Bitterness and Cocktails
It's not Yorkshire tea thats for sure
A little more than three months ago, Mark and I popped our London bubble and moved across the world to settle in another comfortable leafy corner of another large and heavily populated city, the most populated city in the world in fact. Surprisingly, our lives actually haven't changed that much. Shanghai is a vibrant and interesting place. Afternoons are still filled with innovative restaurants, weekends with museums, galleries and parks, and the nights, well, they're as debauched as they used to be too!
But there is one thing that has changed, which you'd never guess. We now have space.
We have an apartment maybe three or four times larger than our place in Hackney, and the roads feel never ending and unravel as you crawl across the city. And even though there are many high-rise buildings, the sky is huge and mesmerising, especially on a clear day.
Never in my life have I had so much space. Space to stretch both mentally and physically. It’s truly a wonderful feeling.
There's an increased feeling of freedom as my Chinese improves too. I’ve now learnt a few important phrases, such as ‘I am waiting for you on the street’, for when the Didi taxi driver calls.
When I was writing my book last year, trapped at home struggling to stay focused, distracted by the endless cleaning and washing up, a good friend of mine, Henrietta Lovell, the Rare Tea Lady, dragged me out of the house and into her office in Marylebone.
For nine months I sat in the tasting room of the Rare Tea Company and hammered out my manuscript. I learnt more than I could possibly imagine, not just about tea, but also about relationships, happiness, love, friendship and loyalty.
So when I got a message from Henrietta, saying she was coming to China, and asking if we’d like to join her half way up a mountain to pick some tea, it didn’t take much convincing.
The mysterious and alluring Rare Tea Lady
The Chinese believe in seven necessities to start each day, firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea. For me, tea is fundamental to life too, so I was very excited to go on our first proper excursion since we arrived, to the Wuyi Mountains, one of the most famous tea producing regions in the world.
Mark and I arrived a few hours before Henrietta, so we decided to head for the hills and see where the road would take us. The walking was invigorating, I had forgotten what fresh air smelt like. We are already so familiar with the odours of Shanghai, that we only remember they're there when they’re absent.
It wasn’t long before we came across row after row of perfectly manicured tea bushes. We continued to walk along the road that climbed gently as it wound up the canyon, and in every possible space, a clearing at the side of a road, a sunny slope, there was tea.
A few hours later we were in desperate need of a cup of the stuff we had spent all day looking at and admiring.
Wuyi is famous for its Da Hong Pao (大红袍), or Big Red Robe tea, an ancient variety that, according to legend, cured the terminal illness of an emperor’s mother. The emperor then ordered that the tea bushes be wrapped in red robes to protect them, and the name came about. It’s an incredibly dark oolong tea, that’s almost as strong as coffee, and is often only served to select guests.
If you’ve never sampled tea the Chinese way and intend to try it, sipping infusion after infusion, then you must be careful to eat something as you drink, like nuts or cake, to avoid getting tea drunk, where your blood sugar drops and you suddenly feel desperately ill.
You know when she's been for tea
Ten infusions from the same pot later, Henrietta arrived with her signature red lipstick and straw hat. It had only been three months since we had last seen each other, but it felt like we’d been separated for years on distant planets by the amount of gossip we had to catch up on.
The next morning we had a very special man to visit. This man had created a new variety of tea called Golden Beautiful Eyebrow, which sounds much nicer in Chinese, Jin Jun Mei (金骏眉).
Freshly picked tea buds
After driving for two hours through the most spectacular wild forest, along a winding river that reminded me of the Merced in California, we arrived at a charming, but not entirely quaint, village of about ten residents.
We entered a large, palatial Roman style villa, that was half finished and largely unfurnished, except for the enormous glass chandelier in the foyer, and went upstairs. We sat for a few hours drinking Mr Wen’s various blends of lapsang souchong and his prized Golden Beautiful Eyebrow tea.
Each infusion, takes only ten seconds or so. If the leaves are infused any longer then you end up with a terribly tannic and bitter drink that needs to be countered with milk and sugar. We discussed at great length the flavour profile of each, sweet, malty, smoky, noting it all down on our phones. It wasn’t long before our stomachs started rumbling and we were ushered into the next building for lunch with the workers.
Like a bland background to make all other flavours sing
Admittedly I enjoyed the company much more than the food. The fresh bamboo shoots were delicious, but I always wonder where the meat has gone, when the Chinese serve a large bowl of pork fat, floating in more fat.
I’m just happy there wasn’t any jellyfish.
After lunch we thanked the chef and went for a walk into the tea bushes. It looked unlike any tea farm I’ve ever seen. Rather than the carefully maintained rows further down the valley, these bushes were wild and mixed in with the rest of the forest. It can take one person an entire day to collect just one kilo of tea here. Even more impressive when only the bud is collected from the stem, leaving the next two more mature leaves behind, as those are normally collected if producing a lower quality product.
A woman sorts tea by hand for her own consumption
We returned to the house and continued drinking tea for a few more hours, becoming giddy and hysterical. We decided it was probably best to head back to Wuyishan city and fly back to Shanghai, rather than risk being stranded in Fujian province.
The flight was uneventful, but on leaving the metro and walking back to our apartment I had a sudden strange and conflicting thought.
It feels like closure to say it, and I don’t think without admitting it I would have been happy here, but I don't miss London anymore.
I used to look at Instagram and see all my friends at the same restaurant or bar and feel that I was missing out.
But now, at the end of a long day, or trip to the mountains, when that feeling comes, where you can’t wait to get back into your own house, surrounded b