Today, I find myself in the far distant north - Scotland. It's like a whole different country up here.
I am an unashamed sassenach
It's also a long way away: yesterday, eight hours on the train from Oxford, to give a talk at a Scottish university this afternoon, followed by an eight-hour trip back tomorrow. I finished Portal* from start to finish before reaching the halfway-point of the journey...
I couldn't quite put my finger on why this place felt slightly strange. Then, I realised: it is the complete homogeneity of the local people, in that absolutely everyone is white. It is very unusual, when you're accustomed to the mixed society of the south. I haven't seen someone of another ethnic background since York. This is neither good nor bad, just... surprising.
Let me leave you with something a touch more multicultural. I've been buying the same cake from multiple sources on Taobao, in an attempt to replace my dwindling stocks bought in Maliandao three years ago.
I never, ever drink alone. Even if there are no people around, then I drink with Zidu ("purple belly", my teapot) and Qingchang (my three-legged zisha frog). However, people are a bonus.
So, it was a delight to have Prof. GV come to visit, who was in town for a conference. He is as charming as he is bald; i.e., very.
The box of delights
Among his many talents, our Roman visitor and his wife* spend plenty of time buying good tea and teaware in Hong Kong and Taiwan. With quiet happiness, he unveiled his latest acquisitions, brought in a lovely box. I seem to remember that this was a prize from the Wysteria Teahouse in Taiwan, one of Il Professore's favourite haunts.
*Who is Chinese.
Age becomes her
First up, a fifty-year-old treasure in the form of a wulong from Hong Kong's "Best Teahouse", previously sourced from a local herbalist's shop.
I don't want to say "Late Qing", but I think they are, in this case
As if the lovely tea weren't sufficient, some deliciously chubby cups also made an appearance.
If there's one thing I'd love to improve about our teaware, it's the cups. Lei and I spent countless hours searching score upon score of teashops in Maliandao, trying to find good cups, to no avail. While decent tea is common, decent teaware is not. We resolved to wait until we visit Hong Kong or Taiwan ourselves. In the meantime, we enjoyed a lovely session with GV's new set, pictured above.
Like peaches and cream
My qingzi [celadon] gaiwan found its match in this dark, yet surprisingly pine-like, wulong. I don't use my gaiwan enough, but it is a new favourite of mine, bought in Beijing during our recent visit. I like heaviness in teaware, which this gaiwan has in abundance. It takes a long, long time to cool down.
A hush descended
The star of the show then made its appearance: some 1970s "simplified characters" (shown above). The tightly-compressed lump remained together throughout GV's whole visit, and only finally unfurled during extended brewing the next day.
This was a pu'er in which the sensations and chaqi were more dominant than the flavour. It was soothing, calming, and quite reticent. GV noted its granary "crisp-bread" character.
The professor's marvellous cup-trays
I've found that when Lei and I get together with tea-friends, we seldom drink more than three teas. Even after going at it all day this time, we still managed just the three. The third was a "comfort tea": a 1970s Xiaguan shupu brick.
GV's clay kettle (pictured below) worked very well with the shupu. It came from Taiwan, and GV noted that the same variety is being sold by Essence of Tea for less than the cost he encountered in Taiwan.
I appreciated the warmth of the water. My tetsubin, unsurprisingly, gives a certain mineral shine to teas, which I find works best with shengpu.
The lovely Taiwanese kettle did take a long time to boil water, however!
The shupu was extremely comforting, and surprisingly potent. Unlike the 1970s "simplified characters", this really made itself felt.
Tea aside, we also managed a formal dinner at High Table in my college. We have a strict order of precedence. Usually, the junior whelps like me are consigned to the wings of the table, out with the retired, emeritus fellows (who smell of mothballs and 2003 Quanji Bulang). I rather like it like that, because the old duffers are less demanding in conversation. However, bringing a professor as your guest means that you have to sit opposite the Master, right in the middle. Thankfully, there were only ten of us present that night, so it was easy going.
While the media often finds reason to pick on our beleaguered old university, they never seem to argue about the High Table tradition. Some things never change throughout the years, and our twice-weekly dinner ritual is one of them: sherry in the SCR, three courses in the Hall overlooking a room filled with dining undergrads on long benches, before retiring to the Private Dining Room for second-desserts and port. All dressed in knackered old academic gowns.
Some things just don't need modernising...
Plus ca change...
Until next time, professor! Thanks again for a great time.
