In the tea gardenThe Mandarin (as well as Japanese) word for tea is cha, written 茶, and is one of the first things I learned to speak and read when I began studying each language. I was about to say that this was due to my great appreciation for the elixir, but considering that I recently found myself on the other side of the world, wandering through tea gardens and procuring the very first harvest of the leaves currently brewing in my cup, I would say we are beyond appropriate description at this point. Putting your feet in the soil and breathing the air that nurtures the food and drink you consume can yield a new and interesting perspective on how much our way of life relies on the environment.

If all the tea you have ever tried has come in small paper sachets and resembled black or grey dust, you will be in for a real treat if you have the chance to experience fresh, whole-leaf tea from any of the well known growing regions in India, China or Japan. The soil, altitude and atmospheric conditions give various teas distinctive and unique flavors, even between separate gardens within the same vicinity.

In the case of Longjing tea, even the specific mountain, and the location on the hill factor into subtle variations between crops. Longjing (龙井), or Dragon Well, is perhaps one of the most famous exports (after silk) from the city of Hangzhou, in southern China’s Zhejiang province. The image in the banner at the top of this blog is Hangzhou’s West Lake, which I took a few years ago during summer, when the lotus flowers were still in bloom. You can see the mountains that make up the growing region of the most prized variety of the tea, creatively named 西湖龙井茶, West Lake Longjing Tea. As if that were not specific enough, this group is further differentiated by individual mountain and placement. Ultimate nirvana for Longjing fans comes from Shi Feng (狮峰), the top of Lion Mountain. The location at the apex means that those rows receive a full day of sunlight and have the most developed flavor.

As for all teas, the leaves picked from the tips of the branches have the best flavor (again due to sun exposure) and are picked during the first several days at the beginning of the spring harvest, sometimes referred to as the first flush. This limited quantity of high-grade Shi Feng is considered something of a national treasure, and is offered to visiting heads of state, but the best part is that there is just enough for everyone to get their hands on a little bit of the stuff.

Steeping Longjing teaFor tea nerds out there (you know who you are), about the only thing better than drinking tea is swimming in it. The gardens, anyway. While in Hangzhou we stayed at an inn plunked right in the middle of a hillside plantation. Our location allowed us to walk to a nearby farm to choose and (since this is China) bargain for some Longjing to take home. The farmer had us try some of last year’s tea for comparison with the new batch. Though there is a marked difference after a full year of aging, we liked both and ended up leaving with a little of each.

All was not normal in tea land, however. An unusually long cold snap had delayed the development of the first flush, to the extent that it was almost not ready by the time we visited. Had we not been in Hangzhou, it would have been impossible to find this tea as it had been picked within just the last couple of days. At the end of our visit, Hangzhou experienced what many locals claimed to be its first ever dust storm. Residents of Beijing are familiar with this phenomenon, which originates in the Gobi Desert area of northern China and Mongolia, and blankets the city with orange or yellow dust. When these storms hit, visibility is next to nothing and most people stay indoors to avoid breathing the air. Climate researchers who study the storms believe they are caused, in part, by deforestation and urban expansion. Our mini storm was not nearly as severe, but did mean that all tea would need to be rinsed with water before it could be processed, due to contamination.

Tea fieldsOne reason researchers have moved away from the term global warming and adopted others like climate change or my favorite, global weirding, is that the original term refers only to long-run, average temperatures and not the volatile weather patterns that are the resulting problem. If the average temperature continues to rise we will see more extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry. While I make no claim to be a climate change expert, if the tea farmers of Hangzhou have been passing records of the craft through generations over thousands of years, and they comment that the weather patterns are getting, well, weird, then I start to think we may already be witnessing some of the effects of climate change. On this Earth Day, the 40th anniversary, instead of buying one of the many “eco-friendly” tote bags coffee mugs key chains t-shirts beach towels and that thing that you’re not sure what it does but it’s got really attractive green leaves painted on it, perhaps we should stop and consider all of the things that the planet provides for us, and what we would do if it could no longer do so.

The actual Dragon Well

The actual Dragon Well

River prawns cooked with spent Longjing tea, a Hangzhou specialty

River prawns cooked with spent Longjing tea, a Hangzhou specialty