If the leaves must be picked by virgins for purity, then it is fitting that the tea is cooked (or prepared) for consumption by old men working, drinking and smoking all through the night. It is the ever present and inevitable Yin and Yang. Dirty, often toothless men crafting perfection wrought from the hands of virgin tea pickers. There is an open discussion as to whether tea is cooked or roasted, like coffee. Either definition works. You can tell a great tea cooker by his hands. They are blistered and calloused from moving the leaves in a circular pressing and shifting motion in a hot iron cauldron. As they cook through the night smoking, they fall asleep and their hands stop a fraction of a second too long. They jerk awake and curse, not even stopping to look. Long ago when I cooked in France, and a cook would cut himself, the chef would say, “C’est le métier qui rentre.”He meant that the soul of the profession was entering into you as you bled or got burned for it. I have yet to see a woman cooking tea, but I am sure they do. The entire village and the environs smell of a light citrus spring as tea is cooked. It is intoxicating. It smells fresh, positive and the aroma penetrates the body and leaves hope in the heart. If you have never smelled it, then the only comparison I can give to the headiness is that of a freshly mown lawn or field.
As China hurtles into modernization and becoming the dominant power on the planet, its old ways are dying. Tea is no exception; I can only speak of the green tea here; the commoditization has happened. Up until recently, maybe fifteen years ago, this little village did not have good access to outside markets and the side businesses of tea, restaurants, marketing peasant cooking, packaging, hotels, and guest houses. There were no fancy resorts much less the hyper expensive Amanfayun, which is now nestled in the tea valley. The Aman resorts are probably the most exclusive resorts in the world. There was no road or tunnel through the mountain. It was hard to get here, and almost no one had cars. Rural isolation ruled.
Green tea is cooked three times. The initial cooking is done to remove excess moisture, the second to set or press the flavors, and the third to finish the tea leaves and give them the proper aspect. The farmers did everything by hand and sold the product to middlemen who reaped most of the profits. With roads and tunnels, an affluent class now exists; it is all about the money. So, the farmers have started to take shortcuts to maximize tea output and profits. Now, all farmers do a first cook by machine. You can hear a hum thump – hum thump thump – hum thump – hum thump thump as the delicate bright green tea leaves are put through the first of the cooks with metal-tined combs and a damper heating, moving and fluffing. Some still do the final two cooks by hand, certainly the majority does the third, but many do not. You get about 25% more if you use machines; that is a lot of money. Even I, a tea newbie, can tell the difference. Because the Longjing name is so prized, some farmers even import tea from other areas nearby that cannot take the Longjing appellation and call it that just to make more money.
There is only one man, the Hat Man, because he always wears a hat, on my brother’s street, who does it all by hand, all three cooks. His tea is by far the best. He has won competitions ever since he was young. In some circles in Shanghai, his tea costs 180 Yuan a cup; that is about thirty U.S. dollars for two grams. A tea master will get four maybe five soaks in the cup. We buy our tea from him exclusively, and my brother has spent hours at his side watching and learning; he still cannot replicate the motion or feel the tea. It will take years. I really like the Hat man. He is simple, friendly, shrewd, intelligent, and prone to drinking too much. And, he cannot play pool very well, but loves to gamble; my kind of guy. I play for him for tea, and cash, but always buy a lot of tea from him.
Here are a couple of video links to the Hat Man, another neighbor whom I like, and the dreaded machine cooking:
After the tea is cooked it is sorted into sizes and quality. The early high elevation teas are the most expensive. I am drinking tea that is about $350 USD a pound. It is an unbelievable cup of tea.
Special thank you to my impromptu editor. You should check out her blog: http://mouseintokyo.wordpress.com/ You will be the better for it.