20 December, 2010

England is Closed

It's true - England is closed.  The extreme weather has come at just the right part of the year, as we close up our various responsibilities and head back to our family homes for the Christmas vacation.  

The country has gently rolled to a complete halt.

Winter 2010
The snow, it snoweth every day

As we go about our last few days, the snow keeps on tumbling, reminding us all that we will soon be unable to travel.

Winter 2010
Heidu used to enjoy sitting on this table - I double-check to ensure that the bump in the snow is not him

Advent services, Christmas lunches, end-of-term dinners, all fading gently into the constant silence of falling snow.

Winter 2010
Compare our frosty woodpile with the same from warmer times...

I close up my work for the year, and tie up the loose ends from the past few weeks of interviewing.  This is the second year in which I have been interviewing candidates for our undergraduate course, and the process turns the university upside-down in the week after term.

"The Oxford interview" has a special place in England's folklore, having become something of a myth.  Newspapers like to speculate about what happens; there are always urban legends of candidates being asked to perform bizarre tasks in oak-clad, secretive chambers, while bespectacled dons stroke their beards and throw port glasses into roaring fires.

College in Winter
Even a stopped clock keeps the right time twice per day

The reality is more mundane; we, the interviewing tutors, devise some questions to test the candidates - ideally questions that are harder than their schooling, so that we can see how they stretch their reasoning to new situations, such as they'd encounter during the rather gruelling undergraduate course.  The idea is that no-one can solve the questions alone, but that we see how much help we have to give them to reach the end of each question. 

It's very hard work, and it must be done right - the candidates have a lot riding on the interviews, given that we ultimately have to pick about 10% of the candidates to be our students for the next academic year.  There are many variables - the media like to scrutinise us (and rightly so) to see if we are admitting a decent proportion of students from state schools and ethnic minorities.  Just last week-end, an indignant article in The Guardian newspaper published a familiar (and rather unfair) anti-Oxford piece on what they perceived to be our archaic procedures.

It is an all-consuming process, given that we are stiving to be fair, and the end of the process is a huge relief.  The Master of the college was kind enough to break out some decent bottles at our farewell lunch to thank us for the hard slog - mine was not the only tired smile at the table. 

Now, back at home, with snow mounting on windows, I celebrate the true end of the year by pulling out the last portion of a 1990 Fuhai / Kunming tuocha, from Teamasters (with accompanying notes here).

1990s Fuhai Shupu
The wrapper says "Kunming Tea Factory", but the Teamasters label has "Fuhai" - it's one of the two

I don't always drink shupu, but when I do, I prefer good shupu.

1990s Fuhai Shupu
What's a few jinhua [golden flowers] between friends?

This shupu is very decent.  Assuming that it's not the rubber tyres + fishpond of a bad shupu, a good shupu can be rich in flavour, akin to mahogany, and very smooth.  This tuocha is very clean, and produces a crisp, sweet soup that reassures the soul.

Its texture is particularly particulate - "dusty library" is my usual phrase for describing this sort of character, as it has the distant flintiness of damp paper, but aged, matured, and deepened.

Cup after cup of this constant, pleasant bookishness remind me that shupu doesn't tend to evolve during a session; nor is it potent, unless mixed with a portion of shengpu.  However, its constancy is a virtue, when you crave a calming, soothing experience with a welcome old friend, as you toast goodbye to last term, and last year.

1990s Fuhai Shupu
The last of 2010

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I bid you adieu.  I trust that you and yours will have a most excellent Christmas, and I look forward to sharing a (possibly virtual) cup with you in 2011.

Lei and I are now off to the family home to introduce Xiaohu to his relatives.

Winter 2010
Here endeth the lesson

15 December, 2010

Back to the Tea-Table

Advent. 'Tis the season to be jolly. Somehow, despite all of my best attempts, the Christmas spirit has insidiously worked its way into my shrivelled, darkened soul and I feel festive. This terrible feat has been worked upon me by the combined effects of singing carols in college choirs, and receiving generous quantities of stollen from tea-chum and champion bratwurst-consumer, Herr Dr. Kim.

Currently, I find myself stuck in a university town in Belgium (pictured below), where some of the locals had foolishly asked for me to give a six-hour talk on extreme value statistics.  I will ensure that this is a mistake they will come to regret.

Gallia Belgica

While trapped in a slightly more modern version of The Shining's "Overlook Hotel", surrounded by snow-laden Belgian pine forests, I have time to reflect on some writings from my sordid little journal, written last week-end, when I managed to spend some time at the tea-table.