Huangpian [hwang-pee-en, lit. "yellow flakes"] are the broad yellow leaves that producers often pick out of their maocha (by hand) prior to pressing. I rather prefer cakes with the huangpian left in, because they impart a little complexity. This cake, generously provided by Keng (thanks again!), is comprised entirely of huangpian.
The cake's name "Dayebing" [da-yeah-bing] means "big leaf cake", which is a touch misleading. "Daye" typically refers to the varietal of Yunnanese tea used to make pu'er. Of course, it is here a euphemism for huangpian.
The orange colour of this cake is particularly striking
As I have written several times before, I love exploring the whole space of pu'er - from its peaks to its troughs, from its centroids to its outliers. This is most definitely an outlier! Yet, outliers are often very enjoyable, and can have their own story to tell. This huangpian cake is no exception.
The bing itself is chubby (being about twice as thick as normal bingcha) easily squished, and very light - courtesy of the low density of the leaves used to make it.
I use lots of huangpian in order to achieve a good quantity of content in the pot
It brews remarkably cleanly - a pure, crystalline orange/red colour. The aroma is that tar-like aroma of huangpian, with a similarly clean sweetness.
In the cup, it is tart, sweet, dazzlingly clean, and really rather enjoyable. What is most striking is the pronounced cooling sensation in the mouth - it is one of the most mentholesque cakes I have encountered.
While it does not last a huge number of infusions, given the low content of the thin huangpian, it is elegant, perfectly clean, and absent any roughness.
Not a speck of leaf fragment to be found in this crystalline, pure brew
If these were the "left-over" leaves, removed from maocha, then it certainly must have been maocha of an admirable quality. There is a lot in this tea, and it has a particular finery.
The opportunity to try a good huangpian cake is most welcome; it represents one of the contributing ingredients to some of my favourite cakes, and is an ingredient which is often neglected or misunderstood. To become acquainted with an example of such quality is a rare treat. Thanks again to Keng.
This tong came from Xiaomei's shop, and was a selection made by Little Brother. I expressed a desire to find some more pre-2006 cakes before I left, and this was his first choice.
Never heard of this producer before? Me neither. This shouldn't be surprising, given that it is one of the many small family-owned labels from Kunming. Xiaomei wandered into their backstreet shop while visiting the Yunnanese capital and liked what she found.
All is forgiven when the cake is naked
Medium-sized leaves and some huangpian [yellow flakes] are mixed with an actual twig. Not just a stem, but an actual twig. The compression is very pleasant, and I have a good feeling both from the colour of the leaves and from the particularly outgoing aroma. This is a tea with something to say. No boring "getting-to-know-you" chit-chat here, just straight down to business.
The colour is a wonderfully unadulterated yellow, as shown below. While I watch, the colour gradually deepens in the air. This is an active tea, and an honest tea. I appreciate honesty.
Straight and by the numbers
By the time Lei and I came to taste this cake, we were already heavily loaded, carrying lots of tea, and with bellies filled from previous sessions. However, despite that overload, this tea punctured our hazy states-of-mind and made itself obvious.
Punchy, clean, sweet - this is a "big" tea. It has a big presence in the mouth, it cools the tongue noticeably, and it tingles throughout. It has some hints of age, but both Kunming and Beijing are dry places, and so it isn't too advanced. That's fine by me - my goal is good content, something for the long haul.
They don't come more honest than that
I later had to carry this tea through customs at Moscow (long story), which was quite amusing. The Brunhilde that stopped me took great delight in examining the wrappers.
At RMB150 (approx. $20) per cake, I couldn't fault it. Plenty of "trousers", unapologetically strong, without recourse to making it easier to drink, this is My Kind of Tea.
Xiaomei certainly knows her stuff, it must be said.
(Those expecting samples from me - I'll try to remember to include some for your consideration.)
Today is a rather special day, as far as tea goes. As is my habit, I woke just after dawn, performed my usual morning tasks, then sat down at the tea table, to enjoy a session in the few hours before heading out to work.
This 1995 Menghai cake is, of course, produced in the CNNP wrapper. Remember when CNNP used to mean good tea? Like many Mainland brands, the quality of CNNP productions before and after the economic opening of China in the late 90s is like night and day. These days, I firmly maintain, CNNP is where pu'er goes to die.
This 1995 cake is from that halcyon era when CNNP wrappers were synonymous with decent quality, being the state-owned label in which tea companies were obliged to market their productions.
