By Brian Awehali
I was taken on a lovely tour of the fog-wreathed high mountain tea country in Nantou County, in the central and only landlocked part of Taiwan. Here, especially in the east, near the Hualien coastline, it’s easy to see why the Portuguese dubbed this place “formosa,” which means “beautiful island.” Butterflies and lush vegetation abound.
Among the many interesting natural sites, I also saw the “bamboo house” that Nationalist (KMT) leader Lord Chiang would retreat to in the years after he lost his struggle against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and was forced to flee mainland China. I’m not sure if he went here before or after he contracted the gonorrhea that would eventually sterilize him and leave him with only one biological son, but it was definitely before he imprisoned or executed upwards of 140,000 people for opposing the KMT in Taiwan.
After the tour, I was invited to visit a local tea aficionado to learn more about the history, process, art, and etiquette of Taiwan’s second-most-acclaimed product (the first being the creation and modern defense of a functioning democratic Chinese society and government).
We entered and began the tasting: Spring and Winter varieties of Rose Oolong, Jasmine and Black teas were in the offing, and it was surprising just how distinct the flavor of each season’s tea was. I learned that the best tea is grown at the highest altitudes, where it takes the longest to mature. Winter tea is the most prized, and most expensive, though I personally favor the spring tea for its greener, and more precisely chlorophyllic aroma and color.
I am a mostly unapologetic hedonist, and I often have as much trouble limiting my enjoyment of something pleasurable or delicious as I do stopping an interesting conversation, or leaving a beautiful place. So I kept accepting one cup of fine tea after another as my host offered them. I was at this tasting with my partner F. and her parents, and courtesy dictated that if I accepted more, more would be served. I was having a grand and fabulously caffeinated time, completely engrossed in asking as many questions as came to mind while everyone translated for me. What was the difference between black tea, green tea and oolong? (They’re all from the Camellia Senesis plant, but black tea is fully fermented/oxidized, oolong to a lesser extent, and green tea not at all). Why was the first short steeping of the tea always discarded? (To “wake” the tea and to wash away any residue on the leaves before drinking). Why were there so many steeps of each tea, and why such tiny cups? (We were performing a ceremonial method called gongfucha, and the exacting chemistry and temperature of the ceremony dictates smaller cups with hotter water). Would a person get fat from eating so many of these delicious biscuits, peanuts, and cookies between each serving of tea? (“Not as long as they’re consumed with tea!,” chirped my comfortably stout host.)
I also learned just how intensive the human labor of tea (especially oolong) is. The vast majority of it is picked by hand, a pound of tea requires tens to hundreds of thousands of leaves, and pay is generally very low. Taking this into consideration, the slower and more deliberate consumption of tea makes perfect sense.
It was not until many hours and maybe 50 cups of tea (small ones, but really: 50) that I realized just how very much tea had been consumed. When we finally tore ourselves away, my obviously great love of tea led our host to offer me a very fine traveling tea set and some lovely spring tea from the high mountains of Nantou to take with me on my travels. Score!
That night, I worked merrily through the night while F. and her parents complained bitterly the next morning about insomnia and bad sleep.
It is not simply national chauvinism when the Taiwanese tell you, as they often do, that the very best tea is from Taiwan. The choicest tea they produce is bought up by men doing business in mainland China, who use it to bribe Chinese officials and thereby grease the wheels of commerce. This is so common, I was told by a merchant for one of Taiwan’s largest tea producers, that it’s very hard for the average Taiwanese to get any of their prized winter tea. I noticed that the Wikipedia entry on oolong tea does not mention this fact. Then again, as great as Wikipedia is, you can’t be too trusting of anything you read online…
NEXT: Ten days working on a WWOOF-affiliated “organic” farm in Chunan, on the northwest coast of Taiwan. ABC’s of Japanese-style organic fertilizer! The genius of birds relative to that of insects! How to cut and harvest bamboo without getting eaten alive by vicious little bugs! (That is, vicious little bugs other than the Taiwanese vampire mosquito.)
Brian Awehali, a former editor at Britannica.com, founded and edited the North American magazine, LiP: Informed Revolt (anthology: Tipping the Sacred Cow, AK Press). In 2010, he will be traveling through Taiwan, China, and Mongolia, writing diffusely about culture, sustainable development, and emerging “green” technologies. He curates LOUDCANARY: One interconnected journey through everything and nothing. He is a half-Irish member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.