Darkness, Monday, 6 a.m.  My tea-table has come out of storage.

No tea session comes close to that which I have at home.  In my office, or college, the teas tastes different - flatter, emptier, unexceptional.  The same teas at home, at this long-serving tea-table, are transformed.  Zidu, my pot, along with some good water, brings pu'ercha alive - and me with it.

A retour

It is before dawn, and so all I see in the uncurtained windows is a reflection of the bright room in which I sit.  My tea-table now has a permanent place at the far end of our long dining table; my back is to a bay window that looks out onto the Close, my view is of the sitting room, then the conservatory,  Out further, in the distant darkness, the huge willow tree sleeps at the end of our garden.

each sip I take
the old willow tree
loses more leaves

Winter Garden

Yellow leaves fall in bundles; near-naked branches are whipped by the wind and snow - the wet hair of the willow. I composed this willow haiku, which pleases me despite its humble accomplishments, while sitting with the spiced woodiness of the 2003 Quanji Bulang

My teas were picked at random from the various packing-crates around the house.  Each has its own charm, and is entirely different to its companions. The 2009 Yunzhiyuan Guanfengzhai is more yellow, fresh, mushroom-like, sweet.  The 2003 6FTM Fengqing Lushi is dark red, tar-like, smooth.  The 1997 Henglichang Bulang is sharp, woody, and clean.  Finally, the 2007 Douji Yiwuzhengshan is tobacco-like, dark, and yet sugary sweet.

I remember them all, and the character of each comes to mind like a sequence of favourite musical pieces.

Old friends, waiting

Retired at last: my old tea-cloth, kindly provided by M. Erler many years ago, which has now run its course.  In its place, a yellow-cotton baby's bib, my new tea-cloth.  One of a stack of similar yellow bibs.

baby's yellow bib
mops up the dribbles
from papa's teacup

Like father, like son.

15 November, 2010

The Results of an Experiment

Google Analytics tells me some wonderful facts about my audience. For example, 48% of you use Firefox to browse the web, 40% of you are based in the USA, and 97% of you are Western males married to Oriental women. It's amazing.

Given that you, gentle Reader, are statistically likely to belong to the last category, you may have an interest in my experiment into determining the appearance of Anglo-Chinese offspring.

The results are in: I can report, as a completely unbiased* scientist, that he is entirely lovely.

*Perhaps slightly biased.

Meet Xiaohu (a middle name).
Do you think he looks English, or Chinese?

My dear wife jokes that I could well become one of those people for whom their entire internet presence (blogs, Facebook, etc.) becomes saturated with baby photos.  I'm trying to resist, but have allowed myself the above exception.

Another, lesser, experiment that I have been running was into the purchase of a tong of 2001 Dingxing from Taobao's 999 Wo Xin Yijiu ("My Heart Will Always Go On"), which you may remember from this article.  It was a charming tea, but the vendor has a reputation for selling fakes. 

The tong arrived about six weeks ago, and I'm glad to report that it's exactly as the sample cake that I ordered - delicious.  Furthermore, the vendor threw in a bonus 8th cake, a huge bag of (really rather tasty) maocha, and a tuocha.  Perhaps I was lucky, but it all worked out rather well.  Under 200 RMB for this cake is a steal, and I heartily recommend it.

I know not when I'll write again, given the joys of parenthood, but trust that you and yours are well and drinking plenty of excellent tea.



04 October, 2010

A Generative Process

Something wonderful has happened.

I'm just going outside, and maybe some time.


02 October, 2010

The Aging Tetsubin II

Has it really been over two years since we bought our tetsubin?  Time flies!  I think that we bought it from Artistic Nippon, and it has served us very well.  I think it's a perfect pu'er pot.  It brings out the mineral-like characteristics of the tea, and swells it nicely.  

(Silver kettles are not really my thing - and we don't drink a huge amount of wulong.)

