The following words on Oolong are extracted and extrapolated from my recently published book Infused - Adventures in Tea.
It’s all about my travels and escapades through the world of tea. It follows the journey of the leaves, along with my own, from mountain gardens to the tablecloths of some of the most prestigious restaurants in the world - and builders mugs - why shouldn’t builders have the best loose leaf tea?
I hope you enjoy these words and are encouraged to explore beyond.
“It wasn't until my late 20s that I truly fell, weak-kneed, for tea. It was an oolong I can still taste, on board a junk in the harbour of Hong Kong, where I had been travelling for work in my life before tea (hard to imagine now, but there was a Henrietta Lovell before there was a Rare Tea Lady). The night city spread upwards before me in static, neon fireworks. The black water beneath silent and still, reflecting the lights. The oolong was a Tai Guan Yin - The Iron Goddess of Mercy. She has taken me on many adventures since she first floored me that night with her beauty. I was caught, irretrievably, in a wonderful, lifelong pursuit.
All tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis bush, which left alone and unplucked would grow into a sprawling, leggy tree. Where it grows, how you care for it. when and how you harvest, and most importantly how you craft the leaf, determines the type of tea it will becomes. From the same leaf you could make a white, yellow, green, oolong, black or pu’er tea. Pu’er is fermented. Black tea is fully oxidised to bring out the strong tannic depth. Green tea is only lightly processed to reveal more subtle, vegetal flavours. Oolong lies artfully between the two.
This art is often astounding. I have been high into the mountains of Anxi to watch The Iron Goddess being created so many times and still only understand the barest rudiments of the complex journey her leaves undertake. Over long hot afternoons I’ve spent hours standing in silent rapture watching blunt fingered experts bind and unbind the leaves in muslin cloths; twist them into tight bundles; press them between rolling iron plates; untwist the cloth and release the leaves into drying machines; transfer the leaves to roasters; lay them out to dry; bind them again; roll them; roast them; expose them. It’s an intricate dance that seems to have no formal pattern.
The precise semi-oxidisation of the leaf, to reveal its most subtle, nuanced flavours is all done by smell and touch and feel. There is no measurement or timing, instead the craft is instinctive understanding. Sometimes the tea goes into the roasters for 20 seconds, sometimes 2 minutes. Sometimes the tea is laid out for days and sometimes for hours. It’s far more art than science and changes with every batch of leaf to reveal their idiosyncratic loveliness. Once finished every rolled pearl of tea is sorted by hand and skilled eye.
I worked with the ladies in Anxi in China as they sorted the Rarest Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong (LINK EXTREMELY RARE) I watched them sort the finished tea and they allowed me to join them. Any over roasted leaf they removed along with anything too pale, any stem or stray leaves, so that just the bright, emerald leaves in perfect rolls were added to the final tea. The grading and price of this Oolong is partly based with this final, crucial sort. It took me several hours to understand even the barest rudiments of the sorting criteria. After the first hour I felt brave enough to take a careful handful from the unsorted leaf and sort it myself. I then handed it to the woman next to me and she re-sorted and handed me back the discards. In this way I learnt, small handful, by handful.
I’ve seen this level of expertise give people a sense of gravitas, as the great oolong craftsmen of China sometimes express.
The craft is done by men and women who spent the spring season making tea but the summer and winter practicing other trades: carpentry, engineering, or farming on their own plots of land with other crops.
The little plots are bound together; not just by their over lapping crops, but their skills and the manpower. One month a farmer might be cutting pineapples, the next picking and crafting tea. They are altogether humbler, although the tea is no less delicious.
That same lack of pomposity is there at the Momofuku Ssäm bar, one of the places our Taiwan oolong tea ends up - with a bun stuffed with pork in New York’s East Village. It’s a simple, perfect pairing, not unlike the food the farmers enjoy in Taiwan. The slick, sticky, unctuous pork and soft, pillowy bun fill your mouth with flavour and texture. Sunset Oolong is like an umami take on a digestive biscuit or a rich vintage champagne without any of the sour notes. It amplifies the succulence of the pork and re-invigorates the taste buds for another bite.
Making Tai Guan Yin/The Iron Goddess of Mercy (or any rolled oolong)
3g - 9g per 60ml
(I know this a huge variation but if you use 9g the infusions will be almost instantaneous and intense, for a slower experience use 3g, or something in between. The water ratio and temperature remains the same.)
Water at 95 degrees - just below the rolling boil - cooling naturally as you infuse.
First rinse the leaves - it’s called a “wash” but rather than cleaning the leaves you are softening them.
Theses leaves are rolled into tight balls that have a low surface area to volume. A quick bathe in very hot water opens them up and allows the next steep to penetrate deeper into the leaves. It also releases the first wonderful aromas.
Pour on a little bit of hot water to cover the leaves, and after a few seconds pour off and discard.
Now smell the leaves, the released scent gives you a hint of the flavours about to be revealed in the next infusion. It’s an exciting moment.
Add 60 ml – just under 1/2 of a teacup - of water to the leaves and leave for 30 seconds to infuse if you have used the smaller amount. With 9g it will only take a deeply inhaled breath before you pour.
You might strain into a small jug and then pour the tea into little tasting bowls, like sake cups, no bigger than the circle you make between first finger and thumb. Pouring the tea from the jug into these little bowls allows you to really savour it, sip by sip.
And, of course, to share it.
Repeat the infusions up to seven times or until the leaf is exhausted.
You don’t have to reheat the water - unless you are sitting around for a long time sipping slowly; as the water cools so the leaf softens. The water penetrates the leaf more easily and the silky-smooth flavours of the later infusions are extracted best at slightly lower temperatures.
But when the leaf feels like it’s given up everything, you can try heating the water back to 95 degrees and doing one last infusion to get the lovely dry minerality with the last vegetal notes. If you are using a dark oolong like the Da Hong Po (Big Red Robe) grown on the high, rocky ground of the Wuyi Shan - this trick can produce a truly spectacular finish.
Da Hong Pao, the Big Red Robe oolong, is crafted as an open leaf and not rolled like other oolongs. Nourished by mineral rich soil of the Wuyi Mountains, over volcanic rocks the tea bushes produce leaf of extraordinary flavour. With longer oxidisation than its sister, the Merciful Iron Goddess of Anxi, this oolong is altogether darker. Biscuity and nutty flavour roll smoothly around the tongue with delicious fruity chocolate notes. The best are as sublime as they are desired, fetching huge sums.
Visiting one master, he and I sat at a vast polished wooden table cut from the trunk of an enormous tree, still edged in its bark. His wooden chair, large as a throne, on one side, my low stool on the other. We tasted tea together whilst bare-chested men toiled in the humid heat. They filled tightly woven baskets with tea wrapped in linen. These baskets were buried in pits of grey ash over charcoal fires. While the tea slowly roasted in its soft ash bed, they played cards and smoked endless cigarettes. He explained that much of his tea was inaccessible by road and these men had to carry it from the gardens in baskets on their backs for many miles.
Each time you re-infuse good leaf it reveals different subtleties of flavour. For some tea like oolong, a single teaspoon of leaves will give you six cups - each one different and more delicious than the next. A very old tea-farmer in Anxi once told me:
The first infusion is for your enemy (they discard this first quick steep to soften and open)
up the tightly furled leaves)
The second is for your servants
The third is for your wife
The fourth is for your mistress
The fifth is for your business partner (because business is more important than pleasure)
The sixth, you keep for yourself."