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Archive for the ‘Tea’ Category

PUERH TEA. SOME DON’T. I DO.

I like it green and frisky…

I like it ripe and mellow…

I’m talking about compressed tea, puerh, which is my favourite beverage. It’s the broadleaf Yunnan variety of camellia sinensis pressed into various shapes. Here I described a nice aged specimen of the cheap sort meant for the Tibetan market. I also talked a bit about its origins.

Puerh is now gaining popularity in parts of China and Asia where it was previously overlooked. In addition, it has a growing following among westerners. You wouldn’t call it SWPL yet, but it’s something ageable and collectible, so it may only be a matter of time.

One hears of six figure sums being paid for puerh cakes of great age, undisputed provenance and highest quality. Certainly, some tea that was released for sale before the Mainland takeover of HK hit US$25,000 – for a single cake the size of a dinner plate. But a caution: the most recent boom in puerh occurred only some three years back, causing the usual mischief such bubbles inflict.

Through it all, there are millions who just enjoy the stuff. Like many westerners, I have a taste for sheng, the unfermented “green” puerh, which I’m happy to drink without any aging. Aged is even better, of course.

To hasten the mellowing, puerh tea has often been kept in very humid conditions, a process referred to as wet storage. This seems to be less popular with westerners, though it has been very common in places like Hong Kong for a very long time. The famous Menghai factory of Yunnan introduced a fermentation process in the seventies, in order to create a ready-to-drink puerh. Though some dislike this shu or “ripe” puerh, it is now very popular, with many recipes and grades available. Some, myself included, find that ripe puerh ages very well, though it can’t have the complexities that a dry-stored raw cake achieves with time.

My own tastes are for both green and ripe, though I do have some wet-stored cakes, which I enjoy from time to time.

Puerh is also available loose, and that can be handy, though not ideal for aging.

One disappointment was the “silver bud” tea which I bought some years back. This consists of sharp, unopened buds processed and pressed like normal leaf puerh. The cakes had a wonderful peachiness in youth, and there was word that age could do good things for them. A very trusted internet commentator, Geraldo, alerted me that his silver bud cakes had aged very poorly after some five years. He was proven right. The lack of acidity, pectins etc finally reduced my peachy silver bud tea to a thin and bitter brew. (A bit like the excellent Aussie white wines that emerge fresh and drinkable from huge stainless steel vats and go brown and kersosene-like in bottle after a few years.)

Apart from that silver bud experience, I have found that even very cheap puerh can delight when young and deepen its character with age. Kept at reasonably high humidity levels, at a comfortable temp for humans, it’s a far more reliable aging prospect than wine. It can also be drunk far more often than wine: I like green in the day…

…and ripe at night.

***

Green puerh really does require what they call gongfu brewing. That involves, among other things, putting plenty of leaf in the pot or brewing bowl and doing lots of short infusions. Early infusions last for seconds, later infusions for minutes. You’ll get the hang of it. If you’re Anglo of some sort, you’ll need to break the habit of walking away from the brew. Raw puerh is for attentive brewers only.


There’s heaps of advice on the net from pernickety folk who love the ritual of gongfu and the teaware associated with it. I’m a slob, mostly using double sided glassware for brewing and drinking. My only fuss-point is keeping temperature even, which is why I always use double sided wares. Also rather than pour hot water over a large quantity of cold expanded leaf, I’ll do a flash infusion to reheat the leaves, then do a longer infusion for drinking.

***

Why not taste a raw and a ripe sample from the famous Menghai factory? Both these are inexpensive and mass-produced, with a good reputation for aging.

The 7542 raw cake is the best known blend of its kind. It’s a basic sheng that makes no apologies. In a word, it is shrill. Unlike some other raw cakes, it has not been tweaked to appeal readily to the novice or the timid consumer. It’s a cheap standard product intended for aging. There’s no question here of single estate, or wild ancient tree material. Such high-end stuff can be great, when genuine, and I often enjoy unblended tea from individual mountains and so on. But 7542 is a mass-consumption product from an experienced blender with huge resources. Personally, I love it.

The 75 refers to the year the factory came up with the recipe, the 4 indicates an approximate leaf grade, and the 2 indicates Menghai Factory. Probably none of the indicators are accurate and consistent, but puerh lovers get used to talking about their 7542 cakes, and each knows what the other is on about. If another factory comes up with a version of the recipe, they may jumble the numbers or just change the last one. All rather vague, but one sorts it out.

