There's something about tea I've always found fascinating. I grew up drinking the Russian style brew - a dark, deep infusion of black tea, mediated with hot water and sugar to taste, plus a generous slice of lemon adding its cheerful sunny taste and colour to the cup. Many years later travelling through Turkey, I discovered they brew the heck out of the leaves and then dilute them with water in the same staunch tradition.
By that point I'd already gotten on the "green tea is healthy" bandwagon, although I was also exposed to the latest fads of yerba mate from Brazil, rooibos from South Africa, chai from India via Oregon and the myriad herbal infusions that are often made welcome under the giant umbrella of the term "TEA". I'd also had the fortune of partaking in a Japanese tea ceremony, knocked back by the matcha powder whisked patiently into its unbelievably heavy-flavoured, thick watery bath by a hand-held bamboo whisk and presented with delicate tiny sweets, invoking exotic and faraway mysteries of Japan.
Living in Taiwan has properly introduced me to authentic, masterful quality tea leaves steeped in a pure fashion with centuries of tradition offering just the right tools for its enjoyment and ideally, demanding nothing less than 100 percent of your attention. Making tea in the way that might be taught by Zen masters is like entering into its own dimension, as time is measured carefully and yet drops away, the aroma and flavour of the leaves unfurling in the small clay pots entirely subduing the normally incessant mind chatter.
It's hardly surprising, then, that with no small measure of excitement I jumped at the chance to spend a few days with tea farmers in Nantou County, getting an intimate look at how tea is made. Starting with the fabulous premise of a small group arriving by local transport into the welcoming houses of several tea families in Lugu village in central Taiwan, the trip just continuously got better, as we met Mei and Daphne, our extremely patient and accommodating guides, the rest of the tour goers and the graciously patient farmers - the extent of Taiwanese hospitality and friendliness will probably never cease to amaze me.
We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and after some introductions over delicate porcelain cups of Dongding oolong this region is so famous for, we went to survey newly picked leaves laid out to wither and soften, then helped heap them into round slightly concave bamboo trays stacked up to be fluffed for extra circulation at appropriate times, then later spun in a big drum, which helps shake out any kind of broken off pieces and other unwanted bits, while further aerating the leaves. This whole process is called fermentation or oxidation or "sweating," since different compounds come out from the leaves and the very experienced farmers use their very experienced noses to appoint just the right moment to halt the fermentation once the hint of the right bouquet has appeared. Green teas, we learned, are fermented between 8-22%, while the oolong we were working with is halfway to black and so left to develop its flavor a bit longer, its colour when brewed taking on a light to medium brown.
Next comes the transfer from the wicker mesh drying drum into 350C-hot metal spinning drums, where the leaves are "fired" for about 7 minutes to halt the fermentation. Then, they are gently, and finally dried in a big machine with zigzagging conveyor belts that eventually heap the leaves out into waiting trays to be cooled.
While waiting for the leaves to sweat just enough, we were treated to a fabulous home-cooked meal and a lesson in the art of brewing the perfect cup. After a long and exciting day, we trooped off to bed. The next morning dawned bright and clear and after a traditional Taiwanese breakfast, we headed up the mountain where rows of tea bushes awaited our plucking. We did our best to pick just the most delicate young shoots, while being guided by the real pickers and even hearing their tea-picking songs composed for just such occasions and passed down through generations.
The afternoon was a delight for me, as I love black tea, having grown up with it in my childhood. Taiwanese black tea is beautifully aromatic, and we were about to make it ourselves! Heaping tea leaves onto a working surface, we spent nearly two hours, each diligently rolling and squeezing our little heap into a ball, then fluffing it out and repeating the process. The tea leaves gradually released their juices and started to turn a beautiful reddish brown.
Then they were fired for us and when we returned later that evening, we had a mini-competition of trying to determine who made the best batch. Each person's leaves were brewed and we judged by looking and smelling the leaves and the "tea soup", then tasting each cup with a small spoon. This was apparently just the way a real competition is held and one day I hope to see one, with the best teas around the world vying for the top place.
Some of my favourite parts of the trip were the walks we took to take in the beauty of the place - the mountain landscape, valleys stretching below us, exotic fruit and flowers hanging from every vine and branch and the clean, fresh, wonderful air.
Overall, a phenomenal experience that I'll be savoring for months to come as I infuse a pot of tea with leaves I prepared with my own hands, smelling and tasting with a new appreciation for the hard work and long hours it takes to create the perfect cup.