Chinese Tea: Hubei Province

In our last post we focused on Anhui Province, its people, and some of its famous teas. In this post we shift next door to look at neighboring Hubei Province which has many similarities yet is home to distinct Chinese teas of its own.

Hubei Province – Land and People

Ancient tower in China

Yellow Crane Tower in Hubei Province China (by Flicr user Meraj Chhaya, CC BY-2.0)

At a macro level Hubei, like Anhui, has a large population especially by comparison to US States of similar size. Hubei has approximately 57 Million people in an area of 186,000 sq km (71,815 sq mi). This is roughly equivalent to the size of Washington State, which has a much smaller population at only 7 million people. Instead, consider that Hubei’s 57 million is the equivalent of the populations of California and New York combined, all within the land area of Washington State. The population is made up of a large number of minority ethnic groups in a province said to be the origin of the Chinese people.

From a geography perspective, Hubei is a land locked province located along about the same latitude as southern Texas, Louisiana, and Florida though its land features range from lowlands to highly mountainous. The province is also traversed by the well known Yangtze River, features the Enshi Grand Canyon (1/16th the size of ours but very lush), Three Gorges, Yellow Tower, and more.

Like its geography and its people Hubei province has a wide range industries and business activities ranging from agricultural to finance and high tech.

Hubei Province Tea

Statue of Lu Yu

Lu Yu – In Xi’an on the grounds of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda
Nat Krause
July 26, 2005, CC – 2.0

Home to the birthplace of Yu Lu, author of the Classic of Tea, Hubei boasts a number of great teas. Though its teas are perhaps overlooked due to teas like Dragon Well, Keemun, and many others from surrounding provinces, it is home to its own unique tea. The major tea producing region of Hubei is found in the southwest mountains of the province in the Enshi region. Its an extremely mountainous region with very rugged terrain,and not surprisingly is quite rural by comparison to other parts of the province. The land here is heavily forested and known for rich soils high in selenium. As a result of both history and the high selenium content of its soils, Hubei produces a number of unique teas. The most famous of its teas is actually Enshi Yu Lu, also known as Jade Dew. What makes this unique is its close similarity to another ‘Jade Dew’ tea, Gyokuro from Japan. The Enshi Yu Lu green tea, like that of its close relative from Japan, uses steaming to halt oxidation of the leaf, which is a production method generally not used in other parts of China. Like its Japanese counterpart, Enshi Yu Lu has long dark green leaves that look to be needle shaped and tends to have a very vegetal flavor.

Additional teas include Wujiatai Tribute Tea, Hefeng Tea, Mapo Tea, and increasingly teas focused on perceived health benefits of selenium like Enshi Selenium Enriched Tea. The high selenium content of the soils, in fact, has led a number of companies in the region to seek trademarks on many different health related names of teas (though selenium deficiency is considered rare in the United States). Given the rich history of tea production in the region, its unique processing methods, the role in culture, and its own particular terrior, this region like many others (starting with Champagne, France) is pursuing Geographic Identification status as a way to highlight and protect its tea products.

Sources
Geographical Indication Characteristics and Agricultural Intellectual Property Protection of the tea in Enshi Prefecture, Asian Agricultural Research 2015, http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/174939/2/24.PDF

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Chinese Tea: Anhui Province

Snow covered and jagged peak of Huangshan Mountain, Anhui Province

Huangshan Mountains in Winter in Anhui, China (by Flickr user miquitos, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Anhui province of China is located in Eastern China, but does not border the sea. Roughly the size of North Carolina, it spans across two large watersheds, the Huai He and Yangtz rivers. Anhui is best known for its rich topography and natural resources. It comes as no surprise that the most drawn and photographed mountain in China, Huangshan, resides in Anhui. Huangshan mountain is also home to many of the wonderful teas that come from Anhui, including Huang Shan Mao Feng and Keemun. Anhui province teas are only a small reflection of this geographically diverse region.

