine pot of tea.
Zhou runs a small workshop with apprentices. He had five apprentices who had been studying with him for 6 months to three years.
Apparently a good yixing oolong pot should stand completely flat if upended with its lid.
The pots were traditionally fired in a “dragon kiln,” so-called because it winds uphill and has multiple air-holes through which the wood is loaded — they’re huge! At night it apparently looks like a long, snaking, fire-breathing dragon.
The next day we also visited other gas-fired kilns of a slightly more commercial nature.
There is huge demand for these little teapots both from within China and internationally. While I know that some made by master ceramicists demand very high prices, there are also many made by others, or from molds, that are priced for the regular consumer market.
I couldn’t leave without getting my own perfect little oolong teapot from Master Zhou. When I got home, and with Tao’s advice, I seasoned it before using it to make tea.
Lately I’ve been reaching for the oolong in the afternoons.
Specifically today it’s Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) from TaoTeaLeaf. By no coincidence it was with Tao that I went to the Wuyi mountains in China a couple of years ago to see and taste this wonderful tea. It felt a bit ridiculous to have accreditation as a Tea Sommelier without ever having seen a living breathing tea plant, and being on a ‘tea tour’ was a wonderful agricultural avenue into contemporary Chinese culture.
How about this for a mini, MacGyvered tea tray drain board? (It’s a steamer in a cake pan.) I got the little teapot on the same trip while in Yixing and seasoned it when I got back home.
The Wuyi mountains are famous for their oolongs and especially Da Hong Pao. Oh yes, and they’re gorgeous.
Da Hong Pao is an almost fully oxidised oolong, and this one has a beautiful warm aroma of fire and baked yam on the leaves and a typical stonefruit note of bitter-sweet apricot. It’s medium bodied and perfectly refreshing on this hot summer afternoon.
It’s a very grey rainy spring day here so find myself thinking of sunnier moments, like being in Paris last fall. Naturally had to visit a few tea establishments while there. One of them was the oh-so-French Nina’s Paris.
Nina’s Paris was named after Nina Diaz, who in 1778 created a recipe for a cake called NINASETTE that was offered to Marie-Antoinette on the occasion of the birth of her first child, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte. And yes, you can sample the cake in the perfect cake-box of a shop.
Marie Antoinette with her two eldest children, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte and the Dauphin Louis Joseph, in the Petit Trianon’s gardens, by Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller (1785). (Wikipedia)
Nina was a descendant — it’s hard to tell exactly which, from the website — of Pierre Diaz who founded Distillerie Frères in 1672. The distillery specialised in perfumes and essential oils and became the official supplier of said aromatics to the Court of Versailles from the time of King Louis XIV to Louis XVI (1754 – 1793) and his wife, Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793). Distillerie Frères were apparently the first in France to distill lavender oil — my fave, and something I strongly associate with France. In 1986 Nina’s Paris bought Distillerie Frères and the aromatics are used to flavour many of their teas.
It was under King Louis XIV that Le Potager du Roi (the King’s Kitchen Garden) was created, and Nina’s Paris also has an official partnership with the present-day garden. Their lovely Marie-Antoinette Tea blend is made with apples and roses from that garden. Very appropriate since it was said to be one of Marie-Antoinette’s favourite places.
Nina’s Paris’ selection of teas features black or green teas blended with fruits, herbs, flowers and essential oils as well as non-caffeinated tisanes of blended herbs or rooibos. Everything is beautifully packaged and if you’re in the market for gifts to bring home they also have gift boxes of tea as well as lovely jams, jellies and fruit drinks made from the bounty of Le Potager du Roi.
After we left Nina’s and we were about to sit down for a cup of tea there was a sudden, unbelievably strong downpour of rain. It lasted only about 15 minutes but long enough that we sat inside, rather than outside, at this lovely little tea spot, Cafe Kitsune, in one of the hidden treasures of Paris, Le Jardin du Palais. It’s probably this moment, on this rainy grey day, that takes me back to Paris.
Ugh it’s an unbelievably grey, mushy, sloggy, soggy January day here. Pouring rain, melting snow, icy patches. You know what I mean.
However, nothing that some tea and toast and marmy (made on Saturday) can’t fix.
The tea is a Ti Kwan Yin oolong from the Fujian province in China, a gift from The Tea Stylist from her trip there last summer — a wonderful treat. Light, mouthwatering, a fresh floral aroma with a hint of pear and a soft smokyness. You can see from the leaves and the pale green-gold colour of the liquor that it is a lightly oxidised oolong — only a little bit of red-brown oxidation showing on the edges of the leaves.
There. I feel better already.