High jagged limestone peaks of mountains hugged by steamlike cloudy mists shrouding the luscious subtropical forested landscape of fern, rhododendron, pomegranate, and banana – the ancestral habitat of the Snow Faeries.
Northern Vietnam borders one of China’s most celebrated tea provinces, Yunnan, the home of legendary Pu Erh tea. The mountainous provinces of Ha Giang and Lao Cai, though considered the most undeveloped area of Vietnam, is rich in its shared history and tea culture with Yunnan, yet unique as the nomadic tribal people retain a precious “faery” knowledge passed down orally through the ages of the peculiar limestone jungle landscape of the area, of where the best wild growing Japanese tea trees are located, and of how to craft their sublime leaves.
Elsewhere Vietnam is the 6th largest producer of tea today, mass producing tea mostly commercially and for the tea bag industry, but Ha Giang and Lao Cai are as if stepping into a parallel history. These traditions, which have not been favorably regarded for several decades since Vietnam became a world player in tea, have survived and are now held by tea connoisseurs as precious and unique. We source our teas from villages of Red Dow and Hmong people (settled nomadic tribes) who have formed cooperatives in order to sustain themselves and their neighborhood. These communities now have international organic and Fairtrade certification which helps them appeal to a wider public and we, Tchai-Ovna, have the privilege of being able to source direct from them.
A little about the organic tea trees
Tea grows naturally in Vietnam and is defined as three cultivars, Camellia Sinensis, Camellia Assamica, and Camellia Talliensis. Whilst all these cultivars exist in northern Vietnam, Sinensis and Assamica are the most common in high mountain areas – our Faery tea is from Sinensis. In order to be regarded as “Japanese snow tea” or “Che Shan” the tea has to be harvested from wild growing organic tea trees which grow between 800 and 2500m above sea level. Our Faery teas grow at around 2000m. However, “snow” really refers to the white downy/fine hairy nature of the first tea buds of spring. Wild growing trees can grow to a height of 6m and be thick and gnarly. They self seed and often they are surrounded by their tea offspring. This is in stark contrast to the vast majority of the tea world wherein tea is trimmed bonsai’d to only a few foot high and propagation is strictly managed.
According to the Hmong and Red Dao people living in the mountains only the Faeries in the Sky know where the best organic tea grows in the highest mountain elevations in the spring. However, there is very likely a bucketful of modesty as the tea pickers know the landscape where they live and work intimately
Like other artisanal drinks, such as single malt whisky, the taste spectrum of tea is predicated by the “terroir,” the environment from which it comes. The altitude, soil type, vegetation, mists, and time of year it is picked will all markedly influence the taste. However, in tandem with this is the craft of processing the tea into its finished form. In the mountains of Ha Giang and Lao Cai the processing of tea is traditionally either carried out by the individual families who gather it, or by peripatetic tea specialists. The processes used are often handed down as family/community secrets however as a general rule Vietnamese tea from this area is either heated in wood fired traditional ovens or wok fired using longan berry tree wood. This adds smokiness to the teas varies from subtle to pronounced depending on the variety and tradition.
All going a bit “Lu Tong”
Lu Tong (795 AD) was a great tea scholar during the Tang Dynasty in China. Whilst he preferred a quiet life in the mountains of Hunan Province (on the other side of the border from Vitenam) drinking tea and writing poems he contributed greatly to knowledge and understanding of tea. He understood the essence that tea brings to one’s soul. His most famous poem was “The Seven Bowls of Tea” which expresses the quintessential spirituality of tea. We can refer to this as we taste the teas. The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat. The second shatters the walls of my lonely sadness. The third searches the dry rivulets of my soul to find the series of five thousand scrolls. With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores. The fifth purifies my flesh and bone. With the sixth I am in touch with the immortals. The seventh gives such pleasure I can hardly bear. The fresh wind blows through my wings, As I make my way to Penglai the mountain of the immortals.
Japanese, loose leaf, organic Tea tasting
Similar to tasting other kinds of beverages, tea tasting encompasses not just the tea, but the look and the scent. However, how the tea is prepared and served is vital to creating the right tasting environment. For this reason, we will be doing an approximation of the Gong Fu or Kung Fu ceremony using fine china and controlling the temperature of the water. Please see the tasting card below, what resonates with your organic pallet?