I am in the Yunnan province of China. Sitting in the simple home of my gentle guide Li-do, we sip some of the precious local tea, known as Pu’erh to the outside world. Here, it is a remedy for everything from fevers to blood sugar disorders.
Despite its mythic nature, my tea is served with an informal elegance that would seem foreign to the world of tea ceremonies. “Real teas don’t need a fuss,” says Xiao Di. “There is nothing to hide with ceremony.” Li-do squats above a fire, grabs a handful of dry leaves and drops them into a huge bubbling pot. Less than a minute later, without a first rinse, a sniffing cup or any ritual, I am holding a stained tin cup with a lemon-yellow liquid steaming in it.
Xiao Di points out a slight oil stain on the surface of the tea, one that is only visible from a slight angle. “See the oil, see the oil”? A good tea, he says, will have this distinguishing sheen where mass-produced teas won’t. Finally the words “nee um’la” – “drink tea” – are said. I tip the liquid into my mouth and bitterness rips through it in a surge that almost burns. “If a tea isn’t bitter, it isn’t a tea,” say the locals – and tea, before it became cha, in Mandarin was simply called tu, meaning bitter herb. This initial harshess is followed by a second phase that seems dedicated to convincing the tongue that the bitterness was a misunderstanding.
“It is the deep root systems of the old trees which draw up the taste out of the earth,” says Xiao Di. This astringent taste is a quality highly sought all along the Tea Horse Road into Tibet where Pu’erh has been sold in a multitude of molded shapes and forms for centuries. Only the transport has changed, when flatulent mules gave way to chugging trucks in the mid-1950s.