History and People of Anhui

The Anhui province was not formally created until 1666 CE by the Qing Dynasty, which makes Anhui a rather young province in comparison to others. This may be due to the fact that Anhui is located in a transition zone between northern and southern China, so the land changed hands multiple times during wars between tribes. The terrain ranging from highland valleys, through mountainous terrain down to the deltas of its major rivers, makes for tough navigating, so its population is not as diverse as would be expected. Anhui is home to 59 million people (more people than the two most populated US states, California and Texas, combined). The vast majority of the population is Hui with the largest minority groups being the She and Hui.

The people of Anhui have influenced Chinese culture for centuries. Huiju opera was created in southern Anhui and is one of the most popular operas across China, often noted as the predecessor to the Beijing Opera. The highest quality materials for Chinese calligraphy also come from Anhui, including ink, paper and inkstones. Last, but not least, Anhui cuisine, consisting of wild game or fish with local herbs and prepared with minimal fuss is considered one of the eight staples of Chinese cuisine and of course their teas.

Anhui Province and Tea

Map of China with Anhui Highlighted

Anhui Province China

Huangshan Mountain and its surrounding region was named an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990. This is very important as it will preserve the tea plants and fields in the surrounding region. In this region all six types of tea are produced but the highest quality teas from Anhui are really black, green, and yellow teas. The rich red clay and higher elevations around the mountain make perfect terroir for tea. Tea has been grown in the province for thousands of years and there are many tribute teas made in Anhui that never make it into western markets due to the high demand within China. The first plucking of tea that make Huang Shan Mao Feng goes for top dollar as well as their famous tea, Huo Shan Huang Ya, which was originally made as a tribute to Qing Dynasty. Keemun makes a fabulous black tea that was once part of the recipe for English Breakfast or common on its own in early American colonies, before the British planted tea bushes in India.

Ahui province is worth your time to learn about and if you are adventurous, take a trip and enjoy this beautiful area along with its tea.

 

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Gongfu Style and the Yixing Teapot

A Yixing Teapot with Stamp

Significant Artistry in Yixing Teapot Production

In previous posts we’ve highlighted just a couple of the many tea pots and vessels used to prepare tea (mugs, infusers, and teabags aside). We’ve touched a bit on using a Japanese kyusu for preparation of green tea. We’ve also touched on how using a Chinese Gaiwan can enrich the enjoyment of tea as well as bring out more subtle flavors in teas like Bao Zhong Oolong. In this post we are going to look at another traditional Chinese vessel for preparing tea; the Yixing Teapot.

The Yixing Teapot

Yixing (pronounced ‘ee-shing’) teapots, also known as zisha or ‘purple sand’ teapots, have been around for at least 500 years. While they are normally associated with preparing oolong and pu’erh teas, they really can be used to prepare any kind of tea while adjusting for temperature. An authentic Yixing teapot comes from the town of the same name in Jiangsu province in Eastern China (near Shanghai). Pottery has been made in this area for thousands of years though the development of the Yixing teapot design is a much more recent development. They are believed to have been created as a better vessel for tea preparation at a time when preferences shifted from powdered tea to that of loose leaf.

The Yixing teapots are quite small, generally sized for 2-4 people, un-glazed and typically found in red, green, or black colors. Being un-glazed these teapots become seasoned with use taking the aroma and flavors of the teas prepared in them. For this reason it is best to use one type of Yixing teapot for each type of tea. Additionally, since they are un-glazed Yixing teapots do a great job wicking remaining liquid away from tea after steeping keeping the leaves fresh and ready for many subsequent infusions.

Three Yixing teapot designs.

Yixing teapots come in many styles and colors though simple designs are better for making tea.

Yixing teapots are art in and of themselves. While some are highly decorated, the best and most valuable are typically quite plain in appearance. Highly prized, there are substantial fakes on the market which may be artificially colored, may not have the right density or porosity, and may have lids which don’t have the perfect fit known for this type of pottery. Knowing how to spot a fake is far beyond the scope of this post but do be careful if you are seeking to spend hundreds, thousands, or even more on one.

