Stone Basin

Stone Basin
at Ryo An Jin

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Day 3 and 4 Shantou and Phoenix Mtn.

Phoenix Mountain has some of the most esoteric oolong teas in the world, and it is little known just how great, how rare, or how strange, these teas are. Everyone’s perhaps heard of how old the trees and how teas of a lone, identifiable fragrance are picked from single groves. But just how many fragrances exist, and who gets to drink them? Sebastian and I were extremely lucky this time. It has been raining a difficult few days and the roads were treacherous, but we managed up the mountain under clear skies and anyway, didn’t even lose Seb in the meandering wild mountain groves of twisted old tea trees. The trees have lichen on the bark and the first Song Dynasty tree is well over 400 years old, so they seem rather pleased with their knarly twisted character. There are about 8 or so more common fragrances and about 6 single tree ones. By single tree, that means only one tree produces that fragrance, period. There is a particular one called ‘Ginger Flower’. The farmer who owned that tree sold his total crop of 3 kgs last year for (Yuan)20,000 RMBs, about $2,500 USD. He didn’t work for the rest of the year I am sure No Americans have been here since that other one, the farmers said, and even he hasn’t been seen in a couple of years. I explained David Lee Hoffman’s retirement and newly found stardom. Anyway, here is Sebastian, they can make him the new poster boy. Kids run out in the streets to wave at him, and the women peek and giggle from the doorway. The people in Shantou(town at the base of Phoenix), home of the Chau Chou gong fu tea tradition, are laid back and friendly, and drink more tea than any other town in China, with a probable correspondingly lowest rate of cancer. And they only drink good teas. Not that Jasmine stuff they drink in stuffy old Beijing. I never got the kind of reception Seb got but then they have always adopted me as a good Shantou citizen, being able to match tea capacity with the best of them!
The tallest peak is 1300 meters, and the best varietals and fragrances are from Wu Dong Mtn.(Black East). The only export company in town sells the low valley stuff they barely called Phoenix Mtn. to overseas French or Americans, and we suspect, Peet's. Anyway, I wouldn't dream of anywhere but Wu Dong as it is so cold bugs never survive and no pesticides are used. The fragrances we got to try this time ranged from Yellow Orchid Branch, 8 Immortals (What do Immortals smell like anyways, asked Seb?) , and one called ‘the East is Red’ named after Chairman Mao declared it his favorite. It is actually the Song Dynasty Second Generation tree of approximately 100 years old. I have, in my possession, some samples....... I know everyone is really excited, but those samples may not make its way back to the US, as our friend Tano is arriving tomorrow, and a tea this good will disappear in 3 minutes between the 3 of us. . My staff calls our regular Phoenix Honey fragrance Oolong ‘Crack’ Dan Chong, as they are massively addicted to it. No matter. I fell in love with a rare one this year called ‘Almond’. I can probably get about 10 kgs this year, of which the staff will probably hoard about 8 kgs. Teance customers, get in line! The villages are immaculate, the water cold and fresh and sweet, and no other industry exists except this business of tea. No wonder new plantings were ubiquitous as demand far exceeded supply. Few Phoenix Mtn. teas ever leave the local area, Mr. Lin, our farmer confides. But they are no good until at least 10 years old, even though most oolong bushes in other areas are good to pick by the time they are 3 years. Seb asked Mr. Lin how long he’s been doing tea. Mr. Lin says it’s hard to remember anymore, since the family at Phoenix has always done tea, and it’s close to a thousand years!The local food was the prized Phoenix tofu. It’s the water, they said. Soft, with a charred soy smell, and usually deep fried for a crunchy exterior. Otherwise it was lots of bitter mountain vegetables and some weird looking snail clams, which made Sebastian blanche yet again. We made the 5 hour bus ride back to HK, and I am beat. Tomorrow: entertain the tea VIPS who are congregating! My job? Take them to dim sum, what else?

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