Tea mountains in South China come into bloom in early April. Give or take the rains these vibrant buds sprout into the morning fog. I recently had a chance to visit Fu Shan Mountain to pick the first flush of tea leafs. Daily these high mountains wrap in fog. This environment gives the leaf time to develop delicate aromas. Without the damaging effects of the sun.
Tea bushes, uniform in height, display their new buds like stubble on skin. The best buds are “three leafed.” You must be careful not to damage the leaf when picking. Any bruises or tears will cause bitterness in the brew.
The women picking are bend perpetually to the bush. Using their thumb and index finger the pinch the base of the leaf where it meets the stem. The faster they work the bigger the paycheck. Back at the factory the picking finishes before noon. This is about the time when the fog dissipates, and sunshine is undesirable for picking. Their baskets weighted and noted for quality. This is a first picking, no stems or mature leafs wanted. The buds lay on giant bamboo trays to dry for another eight hours. Once dried the package ships to markets. You can see an example of a panning method in the above picture. This requires tough, steady hands to manipulate the moisture out from the tender leafs.
The leafs I picked are aglow with a yellow green hue. Referred to as “Golden Leafs” they bring prizes for their aroma. This first flush is short and connoisseurs will pay thousands for the best quality. Aroma ranks above all other elements. From mountain to mountain the aroma is never the same.
After wilting my humble pile of golden leafs I enlisted the help of my father in law to try drying the leafs. We decided upon a small pan drying using a wok. Using low heat and short time we stirred the leafs so as to not create scorch marks. Even though the wok was clean the leafs absorbed a faint oil smell from the wok residue. A beginners error. After some patience the golden leafs are dry. A process like many factory-made white tea.
The leafs are wonderful. They are brimming with “white fur” the little white hairs that are a hallmark of high quality tea. These hairs are usually lost during long processing. While they are suppose to have many health benefits; above all they are a sign of minimal processing. The taste is close to a true white tea the aroma is astounding. It’s nuanced and varied from sip to sip. Notes of grass, spring water, moss, earth dance in the smallest amount. The tea leaf smell is immature and secondary to these nature notes. A tea for inhaling.