Gongfu Style Tea

Yixing teapots and the Gongfu style of tea preparation go hand in hand. Gongfu, aka Gong Fu or ‘Kung Fu’, actually means to do something with great skill, and represents a high investment in learning and practice. And while Kung Fu is often thought of in a martial arts concept, Gongfu style tea represents preparation of tea with great skill. Those who have studied Yixing teapots and practiced Gongfu style for many years are truly masters. They are able to quickly identify the best pots for a given tea. What’s more they have a feel for how long to steep, how to adjust steeping times between steepings, and ultimately how to extract the best taste and flavors from a tea.

Yixing Teapot and Two Small Cups

Gongfu Style Tea is an Art Form

While the full ritual of preparing tea Gongfu style has many steps its loosely distilled into:

  1. Rinse and heat the teapot and cups.
  2. Add tea and rinse the tea briefly.
  3. Steep the tea for 10-15 seconds and fully pour out the contents into a small pitcher.
  4. Serve the tea in small cups.

In this manner more water can be added for multiple subsequent infusions, each of 10-15 seconds, repeating five to ten times ore more.

Expand Your Tea Horizons

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the experience you can have with a Yixing teapot and an exploration of Gongfu style tea. However, if you have become a fan of straight teas, find yourself drinking some of the many wonderful teas less known in the west, and/or have discovered Oolong or Pu’erh tea then an exploration of Yixing and Gongfu has got to be next on your list.

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Smallholder Tea Farmers in Kenya

We recently stumbled across an interesting news article in Coastweek.com, a Kenyan based online newspaper. The article focused on a mobile network provider, Safricom, partnering with the Kenyan Tea Development Agency Ltd or KTDA, to change the way payments to smallholder tea farmers are handled. Specifically, the arrangement replaces all cash payments with M-PESA. If you haven’t heard of it, M-PESA is a branchless banking system developed by the global mobile network operator Vodaphone. In part, the your mobile network operator and retail outlets become your banking agents. The objective for KTDA is to improve security for employees at the factories who pay or delivered tea leaf as well as increase accountability and overall efficiency in payments and accounting. As it turns out this is but one step in helping support and increase profits for small tea farmers.

Smallholder Tea Plantations

UN Food and Agriculture Organization Logo

The UN FAO reviews the tea trade through its Inter-Governmental Group on Tea

Rather than write about M-PESA this article got us curious about the smallholder tea farmer system in Kenya and the relationship with KTDA. Smallholders, not large corporate plantations, as it turns out are a major source of tea produced in many countries. A 2012 review of smallholder tea farmer contributions by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization indicated that in countries like Sri Lanka, Kenya, China, and Vietnam smallholders produce the majority tea in these countries. This is opposed to countries like Indonesia and India where smallholders produce only about 20-25%.

Smallholder plantations, in theory provide a greater share of the profits to those at a local level, though the UN FAO Intergovernmental Group on Tea study suggests there are quite a number of opportunities for improvement. Smallholders typically have difficulties commanding top prices for a variety of reasons including the lack of knowledge or capability to implement environmental, pest management, or other best practices.

KTDA Ltd and Kenyan Smallholders

Map of Tea Production in Kenya

A Map of Tea Production Areas in Kenya By Philippe Rekacewicz assisted by Cecile Marin, Agnes Stienne, Guilio Frigieri, Riccardo Pravettoni, Laura Margueritte and Marion Lecoquierre CC BY SA-3.0

The Kenyan Tea Development Agency got its start back in 1964 as Kenya got its independence and it became legal for locals to produce tea themselves. At the time the KTDA was charged with helping develop the industry for smallholders vs the large multinational corporations who still own plantations and produce a large percentage of tea in the region (and globally).

