It's tea-time in Anji, the small town on the northern borders of Zhejiang Province that I have called home for the past year. White tea blooms roughly three weeks of the year, which makes this time of spring a little crazy around these parts. Vendors pop up in small shops everywhere, trying to peddle the first harvest of tea. Locals frequent markets to buy up the best picks of the annual crop and to stock up on their tea supplies for the year. It's a bit akin to September in New Mexico, when green chile is ripe and being roasted by sun-worked families on Cerrillos Road street corners. Anji tea is the thing in Anji, and it's something everyone drinks. An undeniable part of the local culture here.
I'd visited a tea farm before – the family home of my colleague, Ivy Su, on the rural the outskirts of Anji county. Last fall, everything was sublimely quiet and soft around their place. She suggested I return at a busier time, so when spring came and the tea started to bloom, it seemed an optimum chance to go out and have a second visit. Borrowing her brother's car (I didn't even know she could drive!), she picked up myself along with our other co-worker and friend, Jane, and we all headed out to the countryside.
The small lanes that were deserted last winter were now teeming with life - tea sellers setting up makeshift stands along the roadside. Workers in pointed straw hats arduously climbing steep, tea-lined hillsides, bent over and picking with vigor. Impromptu markets have sprung up at the more well-traveled intersections, savvy buyers inspecting, smelling, and scrutinizing the tea for just the right purchase.
The family home, too, was abundant with activity. Noise and people were everywhere - workers, relatives, neighbors - all in on the bustling day of tea picking. As we arrived, glasses of tea were thrust into our hands, the boiling hot water scalding our fingers and palms through tall glass cups. We sat at the kitchen table and watched the tea leaves open and fall as they re-hydrated in the scalding water.
As is tradition when you visit a Chinese home, we were fed lunch by Ivy's aiyi (auntie) - I tried local eel, very tasty - and were shown around the homestead. It being a Sunday, Ivy's brother, sister-in-law, and baby nephew were also there helping out. The baby boy was being passed from aiyi to aiyi, and then to me for plenty of photo opportunities. The poor child was terrified of his old "aunties" and how could I blame him - I was a little frightened of them myself! Toothless, loud, screaming and even a little smelly, but tough as nails, these ladies know the ropes when it comes to rearing a child.
Later, we took a short hike through the tea fields for a closer look.
Interestingly, most of the tea pickers were women. Ivy explained that her family prefers to hire women because they work faster and with less distraction. Some of these women (who relocate from neighboring provinces during tea picking season) asked to bring their husbands along as additional tea pickers, but the husbands were turned away. Presumably, the men would only stand around smoking cigarettes and screaming into mobile phones all day. It made for quite a sight, though, as the plump little ladies donned their pointy hats and filed up and along the hillsides.
We, too, scrambled to the top of one of the smaller hillcrests for a view of the family farm and the valleys surrounding. The air was murky with the new heat of spring and combined pollutants from larger neighboring cities, but it didn't stop us from enjoying the vastness of the landscape, green and overflowing with tea. Along the walk, we stopped to examine the bushes and Ivy showed me how to properly pick the tea by skillfully grabbing one leaf and an accompanying stem. Tea pickers do this all day, everyday, for the three or four week's time that the tea is in bloom. White tea is a very delicate specimen; its blooming period is short, meaning the crop has to be processed quickly and carefully. After harvesting, the tea is brought down in large baskets and spread out on massive bamboo mats for several days to air dry. After that, it is put through a set of machines that heat and dry the tea and flatten it into compressed leaves. Only then is the tea is ready for drinking. Here, there is no chemical processing. Quite simply, the dried leaves are shoveled into small bags and/or boxes for commercial sale. Everything can be done right there at the homestead.We were also able to visit a neighboring farm where Jane's father was helping out his friend for the tea harvesting season. We tasted their tea, as well, which was an interesting comparison with Ivy's family tea. Like sampling wines directly at the vineyards in which the grapes are grown, something about being among the air and soil and life that produces the plant makes its taste much richer. The differences between the tea became obvious which, considering that my tea palate is not very discerning, was amazing, and particularly because the farms are located less than 2 km from one another. The soil, irrigation, terrain, sunlight, temperature, and even the outside air can all fundamentally affect the way the leaves grow and, in turn, how they taste.
All of this leads me to reflect on the real satisfaction of appreciating the local. Everywhere I've been or lived for any length has something which can't be found anywhere else. When I'm away from New Mexico, I yearn for the tastes of home – green and red chiles, sopapillas, burritos. In Boston: seafood and sourdough clam chowder bowls. Texas barbeque and Irish stout. Finding a little optimism between the bright lights of big market economies and commercial-filled lifestyles, there is so much satisfaction to be found in, not just casually sampling or learning from books, but from fundamentally knowing something unique about where we live. In the long run, after you've done and seen a lot, and places start to run together in a mass of chain-fed consumer advertisements, the local bits of earth make our lives rich. The extraordinary, original morsels of the world, the things that are rare and old, give us something to reflect on and know - something larger than we are. In Anji, that something is white tea.