Cloud bursts of milk in tea

I wake up in my hotel, somewhere in the middle of Colombo. My mind still clouded by sleep, I vaguely remember how last night went. I couldn’t sleep, and trust me, I sleep through everything, all kinda sounds. There’s a construction site right next to my hotel, and around 10PM, it was full-on active, and the loud sounds coming from it almost made me fall out of bed. So much for tourism, I guess.

All night long. Literally. After counting to 1000 twice, 240 yoga exercises, a desperate phone call to my boyfriend, and 80 lost thoughts, I lost my mind. I have to sleep before I go to the tea plantation. And I didn’t sleep on the aeroplane either. Somehow, however, I fell vast asleep around 1AM.

Yet, I wake up feeling refreshed. I’m ready for adventure! I take a shower, eat, and go down to the lobby, weighed down by my backpack, cameras and other essentials. It stays exciting, this whole process. Who’s picking me up today? It almost feels like I have a blind date with a mysterious tea farmer. A decent, young guy walks inside. ‘Kiona?’ Yes! I step into the car and we speed through morning traffic to the plantation. Our first stop is the factory and the company’s head office here in Colombo. Everywhere I go, I get greeted by signs and tv’s with my name sprawled across them. The CEO is already standing outside, waiting for me. It’s a big building, including both the factory and an office.

The company started 25 years ago inside a storage space. It looks as if that was a century ago looking at it now. Employees work either inside in the office or factory, or outside on the plantation. There’s a good vibe around this place. I see men and women working in the office, and everyone looks happy to be here. Young and old. We sit down in a spacious room and a man enters with a grand collection of fine china. The cookies smell delicious and on an old trolley, tea is served. This is where I make my first mistake. I politely turn down the offer for sugar and milk. Oh. The tea is so immensely strong. I can’t handle this. My brain screams ERROR, all while my taste buds cringe. They’re not used to this! It’s so bitter! I see the others taking three or more spoons full of sugar, and a decent amount of milk, and mixing the lot profusely. I get it.. Next round I’ll be applying my travel motto: say yes!

While we speak tea and business, my mind shifts to the reality of the situation. A few years ago, I didn’t even buy tea, and now I’m staring at the print-out of the kilos my company purchased this last year. All the cups of tea, and now I’m right back at the source. Buying tea is quite easy here, within a few days of plucking the leaves they get delivered to us. The farmers harvest to our orders, so it doesn’t get much fresher than that. In Sri Lanka they harvest throughout the whole year, and every two weeks they pluck the fresh top leaves off the bushes. Although, today I am tasting this morning’s harvest. That’s really fresh..

A bow from the teamaster

AfIMG_0170ter a crazy ride through the mountains we arrive in Pinglin. I will learn how they process tea in the factory in this area, which is known for Pouchong oolong, a green oolong that I don’t know well so I’m eager to learn more. I do this from a teacher who works for the government and is very knowledgeable. My guide is the interpreter so I can ask all the questions that I want all day. The school is also a factory where Taiwanese can learn how to process tea and how you can improve the process. It is meant for the local people but through my contact I am honored to have him tell his story to this enthusiastic eager-to-learn tea purchasing agent from The Netherlands;). Continue reading “A bow from the teamaster”

Meet my guide and her mom, the driver

IMG_0089I’m taking a shower with butterflies in my stomach. I am going on a trip with my guide here in Taiwan. I made contact with her through my connection in Tokyo. A large web of tea ladies and gentlemen is developing, all of  whom want to share tea with me and be my guides in this wide world. I will take a week to discover various types of tea from Taiwan, there is a lot to learn first-hand but finding new tea farmers who can complete the assortment for Crusio is a priority. It is the new harvest season now at the plantations so my timing is perfect.  Continue reading “Meet my guide and her mom, the driver”

Made in Taiwan

Man. OnIMG_0109 the road. That is so exciting, time after time, extending your boundaries, both literally and figuratively. I arrived last night and sit in the lobby of my hotel. Even if you travel as much as I do, you still forget things about traveling. Funny, I arrived and only then recalled that the scents that are so different than at home. Spicy but also wet-sock odours hit you the moment you step out of the airplane. People sometimes say you need to change gear but you really need to. “Go with the flow” from the moment you touch down in another country.    Continue reading “Made in Taiwan”

I’m going on a tea quest and I’ll pack…

 

 

 

 

 

Kiona theereisAlmost time. In the living room at home there is an ever-growing pile of things I want to take with me on the trip. In a week I fly to Taiwan, Nepal and India to hunt for tea. I say hunt and that is really what it feels like. I remember well how last year I packed my bag to get tea in Japan and China. The adventures still influence the things that I do and the way I do them.  Continue reading “I’m going on a tea quest and I’ll pack…”

Tea kitchen

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The moving boxes are piled up to the ceiling. I’ve just moved and the great unpacking can begin. My mother was sweet enough to help me with this mega-job. “Shall I do the kitchen?” she offered enthusiastically. And who would be better than a mother to know how to organize a kitchen practically? You don’t need to explain anything to a mother; she feels instinctively the logic of an intelligent system. Courageously she begins unpacking the boxes. So far, so good.

