FUJIAN TEA

Beijing, 16 September 2013

Last week, I was down in Fujian province. Tea connoisseurs will know the province, it being the home of black tea in China (as well as of white tea and oolong) and, as a result, of some of the most famous black tea brands, including the three Fujian Reds: Tanyang Gongfu, Zhenghe Gongfu, and Bailin Gongfu.

fujian red

I’ve written a previous post about a fourth black tea from Fujian, smoked this one, which was my grandmother’s, and now is my wife’s, favourite tea: Lapsang Souchong.

But I was not in Fujian to explore its tea. I was there to visit two factories. One produces spirulina, a family of blue-green algae, which in the last several decades has received a lot of press as a sort of miracle food for the undernourished, and which was already being eaten by the Aztecs back in the 16th Century when the Spaniards conquered them. I’ve mentioned this wonder product in an earlier post.

Spirulina-Powder

The second factory produces glossy ganoderma, a fungus which the Chinese have been consuming for the last two thousand years for its medicinal properties and which has a renewed lease of life as a possible anti-cancer drug.

glossy ganoderma

The two factories were quite distant from each other as well as from the nearest airport at Wuyishan, so our days were long as we drove to each factory, visited them, and of course had long and copious dinners with our hosts and various local worthies such as the mayor or party provincial secretary.  It was with some relief that I saw we had finally arrived back in Wuyishan that last evening of the trip. Alas! I had rejoiced too soon. Wuyishan is an important centre for the tea trade, with scores of tea shops lining the main roads. Our driver, who also happened to be the son of the owner of the spirulina factory, had the great idea of taking us to one of these tea shops. Its owner was a good friend of his, he informed us brightly. He had been so good to us that I didn’t have the heart to say no. So we drew up in front of one of these tea shops, and were greeted effusively by its owner as we got out of the car. He was an Artist, he later informed us, which presumably explained his heartily embracing me; no normal Chinese would ever have done such a thing. It also no doubt explained his pony-tail, something which is now rare in China since the heady days of the birth of the Chinese Republic, when Chinese men everywhere cut off their queues to mark their liberation from Manchu rule.

In any event, he ushered us into his tea house, introduced us to his mother and sister, bid us sit, and quickly made us a cup of tea.

chinese tea ceremony

After a few minutes, and perhaps after a quiet word from his friend the factory owner’s son, he invited us to follow him up some back stairs, to a more private den on the second floor. Here, he had us sit around a table whose top was a square slab of rough stone into which he had carved a Chinese character; this in turn acted as a channel for a little fountain which emerged from the middle of the table’s top. The fountain added a quiet sound of running water to the proceedings. Our host announced that he would be serving us a rare black tea made from just a few kilos of leaves picked every year.

Tea in the mist

He gave us each a little cup which could contain a thimbleful of tea; he had made them himself, he informed us. He then ordered an acolyte who was hovering in the background to pull out his 18th Century Qing cup, which turned out to be even smaller than the ones we had been given and sat on its own tiny wooden table. We all inspected it with great respect. By this time, our host had boiled the water and transferred it to a small cast-iron Chinese teapot. With this, he poured a thin jet of hot water over the cups to warm them, and then added water to the tea. He let it stand for a while, then filled our little cups.

We all sipped our tea – I, out of the Qing cup – and murmurs of appreciation rose up. Now, I don’t pretend to be a tea connoisseur. In fact, I keep it a secret in China that I drink my black tea with milk and sugar. This would put me quite beyond the pale for most Chinese if it ever became common knowledge. And I have never appreciated the green tea which I am routinely offered here. But I actually liked the tea our host had offered us! It did indeed leave a mildly sweet aftertaste, as he had predicted. We drank a few more thimblefuls, after which he declared he would have us try another black tea. This one, he said, was even rarer. Just a kilo or so was collected every year, from one wild tea tree whose location he kept deeply, deeply secret.

old tea treee

It had to be sort of slurped to appreciate its taste, he instructed us. I duly sort-of slurped the tea and was astonished to discover a mild chocolaty aftertaste. Yes, my host smiled, that’s what many say.

As we continued to drink the tea, our eyes started to wander around the room, taking in the various ceramic pieces placed on the shelves around us. Our host began to take them down to let us inspect them. This small cup was Song, he said – Song! Oh  –– My –– God! I love Song ceramics!

