While in China, I had a short list of things I wanted to do, some of which I was able to accomplish and some of which I was not.
I wanted to see Sun Yat Sen’s tomb (check).
I wanted to go to the Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse in Shanghai because it shows up in both Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age — in which it is one of the two main hangouts for the mysterious Dr. X along with KFC — as well as Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine (unchecked).
I wanted to track down the location of the old Russian Saint Nicholas Cathedral, which I believe was the cathedral where St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco –- a Serbian monk who eventually became a bishop and a saint venerated in America by the Russian émigré community – served (unchecked).
I wanted to try certain Chinese delicacies including fermented (through burial) duck eggs and shark fin soup (check). The latter particularly impressed my nine-year-old son, a fan of the Japanese show Iron Chef.
Finally, I wanted to taste and ideally purchase some Dragon Well Tea. I had first heard of Dragon Well a few years ago when I came across a long article about it in the New Yorker – or it might just as easily been The Economist, Harper’s, since I cannot find any reference to the article on the Internet. As I remember the article – or perhaps as I remember remembering it – it involved the obscure history of the tea, the peculiar manner in which it is harvested – once a year in spring, under a new moon, handpicked by virgins – and the devotion it has acquired among tea connoisseurs, with some sacrificing a year’s salary in order to purchase a few grams of the highest grade of the long jing leaf. And so I’ve carried this story around in my head for many years, wondering if I would ever have a chance to taste this particular brew.
I should point out that I am not any sort of tea connoisseur, myself. I suspect I may even be a philistine when it comes to teas, my palate already distorted and ruined by years of coffee drinking. Nevertheless, I knew that I wanted to try this tea, purported to be the greatest tea of China.
When the moment finally came, it was not anything revelatory. The tea is, quite frankly, nice. It has a beautiful grassy aroma and a pleasant, gentle flavor with very little bitterness. I’d drink it again. I could certainly see why the tea is considered to be special, but the experience was not like my first encounter with a $300 bottle of red wine in the south of France or my first mug of cold Czech beer in Prague. Of course, I was not tasting the highest grade of long jing, which needed to be acquired back in spring – and in truth have no guarantee that the tea is even from Zhejiang Province, much less the West Lake region – though the package is marked with the official state PGI label.
In any case, drinking it at home, long jing cha has grown on me. The smell of it immediately soothes me and the experience of drinking it requires a suitable and respectful ambience – a quiet and clean space with, ideally, a view. The tea has not given up its secrets to me yet, but I intend to be persistent.
Ah! But I forgot to tell you about the buying of the tea!
My Chinese colleague and I were passing a Ten Fu Teashop – one of a chain of over a thousand in China – in the Fuzi Miao and heard several young ladies, none older than 17, singing out to us and beckoning us in.
Upon entering Ten Fu, one of the ladies took us to a special tasting table. The table had a smaller special wooden table on top of it with slots to catch and drain away any spilled tea. Here the hostess went to work intricately preparing the tea for us. I had trouble following all of her hand motions as water was brewed, then poured into receptacles, then disposed of, then poured from one receptacle to another until the hot water finally touched tea leaves.
All the while the hostess described the particular qualities of the teas she was preparing while also suggesting how they should be drunk, at what time of day, and what sort of meals they would go with.
When the water was poured into the cup that contained the tea, the hostess began brushing it with the lip of the cup, guiding the tea leaves this way and that along the surface of the water as she told us the history of each tea we would be tasting. This lasted for perhaps thirty seconds and then the tea was strained into yet another receptacle.
From here it was finally poured into our tiny tea cups. She then picked up my tasting cup and dumped the contents out. The first pour was to warm the cup, only. A second pour and I was finally allowed to taste. By this time, the whole experience of watching the tea preparation had already overshadowed the actual tea itself. Did I mention that the hostess was flirting with us the whole time? We sipped our tea and asked for more. When the hostess asked us if we would like to try another tea, we could not bring ourselves to leave for dinner as we had originally planned. And so the whole intricate process started all over again. The graceful hands of the hostess flitted over the various appurtenances of the tea ceremony as she smiled, laughed, scolded, cajoled, and mocked us in a fluid delivery that had us hanging on her every word – none of which I actually understood.
At last we had tried three different teas — which I could barely tell apart until the oolong with osmanthus came along — and when it was clear that we would be purchasing nothing beyond my bag of Dragon Well Tea, we sadly parted ways with our hostess. When we asked her for her name, she laughed at us and said she couldn’t possibly tell us since we had only just met her, and that we would have to come back to her many more times before she would reveal it.