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Forbidden tea

Forbidden Tea

Entree JIN JUN MEI

She has never been able to smuggle a foreigner into the forbidden Jin Jun Mei tea area. Still, my guide is willing to take the chance to get me in today. I am making a tea trip in China and about to experience how Jin Jun Mei tea is made. Top secret. The authorities jealously refuse entry for non-Chinese to the area. They are deathly afraid that their preciously preserved process will fall into the hands of malicious competition in foreign countries. Jin Jun Mei is a very special tea that only grows here: golden and with a flavour like honey. The Chinese prefer to keep something like this exclusive.
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Master tasters

I appreciate how lucky I am to have one of the greatest jobs in the world. As a tea connoisseur I can spend whole days making tea, inspiring others, taking amazing trips to plantations and brainstorming with chefs about tea and food combinations. Recently I have my own tea brand, Crusio Tea. I can completely invest myself in that. My favorite part is selecting tea leaves. I order them directly from the farmer.

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Polar opposites

IMG_2224Wuyi Mountains, China. I am in the Far East to buy from the new harvest for my tea brand. In this area literally everything has to do with tea. Just about everyone in the region grows, sorts, picks and/or sells it. Young and old together. Tea is number one, then comes tea, and then once again, tea. Everything else in the world follows a distant fifth. And despite it being such a big deal, people here are, funny enough, not as serious about their beloved leaves as we western tea makers.

 

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Persuasive urge

theepot-CrusioTI am at a friend’s house for dinner when the doorbell rings. It is Dirk, a friend of the host who I only vaguely know, came by and joins us for a beer. “You do something with tea and coffee, ” he says to break the ice. “I don’t like coffee. I don’t care for that smoky mocha flavor. I drink tea sometimes. Actually same pot. It just like when someone says: I don’t like potatoes. Which kind? Mash, boiled, fried as chips? In the gaps between Dirk’s sentences I hear sounds of surprise escaping from me.

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Tea-Whisk cemetry

The first night in Japan. A strange night, I wake up a few times assuming that I had slept 20 hours and each time it had only been 2 hours. In the end I still came wonderfully rested out of my ‘bed.’ I had started with one extra-thin futon mattress on the wicker floor mats but quickly added another. I’m not Japanese, which is obvious. I made reservations for breakfast today. Set the alarm, since the Japanese believe in “early to bed and early to rise.” The breakfast is at 6:00 but for me they have one made for 7:00. For this one time, they mentioned. When I arrive there is a sign with my name on the table. A woman brings a wooden box with all of the food in it. Unlimited white rice and Miso soup. I need to readjust and my stomach still feels a little strange from the trip but I dig in. There is also baked fish, vegetables and tea on the table. It tastes good. I leave the fish. That’s taking it just a bit too far. It is best to adjust gradually

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Living Tea Museum

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The Chinese village of Xiamen is for Da Hong Pao tea what Gouda is for Gouda cheese. Here are the deeply deep-seated roots of this fragrant oolong tea. Da Hong Pao has been distributed throughout China for 26 generations via the river that flows through this hamlet. Today I can take a peek at this centuries-old place of pilgrimage for tea enthusiasts to see how Da Hong Pao is made. It is a wondrous spectacle. I wish you could walk with me through the small streets. Then you would see that time has never touched the village. Xiamen looks like a carefully stylized decor for a dreamy movie. Beautiful antique woodcarving is everywhere you look. On front doors, on the walls of homes. Like a museum. I am in love.

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Tea Maker

Tea maker!

How do you make tea? I think that is the question most asked of a tea sommelier. Part of the answer: it is easy and difficult at the same time. On the one hand, it is a question of combining water and tea and straining and you have tea. Which sounds quite easy. On the other hand: how long do you let it steep, how much tea to use, which flavours do I want to tap from the leaf and how warm should the water be for which method of setting. Wow, that is quite a bit more complicated.

