China Day 7 : Return to Yang Cun : In search of Huangshan Maofeng
And so on Day 7 I woke in Huangshan city and waited for Sooha. It hadn't been the most peaceful of nights - I was placed on the very top floor of the hotel in what seemed to be the only occupied part of the building. Quite spooky would be putting it lightly.....
I was returning to see Sooha after my trip to the area in Spring 2017. Before I update you I'd encourage you to take a read of my blog from last year . This return to Yang Cun represents one of the really important and equally difficult parts of sourcing tea in the way we do - and that is the need to see beyond the immediate situation presented in front of you [which in 2017 was the presence of an enormous factory at the end of our large and arduous travels and not the small holders we were hoping to meet], make connections and really importantly follow them up.
Sooha was the amazing young woman I had made a connection with in 2017 and through our discussions I had discovered that her family owned a small plot of land which they used to grow tea. Her mum not only knew the mountains like the back of her hand but knew how to make great tasting Huangshan Maofeng.
Soon enough Sooha appeared and we headed up from Huangshan town to the hills in a taxi to Yang Cun her home village. Arriving in the village it soon became clear that pretty much everyone was related through blood or marriage. Such a friendly atmosphere greeted us as we were accompanied up to the house. On arrival we were ushered to sit down. In the back room Sooha's father oversaw a patient with a drip in her arm [he is a country doctor] - while her mother Du Xing'er prepared us Camomile flowers from the local areas, eggs and nuts. Of course, there must always be snacks with tea .... and there must also always be tea before any talk of work or any walk into the mountains.
After lunch we went for a walk around the village. Beautiful old houses filled with wood, baskets and other functional items for village life lined the streets. It was noticeable how much cooler it was inside than out. Everyone had coats on and fearing that my 4 layers were quite simply 'not good enough' a lovely Aunt in a house we visited disappeared and reappeared 5 minutes later with a small basket. It turned out that this was a portable hand warmer with coal in the bottom. People all around the village were carrying them around as a way to keep warm. I held onto mine tightly - I loved it!
There was a fermented smell in the air - as we turned a corner we saw why - cabbage of some sort left in the sun...which I would later find our is a key ingredient in the delicious snack you can see below. Once I showed a liking for this I was presented with one everywhere we visited!
After the tour of the village it was time to head up into the hills and there is only one way to travel on these roads - in safe hands with Du Xing'er driving.
We were heading up into the hills to identify the areas from which we wanted our 2018 Huangshan Maofeng to be picked. Du Xing'er has walked these hills all of her life. Strong and hugely knowledgable we walked the hills as she took us to the plots of land that belong to her and her family. For us at Comins provenance is key. Knowing where our tea comes from and the conditions in which it is grown is essential. Building relationships with those who produce our tea critical. In China perhaps more than anywhere else I have visited the opportunity to personalise what you wish to buy is limitless - but only if you visit at the right time. Visiting in season provides you with beautiful pictures of tea pickers and a real sense of the tea market but little opportunity to chat about requirements - at that time you simply have to buy what is available [if there is any harvest left!] and for us what is available is often not an option. You see in areas like this much of the leaf is simply 'pooled' and sent to large factories as referenced in the previous blog. There is no way to know the conditions in which the tea is grown, whether pesticides are used etc and certainly no story behind the tea - and as our customers tell us every day connection with the growers is a critical part of a great tea experience. Unless people like us come and visit the area, build relations, walk and hike to see specific areas of land, specify picking dates and style, then there is no market for individuals like Du Xing'er to pursue making their own tea. As we walked with Du Xing'er she paused to pick fresh wild vegetables from the small waterways that cut through the mountains before stopping to wash them in the river.
In villages like this across China there are small shared facilities that farmers use to generally make tea for their families, friends and local consumption. This was to be our next stop. On the way we were hailed down by another relative - an Aunt of Sooha's and of course we pulled in. Her grandmother of 95 was also there so of course we had some tea...and a snack [I may have been regretting declaring my love for the cabbage pancake....they were quite filling!]
The women here were powerful. I don't say this lightly. They seemed to run these mountains. Strong and tough but kind. We chatted about the differences in our lives. The fact that I did not eat meat was a cause of much concern. How could you possibly lead an outdoor life on the mountains climbing, picking working if you were not sustained by meat or fish. As a group they reflected and presented their conclusion back to me - I was a trader not a worker of the land - my hands were 'softer'...it all made sense to them now...they laughed...I laughed...it was true. I didn't feel uncomfortable - more privileged to share this moment. It's rare in my travels to be in the presence of all women and for them to be making all the decisions on the project we are working on. I enjoyed and cherished the moment!
So back in the truck and off to the factory.....or more precisely to what looked like a garage. At the time of year I visited the factory was closed but once ushered inside we were met with a busy group of individuals getting it ready and clean for the season ahead. Much discussion ensued about the project that we were there to discuss - with the firm and widely agreed conclusion that Du Xing'er was the woman to do it! "No one knows the mountains like her" I was told! proving how complex the recipe is for good tea : good land, good leaves & local knowledge....and that is before you even reach the factory!
The plan seemed to be in place. Or at least the discussions stopped, my hand was shaken and we were on our way again! Returning to the home we had a beautiful supper before an early night.
Back in the UK & Sooha has kept me well updated on the progress of our tea through our regular daily chats on We Chat. Du Xing'er has climbed to the highest points around the village to collect the leaves from the wild tea bushes before brining it personally to the factory to process.
Videos of pickers on the way up the mountain.....
Leaves being processed the the factory mentioned above!
So the tea we carefully selected is now packed and on its way to Comins.
And there you have it - the journey of leaf to cup. A story of people, perseverance, place, partnership & ultimately trust between people who on first meeting have only one thing in common - tea. The beautiful thing about tea is that you can take the leaves, add water and immediately you have a commitment of time to each other. Time after time it is shown just how powerful this simple leaf is as a connector of people. We can't wait to share the tea that Du Xing'er has picked and carefully processed for us with you at Comins
Thanks to the people of Yang Cun & Mei Cun for your outstanding hospitality - how wonderful that tea has brought us together. Michelle xx