The alluvial plains of Jiangsu are today amongst the most fertile areas of all Chinese lands. With 102,600 km² and 80 million inhabitants, Jiangsu province, a country of fish and rice, is one of China’s richest and most densely populated regions.
Floating in the midst of beautiful lacustrine landscapes, ancient water towns, known as « the small Chinese Venices », are nowadays highly renowned spots for national and international tourism. The Changjiang river delta region has been home to a brilliant civilization and a prosperous economy that culminated under the Song dynasty, when the emperor settled his capital city in Hangzhou. The garden towns flourishing at that time multiplied the magnificent pagodas and kiosks where the literati devoted themselves to painting and poetry, while savouring subtle teas in delicate porcelain cups and Yixing zisha tea sets.
Suzhou, the most famous of these Eastern Venices, located not far from the flagship city of Shanghai, became a showcase of Chinese economic emergence in the 1990s. Together with its other neighbours Wuxi and Yixing the prestigious city of Suzhou, bordering the Grand Canal was initially an important centre for the production of silk, tea and ceramics.
Tea, an essential part of China’s daily life
The Chinese have enjoyed tea for millennia. Scholars hailed the brew as a cure for a variety of ailments, the nobility considered the consumption of good teas as a mark of their status, and the common people simply enjoyed its flavour. In China, tea is served with fine accessories as a courtesy and it has become an essential part in everyday life.
Thanks to the vast lands and changing seasons, Chinese tea is blessed with several flushes, depending on the weather patterns of each growing place.
In Jiangsu province, the winter is cold but short. The climate, humid all year round, with spring and summers well watered (plum rains in June), is favourable for tea production.
Most tea gardens are located on the rare reliefs in the south of the province :
– on the mountains bordering Nanjing, the capital city,
– in the hilly areas of the Taihu Lake region, crossed by the Grand Canal and popular for the beauty of its lake landscapes and for Biluochun 碧螺春, one of China ‘s most famous green tea.
洞庭碧螺春 Dongting Biluochun, a premium terroir green tea
Biluochun tea, one of the Top Ten Chinese Teas, is marketed in France under the name « the jade spiral of spring ». The dry, deep green leaf is twisted around like a spiral that looks like a small snail. The name of the origin terroir actually refers to the peak of the Dongting mountain, the Mount Biluo or « Jade Spiral ». Kangxi, the great emperor of the Qing dynasty, loved this tea and contributed very widely to propagate the reputation of this tea which was also served at the court of the Qing Emperors.
The Biluochun tea is cultivated in a natural environment, on the gentle slopes of Dongting Mountain, and around Wuxi and Yixing, on the shores of Taihu Lake. With an area of 2,200 km², Taihu Lake is China’s third largest fresh water lake. It’s ninety islands and beautiful natural scenery have made it one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Everywhere in that area the climate is temperate, the air damp and the soils slightly acid. All these characteristics make these hills a paradise for intercropping tea bushes and fruit trees. Medlars, peaches, pears, apricots, plums, guavas grow in intercropping with the tea bushes, giving the tea leaves these sweet and fruity notes so characteristic for the Biluochun. The gardens are left to some wilder ness and kept somewhat less orderly. The tea trees, which belong to a cultivar with small, tender and very delicate leaves, prosper quite freely and benefit greatly of such unique growing condition. In the summer, they benefit from the natural shade of the fruit trees which in winter protect them from the snowfall.
Manufacturing 洞庭碧螺春 Dongting Biluochun in six very specific steps
The dominant activity on the slopes of Mount Dongting is tea production ! The rows of tea bushes are like green screens, separating luxuriant fruit trees.
At the time of harvest, almost everyone in the area is involved in tea making.
Following are the six steps in the making of Biluochun tea:
1 / From 5am to 9am: picking 采摘 caizhai
There are three main harvest periods (flushes) :
- starting from Qingming to Xiaoman (late March to early May) is the first period referred as 春茶 chuncha or First Flush. Moderate rainfall in spring and the long rest over the winter period help create rich nutrients in the tea leaves. Most of the high quality green teas are picked in early spring.
From Xiaoman to Xiaoshu (early June to July) is the summer harvest or 夏茶 xiacha (second flush)
From Xiaoshu to Hanlu (mid-July to mid-October) the autumn harvest or 休茶 xiucha (autumn flush) is carried out.
In China, tea-leaves are picked either manually or with machines. Hand picking however has always remained the exclusive way to harvest premium leaves. The picking of Biluochun requires superb skill and know-how.