As you drink this through six or more infusions, you’ll get to know in a hurry if you’re meant to drink puerh. It will be bitter, sharp, sweet, spicey, earthy…and possibly something you’ll never want to drink again. Or you may get the point instantly, as I did. Though I’d drunk cheap puerh from Asian markets and in restaurants for decades, I’d paid it little attention. My first encounter with a good raw puerh was a coup de foudre. It’s my drink for life.

Moving on to the other sort…

7572 is a ripe puerh, or shu, the fermented kind that was invented in the seventies for immediate drinking, though it can age well. It’s a more digestible affair, very different from the raw, especially young raw. Mushroomy, puggy, earthy, woody, low in acid, it should also have a certain sweetness. Over time, woodiness and sweetness should come to the foreground.

Some people taste shu – even lovers of raw puerh – and all they discern is mud or “pondiness”. However, I really go for shu, and, though 7572 is a fine benchmark, I also enjoy the coarser leaf grades which give a more rounded taste, and the brisk “cola” styles, such as Menghai’s 7452. (7452 is not to be confused with the raw 7542 raw cake mentioned above!)

I should add that I’m more relaxed in my preparation of ripe puerh, often brewing it western style with less leaf and fewer infusions. I like to confine the fuss and tension to raw puerh, and those few teas which must be given gongfu treatment.

So, that’s puerh! Not for all tastes, but certainly for mine.

I like to buy from these sources: Dragon, YSL, Tuocha and Royal (the last two being slightly less competitive, but nice folk with different stock that may interest.)

Many internet sites for puerh, with varying levels of activity. This is a long established site with good links. A shaving site (!), Badger and Blade, seems to have the most active puerh forums, in its extensive Cafe section. The Sheng of the Day forum is particularly busy. Some of the members have their own blogs, a few being very active and engaged, with lots of commenters. There’s also Tea Chat. Cha Dao is an old and valued tea site with articles from the esteemed Geraldo. Here he writes on the Menghai 7542 and other things.

I really think God was having an on-day when he made the camellia.

Yeah, I know. A bit precious-pie, but...

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My favourite drink is puerh, compressed and ageable tea. One unusual type  is bamboo puerh. It’s a specialty of the Dai nationality of Yunnan.

Tea leaves, usually unfermented, are forced into tubes of fresh cut bamboo. After that, they are roasted for a bit, then cooled.

The compressed log of tea so obtained might be stored in-tube, or extracted and wrapped in palm leaf for storage.

The result is a mellow, orange-gold brew which has a perfume of bamboo and an interesting meaty taste. It can be worth aging. Mine, which I enjoyed today, is between five and six years old, is quite luscious, and should age well for more years.

BOOTEA

Bamboo again!

***

When I was far too young, I undertook to mismanage a restaurant in an interesting part of Sydney. A number of dramatic and funny things happened, including certain events in the aftermath of a murder.

It occurs to me that it’s a tale worth telling, except that some of the people are still getting about thirty five years later. If it’s possible to fictionalise things a little, I may have a go at it. Maybe.

Coming soon?

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Once you’ve peeled your shoots, there are a number of ways to proceed with cooking; the main thing is to leech out the cyanide-related components and the accompanying bitterness. With some shoots, multiple boilings in different changes of water are recommended. In the case of my moso shoots, which are prime for eating, I’m happy with just one process. The cooking medium I use is what I call a mild pickle-broth: to a big pot, add a tight fist of salt, a tight fist of dark brown sugar, and enough lime-juice or vinegar to add a slight acidity.

pot2

There is no need for a strong brine, or even the salt-levels recommended for pasta. (Most people add far too little salt when boiling pasta.) There should be plenty of liquid, probably more than I’ve used for the batch in the photo, because you are leeching as well as cooking.

I like to slice the shoots finely, bring the pressure right up in my cheapo Portuguese cooker, then turn it off.

Sieve and ditch the cooking liquid (essential!). Job done. Your slices are ready for freezing, adding to anything at all, or eating immediately with salt, pepper, butter, aioli etc.

***

oolong

I’ve reviewed an oolong of Guangdong (Dancong or Phoenix) and an oolong of Anxi (Tikuanyin). Both times it brought a little rain. Because we’re presently in need of a great deal of rain, it may be time to pull out a really good and representative oolong of Wuyi.

