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Transforming Tradition

March 19th, 2024


There are certain flavors which transport one through space and time. The sweet stem of a freshly picked cinnamon leaf; the peppery dance of wild cardamom; the caramelized notes of Snow Shan Tea roasted over the fire; and the clear evanescence of young Fairy Tea picked high in the mountains; these are a few of the tastes that will always recall one to the realms of Cao Bo.

 

– From a Volunteer’s Time in the Village of Cao Bo, Ha Giang Province, Vietnam


Tea leaves in the process of being roasted or "caramelized," over an open fire prior to being brewed in hot water. Caramelized tea is a traditional style of making tea that originates from the hill regions of northern Vietnam. The process often results in a smokier and notably more candied flavor than tea which has not been prepared in the same manner. Photograph: Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers


We bounced along the rough red dirt track as the truck ascended higher into the mountains and the mist. Houses and loose collections of villages rolled past as we wound over boulder strewn streams and washed-out gullies. It felt akin to traveling to a place off the map, somewhere beyond the reaches of four wheels. The foliage and the clouds closed in around us, adding to the mystery and heightening the understanding that this would be more than a normal adventure.

 

Our host, Bic, met us as we pulled up the drive to her homestay high in the village of Cao Bo. She rushed us inside, out of the drizzle, to warm seats around a fire in the center of the kitchen. A pair of Muscovy ducks paddled in the fish pond beneath the window while chickens foraged around the wooden pillars of the guest house next door. Tea was served almost instantly and as her family gathered around introductions were made.


The misty hillsides of Cao Bo. Photograph: Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers


When shared, tea is friendship. It is tradition, it is hospitality, connection, and ritual. It is an attachment to the natural world and so much more.

A good cup of tea is dependent on a staggering number of factors including, where the tea was grown, how it was picked, the manner in which it was processed, where it was stored, how old it is, and how many leaves are added to the teapot. One must also take into consideration the quality and temperature of the water, the time the tea is permitted to steep, and the number of steepings that have proceeded that particular immersion. There is also the size and shape of the cups, the space and dimensions of the room, the weather outside, and the olfactory and taste receptors of the person drinking the tea which need to be considered. Perhaps most importantly, a good cup of tea is dependent on the attitude with which you approach each moment and each sip. Your attention to the tea and to the people with whom you are drinking will most certainly influence your interpretations. Layer on top of this your initial expectations of the tea and personal flavor preferences and a litany of other factors the act of creating a good cup of tea can feel insurmountable. The wonderful irony is that a good cup of tea is also, simply, leaves and hot water.

 

It is said that in the best quality teas you can taste the wind, rain, and elements that went into the leaf’s formation. “Good mountains and good water produces good tea,” is how another proverb puts it. Perhaps it was being physically in the heart of an ancient tea region, perhaps it was the work of mountain stream water and experienced hands, perhaps it was the leaves themselves, but the tea from Bic’s family’s tea gardens contained notes of sunlight.


Fresh white tea. Photograph: Matic Javornik, @matic_javornik


As the conversations began to wane and the mists began to lift, Bic invited our small group on a tour of the tea gardens growing up the hill from their house. Donning a bamboo sickle and collection bag she led the way out the door into a world that almost called forth a different angle of sight. Many conservationists believe that the way to get people to care about protecting the environment is to bring people into the natural world, show them what they are looking at, and allow them to develop a connection with the place themselves. Knowingly or not, this is exactly what Bic was doing. A few steps up the hill, she pointed out grasses that are often used to make traditional style brooms. These grasses also contain watery stems that can be eaten in times of need, if one is lost high in the mountains or is in lack of access to fresh water. Further into the forest, she showed us fern eggs that tasted like water chestnuts, and small, tart tangerines whose peals are used to make a type of pu’er tea. At one point, Bic stopped beneath a tall tree with spear shaped leaves. “Smell and then taste the end of the stem,” she advised as she broke off a leaf for each of us.


Cinnamon Leaf. Photograph: Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers

It was cinnamon so fresh that the flavor was sweet.