song cup

– while this one was early Ming, he continued, and that shallow bowl was Qing. My head whirled. And as we sat there, sipping our tea and holding the ceramic pieces gingerly, oh! so gingerly, I felt for a moment – an instant – like a Chinese scholar of yore, sitting in my study, sipping my favourite tea, gently turning my ceramic pieces in the light, murmuring that Tang love poem I loved so much – and wondering if I would ever pass the next level of those damned imperial examinations …

chinese scholar-2

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Fujian red: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kvSw6A0btv8/UIlzv5xNqLI/AAAAAAAAAkw/T0MCEP9zCSE/s1600/goldenmonkey_base.jpg
Spirulina powder: http://spirulinapowder-review.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Spirulina-Powder.jpg
Glossy ganoderma: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Jreishi2.jpg
Chinese tea ceremony: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_UERtENI3oaU/TKzqT_cEx2I/AAAAAAAABvM/ENJO27ZhxiI/s400/chinesetea2.jpg
Fresh tea leaf: http://www.pingminghealth.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/green-tea-leaf.jpg
Old tea tree: http://www.puerh.fr/dynamic//files/system/articles/80/17.jpg
Song cup: http://p2.storage.canalblog.com/21/37/577050/46025483_p.jpg
Chinese scholar: http://images.visitbeijing.com.cn/20121011/Img214758300.jpg

WILD TULIPS

Beijing, 24 April 2013

I am lucky to live close enough to the office in Beijing to be able to go home for lunch. Which means that for the last week I have been walking, four times a day, past the bed of tulips that our buildings management had thoughtfully planted outside the front door and which has finally bloomed.

tulip bed by house 001

The bed has attracted considerable attention from the locals, who have stopped to admire, to photograph, and of course to be photographed in front of.

tulip bed by house 004

I must admit, I am not a huge fan of tulips, especially when they are planted in massed beds like this. These massed plantings are not helped by the strong colours of so many commercially available tulips. I mean, look at the colour combination in our building’s bed: bright red and bright yellow. I’m sure the colours were chosen with very deliberate intention: red for happiness in China’s iconography, yellow for wealth. So, “Happy Spring! Be wealthy and be happy” (as my father was fond of repeating, “money may not be the source of all happiness, but it surely helps a lot”). But it’s just too … much.

I believe that the Netherlands tourist board touts tours of its tulip fields when they are in bloom, travelling around – of course – by bike. I cannot think of anything worse: days of bicycling past acres of strong colours.

tulips in Holland-4-field

It would be the visual equivalent of eating, all alone, a large and very rich chocolate cake.

No, I think I would prefer to be riding a horse and come across this sprinkling of wild tulips on the steppes of southern Russia:

wild tulips-9-steppes s russia

or this carpet of wild tulips in Asia Minor:

wild tulips-3-asia minor

or this scattering of wild tulips in Iran:

wild tulips-5-iran

or this bed of wild tulips in Crete:

wild tulips-2-omalos crete

or this achingly beautiful wild tulip in Cyprus:

wild tulips-8-cyprus

I think it is clear by now to the reader that I prefer wild tulips by far. Apart from being integrated into their environment rather than regimented into artificial beds, I find their shape – coming up into a sharp, delicate point – so much more beautiful than the bulk of commercially available tulips. The artisans in Iznik, Turkey, also recognized the beauty of the tulip in their wonderful ceramics. These are ceramic tiles gracing the walls (or rather the pillars) of Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul:

tiles-4-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

The interior of this lovely little mosque is completely lined with ceramic tiles:

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The tiles pick up on other flowers, leaving delicate arabesques on the walls:

tiles-2-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

Several years ago, during the business trip to New York which I mentioned in an earlier post, I stumbled across an exhibition in the Turkish Chamber of Commerce of modern ceramic plates using traditional Iznik designs. I fell for a plate, which looked something like this:

plate-2-with tulip and carnation

and bought it on the spot, cash. It sleeps with all our other stuff in a warehouse in Vienna, waiting to be brought back into the light of day and admired.

I always had the impression that tulips originally came from Asia Minor or thereabouts, but their range is much wider. Here is a wild tulip in a national park in Umbria, Italy

wild tulips-10-umbria

and here is one from southern Norway:

wild tulips-4-tananger coast s norway

Lovely …

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Tulips in Beijing: my pix
Tulip fields in Netherlands-4: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-dbs2i3jZ9t0/TbPwj_YIvJI/AAAAAAAAAVI/tMyaQ7M1x40/s1600/Holland%2Band%2BBelgium%2B202.JPG
Wild tulips- steppes of S. Russia: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/1920×1280/35533419.jpg
Wild tulips- Asia Minor: http://www.colorblends.com/img/display/kolpakowskiana.jpg
Wild tulips- Iran: http://icons-ak.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/p/Photo1224/212-800.jpg
Wild tulips- Omalos, Crete: http://www.west-crete.com/dailypics/photos/1727large.jpg
Wild tulips- Cyprus: http://www.embargoed.org/images/gallery/preview/image_79_1.jpg
Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-1: http://ericrossacademic.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/rustem-pasa-tile.jpg
Rustem Pasha mosque interior: http://sugraphic.com/images/fotolar/2011/08/02/46_1312263234..jpeg
Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg/800px-DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg
Ceramic plate Iznik style: http://yurdan.com/Content/Uploads/ProductImages/39637/iznik-design-ceramic-plate-tulip-and-carnation–1.jpg
Wild tulips – Umbria, Italy: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/62/185332054_d21bcbf611_z.jpg?zz=1
Wild tulips – Tananger coast, S. Norway: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/16107947.jpg