Wuyi oolongs are also called rock or cliff oolongs, a reference to the landscape of that part of Fujian province from which they come. (They’re also called fat-burners and slimming teas all over the internet, but stuff all that.) There are a number of famous types, all of which can vary in quality, fermentation, and roast profile. There are interesting fibs and legends surrounding their origins, and Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe, has more than its share. Here we see what are purported to be the few surviving original bushes of the Da Hong Pao type…

da-hong-pao2

…except they’re probably not. Local monks may have branded the most inaccessible bushes as the real-ancient-thing, because the real real-ancient-thing was too accessible for souvenir hunters and tea thieves. Of course, that could be another interesting fib. It’s very confusing…it’s China!

Once a rare tribute tea for emperors and the like (not to mention influential comrades within the Workers’ Paradise), Da Hong Pao has been cloned successfully and become a widely available in many formats.  One of these evolutions is called Bei Dou, the North Star.

Around 1950, a certain Mr. Yao, obtained some original cuttings and began to create new varieties. After an interruption, for some reason called a Cultural Revolution, which destroyed his research, Mr. Yao was able to potter away in secret and finally resume his work in full. The result was a real Cultural Revolution: Bei Dou Yi Hao, or North Star Number One (reference being to first generation clone).

nstar

It’s such a satisfying oolong. It’s got the fullness, the mineral flavours, the toastiness of a great Wuyi: but there’s also a huge fruit component, and such an enveloping aroma. It’s not cheap…why would it be? I think I got mine from Teacuppa, a Malaysian site that has a reasonable stock of most Chinese teas but an outstanding selection of Wuyi oolong. Teaspring will also sell you a good specimen.

A caution: Wuyi oolong is one of the spammiest things on the net, mainly due to the fat-burning claims. Try a search and you’ll see. Teacuppa, Teaspring, and Jing Tea Shop (China) are reputable internet sources, and good for oolong. There are also a couple of good shops for Formosa oolong. Just be a little wary, especially if you see the words “slimming” or “fat-burning”.

Once you’ve wrapped your laughing-gear around a genuine Bei Dou or Bai Ji Guan, or any of the other pinnacle-teas of Wuyi, you won’t give a bugger about the fat-burning palaver.

finisheddrink

Fat-burning, quotha!

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Who knows what’s actually bad luck? If my bamboo had come early, the new culms would now be exposed to the high gales that are whipping the region. A tall, tender pole that is mostly water doesn’t handle winds very well. It usually survives – unless it clashes against a tree-branch – but wind on new moso is a worry.

Sometimes new culms fall but survive and thereafter live a horizontal existence. (A similar thing happens if you give a five-year contract to a Rugby League winger.)

horiz

Nonetheless, we need more rain for growth, and the way to make that happen, as we now know, is to drink some oolong.

tkybrew

Notice the drab, yellow-green colour? This is a Tikuanyin, or TKY, the most famous oolong of the Anxi region. Quite unlike the previously mentioned Dancong oolong of Guangdong, its leaves are green and balled when dry, and expand greatly when brewed. A TKY (of this type) doesn’t mimic particular fruits and flowers, rather it has a non-specific flowery aroma and vegetal, green character on the palate. Devotees also talk of “sugar-cane” and “egginess” to describe desired qualities in a TKY. I’m not quite a devotee, but I must say that this Li Ping Tikuanyin works for me. It came from these guys, who are always  a hoot to deal with. When Seb and Jing send the wrong tea, they’ll invite you to keep it then offer to send the right one. If they get it wrong again, they’ll invite you to keep that tea also, then try again. And so on. They’re generous with advice and samples, and their great love is the tea of Anxi. As I write, they’re probably off an expedition to Anxi to search out some autumn greens and oolongs for the shop.

leaves

Check out these luscious spent leaves, and the ruddy bruisings from the partial ferment. Couldn’t you just go rolling around in all that?

Later I’ll sample an oolong which represents the third major mainland type… something high-end and quite grand.