“Snow Shan tea likes growing with cinnamon trees,” she explained, a type of a symbiotic relationship that indicates the signs of a healthy forest. As we continued to thread our way up the hillside, the taste of cinnamon on our breath, Bic began pointing out the tea trees. They rose out of the mist like sentinels, dark green leaves framed with canopies, some just starting to offer new buds. The trunks and branches were bent and twisted in ways that gave the trees the appearance of gangly apple trees. We would realize later that their shape was the result of human hands. Carful pruning over decades, in cases centuries, had resulted in trees at a manageable height and size for climbing and harvesting.


Bic briefed our group with the basics: there are three primary seasons to harvest Snow Shan Tea. The first picking takes place in April, the second in July, and the third in September. The trees are pruned during the first harvest but otherwise left alone, aside from the new leaves being collected at the two other points in the year. Most of the trees in the grove we were walking through were likely planted at one point in time, but their age is anyone’s guess. “People have told us that many of these trees are someone between 50 and 800 years old,” Bic offered.  


In Yunnan, China, they use three primary methods to test the age of a tea tree. The first, and perhaps the most simple, method, is to wait for the tree to die and then count the rings. The second is an attempt to carbon date the layers of soil beneath the roots alongside a sample from the tree itself. The third is to look for tax records, which sometimes record the planting or harvesting of a tea garden or farm. In certain instances these records can be cross-checked against generational names of the family’s descendants which provide researchers with a second data point from which to calculate a tree’s age. Regardless of the process, it takes a fair deal of luck and guess-work to date these ancient beings. In Vietnam, some attempts have been made at dating trees, but far more research is needed. More often than not people are simply left to wonder. 

 

Tea Tree: An Elder of the Forest. Photograph: Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers

As Bic was explaining the tea harvesting times, our small group slowly wound our way up the hill into a small clearing. At the center stood a larger tea tree with a crown of branches rising from a broad trunk. Moss grew from limbs alongside creeping vines. This tree was clearly older, and something about its size, placement in the grove implied a presence.


Freshly picked tea. Photograph: Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers

Tea as both leaves and a liquid has had a long history of being used as medicine and in religious or ritual practices. Certain Vietnamese traditions also speak of thanking or making an offering to a tree when something good takes place. In the company of this matriarch of the forest, these ideas were easy to understand. We would later see other trees of similar sizes in other tea gardens and parts of the region that had been reliably dated to at least 600 years of age.


Holding out our palms, a few of our group rested our hands on the large trunk and branches. The bark was cool, damp, with a film of algae growing alongside the moss and vines. The leaves that would be picked later in the spring, would be coming from a being that was alive at the time when the Lê Dynasty ruled Vietnam and when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. To put it another way, this tree was likely alive before the entire continent of Europe learned what tea, Camellia sinensis, was. As our hands rested on this gently swaying giant the small, green buds beginning to show in its large crown began to look more like stars than something destined to be consumed by mere mortals.


On the way down the trail, Bic began showing our small group the type of fern she wanted help collecting for dinner. She moved through the brush beside the trail breaking the plants at their stems and tossing them into her collection bag. The rest of us could barely keep up, laughing as we struggled to merely identify the young, curled stalks emerging from the thicket of green that surrounded them. Back at Bics house, this harvest would be washed, chopped, and fried with garlic to make one of the best side dishes many of us had ever encountered. “Good mountains and good water,” as the proverb goes...  

 

Bic and her family come from a long line of tea farmers in the village of Cao Bo. For generations they have planted rice, tended their familial tea groves, and harvested wild cardamom alongside a type of high mountain tea known in this region as "Fairy Tea." The land and the mountain provides. And yet, as evidence by this author’s presence, the excavators one can see alongside the road to Cao Bo, and the busloads of foreigners who come to this area to tour the famed Ha Giang Loop, things are changing. The question that Bic and many others are now facing is one of how to generate a sustainable means of income while also working to preserve and protect the environment and mountainous region that makes this part of the planet so special. Perhaps the answers lie in establishing and renewing lasting connections to the land. Perhaps they are also found in a cup of tea.


Bic, second from the left, with our small group. Photograph: Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers

Written by: Sam Jacobson

Photographs by: Photograph: Matic Javornik, @matic_javornik & Baiyue Tea Society Volunteers

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