Thursday 23 June 2011

Spot the difference

So went the longest day of the year. In small groups around the world there exists a following of herbalists that drink a certain herb to celebrate. This herb (the ball like appendages pictured above) has a long history in Chinese medicine, it is unfashionably hot and drying that goes against the current trend of cold and fluid engendering herbs. It was even accused, for a while, of being the poison that gave Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer a heart attack. It's toxic without preparation, but nothing returns warmth and function quite like it. It is 附子, aconite. It is to herbs as the Rolling Stones are to rock and roll.

Why take a hot herb at the most yang time of year I hear you say? Because in summer, all your yang is at the surface of the body, so logically it is not at your centre. You may feel warm (British summers withstanding) because your warmth is exactly where you can perceive it but inside you are stone cold.

Above is a picture of two almost identical teas. Both are Xiaguan 8653's, are from Essence of Tea and for those who know Nada's catalog well might of guessed the difference between the two. They have been stored differently, one dry and one not so dry. Neither are cheap and retail for about £550 a bing I remember but I thought it, well, fun to fork out for 5 grams of each to see just how the storage has changed this tea. I won't mention which one I tried first, but these are my notes.

This tea comes in a chunk, a solid dark lump that Xiaguan squeezed together when I was in my teen ages, there is no discernible aroma. For some reason, after a single rinse, I infuse for a brief five seconds despite the tight compression. The result was a soup of golden yellow, empty in my fragrance cup with a flavour that could of been mistaken for honey water.

Ten seconds pass for the second infusion but does little to change the soup apart from a slight change to amber. I swiftly move onto the third, at fifteen seconds, yielding more amber but still holding a yellow glint, but not much to write about other than appearance. The fourth infusion turns pure amber and the aroma starts to hold in my fragrance cup. The soup is very smooth, especially noticeable in the throat and I am gifted the lightest but sweetest huigan. The fifth becomes cooling on the tongue and lips, it really doesn't strike me as a tea from the eighties, more like a particularly smooth and fine tea from the turn of the millennium.

On the sixth (pictured above), and now at a time of sixty seconds in my yixing pot, the tea is becoming more solid and I am gripped by it's superb qi. I am quite becalmed but in no way could I say that I feel fatigued or sleepy. Inside my thoughts are alive and vibrant. Finally the terrific compression has started to give way and the leaf begins to spread.

The amber becomes mahogany, it has taken an hour to get this far! I notice a slight sourness. Another brew and the tea is squarely in the nineties, oily and thick but never overpowering with a dark fruity spice. As I drink the postman drops off some medicinal dit da jow I ordered from Plum dragon Herbs in America. I have a quick sniff, I just love the aroma of Chinese herbs. It reminds me of my young adulthood in Hong Kong, great years of my life.

Nine infusions in now and the sourness is back with some astringency on the tongue, that caught me by surprise a little. This is the only imperfection against what is an enormously enjoyable session of tea drinking and the sourness doesn't last into the tenth infusion, the final infusion before my stomach calls for a late breakfast. Anyway, feeling the tea in the head a little too I take a break.

I have read some criticism of Xiaguan's compression in that it stops this tea from ageing at the same pace as looser teas. In brewing it too, it took the fourth infusion to actually produce anything of note. Slowly the water started to penetrate and as it gradually did so I was transported back through the years until it's real age was on display. Some patience is required before I try the other sample I must make sure I have at least a good two hours clear.

Thursday 7 April 2011

To explore a mountain

Back from my long and rarely arduous trip to Sri Lanka and the cricket world cup there was something at home I really missed, my tea. For a country that produces a rather large amount of tea, the actual tea at street level was quite disappointing. Even the tea shops were little different from the ones in the British High Street and were mainly packed with.. gasp.. flavoured teas. I found some solace in the lobby of the Columbo Continental and enjoyed at least some decent leaf tea there with a slice of cake or two but on the whole I was let down somewhat. Given the time and the right directions I'm sure I could of done better but there was a lot of cricket to cover and most of it many miles from the hills.