Here's our little baby when it was newly arrived, as described in "Nembu Tekki":

Tetsubin 2010
The original kettle

As yet unaffected by use!  Note the particularly clean spout, shown above.  After one year, I took the following photograph (from "The Aging Tetsubin"), in which you can see some chalk accumulating:

Tetsubin 2010
The spout after one year

Now our pot is coming on for being two-and-a-half years of age, and it has quite a build-up:

Tetsubin 2010
The spout after two years

However, most interesting is what's been happening on the inside.  Shown below is the original pot - note the orange spots of rust that came with it (and which are entirely normal for tetsubin), and the central mark which is a result of the fabrication process:

Tetsubin 2010
The original interior

After one year, it looked as shown below, where the rust-spot has grown to cover most of the fabrication blob, and where some chalky sediment has been accumulating:

Tetsubin 2010
The interior after one year

Now, after two years of heavy use, the base is almost entirely coated:

Tetsubin 2010
The interior after two years

...which we can see a little more clearly if we zoom in:

Tetsubin 2010
Detail of the interior, after two years

I am very careful not to disturb the interior of the kettle - we pour water in, pour water out, and dry it by leaving it on the warm hob for a moment after each session.  So, the above has accumulated simply through use - between sessions, it sits entirely dry.

We use spring water for almost all of our sessions - had we used the tap water here, it would no doubt be several orders of magnitude more white.  Even with "good water", the process is obvious.

So, don't fear a little chalk or the odd spot of rust.  I remember seeing some old kettles in which the sediment had formed a thick mat inside the kettle.  I rather like it; it is like the patina on a teapot - a sign of use.

30 September, 2010

2010 Essence of Tea "Nannuo"

I got on very well with the Nannuo from Nada's previous, first tea years of productions (cf. the 2008 and 2009). This year, something is awry!

2010 Nadacha Nannuo

It has mixed leaves, including huangpian [yellow flakes].  The soup comes out pale yellow, and the scent, while sweet, is thin and quiet.  It is cooling on the lips, but provides no kuwei [bitterness].  It is accessible - but not a great tea, this year.

2010 Nadacha Nannuo

In fairness to the vendor, Essence of Tea, the product was originally withdrawn from sale - I'm not sure of its status now.  "A little weak and one-dimensional", remarked Lei.

2010 Nadacha Nannuo

Something is definitely afoot with this poor old tea.  Given that I recall reading from Nada's blog that he usually stays with the family that makes this tea, I can only assume that there has been some over-cooking or something similar.  There is a dry, ever-so-slightly burned character to the tea.  While not at all bad, it's not up to the usual standard.  Fingers remain crossed for the 2011 Nannuo, for a return to its sweet, wildly floral form.

In the words of Keats, "It's not right, but it's OK."

29 September, 2010

Ducks on the Li River

University Parks

ducks on the Li River
do not pay
two hundred yuan

27 September, 2010

2010 Essence of Tea "Banpen"

Heading out into the outer darkness, beyond the cakes that I most enjoyed this year from Essence of Tea, comes the "Banpen".

2010 Nada Banpen

As shown above, this is a pretty long-leafed maocha, and, like its siblings, it has a sweet, buttery aroma and produces a solid yellow soup, as illustrated below.

It is big and heavy, but quite reticent.  In many sessions with this tea, I just can't get much out of it.  It swells to give a large kuwei [bitterness] and huigan [returning sweet flavour after the swallow].

Perhaps most disconcertingly, I find it to be rather citric, and consequently tart in the mouth.  This isn't something that I enjoy in pu'er, and seldom buy cakes with such characteristics.

2010 Nada Banpen

As the infusions pass, the citric tartness dominates.  This is a "xiaobing", and so its price-tag of £20 doesn't seem too appealing to me, given the nature of the tea.  For just £5 more, one could have a full cake of the Mansai, Bangwai / Jingmai, or Manmai / Bada - and that's where my money was spent this year.

25 September, 2010

2010 Essence of Tea "Bulang"

Thinking back to 2009 (has it really been a year, already?), I described the 2009 Bulang from Essence of Tea
using the following illustration:

2010 Nadacha Bulang

This is my kind of tea.  Just like the 2009, this 2010 will rend flesh from bone in the most delightful manner.  It is, shall we say, quite strong.

2010 Nadacha Bulang

This cake was made from the same farm as the 2009, and looks the same: small, tippy leaves, with a heavy scent. Long, buttery, brutal.

Yellow soup, thick, heavy, fruity, grape-like - everything one could wish for in a Bulang, combined the aforementioned flesh-rending power.  Delicious.

2010 Nadacha Bulang

So why didn't this make it into my "top three" from this vendor, this year, following the Mansai, the Bangwai / Jingmai, and the Manmai / Bada? Simply, the price. It was an obstacle for me, and I will be sticking with my 2009 cakes. The quality of the offering is undoubted - if you didn't obtain the 2009, you may be in the difficult situation of trying to decide if £40 is a manageable price for this cake. That's a decision for each buyer to make on their own. I bought one cake, to compare against my 2009s.

