The first thing that hits is how inefficient this whole game is. It isn’t quite May as we climb the mountain. Picking only began on 31st March. And already the season is over. Not a basket or wicker hat to be seen.
And it isn’t that these tea bushes have stopped producing; glossy, thick leaves are growing abundantly. If fact, what work we see is the two-man job of sawing off the top 40% or so of the bush along each terrace. Baseball bats are worn for the less-romantic (but equally important) task of keeping these would-be-trees at knee height.
As well as chainsaw-oil, there’s the faint smell of pig-manure. Another man (no hat) is half-raking, half-hammering a gulley for this dark organic fertilizer. It’s hot work. He stops occasionally. The cigarette never leaves his lips.
Back at the base of the mountain, we hear what madness surrounds the picking month just passed. Pickers consistently work on three hours’ sleep. They work throughout all but the rainiest of days; they have to. After a good fall, the precious, tiny buds can grow at twice the rate. Many are press-ganged into helping out. Yet, this is skilled work that favours the specialist.
The bitterness of the task is the price paid for the famed mildness of the tea. Bitterness is a word they repeat. But they are no less aware than us that these surroundings are paradise.
Anyone who tells you that the reality of visiting a tea plantation is more prosaic than the magic of brewing the product has not yet visited Anji County (安吉县), Zhejiang. Truly, this is paradise.
I have written in these pages that Anji Bai Cha (安吉白茶) is the veal meat of green tea. The lack of chlorophyll in the buds is often attributed to the ridiculously-short season. But on inspection, there’s something else about these leaves; even fully-grown, many exhibit a kind of albinism. It’s unclear whether the soil or the genus of the plant is accounting for this.
Certainly, it is not merely for the paleness of the liquor that this is named “white tea”.
In other regions in China, the picking season has barely begun. In Anji, too, you can still pick these leaves. Withered and fired, they will have some of the Anji character. The spindly leaves (albeit much longer), the trademark olive green and matt finish will all be present. Some of the citrus fragrance will be there, too. But they will have much less of what I call the “pistachio” or “cashew” quality. That seems most abundant in the younger teas. I still haven’t tried the earliest of all; the legendary “head tea” (头茶) from shoots so small they resemble babies’ heads.
Along these rows of bushes are other varieties of tree; some cypresses, some chestnuts. It is easy to imagine that that they also contribute to the flavour of this subtle green tea. At the very least, they help build the image. Leaving Anji in the car, I peep through a gap in a colonnade of pines. A hidden tea alcove. Just a glimpse. Hidden again.