Back we are though and whilst away a couple of lumps of tea had arrived to welcome me home. After going through many different samples of Ban Zhang area teas from many different sources I have, for no good reason, decided to have a thorough look at Nannuo. Why Nannuo? beats me! From my first impressions it's a bit of a girly mountain, all sweetness with sugar and spice, no puppy dog's tails and snails. Armed with a selection of mao cha from Pu Erh Shop, little Douji bricks, EOT's hideaway 2010 cake and another sample of the same year from Yunnan Sourcing I plod forward. It's all very new tea and rather unwittingly I haven't strolled across anything much older from Nannuo. Perhaps this is just an oversight of mine or perhaps they just don't exist.

With YS's Nan Nuo Ya Kou in the pot I start the tricky process of brewing and writing. The sample looks good and is straight off the side of a cake so even though it is merely a sample it still retails some of the essence of being from something greater. Very nice compression that crumbles in the fingers, no need to be bludgeoned.

Three pots in I am a little bemused, the soup is quite thick to the mouth but there isn't much oomph. I seem to of brewed some very sweet oil. I inspect the foil bag containing the rest of the sample to pass time as I boil some more water and find the leaves to be very attractive, a nice mix of greens and darker olives with streaks of silver but lacking much aroma. I'm finding myself searching for a huigan desperately instead of being given one without escape.

Freshly boiled water at hand I decide to let the time pass as I bathe the leaves. Went too far, it's bitter and tastes like cologne. I try again and this time come up a little too short. In my frustration for brewing like a chump I ditch the rest of the soup and grab another tea, my journey up Nannuo will go no further today and I take rest at, what must be, base camp.

Some days I brew tea and it's excellent, the very next time the same tea falls flat. Considering this I should put this sample to one side and return to it another day.

Monday 7 February 2011

Xiaguan Elegant Frisbee 2008

I'm back into the groove of drinking pu erh again. Today's bing has something of a toy like attraction to it, I say that because holding this cake after the chubby, flakey Ding Xing has really intrigued me. The iron compression so typical of Xiaguan has rendered the leaves into a tea frisbee! It's hard and well defined, it's edges are cutting and sharp. I have no doubt that if I were to venture down to the park today I could let loose and this baby would fly.

Fearing that my cha dao would be repelled by the tight weave of the tiny leaves I plunged into it and found that a 15 gram lump easily came off, (in a Homer style) mmm tobacco. Calculating one third I plopped it into my pot admiring the silver tips as it went in. One quick rinse and off we go.

I have had some quite aromatic teas in the last week or so so I was expecting some more fireworks out of my fragrance cup but there wasn't a whole lot going on first up. The smell reminded me of something from my childhood, hot orange cordial. The second infusion woke up the Benson and Hedges in this tea and it suddenly become very, very tobacco. It's orange hue soup was a little more rough and ready than I was expecting but led itself into a very interesting huigan that gripped my tongue.

I pushed the brewing a little further, a little brave considering how brutish the tea was. The outcome was an even heavier tobacco kick with more perfume, a quick cooling sensation on the lips and a much stronger huigan. I'm quite amused by the gripping feeling on my tongue. It doesn't last forever though, I'm not sure of how many infusions I made but my 1.5 litre bottle of Evian is nearly done.

How would such a tea age? I am most curious. I was given possible sneak preview of how my belolved but rather scary Nada Bulang would turn out by sampling Nada's Heng Li Chang Bu Lang. I know very little about Xiaguan teas and I would love to know of a sample that would give me a heads up on how Father Time would treat this tea.

A very worthwhile tea that is full of character in it's form and also in it's soup. I mean, isn't pu erh just great? It's an almost endless journey of discovery.

** It is at this point that I realise that I have already, in fact, blogged this tea in sample form. It turns out that I didn't really care for it much first time around. Perhaps my ability to appreciate tea has grown over the last year or so, or perhaps I just had an off session. I am certainly enjoying my life a lot more now than then and that could have a huge impact on how much I bond with my tea **

Thursday 3 February 2011

Old Notorious Ding Xing

Along comes a tea once in a while that causes a bit of a stir. It's not because of it's excellence, everyone agreed that it's pretty good for the price, but it is because it has some controversy and is also pretty cheap. The controversy over this cake is it's age and that it comes from a slightly shady seller, not as shady as the geezer that sells little bags of herbs openly in public on Camden Town bridge but someone still of questionable repute. Cheap to boot too as you could score these for puppies for about £20 I believe on Taobao and much kudos to Hobbes for giving us advice on how to purchase them, even more kudos for updating his blog on this cake's availability at Pu Erh Shop. So off to Pu Erh Shop I went and picked up a couple. I'm not as bigger collector as some so I tend to buy one for keeps and one to drink.