Between 5:00 and 9:00 in the morning, leaves and buds are taken one by one, with a precise and fast gesture. It consists of clamping the stem using the index finger and thumb and breaking the leaves off with a quick flick. The intactness of the leaf surface is critical to the quality of the final product, so close attention must be paid not to damage the leaves when harvesting. In order to produce 500 g of top quality Biluochun, tea farmers should pick not less than 68,000 to 74,000 鹊舌 queshe meaning «bird’s tongue» (that is to say a bud and a small leaf with the length of 16 to 20 mm) !
2/ from 9 am to 3 pm : selecting 筛选 shaixuan
Immediately after picking, the leaves are spread on the table and carefully sorted.
All the leaves below standard such as fish leaves, yellow leaves and other debris, are discarded. It takes 2 to 4 hours to do this and collect one kilo of good quality leaves. During this time, the water contained inside the cells of the fresh leaves begins to evaporate. A crease, a break or a scar on the surface of the leaf can trigger an oxidation on contact with the air.
3 / From 3 pm : panning or killing the green 杀青 shaqing
This step is the most crucial for the quality of the green tea ! To stop oxidation and prevent the fresh leaves from turning brown, the tea leaves must be pan fried or steamed to destroy the enzyme responsible for the oxidation. In Chinese, this is called « killing the green »: this step eliminates the grassy odour to form the aroma of the leaves. The tea maker puts in 500g of fresh leaves and stir-fries them by hand in a wok heated to 190°- 200°C. He presses them very quickly against the wall of the wok to accelerate the evaporation of the water. Then he scatters the leaves with an ample movement to distribute the moisture well. He repeats these gestures for 3 to 5 minutes. A strong smell of grass emerges. The stems and veins of the leaves become flexible and slightly viscous as moisture dissipates from the leaves, leaving them less exposed to breaking in the next step.
4 / Kneading 揉捻 rounian
When the pan reaches a temperature of 70 to 75°C, the tea maker will shake, fry and knead the fried leaves to make them slowly curl up and tighten as they roll around. The pressure must be balanced. If it is very strong, too much sap will be squeezed out and stick to the pan, which will emit a smoky smell and make the tea leaves look dark and more breakable. With too light a pressure, the leaves won’t be sufficiently tightly twisted. The tea maker keeps repeating the above actions several times for about ten minutes until the leaves are 60-70% dry. By losing their water, the leaves take on a dark green colour, soften and curl up gently on themselves. It’s time to lower the temperature and start the next step.
5 / Shaping and tipping 团 显 毫 毫 cuotuan xianhao
This process makes the tea leaves curl up to shape and show white tips. The gesture is precise and technical: the tea maker lowers the temperature of the wok to 50-60°C and keeps stirring by hand, while rolling the leaves between the palms of his hands. He shakes the leaves apart, rolls them again in the pan, grabs a new handful of buds, rolls them and so on for 15 minutes. The leaves are now dried to 80% and well rolled. A small white down begins to appear on some buds: it is time to go to final drying.
6 / Drying 烘干 honggan
This last step is responsible for generating many new flavour compounds. It fixes the aromas, improves the appearance and stabilizes the product. It is realized in three stages. The processor first proceeds to rolling until only about 10% water remains inside the leaves. Then he pours the leaves on a large sheet of mulberry paper where he allows them to cool. Finally, he deposits the paper with the dry leaves on the pan, with a temperature of only 30-40°C and resumes with drying thoroughly. After 6 to 8 minutes, the leaves contain only 7% moisture.
The finished product is characterized by its tightly rolled shape, slender leaves with white downy tips, a soft green colour, refreshing fragrance, thirst-quenching effect and sweet aftertaste.
It takes close to 40 minutes to « process » the finished product from the fresh raw material, 500g per 500g !
Only the Biluochun harvested on the slopes of Mount Dongting, which is now a protected area, is entitled to the name 洞庭碧螺春 Dongting Biluochun. Quantities produced are limited. To meet a rising demand, in the last twenty years (overseas Chinese but also Japanese and American are very demanding) other Biluochun teas are produced in close by areas: the Taihu Biluochun is grown on the shore of Taihu Lake, around Wuxi and Yixing. There, tea-making dates back to the Song dynasty. The varieties of tea trees, as well as the terroir and the climate, are very close to those of the Dongting Biluochun. But the Biluochun teas, which come from Yunnan province, or other places, thousands miles away from the original terroir, have not much in common with the authentic and original ones, therefore one should take care when purchasing such premium teas.
Along the Grand Canal and around the Little Venices, the gentle slopes bordering the Taihu Lake, are home to several other beautiful tea gardens, producing delicate green teas such us 太湖翠竹 Taihu Cuizhu or 阳羡雪芽 Yangxian Xueya, and of course, the potters favourite, the burgundy coloured 阳羡红茶 Yangxian Hong.