07 NOV 2016:  There are so many fascinating facets to China it’s a challenge to know where to go and where to begin. That is unless you are a tea lover like me. The world’s most cherished green tea comes from the hills just outside of Hangzhou. Tea production dates to before the Tang Dynasty (618 CE) in this humid subtropical area and a visit here is steeped in history, beauty and refined tea “eating”.

Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang Province on China's south-eastern coast was recently in world headlines as the host of the 2016 G20 Leaders' Summit. With a permanent population around 9 million, it’s considered a second-tier city (Beijing and Shanghai both have over 20 million inhabitants) but it’s a wealthy one brimming with gorgeous green parklands and gardens. It ranks high as one of China’s most scenic and beautiful cities.

The city’s West Lake is the best-known attraction and many of the top five star hotels are in this picturesque area. I chose to stay at the Hangzhou Rose Garden Resort for its stunning gardens and its proximity to the tea plantations, practically around the corner. My garrulous, intrepid guide Leedan organized my trip to tea land and was invaluable. (I barely know a word of Mandarin which is essential when travelling in the countryside.)

Hangzhou’s “special-tea” is West Lake Longjing tea, one of the ten most famous teas in China. Longjing, which literally translates as "dragon well," is said to be named after a water well located near Longjing village, one of the most renown of Hangzhou’s tea villages.  The five main production regions are Lion Peak (Shi Feng) Mountain, Longjing Village, Five Cloud (Wuyun) Mountain, Tiger Running (Hupao) Temple and Meijiawu.

West Lake is the “Champagne region” of Chinese tea. It accounts for just 6% of Zhejiang's production.

Longjing green tea is historically considered to be one of the very first teas in China, giving it the nickname “China Famous Tea”. It was granted the status of Gong Cha, or imperial tea, in the Qing dynasty by the Kangxi Emperor. Leedan arranged for me to visit the tea house of a family that has been harvesting since the Qing Dynasty over 300 years ago. Their family names, Lu and Gao, I was told are the two most important of the 200 plantation owners in the village of Longjing.

With Leedan translating I learned that the most precious tea is picked in March when the shoots are young and tender. Today, everything is still handpicked and hand roasted the traditional way. It takes a good picker 10 hours to pick 2,000 grams of fresh leaves, which is then made into 500 grams of dried tea. The top colour is a light yellowish green, and in general, the lighter the colour, the higher the quality. Older shoots become a darker green due to a higher concentration of chlorophyll.

Longjing tea leaves are roasted early in processing (after picking) to stop the natural oxidation process, which is a part of creating black and oolong teas. This tea is really good for you. It contains vitamin C, amino acids, and like most finer Chinese green teas, has one of the highest concentrations of catechins.

They served the tea to us by adding the leaves to a glass and pouring in hot water. As the leaves soaked they became heavier and gradually sank to the bottom of the glass. The tea has lovely strong sweet aromatics with a mellow vegetative flavour. Drinking the tea like this did mean getting a few tea leaves with each sip. In the local dialect, they appropriately say they “eat” the tea (eat and drink are the same word). The leaves are sweet and tender enough that chewing them is pleasant.

In these tea houses you pay 30 to 40 Yuan (about six to eight dollars) per cup and can sit with your tea all day playing Mahjong, chatting and munching on sunflower and pumpkin seeds which are served with the tea. The host will continue adding hot water to your cup of tea leaves for as long as you wish.

You can also buy to take home, an opportunity I couldn’t pass up as tea of this quality is not available beyond the source. The 125 grams I purchased set me back over $100 Canadian – a bargain actually.

From here we went to the China National Tea Museum, which presented the history of tea in China from the beginning. Each era had its highlights. The Tang Dynasty was considered the heyday of ancient Chinese tea culture. The Song Dynasty developed the culture further changing the tea making method from boiling to infusion and holding tea competitions.

During the Ming Dynasty (1391) experts wrote more than 50 books about tea. By the Qing Dynasty (1886) Chinese tea monopolized the world tea market and the era was the zenith of ubiquitous and indispensable Chinese teahouses.

The six basic categories of Chinese tea were presented: green, black, oolong, yellow, white and dark. Green represents almost 64% of production, black about 13%, followed by oolong and dark (just over 11% each). Production of white and yellow is miniscule.

My tour ended with a tea ceremony and sampling of four different styles of tea under the tutelage of a tea master. She got me so excited about some rare teas that I purchased them on the spot (this government owned museum is happy to sell to you). That was a very expensive lesson – about a thousand dollars’ worth – but each sip of them I take now at home I don’t begrudge the price.

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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