The Chaozhou district in Guangdong, home of Fenghuang (Phoenix) Mountain and Dan Cong single trunk oolong teas, borders Fujian province near the coast. All three have distinct dialects, and the Chaozhou vernacular is not mutually intelligible to Cantonese or Mandarin speakers. Chaozhou entrepreneurs have a reputation for their business acumen, and their cuisine is known for local specialties such as crunchy pickled vegetables, small chicken dumplings made with thin wraps of egg whites (instead of dough) and tied with scallions, crispy noodle cakes served with sharp vinegar and sugar on the side, traditional braised goose, and a rich warmed taro paste and ginkgo nut dessert. The Chaozhou region also is renowned for its intense and aromatic, quality oolong teas. Foremost in the dining experience of the area is being served little cups of oolong tea before and after each meal, a separate presentation from any tea that might be poured during the dinner. These photos were taken around 11 AM to noon: you can see how foggy it was at that time of day.
The Single Trunk (Dan Cong) tea trees are so tall that it is necessary for the workers to bring ladders to harvest the leaves, plucking on the outer edges of the tree to obtain the new flush. The tea season begins early here, in late March and April, when the leaves are at their peak; although plucking will continue into the year, the quality of the tea is not considered to be as good as the spring picking.
The tea leaves from the trees (as compared to those usually produced from tea bushes) are large even as new growth, which can be seen in the photograph directly above, and after withering they are tossed by hand, and shaken on large bamboo trays. The leaves resting on the bamboo baskets show one part of a repeated and alternating cycle of shaking/bruising and resting, necessary to break down the cell walls. Men toss the withered leaves, alternating between vigorous and gentler motions, so that as the leaves fall on themselves, the edges break and oxidation begins. This process lasts for about 2-3 hours, followed by more tossing in a mechanical rotating (bamboo) drum, and then the leaves are rolled and dried.
At each stage of the process a worker determines personally by touch, aroma and taste when to end one cycle and begin the next. All depends upon the weather, ambient temperature and humidity, therefore optimum handling/resting cannot be determined by mechanical methods or through the use of timers. The experienced tea master judges the duration and sequence of each step of the technique.
There are about ten varieties of Dan Cong but they all share that zest and full aroma with a long lingering finish. Although they have no floral bouquet, the better quality Dan Congs may hint of a peach or apricot, caramel fruitiness.
Dan Cong is ideal for brewing in a gongfu pot or cups; steep about 1/2 minute for the first infusion, 1 minute for the second, and so forth. The tea really blooms and the first four infusions all taste quite distinct. It also is good at room temperature when the weather is warm.
Dan Cong is one of our favorite teas, and it pairs well with desserts.
Text and photographs courtesy of Lydia Kung