Unlike the chopped maocha used in many older productions, the leaves of this cake are large and mostly whole. They have darkened properly, of their own volition, into a solid darkness, with huangpian [yellow flakes] turning a rusty orange.
And what a treat this is. We find smooth, thick, heavy soup with a long-lasting aroma that would put to shame most modern pu'er. Unlike some "recipe" pu'er, this non-standard example endures for a great many infusions at constant potency. I am often concerned by the lack of endurance of some older pu'er - all old cakes are not alike. Just because it is old, doesn't mean it will endure. This cake, however, is a fine example of how to get it right.
A distant hint of shicang [wet storehouse] indicates that, unsurprisingly, this cake has experienced some wet storage in its past. It has dried out nicely over its obviously more dry-stored recent history, and remains sweet and potent in the throat.
This is a great tea, without exaggeration.
But the obvious quality of the cake is not the reason that this tea is so special.
Its place of honour comes from the fact that this was, in fact, an unfathomably generous gift from Keng, a reader and teachum in Singapore.
Words of thanks would not adequately convey the enjoyment that we had from this tea, nor our gratitude, and so I shall instead raise a silent cup to our kindly benefactor.
I am aware that I write this every year, but I seem to notice the seasons more, these days.
Entirely indifference to the time of year used to be the norm; I would wear a t-shirt and scarf 90% of the year, maybe shedding the latter during the hottest months. Perhaps it's due to my three decades of decrepitude, but the warming of the earth seems to have a remarkable effect on me. I notice flowers. The world smells pleasant.
Tread lightly for you tread upon my dreams
I crack open the window to welcome in the heavy floral scents of spring-time. I'm sure it's a sign that I drink too much tea, but I find that the lilac flowers smell like wulong, and the wet earth smells like shupu. Cut grass reminds me of biluochun.
The subject of this article is a spring-time gift provided by the generosity of Red Lantern tea (an eBay tea shop), run by Jongky, who seems, as far as I can tell, to be an accomplished professional photographer.
Some boxes are born great, and other boxes have greatness thrust upon them
Being "gift tea", it comes in a pretty box (pictured above). This one is unusually pretty!
The cake itself is a co-production with the Mingxianshi Company of Hong Kong, and unrelated to the (highly delicious) 2003 Changtai Yibang with which Davelcorp treated some of us back in the summer of 2007.
Chunky, well-textured paper reclining on the ubiquitous orange silk
Gift tea is, by definition, made to be enjoyed by a wide audience. Hence, it is almost invariably processed with that in mind. The fruits of gift tea are to be enjoyed, not stored away. Perhaps that's in spirit with its status as a gift, giving one time to appreciate the generosity of the giver.
To that end, the red colour that you can see in the photograph below is not surprising. Similarly, the aroma of the leaves is sweet and quiet. Some teas are meant to be wrestled with, man-versus-bing. This tea and its ilk are meant to be enjoyed more gently, I think.
Loose and hand-pressed, with a clear orange hue
Given the orange colour of the leaves, I anticipate that it is going to be almost impossible to overbrew, and so I am not cautious with the quantity of leaves. In fact, up to a point, drink-it-now tea can really benefit from piling on the leaves.
Smooth, chunky, and orange from the beginning
Like most processed orange teas, this has very little scent in the aroma cup. It has traded its brutality for a warm, sweet flavour. The kuwei is greatly reduced in comparison with my distant memory of the 2003 Yibang from Davelcorp.
Again, like most orange teas, its best has been enjoyed by the time the tenth infusion comes around. Sweet, slightly malty, very smooth. Happily, it fades away gracefully, rather than cracking into something more rough. It's a good end for a very pleasant session.
Malty red leaves tell their own tale
Thanks again to Jongky for the generous present, though I'm not sure what I've done to deserve such benefit! I wish you all a similarly enjoyable tea session today.
The English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish are currently in the process of deciding their next Government. The last four weeks have been the usual period of hectic, insincere pledges and mishaps from the various political parties. Perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies - it took less than the 1+ years of the last Governmental election in the USA.
The correct answer, of course, being "anyone but Golden Brown"
As I sit at my desk, my other screen has a BBC web-page updating itself as new results come in, following the voting of yesterday. It was Lei's first General Election, and she took great delight at exercising her right as an Englishwoman (!) to cast her vote.