The wrapping has been eaten somewhat by bugs or what have you, one of my cakes much more than the other so I chose the most tarnished cake (chubby little bugger) for my drinking cake. I inspected it for frosting and there was just the slightest hint and with a swish of my knife the leaf happily crumbled off. Being about ten years old is a funny old age for pu erh, past it's teenage years the leaf has some signs of maturity but you can appreciate how it must of looked when it was new. I popped about 5 grams into a gaiwan for brewing and gave it a rinse and was immediately greeted by those pleasant woody aromas.

This tea is very nice, I must say that I like it a lot. It's very smooth in the mouth and after an abortive attempt where the flavour rose no further than my throat, it has given me an extremely rewarding huigan full of peach. The cha qi is also very noticeable, uplifting to the eyes and forehead early on and then settling to warm my middle jiao followed by warmth creeping to my upper jiao. How rewarding this session is!

My collection is made up of teas mainly between the 2007 to 2010 range and although I occasionally pick up small quantities of old tea I didn't have any cakes younger than 2006. Given it's availability and price I heartily recommend picking up some of this tea before it goes.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Tea in Abu Dhabi

I am lucky enough to have a 'day job' that gives me the opportunity to travel the world and also earn a reasonable living. I was delighted to discover then that Wasps rugby union team had moved a game from their industrial estate bound ground in High Wycombe to Abu Dhabi, more so that it gave me a chance to escape the sub zero temperatures. I'm no sun lizard, my skin is rather opaque but my joints are getting creakier by the year and the sun is a marvellous tonic.

Our hotel and ground was at the very luxurious Palace Hotel, every inch an effort to demonstrate just how much money the sheiks have at their disposal but in reality a soulless monstrosity built by the hands of down trodden Indian and Pakistani workers. I have a real gripe with what you see behind the scenes in places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Tucked away in one corner of the beach (resplendent with it's imported sand) was an opportunity to sample something missing from the rest of the complex, some culture! Even more surprising was that it was entirely free, not a room number request in sight. In an open sided tent sat a local man who spoke little english.

"Come! Come!" he said as he waved, "Sit, rest."

He surrounded himself with various pots, some tongs and a supply of charcoal and it was his job to brew tea and coffee whilst people waited to ride camels.

"Tea? Coffee?" was the cue for my face to light up and a few moments later I was the proud owner of a glass of tea. I no longer felt compelled to mooch about the hotel grounds and I grabbed my opportunity to sit back and read a translation with commentaries of the Nan-Ching (nan jing for those pin yin minded people) by the thorough sinologist Paul Unschuld.

The brew was exactly how I wouldn't prepare tea, sweeter than a sherbet fountain but despite this I enjoyed it immensely, vive la difference! My new friend seemed very insistent that I had some coffee too which was also unusual. It came in a cup not much bigger than my chinese tea cups and had a heavy flavour of mint through it.

A place must be a good place if you have no idea how long you spent there. I read my book (or as much of it as I could absorb, which isn't a lot when it comes to Unschuld) and drank several cups of tea and coffee. Along came an offering of a few dates and I found out through sign language that the man had a real interest in camel racing. Sign language doesn't take you very far and he went back to fanning his coals and brewing more tea.

I walked away feeling very content with the experience, it was genuine and enriching, a saving grace for the hotel that up to that point had little to offer anything beyond skin deep. I went back there again the next morning and saw my friend who greeted me with the same words and I watched him light his fire and prepare his drinks. Work intervened and I was drawn back into the hotel's grasp.

Drinking tea is becoming more about the moment of the tea as opposed to the tea itself, that is the true gift it brings me.

Thursday 27 January 2011

A lot of do about Qi

Hmmm, it's happened again, I have gone on the tea buying rampage. From Xiaguan to Douji to the now notorious Dingxing cake, it's all on it's way inbound to The Corn Barn (that's where I live).

I thought I would write something about the topic of 'qi' and my opinion on what it is (this is the sort of thing that crosses my mind on a day off sitting at my tea table). In fact, the inspiration for this was all started by a marvelous sensation in my chest which I squarely attribute to Nada's Bulang which I am revisiting today. A lot is said about cha qi, but what on earth is 'qi'?

