The whole room was completely still. The only noise was the tick tick tick of the clock on the counter. I was squatting in the middle of an empty restaurant watching Mao Feng leaves float to the bottom of glass of hot water. The restaurant owner sat at his counter looking over at me smoking a cigarette. This is what it had come down to, I was tasting the tea made in the back of a restaurant hoping to find real Huang Shan Mao Feng.
Eight hours before I got out of a cab near Nine Dragon Waterfall. I was in a small town boarding Huangshan Park. I was with the bunkmate from my hostel who had offered to join me and whose Chinese I thought would be helpful. A decision I would later regret.
We started by going to the fields. The fields were beautiful. Tea trees were scattered over this mountainside in rows that were sometimes more straight than others. Surrounding the fields were forests of trees and bamboo. The mountain face flowed and dipped making climbing it very difficult especially after a heavy rain. At one point we reached a little crevice in the mountain which had tea trees mixed in with two large trees and a small waterfall in the middle. It was the most beautiful tea field I have seen yet. Yet with all the trees and the beautiful scenery there was only one thing missing from these fields, farmers. A sudden change in last minute plans had put me in Huang Shan later than I wanted to be. It was April 10, almost the end of the Mao Feng season.
Mao Feng is one of the green teas whose most sought after picking days fall before April 4th, Qing Ming. It is important to note that while most green teas peak around this time, not all of them do; teas like Hou Kui haven’t even started plucking by then. Six days after Qing Ming, the slopes of Huang Shan were quiet. There were still a few pickers out, but not in the fields that most interested me.
After climbing around the mountain for a bit we went down into the village again. We began a going door to door looking asking anyone who was home if they made tea. With a smile most said yes and brought out what they had. The second problem with coming so late in the season is not only were they not picking, most of the best tea have already been sold. The first tea we were sold reeked of meat. I accredited this to the fact when we asked for tea he had reached inside his kitchen refrigerator and pulled out a plastic bag, not the best conditions for keeping tea.
Huang Shan Mao Feng, as we have discussed before, is a light tea. It Is characterized by its light body but super refreshing savory umami flavor. The aroma matches the flavor. The aroma is very light and doesn’t have a strong characteristic like that of Long Jing’s, but it is almost characterized by its lightness. A good Mao Feng smells light, refreshing and sweet. The smell should almost rise to your nose by itself, with out you having to smell to hard. This is true of all good teas, but especially Mao Feng. As I went around smelling these teas, none of them quite had this characteristic. Most smelled dull or a little smokey. One lady’s tea did have good characteristics, but was also paired with a smokiness. I decided if I could find nothing by tomorrow, it would be her tea that I bought.
After two hours of door to door my and my new friend were hungry and went to get something to eat. The restaurant was empty, and the restaurant was only lit by the windows and the open door. We had some eggs and spinach and a dish of tofu with peppers. In the corner of the restaurant a woman brought something in and laid it out on the table. It was only after I finished my meal and looked up that I realized it was fresh tea leaves. I walked over to look at the picking. They seemed uniform and not too bad. When I asked they let me taste the tea, which was a first for that day. And so there I was, squatting next to the table, eye level to the floating tea leaves watching them drop to the bottom quickly, almost too quickly. I tasted it, giving it two full brews before coming to the sad conclusion that this tea lacked the solid characteristics it was in general too weak and had no real flavor. I sighed, thanked the owner and decided to call it a day. Tired, a little frustrated, and a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to find good Mao Feng I went back to the Hostel. I was only in Huang Shan for two days, so I only had one more chance to find what I was looking for.
To be continued: