I’m in the middle of a gorgeous exploratory holiday through Zhèjiāng, one of China’s smallest provinces. It’s famous for a number of things, but the first and foremost is Lóng jǐng Green Tea. Lóng jǐng translates as “Dragon’s well” and the tiny village of Lóng jǐng is situated just up the hill in the capital city of Hángzhōu.
Zac, my husband, had previously travelled to Hángzhōu on business and had attempted to buy some tea. However, every tea shop he visited had outrageously high prices (more expensive than Beijing!!) and the quality just didn’t seem up to scratch. As the streets of Hángzhōu are lined with Lamborghini and BMW shops, it’s easy to see why this happened. Zhèjiāng’s recent history includes a lot of China’s entrepreneurs and massive export companies. Apparently, a large percentage of the world’s shoes come out of Wēnzhōu, a major city in the south of the province. So, there’s money. Big time.
When we knew that we wanted to explore Zhèjiāng, Zac got back in touch with his driver from the previous trip. The guy had chatted about tea and seemed to know what he was talking about. We gave him a call, he asked us which car we’d like (money!) and he picked us up one day in his black Audi. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. He told us where the best tea was and took us there. When we asked if there were any other places where we should go, he said no. This is the only place for lóng jǐng.
When we arrived at Lóng jǐng village, he parked the car right next to the actual Dragon’s Well! A little grandma grabbed our arms and handed us a bucket with a rope. We plunged the bucket into the well and drew up icy cold water. We washed our face and hands in the cool, sweet water. It was the best tasting water I’ve ever had.
We then followed him a short way up to a house behind the well at 狮峰山 (shīfēngshān – Lion’s Peak Mountain). We were welcomed by the loveliest lady who used lovely slow Chinese to explain all about her teas.
There are two harvests a year for lóng jǐng and the smaller of the two happens in Autumn. For this farm in particular, they don’t pick the leaves, they just cut them and place the cut leaves back into the soil as fertilizer. It is impossible to use chemicals on Chinese tea; it would affect the flavour too much. The biggest harvest is during Spring, around “Tomb-Sweeping Day” (清明节 qīngmíngjié). There are 2 types of lóng jǐng, named according to their harvest time. The first is 明前 míngqían, which means ‘before Tomb-Sweeping Day’ and the second is 雨前 yǔqían, which means ‘before Guyu (谷雨)’ – the rain period following Tomb-Sweeping Day. Míngqían is the more popular of the two, and we tasted this one first. For a green tea, it is reasonably robust, and one batch of the tea can be steeped (泡 pào) about eight times and maintain it’s flavour.
Then, the lady brought out her best tea: 极品龙井 (jí pǐn lóng jǐng – high grade). And we were overwhelmed. We thought the last tea was amazing. We thought the last tea smelt wonderful. We thought the last tea looked bright and green and fresh. Until this one.
This tea was much more delicate, but it had a beautiful fresh, sweet flavour. There was absolutely no bitterness. The flavour coated your tongue and stayed in your mouth much longer than any other green tea I’ve tasted. This one can only be steeped about 4 times. It was 10 times the price of the last one we tasted!!! It was also a beautiful looking leaf. It was like a small opening bud, and each leaf had more than 3 parts. The leaves don’t break apart when brewed either – they maintain their perfect shape. The tea farm only produces 5 jin (2.5 kg) of this tea every year. It was like the baby of the 2 previously mentioned teas – if it was left on the tree for longer, it would become the others.
Once drinking that, there was no going back. We weren’t leaving without buying some, especially since the price here was about 1/3 of what she sold it for in Beijing. Our tea lady said that there was once a guy who paid her almost double the price so that she would handpick the best leaves so that they were all the same size (we weren’t that fussy)!
However, we thought we’d better try our favourite ‘green’ tea whilst we were here – white tea. White tea is from a different tea bush (same species) and this white tea is called “Bái lóng jǐng” (White Dragon’s Well Tea). It was hilarious – after our amazing previous tea, this one came out and the colour just SHONE! It was so much brighter and more vibrant than her best one! The flavour was beautiful, but still didn’t rival the jí pǐn lóng jǐng.
As we sat and chatted to this tea lady, she continually munched on the leaves from the teapot (she also said that Mao was a big fan of eating tea leaves). She said she drinks about 1 jin of tea a month (0.5kg), but an average tea drinker would probably take 3 months to drink that much. At one stage she held out both her hands and asked me to feel them and tell her what was different. Her right hand had very thick, tough skin with a few callouses – this is her ‘wok’ hand; the hand she uses to roast the leaves in the wok. It’s pretty special moment to realize the personal attention that all of these leaves have had from her!