Although I am a practicing acupuncturist and herbalist one thing I am not is a member of the spiritual hippy brigade! There is a type of person that is attracted to practicing acupuncture in the west and they are usually middle aged females with a new age, spiritual aspect to them (85% of students at my old acupuncture college fit this stereotype). As a result one of the core concepts of Asian medicine, qi, is rather over romanticised. It need not be.

Do you have to 'believe' in qi? No, not if you have a pair of eyes and nerve endings. Qi describes anything with motion, temperature and function. When you lift your arm and scratch your nose, it is qi. Regardless of the actual biomechanical function that enables you to move you will be perfectly correct in stating that it was an act of qi, it moved thus it was a result of some qi.

You can't grasp it as it is formless. You can grasp your moving arm but that is the substance you have just touched, you have not touched the movement itself. Heat plus water creates steam, you can touch the steam, feel the heat but all that is on your skin is the water. You can touch flames but you can't hold them.

Peristalsis, the movements of your gastrointestinal tract is just another thing that can be labeled qi, it makes you poop and it makes you burp. This isn't magic we are talking about, it's just a word that embodies anything that moves be it the rain or your mood.

Anger, it makes you so mad your face goes red! You want to stand up and punch the nearest inanimate object. You could explain the exact process that flushes blood to your face or you could use the Chinese abstract physiological model that anger belongs to the liver, liver belongs to the wood phase, the wood phase surges upwards and this is why your blood goes to the face and you feel so animated. Is it strictly accurate? no but it does the job of understanding the relationship of things.

So, what is cha qi? If you feel it and it has a moving quality to it, a temperature then you are perfectly correct in explaining it as an expression of qi without having to wear hemp trousers and meditate. Of course, if you like hemp trousers and meditation you can do that too.. ;-)

Rant over.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Five in one, 五味子

Again, a little bit off the usual tea topic, I thought I would would sing the praises of a medicinal herb. It's a real favourite of mine, wŭ wèi zĭ or schisandra fruit.

The first place to look if you really want to get to know a herb is in the classics. Chinese medicine has arguably been going more backwards than forwards since the Han dynasty. The majority of herbal formula still used today originate from this time and many modern formulas are based on classical ones (you can instantly tell the ones that don't). Zhang Zhong Jing, the author of the Han classic the Shang Han Lun, took his knowledge straight from the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, and it is in this classic we first examine this herb.

Wu Wei is sour and warm. It mainly boosts the qi, treating cough and counterflow qi ascent, taxation damage, and languor and emaciation. It supplements insufficiency, fortifies yin, and boosts male's essence. It grows in mountains and valleys. 

Although it has a sour energetic, it actually has all the five tastes on the palette, hence the name one presumes. Sour is the representative taste of the wood element the theory classic, the Nei Jing, tells us that sour tonifies the metal element. You can imagine the movement of sour being analogous to breathing in, it is an inward, conserving dynamic. Certainly when you breath in you are boosting your qi via the lung (lung being a metal element organ) and if you don't believe me I suggest you reverse the process by breathing out and go for a sprint.
Zhang Zhong Jing primarily used schisandra as a modification herb, it was added to formula if certain symptoms were present and in the case of schisandra it was used for coughing. Throughout the Shang Han Lun you see it paired with dried ginger and wild chinese ginger which added the effect of drying and warming the lung for wet coughs. 

It supplements insufficiency, fortifies yin, and boosts male's essence.

Broadly speaking, yin is a term for material bodily fluids and essence relates to sexual fluids. But from a Chinese perspective how does this work? Using a five element model we already understand that the sour dynamic tonifies the metal element. Part of that element is the lung and the concept that the lung is the upper source of water in the body and that the metal element is in charge of downward movement. When we tonify metal we are able to manifest water and descend it downwards towards the kidney, resonant with the water element and sexual function. This is a classic example of the five element sheng 生 cycle where metal gives birth to water.

I love this herb, it tackles cough very well and also gives off a nice dark fruit flavour to formula. TCM practitioners also note it's ability to curb sweating, stop diarrhea, spermatorrhea and many more uses. I'm a bit old school so I'm keeping with it's original Han dynasty use.