The fact is, everyone can do it. You can compare it with baking a cake. As long as you follow the recipe and pay attention, nothing can go wrong. The oven at the right temperature, weighing the grams of flour with a scales and don’t forget the timer! Eventually it emits delicious fragrance and you see the cake colour and change. We all know that when the batter is still fluid, it isn’t yet done and it still needs longer in the oven. Now back to tea. That is very similar to baking a cake. You have a recipe. I make that. I make it on the basis of the flavours that I want to discover but also from what I have learned from the farmer who grew the tea. Since I buy the tea directly from the farmer, I learn a lot about the tea. Not only how it grows and how it is harvested and processed. I also learn the preferred preparation method there. I take these insights into account when I start to make a recipe. When the shipment comes in I look at the leaves, scent, temperature of the water, method of pouring, whether you can use the leaves more than once, and how does it taste when it cools. When that is all clear, considerable recipe testing follows. Sometimes a tenth of a gram makes a difference in flavour so I follow the recipe carefully every time.

And, let us be clear, if the tea smells of rocket or buttercups, that comes on the tins in which we eventually pack the tea. And now, where do you make the tea? Tea needs a lot of room. If we go back to the example of cake. If you put the batter in a miniature cake pan it can never expand and become tasty, this is precisely the same with tea leaves. That’s why a tea egg or teabag is not an ideal way to make delicious tea. We find the Tea Maker handy. The tea leaves can unfold and when the tea is made you can easily strain them by putting it on a glass or pot. There are sorts of tea that you can serve more than once and then you just pour water on the leaves again.

After making tea it can just be put into the dishwasher or you can rinse it with hot water and use it again. Naturally on farms in Japan or China they use small earthenware teapots and pans instead of a Tea Maker. My kitchen at home is filled with different pots to make tea. For the best of both worlds we recommend a convenient method and a recipe that comes as close as possible to that used by the farmer and local “connoisseurs.” That combination should result in a cup of tea for which the farmer, maker, drinker and I can all be very proud!

Set the kettle on the fire!

Strange bird, that Kiona-San

I am in Uji, on the “tea mountain” in Japan. After a delicious lunch, I walk to an unusual teahouse. You can choose some things from the menu here and then they prepare the tea together with you. I choose a Sencha and an iced-brew Gyokuro. The woman came back with the tea and all of the pots that we would need. She very calmly explained how we would prepare it. Although it is in Japanese, I understand what she means and I begin preparing. Making tea in silence. And the flavour is truly fantastic. Delicious. I enjoy every drop and pour three times. I decide to come here every day and order something different. I want to see how tea is prepared by as many people as possible. It is done here differently than in China. There tea is made everywhere, for everyone who just wants to taste. Here that is not the case at all. I have never been just offered tea and had to pay everywhere. Very different. It seems less interwoven into the culture.

After this delicious tea, I walk by a temple that lies a bit higher on the mountain. I walk to it and see that you can buy little strips of paper for a modest amount, with wishes on them. I buy two and hang one on the fence like many people have already done today. I see a couple of monks walking who are doing wash further up in the mountains. The atmosphere here is very unusual. You hear the paper wishes flapping in the wind. There are eight temples on this mountain. I look at all of them and each one has another deity. In one temple a very big white rabbit sculpture. It was a rather funny sight although I couldn’t laugh because everyone was bowing solemnly before it. For a white rabbit!

I walk further and am close to my hotel. I decide to pick up my laptop and go to the city to drink tea and to do some work. I walk into my hotel and panic breaks out. Thinking that I am already coming back and plan to stay, four personnel members immediately turn on all of the lights, everything to prepare for the guest. I want to say that I am just there to pick something up but there is no point because they don’t speak English. So when I come out of my room after 15 minutes everyone looks at me with surprise as I walk away again. Ha Ha. “Strange bird, that Kiona-san” they must be thinking. Everyone calls me that. Which is very sweet.

I type awhile in a little cafe and before I knew it, it was dusk. That is early. Half six and it is getting dark already here. I had already noticed that in my hotel everyone eats at six o’clock; before that they bathe and after that they brush their teeth and go to sleep, but the city already seemed to be asleep. I walk to the supermarket where I score sushi and a Japanese beer and walk through the deserted city to my hotel. The supermarket is open until one o’clock. For whom, is the question! Except for 10,000 mosquitos there is no one on the street. It doesn’t feel dangerous, everyone is just asleep. And I’m forcing myself to stay awake because otherwise I will definitely wake up in the middle of the night! So I have Uji to myself for the last hours of the day. When I get to my hotel room I make a delicious cup of tea for myself, set out the things that I need for my workday in the factory tomorrow. Set the alarm and off to sleep…