More recently, in 2000, KTDA became KTDA Ltd, a private company which continues to develop the smallholder tea industry. This arrangement, is just one approach found globally to supporting smallholders. KTDA Ltd operates effectively as a management firm providing best practices for smallholders in many areas as well as providing services that help smallholders command a greater share of the income. These services include everything from guidance on plucking and fertilizing through operations of factories as well as financial, sales, and marketing support.

In effect, KTDA Ltd helps organize and unite all the smallholder members to be competitive with the large industry players by increasing the portion of revenue earned from higher levels in the value chain. This includes at the manufacture and global wholesale portion of the value chain. It does this by having over 50 subsidiary factory companies to which over 560,000 smallholders both sell raw leaf and own a share of the company and resulting profits after manufacture and sale at the Mombasa Tea Auction.

The Future for Smallholder Tea Farmers

The number of smallholders worldwide looks to continue to grow for some time to come. This happens for many reasons but often its due to large corporate plantation abandonment (and subsequent re-establishment in smallholder schemes) and the purposeful dismantling of large government owned tea plantations. As the smallholder population increases it will be interesting to see how various countries approach supporting farmers in the practices and ownership methods that can help them thrive.

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Matcha Macaroons

After writing the prior blog on tea parties, I started looking at different recipes for cookies that are typically served with tea. Macaroons are mentioned, so I thought it would be fun to use Matcha instead of the green food coloring typically used in Pistachio Macaroons to make Matcha Macaroons. A traditional macaroon always contains nuts, usually almonds or pistachios. I was surprised to find that the matcha and pistachios got along just fine when it came to flavor. I filled these with chocolate buttercream to help soften the green tea taste of the cookies. However, you can make whatever buttercream filing you like to put in the middle of the cookies.

Macaroons made with matcha spread out on a cookie sheet.

Matcha Macaroons before baking.

Matcha Macaroons

1/3 cup pistachios (these can be replaced with almonds)

2 tsps Matcha

3/4 cup powdered suger

2 large egg whites

1 tbs sugar

Chocolate Matcha Buttercream filling

1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature

2oz semisweet chocolate, melted

1 tsp matcha

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cup of powdered sugar

 

Grind the pistachios, powdered sugar and food processors until the nuts are as fine as the powdered sugar. You may need to stop and scrap the bowl down a couple of times to ensure you got as much of the nut pieces as small as possible. In a metal bowl, whisk the egg whites until fairly stiff and then dust them with the tablespoon of sugar. Then whisk until very stiff peeks forms. Fold into the egg whites the nut mixture about a quarter cup at a time. If the oil from the nuts causes the sugar to clump, just run the mixture through a sifter as you add it to the eggs to separate it. The mixture should be fully incorporated with the egg whites.

Pipe the mixture onto cookie sheets to get round circles. You will need either greased parchment paper or Siltpad in order to keep the cookies from sticking to the baking pan. The goal is to get an even number of cookies that are relatively the same size so we can incorporate the filling. If you do not have a piping bag and tips, just cut the corner off a ziplock bag and use that. They will not be as perfect, but still nicely round. You should get around 24-30 cookies depending on how big you make them. Bake for 8-12 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from oven and allow to cool on tray above a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before handling.

Fresh Macaroons Made with Matcha

Macha Macaroons

To make the filing, using an electric mixer beat the butter until pail and then add in the chocolate followed by the matcha and powdered sugar. The mixture will start to lighten in color and expand in the bowl as the sugar is incorporated. In judging whether to add additional sugar, look at the shininess of the cream and don’t be afraid to stop the blend and take a small taste. The filing needs to stay creamy, hold its form on the spoon (turn the spoon up-side down, if it starts to drop immediately you need more sugar) and not feel grainy on the tongue, which will happen if there is too much sugar added.

The filling can either be spooned onto the bottom of one cookie or piped on with an icing bag if you would like precision. An icing knife or straight edge can clean up the edges for you. Add around 1/2 tablespoon of the filing. Of course you can add more, it just may squeeze out the sides and become a bit messy when you bite in. (My six year old thinks this is one of the better features of this cookie). This will make somewhere around 12-15 cookies.

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