***

newpole

Some time back I wrote about the War on Browserism. That war has begun. Here is a new culm I found in an inaccessible part of my property. Less than a couple of weeks old, it’s twelve feet high already, and has survived without protection because it was inaccessible to wallabies as well as to me. However, as I struggled back through dense lantana after taking the photo, I found a shoot that hadn’t been so lucky.

chewed

***

I’m feeling a certain righteous aggression as I prepare for The Surge. It would probably do me good to remember one of history’s nice, useful people: a man who came to prominence only through marriage, was initially hated and suspected because of his rank and race…and was sincerely mourned by much of the world on his untimely death. Can you guess? I’ll post soon.

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LIQUID THOUGHTS

In spite of the incessant autumn rains, high water-table and still-green appearances…drought has got its claw into us. Things are now withering and crisping. Previously lush Dondingalong is all glare and dust. Look here:

decksundust

Moso’s spectacular spring surge is on hold. The main purpose of this blog is, for the moment, thwarted. There may be one or two more brave shoots out in the grove, but I really don’t want to look.

Things will change, no doubt too suddenly, this being Australia. So let’s put a pot on that dusty table. Let’s think liquid thoughts.

pot

China is having a week’s holiday to celebrate sixty years of Communism. I might just skip that celebration, but instead pay a tribute to a Chinese masterpiece called Dancong Oolong. Maybe in future posts I could mention the two other oolong types of mainland China, and taste some superb specimens of Anxi and Fujian regions. Today, however, it’s Dancong.

Oolong, as you may already know, is part-oxidised tea, neither green nor black. There are degrees of oxidation for different aromas and effects, and roasting also plays a part in varying and even aging oolongs. Dancong oolong is the product of Guangdong province and is famous for its ability to mimic smells, fruits and flowers in particular. The mimicry can even enter into the flavour, and many people tasting Dancong for the first time assume there has been some extra essence added to the tea.

Peach, honey-orchid, ginger-flower…these are some the possible “flavours”. Song Zhong Dancong is reputed by some to be the best. My little stock came from here, and, though the price is actually a bit low for Song Zhong, it’s a good’un. (By the way, tea of this order is not expensive at that price. A long session, consisting of several infusions, might cost a couple of dollars. People who can spend between four and five dollars on a can of “energy” drink really should do the maths.)

The miracle of this Dancong for me is that the lychee aroma translates to a lychee flavour at the top of the throat as I swallow.

sqirrel

See? We forgot the drought!

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Moso is a very old species. They say it can remember Cliff Richard’s first single.

So moso is careful. It won’t shoot till things are just about right. It will wait for its best chance. Adequate rain around spring equinox should bring it on. A warm winter after a moist autumn won’t convince it: look here…nothing happening.

ground

I’m not saying moso should have the confidence of a mulberry. A White Shahtoot mulberry will rush into leaf and start forming fruit at the merest breath of warmth. Mulberries are fearless…or stupid. (Yes, White Shahtoots are delicious, but, no, I don’t get to eat mine. Flying foxes usually eat them before the bowerbirds, who are usually too busy at that time with my grafted loquats etc.)

shah

The pawlonia is usually careful, and, if it flowers, there’s reason to believe that the heavy frosts are over. Mind you, it’s only had a few decades to learn about Australian weather. Here’s one of mine doing its spring-thing.

pawl

The light fragrance on warmish nights is worth an evening stroll. (Interestingly, I’ve seen the same species growing and flowering out of cracks in the stone above the Seine: about the only vegetation that isn’t hacked into strict geometrical shape in the most Cartesian of cities.)

***

Some tea before bed?

postboy

Shu is the name given to puerh tea when it’s been fermented like black tea. It’s different to black tea because of the initial sun-drying and the broad Yunnan leaf used in production. It’s different to raw puerh being earthier, smoother and less nuanced. The point is that it doesn’t need so much aging, which is why the process was introduced a few decades ago by the famous Menghai factory.

Shu can be made from fine, fine golden buds, or blended using various leaf-grades for a balanced effect. Tonight I just had to have some coarser stuff, with a hint of stagnant pond-water but sweet with a most wonderful slidey-smoothness. Don’t worry, it’s well made by the respectable Boyou factory, and the pondy flavour will go away in a few years. Trouble is, I like a bit of pondiness. Getting freaky.

***

Tonight I’ve been re-reading a book  which had a lot of success in the eighties. It was an adventure yarn done right. Its author has himself led an adventurous life, and he is, among other things, the inventor and promoter of a controversial desalination process. A bit potty, and certainly pulpy…all of which puts him in the company of some good scribblers.

