A Taste of Taiwan
Time out with oolong high mountain teas
I travelled to Taiwan not knowing too much about it. Naïve impressions were of vast industrial estates servicing the cheap electronics industry and a vague idea it would be ‘quite like China’. I knew it had amazing tea, being particularly famous for its oolongs. Beyond that it was an unknown quantity. I love trips like that. My aim was to explore the tea scene and travel to as many tea gardens as possible. Well, to say I’ve been amazed by the beauty of Taiwan and its people is an understatement. Not to be too trite, but I think it’s my new favourite country. It’s obviously interesting as we have our own tea room in Edinburgh but time and time again when I’m travelling on tea missions I’m astonished how much the average foreign consumer appreciates quality tea and understands the traditions, expertise and time that go into making good tea. That might not come as a surprise in Asia given it is the birthplace of tea but it highlights the fact the UK is still light years behind the majority of the world in this respect. It’s still fairly common for Earl Grey to be regarded as posh and a lot of us Brits can’t get past a cup of good old builders brew. By regarding tea as a cheap commodity we’re not doing ourselves any favours. We’re condemning ourselves to a life of poor quality tea meanwhile missing out on the amazing tastes, flavours and varieties of the wider world of quality leaf tea.
Having done some travelling in Japan before I’ve experienced the almost religious side of tea there. Japan has always held a special place in my heart: I wasn’t prepared to find a similar almost spiritual side to tea in Taiwan. But I did. It started with my visit to legendary tea master, Master Shifou near the Maokong Tea Gardens. This man was a powerful force who obviously lived by his beliefs. His home was a haven of tranquillity with a very traditional Japanese feel to it. He goes so far as to pick fresh flowers from the forest for his tea table every day. He sources some of the best leaves from all over Taiwan and uses his expertise to turn them into the most amazing teas. Only the very best teas make it out his production process and they are much prized. Master Shifou kindly guided me through a mammoth four hour tasting session of exquisite teas ranging from freshly picked Alishan Spring Oolong , Ti Guan Yin, Ruby Red, Da Yu Ling and some very expensive Blue Iron Wheel pu’erh cakes. I loved the Ti Guan Yin but I loved Master Shifou’s description better: “it’s like a sweet beautiful lady from the village rather than someone with too much make up on. It is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.”
I then had the pleasure of a tasting session with fellow tea enthusiasts David and Austin from Tearroir. They even let me try some very exclusive (with a price tag to match) Bug Poo tea. Yes, you’ve guessed it- this is actually the highly prized, tweezer plucked poos from little insects that only ever live and feed on tea leaves. I must admit I was a tad apprehensive to taste this but was honestly pleasantly surprised by the intriguing flavour. I will be holding a special tasting event with this tea later in the year so watch this space. After all that in the first few days I’d been itching to get on one of the high speed trains so hopped on one to Taoyuan to meet with local tea guru Mr Chen. We journeyed many hours high up into the mountains of Alishan where we met with a local family who were in the middle of producing some highly prized oolong. I got there in time to see the whole process from start to finish: withering, rolling, firing and finally tasting. After dinner with the family they kindly showed me around the mountains. The highlight was this most magnificent golden temple complete with central waterfall. It was a very tranquil experience, made all the more special by dusk starting to fall over the tea gardens that filled the landscape all around.
My day was far from over though. I travelled further up the mountain to another tea garden that was making oolong round the clock. I was impressed by the skill of the workers and how much of the quality depends on judging by sight or touch when it’s time to move on to the next step. Again the leaves were withered and then rolled in big bamboo barrels before being dried. I was even there in the middle of the night to witness the final drying stages (there can’t be many tea factories that cater for overnight guests!) If that’s not dedication to a cause then I don’t know what is! Thankfully all that effort was definitely worth it. The complex palate and orchid like taste was very special and lasted for many infusions. We’re still sampling all the teas from this trip but watch this space. In the meantime do try our Yellow Gold Oolong and Oriental Oolong – you won’t be disappointed. There’s tremendous pleasure to be had in simply sitting with a pot of oolong whether to regain your balance or to catch up with friends.