A Holiday Road Trip In Tea Country
Over the holidays, I had a chance to take an overnight motorcycle camping trip to my favorite hot spring deep in the mountains of Nantou County, Taiwan. Here's a shot of my riding partner as we pack up our gear at my secret camping spot on a hiking trail above the mountain resort town of Dong Pu Hot Springs.
It was a gorgeous day as we slowly made our way back home, stopping along the way and auspiciously meeting some tea people. The first was a local tea farmer who cultivated a plot of Qing Xin Oolong on a remote ridge at 1700m in the valley below Jade Mountain, Taiwan's highest peak. He inherited the tea garden his father planted 30 years ago, perhaps the first in the area. Mr. Wu was a soft-spoken, genuinely friendly guy who served us his winter crop of High Mountain Oolong. It was especially fragrant for a winter tea, and really nice. Here's a roadside selfie of he and I.
Next, we stopped at the Xin Yi Farmers' Association to check out the food and fresh produce. We discovered a small factory and store across the road that made their own Camellia oil. This is an increasingly popular item that is known for its health benefits and as a gourmet cooking oil. Here are seeds from Qing Xin Oolong plants that have been roasted at low temperature to preserve freshness and produce a slightly toasted flavor in the oil. The owners live in Phoenix Village in Lugu, my favorite tea producing spot, and I promised to visit them soon.
Further north, we stopped in the town of Shuili, and spotted a new cafe adjacent to the quaint mountain train station. I was drawn to the side of the cafe, where I spotted a guy roasting tea. I soon learned that Mr. Zhan was managing the cafe, and roasting his winter crop of tea that he produced himself on residential farm nearby. His grandfather moved to the area 70 years ago from Dong Ding Mountain, and was among the first to establish a tea garden in the area. Mr. Zhan practices natural farming methods, and produces his tea in the traditional Dong Ding Oolong fashion.
It was just the getaway I needed, and my friend and I returned feeling reconnected to some of our favorite aspects of making Taiwan our home away from home — the perfect sentiment to celebrate the holiday season in Taiwan.
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The medium oxidized leaves have undergone extensive, repeated roastings that have resulted in a very balanced, integrated character. The initial steepings offer a freshly cut wood aroma with a toasted nutty flavor. This proceeds to open up into a sweeter, more complex profile that is strikingly reminiscent of roasted winter vegetables, including parsnip, caramelized onion and butternut squash.
Mr. Zhang's father cultivated tea on their homesteaded land in Xiaobantian, on the southside of Lugu Township, where he grew up in the midst of traditional tea making. At 20 something, he decided to embody his local tradition by clearing land to cultivate his own plot of tea. For the last 20 years, he has managed his own humble, privately owned plot of tea. Throughout this period, he also acquired seasonal work in tea factories in Lugu, Shanlinxi, Alishan, Fanzaitian, and Lishan. In a word, he learned the ropes of tea making in a comprehensive way, like most tea farmers of his generation. Lugu hosts the highest concentration of tea makers in Taiwan, and is a hub of specialty tea making culture.