Mountains and landscape of Pu'er city in China's Yunnan province

Connecting: tea, art landscape, music and food

Canton Tea Club Week 81: White Puerh Silver Buds 

I will mention this week’s Tea Club tea briefly at the end, but most of this week’s blog is about connecting. It will touch on tea, art, landscape, music and food, but I hope it won’t stray too far into ‘Grumpy Old Men’ territory.

Earlier this week I travelled to London to meet with Aurélie Servol from Les Jardins De Gaia, a French company that specialises in sourcing organic speciality tea and spices from small farmers. They are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and I first met the founder, Arlette Rohmer, on a trip to China in 2007 in the early days of the company. It was so encouraging to see how the company has grown based on her vision and determination without compromising its underlying values. They seek out small farmers and co-operatives to work with as long-term partners, either selling the teas and spices pure or using them in imaginative ways in blends. I have a real admiration for what they have achieved.

connecting with tea

I met Aurélie at Fortnum & Mason, who sell a few teas sourced by JDG, but we soon wandered across Piccadilly to sit in the sun outside the Royal Academy and have a catch up. She had just come from the Natural Products Fair at Olympia and showed me a leaflet for ‘Miracle Matcha’ made from ground Kenya White Tea, available as a powder or in capsules. It was about as far from our vision of tea as it is possible to get, totally disconnected from the farm and farmer, and it reminded me of some words of wisdom from Tim D’Offay at Postcard Teas. In the midst of a load of comments on Twitter about teabags, sparked by a survey from @Teaxplorer, Tim simply said that a fundamental issue with the use of teabags is that drinkers lose their direct connection with the tea. I thought this got right to the heart of what we are about, and decided to take Aurélie to meet Tim.

When we arrived he was tasting samples of First Flush Darjeeling, including a Sungma with a stunning fruity aroma – Tim said it reminded him of Lilt, which sounds weird but was spot on. Because Tim also has a policy of only working with small farmers or co-ops, it was no surprise to find that he and JDG work with the same group of farms in Darjeeling, including Singell, Mineral Springs, Samabeong, Sungma and Potong. You might remember that I sampled some 2013 special manufacture teas from these gardens for the Tea Club a short while back, which I think were some of the finest Darjeelings I have come across. We spent a bit of time enjoying a leisurely tasting, made all the more special by a conversation about the farms, about the people involved, about their vision and about how important it is for their efforts to be affirmed and celebrated. A Mineral Springs tea from 2013 recently achieved the highly coveted three stars in the Great Taste Awards, which meant a huge amount to everyone involved back in Darjeeling.

For me, this way of drinking tea – with plenty of time, with friends, with an awareness of the farms involved, and with a chance to immerse oneself in the flavours – is the real tea experience. It’s why places like Postcard and a few others are real tea destinations.

tea and art

I like to visit art galleries, especially 20th Century art. I don’t go with any great knowledge, just to enjoy the experience and hopefully learn something– so it helps to go with someone who knows their stuff. For a while my daughter worked as part of the ‘crew’ at the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead, and it was her job to talk about the artists, explain their work and help people to enjoy and understand it. If you have ever experienced this it makes a real difference: Baltic hosted the Turner Prize in 2011 and I enjoyed it much more than I otherwise would have. There is also something about just standing in front of a painting or sculpture for a few minutes and being absorbed by it – an immensely different experience from giving it a quick glance as you walk past or mindlessly taking a photograph. I just don’t get it when I see hoards of people wandering round galleries using cameras or video cameras to record the art without engaging with it, most memorably with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. This sounds a bit rambling but I hope you can see parallels with the tea experience.

It’s the difference between driving through the countryside and walking through it, about taking time and engaging using all the senses.

It’s the difference between live and recorded music, not just being immersed in the sound but also seeing the faces of the musicians.

It’s the difference between cooking fish you’ve just caught and eating it in even the finest restaurant.

the full tea experience

Following this line of thought, for me the ultimate tea experience has to be drinking freshly made tea in Yunnan with a farmer who has picked the leaves from the forest the day before. I was very fortunate to be able to do this in 2013 with Jennifer (founder) and Ali (head of tea)from Canton, something I won’t forget.

But of course that’s not always a realistic option, which is why I think specialist tea shops that offer tastings are so valuable and deserve to be sought out and supported. It’s why I look for opportunities to share tea with like-minded people, and try to draw others into that secret and surprising world by doing tasting events myself. It’s why I’m so pleased to be working with the fine people at Canton who are completely immersed in what they do and mad about it in a very appealing way. It’s also been good to come across so many other tea-lovers via social media and to feel that the interest in the full tea experience is gaining some real momentum.

this week's tea

I had to smile when I remembered that this week’s tea is a white tea from Yunnan. If you read my blog last week you will know that I categorised white teas produced in the traditional Zhenghe and Fuding regions of Fujian as authentic ‘Chinese White Teas’, as opposed to those produced in India and elsewhere as ‘Other White Teas’. So it’s only taken a week to undermine that distinction. This week’s tea is made in Yunnan using the traditional white tea process – the silver-tipped buds are simply plucked and sun-dried, i.e. very similar to the original White Tea process in Fujian, which has now been almost completely replaced by controlled drying in large rooms. It has a delicate, smooth cup without the astringency of a normal raw Puerh. Is it a white tea? I would say yes. I think.

Try Canton’s white teas here.

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