Can you guess? I’ll post later.

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Wallabies, bower birds, bandicoots etc don’t need delicatessens. They have the hobby farms of tree-changers to meet their most exotic gastronomic requirements. Which is why so many tree-changers can be found combing the shelves of Woolworths and the local co-op supermarket.

When you shove those New Zealand peas into your freezer and close the door, you feel like shouting: “Try getting to that lot, wallabies!” The bower birds that have learned to consume all but the most thick-skinned citrus would no doubt find a way into my fridge if they could be bothered.  (I hear they now have their own Human Studies faculty on the Lismore campus. Hope all that liberal education makes ’em a bit more compassionate towards us.)

If the localist movement gets its way, I might be obliged to use my bamboo to build a garden-fortress. You see, there may be no more veggies freighted from North Queensland or Tassie, no more freeze-dried this or snap-frozen that. No more of those juicy Californian dates.

And these localists aren’t market-stall hippies. They’re posh and they’re heavies.

Gordon Ramsay wants Gordon Brown to fine those who market out-of-season foods. According to some localists, remote sourcing of all produce must be stopped by law. Freezing, canning and other preservation methods are now suspect. If not bans, then taxation must stop the rot – or non-rot. A former French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, has written a book with the title: I Will Never Eat Cherries in Winter Again. A man who can make sacrifices like that is dangerous.

No need to exaggerate, of course. Lovers of Chateau Petrus, foie gras entier, Perigord truffles, Roquefort cheese, Sevruga caviar and the like needn’t worry. There are plenary indulgences and automatic carbon credits for all posh items that have been mentioned favourably in the weekend supplements of either The Guardian, the NYT, or the Melbourne Age.

No, these anti-globo campaigns are directed at the buying habits of common mangia-fagioli: the supermarket-shoppers. Gordon Ramsay will no doubt still be able to celebrate the passing of strict localist/seasonalist legislation with imported Blanc de Blancs and jet-freighted Malossol Beluga. (So might a Borgia pope relax with his mistress after a hard day’s piety.)

Well, I must confess to owning an ultra-globalised foodstuff, and I fear it’s not posh enough for any dispensations. (Maybe its quaintness will gain it a partial indulgence.) The wider scandal involves an entire race – those Tibetans! – and it’s been going on for centuries. Here is a nineteen year old jincha, or tea-mushroom.

wiltonre

An unbroken younger jincha looks like this:

jincha

This is not mushroom, it’s pure tea, from the original broad-leaf species of Yunnan, South West China. Known as puerh, it was wok-fried, sun-dried, then steamed and compressed into a traditional mushroom shape. Originally, this processing was to ready the tea for transport along the Old Tea Horse Road, one of the world’s ancient trade routes. The starting point was the town of Puerh, though the ancestors of my tea-mushroom may have been loaded at Dali, near to what is still the production area of that kind of puerh.

route_map

The main, but not only, customers were the Tibetans, who still relish this substance as a source of life-preserving vegetable-broth as well as a stimulant and social beverage. Of course, their way has been to add yak-butter, salt, sugar, hemp-seed etc to make it more sustaining. Without this very foreign and remotely sourced product, life would be unthinkable for plateau-bound Tibetans.

Something else came of all this carrying of compressed-tea over thousands of kilometres in different climates. Puerh tea was found to improve with age and storage, and even the warmth and movement of the horses. Consequently, other people in Asia, and now the world, have acquired a taste for it. (Caution: many who love tea nonetheless hate puerh.)

Needless to say, it has become the object of speculation, fakery, fibs, health-claims, hard-sell advertising…you name it. It comes in many shapes, ages, sizes and since the economic reforms in China, there are innumerable brands and labels to choose from.

shapesre

My nineteen year old jincha, a cheap but good-to-age roughie made by the Xiaguan factory, was never in Tibet. It spent a lot of time in Taiwan, where there is great demand for puerh, before ending up in Newcastle, Australia. Before all that, I’m guessing from its flavour that it spent some time in humid conditions in Hong Kong. After nineteen years, it’s back in bamboo and camellia country. Not Yunnan, however, or Puerh township, where puerh tea isn’t widely liked. I did warn you it was a Global Thing!

How does it taste? A combo of smoke, earth, wood, syrup, mould, fruit, mushroom…

brewre

I totally love it. I  love it globally.

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