Our system is such that we vote for whom we would like to represent us as a Member of Parliament (MP). The party with the most MPs wins, and (usually) gets to form the next government. This time, it's more complex, as no party has over 50% of the MPs, and so we might have to be frightfully European. The English don't do consensus very well, and I can't see Belgian Eurocratic politics ever catching on here.
Our local choice was one of three classic party stereotypes:
the overweight, insincere Conservative candidate (traditional party of the privileged), who doesn't even live in Oxford (he lives in Westminster);
the red-faced, sweaty, oiky Labour candidate (traditional party of the underprivileged); and
the skinny, bearded, loose-fitting-suit-wearing Liberal Democrat candidate (traditional party of the terminally spineless).
You couldn't have made it up.
So, I decided to shed some tears over my tong of 2006 Longyuanhao "Yiwu Xiangbing". Unfortunately, it doesn't actually taste very nice, and so exacerbated my woes.
My day-job is in the area of getting computers to learn. This could mean classifying human hospital patients as being "at risk" or "healthy" using histories of their vital signs, or perhaps classifying jet engines as being "OK" or "in danger of exploding" using data from engine-mounted sensors, or perhaps classifying masses in mammograms as being either "cancerous" or "not cancerous" using x-ray images. The field is called "machine learning" - we gave up the name "artificial intelligence" about 15 years ago, as we're not really trying to construct intelligence, but systems that can classify and predict based on data.
The general idea is that you make observations using sensors, and then use those observations to classify the item you've sensed, or to predict its future behaviour based on its history. Some people like to use their powers for the forces of darkness (financial prediction), while I choose to use mine for the forces of good (medicine).
Fear is the path to the dark side.
Fear leads to anger.
Anger leads to hate.
Hate leads to suffering.
Yes, it's more Xizihao from Houde. Some things never change!
Suppose we were to construct a system that could classify pu'er, based on some "sensory data": flavours, scents, textures, etc. Some progress has been made with sensors that can approximate tastebuds, but the human nose is proving more difficult. There is an example of this type of machine in the wine world, where a researcher trained an "artificial sommelier" to classify wine types based on chemical data obtained from a prototype of such a sensor. Given data, we can use statistical methods to classify new examples - that is, we can classify.
What we, as tea drinkers, are up to behind all the drinking, is a similar classification task. We acquire data by drinking lots of tea, and each tasting becomes an example in our internal knowledge base. Sometimes, we have the "labels" corresponding to the data ("this was tieguanyin"), so we can begin to learn what pu'er tastes like, and what wulong tastes like. We might acquire more data, such that we can distinguish subclasses within one of those classes: we might be able to tell shupu from shengpu, within the "pu'er" class, for example.
One level further, we start to form finer-grain classifications. As we acquire data, we can tell young cakes, from middle-aged cakes, from mature cakes. Given enough data, we can begin to discern old-tree from plantation, or overcooked "drink it now" tea from clean, aggressive tea more suitable for storage.
As we accumulate more data, we can begin to discern regional differences. Chances are that most of us are around about this stage, give or take.
This Jingmai has pleasant enough leaves - Xizihao always looks good
Discerning regions is easiest when the data are clearly distinguishable. Tea from the outer regions of Yunnan is among these, I think. Lincang is quite easy to tell apart from, say, traditional Xishuangbanna teas. Drink enough, obtain enough data, and the classification begins to take care of itself.
Jingmai is another example of a tea that stands out in a cluster on its own. There's very little benefit in me attempting to list those features that I ascribe to Jingmai, as they have to be learned and assimilated personally. However, for what it's worth, I notice a nutty, savoury character common to most cakes labelled "Jingmai" that I have come across, perhaps also containing an almost sour, citrus-like ending.
Some honest leaves if ever I saw them
This Jingmai from Xizihao is more of the same. I appreciate its bright yellow colour - alongside its bold kuwei [bitter finish], it hasn't been "dumbed down". It has a tangy, sour citrus-like ending, and tastes rather like a young version of an old tea. Consequently, it's tempting to extrapolate and imagine how this might turn out in five years.
I found some roughness in this tea, which started out with the almost ragged citric finish, and became a cheek-abrading (yet somehow very nice) brew near the end. It lasted well, nonetheless.
At half the price (this was $100 / 400g from Houde), this may have begun to tempt me. As it is, my hard-earned currency is destined to be spent elsewhere, I suspect.
Give us a few years, and we'll have a decent nose-and-throat sensor sorted out...