24 September, 2010

Remote Village

Path in the Trees

remote village -
the stone from the mine
makes the gravestones

22 September, 2010

2010 Essence of Tea "Manmai / Bada"

During a previous period of house renovation, occurring at about this time last year, I spent ages drinking only in the office - usually a quite mundane Dayi "Badashan Organic". I have become quite accustomed to that particular cake, and found the 2009 Zhimingdu "Bada" to have similar grassy characteristics.

This 2010 Manmai / Bada from Essence of Tea is the third of the 2010 productions of which I bought a tong.  In fact, it's sitting in a big box in my office, because our house is currently undergoing a second wave of fundamental renovations...

2010 Nada Bada

This is a simple tea, being grassy like the other Badashan cakes I mentioned above, but it is redeemed by its cleanliness and its potency.  It is quite solid, with a leather and sweet nature that keeps my attention.  It cools the mouth, has a mildly effervescent texture, and feels, generally, very good in the mouth.

"Quite simple.  Nada's teas are always pure", notes Lei.

2010 Nada Bada

I initially disregarded this tea, due to its simple resemblance to the other Badashan cakes, but over repeated sessions, using more leaf, I was swayed by its constant, potent charms.  Be warned, this is an "elegant" tea, but I rather like it nonetheless.  After the Mansai and the Bangwai, this cake is a decent buy at the asking price of £25, if not quite up to the excellence of the former.

20 September, 2010

2010 Essence of Tea "Bangwei / Jingmai"

This is the second of three products from Essence of Tea of which I bought a tong, this year.  It comes in a close second to the Mansai.

Bangwei is in the Jingmai area, which is a region that I usually appreciate.  As always, the maocha looks delicious, and well-treated.  The aroma is a healthily strong green.

2010 Nadacha Bangwai

Highly energetic, clean, and sweet, this turns out a beautiful yellow soup (pictured below).  It is so very thick on the lips, with a resounding kuwei [bitterness] that swells and leaves the mouth watering long after the swallow.

I like Jingmai for its dry nuttiness, of which there is plenty to be found in this production: it reminded me somewhat of the skin that grows around hazelnuts, mixed in with its buttery sweetness.

2010 Nadacha Bangwai

As with the Mansai, I have no doubt from the contents of the cup that this is a product of good origin.  Old-tree tea is never rough, just clean, sweet, potent, and, somehow, just more.  More of everything.

"Powerful but complex", notes Lei.  It lasts very well, and is easily worth the £25 asking price, in my estimation.  This is good Jingmai.

May, 2012

2010 Nadacha Bangwei

I haven't touched this tea since buying a tong (shown above).  Let's crack it open.

2010 Nadacha Bangwei

Some people love cakes from this vendor; others seem to dislike the vendor on principle.  I'm definitely in the former category.  

I notice with amusement that the village is misnamed on the above stamp, which caused the original version of this article to be similarly misnamed, and which I have since corrected.  The "wai" / "wei" confusion often gets me, too.  However, I think the name "Bangwhy" is much more funny than "Bangway", so I'll continue to have a place in my heart for the original misspelling.

This is a pretty cake:

2010 Nadacha Bangwei

I bought this tong at £25 / 357g cake, which is very good.  The cakes in 2011 were around £40something.  This year, 2012, they've increased by a similarly large increment.  This makes me appreciate my earlier acquisitions a little more.

2010 Nadacha Bangwei

The big question is: how is this tea coming on?  It's all very well for me to speak highly of these cakes if they turn out to be insipid, and poorly aging.  

Thankfully, everything I've bought from Nadacha appears to be going in the right direction.  The leaves have darkened in accordance with expectations, as they started off distinctly dark green.

2010 Nadacha Bangwei

It is clean, fresh and potent, with plenty of Jingmai character - a "hairy" sort of nuttiness that reminds me of the skin of hazelnuts.  You'll recognise it when you try it, I'm sure.  The endurance is really rather impressive: I brewed this for over 20 infusions, and it stayed potent, and, best of all, clean and well-made.  Whereas so many recent cakes crack apart and become rough and green, this Nadacha cake reminds me how it should be done: immense potency, combined with superb clarity of character.

Fantastic.  Bring on the 2012s.

