The Black Sheep

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Image courtesy huitu.com

The bad news is that you’re possibly going to be confused at some point here.

The good news is that, at the end of this Strainer, you’re going to know about a really cheap, great Chinese tea.

Ask anyone around here (in Jiangnan, I mean) about White Tea and they will talk about Anji Baicha [安吉白茶]. Fair enough. That’s a great one, a must for anyone slightly interested. And Anji’s claim to the “white” name is somewhat legitimate; the relative lack of chlorophyll in the leaves results in a liquor much paler than most greens.

The problem with this nomenclature is that there’s another set of teas, from Fuding [福鼎], Fujian, that are also called White tea.

It’s the Fuding tea that has gained the international recognition as “White Tea”, largely for its “even-more- antioxidants-than-green tea” claim. The liquor of this tea is also pale. Even the leaves almost white, like beautiful velveteen grey-white rabbits’ ears!

It’s confusing. It’s confusing in the same way that “football” is confusing. Deep in their hearts, of course, even the owners of the NFL know that their sport should be called “Full-Contact-Hot-Potato-Freeze Dance” or “Militarised-Pass-the-Parcel-Musical Statues”, but they insist on using the ‘football’ name anyway. Divided by a common language.

Likewise, there’s no sign of the white flag appearing with these teas. Each type has quite a following in China. I even met a woman in Yunnan, ostensibly a pu er seller, crazy about the Fuding Tea. But you rarely hear the same person discuss the two in conjunction.

One reason for this could be that the “白茶” umbrella itself is hardly used for the Fuding Teas, where the different grades are arguably are different varieties, and named as such. Those “rabbits’ ears” I have just described are the ‘silver needle’ [白毫银针] leaves, which command the highest prices (and the international fame).

But in tea markets here, sellers can often be seen sifting these downy tips from a rag tag of darker leaves (some green, some black) fragments of leaves and (let’s be honest) twigs.

Most popular in China (in cake and loose form) is the “white peony” [白牡丹] grade, which we can call a ‘curation’ of both. It’s a real mongrel mix, like having Corn Flakes AND Cheerios in your breakfast bowl. But it’s a mix I’ve got used to. Though cheaper, I’ve usually found it more flavoursome and interesting.

What I had never seen before last month was a bag of tea containing ONLY the cheap bits. But that’s what I’m drinking these days. And it’s not just me; colleagues (coffee people, mostly) have been raiding this big bag, too.

It’s the only Fuding tea I’ve seen that says ‘White Tea’ on the bag. And it’s the only tea that’s mostly black.

It’s a bag that always welcomes you with a chocolatey smell. Thin, papery black leaves give immediate pleasure, with vanilla and cinnamon to be dug from successive infusions. Even in their dotage, at Kenny G hour, these leaves improve hot water substantially.

The 250g bag costs just ¥50.

Last month, I laid into a pretty famous tea. This month, I’m delighting in a great-but-humble one. It’s comforting to know that such things exist.