19 September, 2010

Hometown Street

Alan Bullock Close

hometown street
I pass by unnoticed
in mask and hat

17 September, 2010

2010 Essence of Tea "Mansai"

We've been undergoing antenatal classes, recently, in preparation for our new arrival. Childbirth and childcare are alien fields to me, so any information is soaked up like a dry sponge.  Our antenatal nurse left a life-size, actual-weight infant doll in our house for us to practice changing nappies and so on.  I found myself reading my weekly periodicals with Proto-George on my knee.


The proprietors of Essence of Tea have also been hard at work, this year, working on their own range of cakes.  They range between decent to excellent, and I thought I'd open the batting with what I believe to be the best deal from this year's range - the "Mansai".

2010 Nada Mansei

The story of the tea is amusing: Nada seemingly had to cross a rope bridge to get to the village where this tea was made, in the disputed territories between Myanmar and the PRC, at the foot of the Bulang range of mountains.

Adventurous procurement aside, the tea itself, like most hand-made cakes from vendors, is very pretty.  The leaves, pictured above, are dark, fruity, and sweet.  We have some stems, and some broken leaves (seemingly from the aforementioned journey that these leaves took to reach the outside world).

I originally tried this tea as a maocha, and it was immensely smokey.  The bingcha version, happily, has seen that smokiness dissipate, making this one of two of Nada's teas from this year that I really love.

2010 Nada Mansei

I'm not really one for nancified, feminine, delicate teas.  I can't see them managing to stay the course of years, with their effete, louche, elegance.  I'm on the hunt for beefy, chunky, fat, chubby, sweaty, calorific, overweight, aggressively obnoxious teas.  It seems that my tastes differ from Nada's in this respect, because the majority of his products seem to be of the former variety.  Hence, this cake was something of a pleasure.

This Mansai is active from the start, containing a big, buttery scent and flavour.  The huge energy and cooling characteristics are testament to the excellent quality of it contents.  I detected a hint of dry-roasting from the wok, which Nada conceded.

It is a gripping, buttery-sweet monster, with a pure, monolithic kuwei [bitterness], and a similar huigan.  It is dry, like a good white wine, but also cereal-like, as with Lincang and other "outlier" teas.

This is one of three Nadacha cakes of which I bought a tong, this year.  At £25, I think it's the best value of the batch, in terms of what you get for your money.  The quality is not really up for debate.

April, 2014

Looking at the first photograph in the above provokes hearty chuckles: the baby that we were expecting back then is now 3.5 years old and bossing his poor father around.  Has the 2010 Mansai aged in a similarly effective manner?

It took me a while to find, but that is because I did not notice that the tong is entirely unopened - I was looking for paper-wrapped cakes, when I should have been searching in my bamboo zones.  It seems that I bought this tong (for a little under £25 per cake!) based on the sample alone, and have not tried any of the actual cakes.

Therefore, it is time to crank up the chiptunes and see what the Mansai has to offer.  A quick check of the cake suggests that all seems well:

The maocha looks as if it is no longer new: there is a darker, browner hue to the leaves that suggests they have seem some humidity.  The scent is sweet.  So far, so good.

If the original cake was yellow, this is more towards orange (as pictured below).  The scent in the wenxiangbei [aroma cup] is straightforward sweetness, with a decent lengxiang [cooling scent] that suggests the tea has some "finish"; i.e., contents that might dwell in the throat.

This is confirmed by the characteristics in the mouth: the sweetness remains, the kuwei has settled into a solid, back-end throatiness, and the texture is robust.  I can see why I chose this cake: it has the trousers that led me to imagine that it would not fade away with age, and it has a decent base on which "aged" characteristics might build.  This turns out to be not too far from the actual state of the tea after four years: it has become low, dense, heavy, and sweet in a most complimentary manner, while retaining trousers sufficient for further aging.

The price.  Oh, the price!  What can you get for a mere £25 these days?  Some ropey, grim plantation tea from a no-name factory?  What shocking bargaination occurred back then, in 2010, in days when Essence of Tea's prices were perhaps 20% of their current level - indeed, this was a time in which they were probably over-generous (i.e., too low for the quality).  It is no coincidence that the majority of the tong in my collection were bought before 2011.

I am pleased with how this cake has come on within four years; perhaps a direct comparison to the 2011 Mansai might be sensible.  Thanks again to NorberT and Tofu Miso for the suggestion of trying this cake again.

July, 2016

This cake is surprisingly good: it is sweet, like dried apricots, and humid. I enjoy its complexity, and its continued strength.