Last weekend, Kkik Da Geo organized a trip to Cheong Seok Gol (청석골), to pick and roast our own Jung-jak (중작), third flush green tea.
Cheong Seok Gol is one of the top three tea producing families in Korea (in terms of quality, not sales) but what sets it apart is that it's mix of wild and semi-wild tea bushes are also certified organic. I've been drinking their tea for six years, now, and even once, unsuccessfully, tried to find their tea farm on my own. Visiting them during production time is something I've been hoping to do for a long time. Getting to join in the production was more than I'd ever expected!
The tea field covers a south-facing slope of HwangJang San, one of the foot hills of Jiri San, in Hwagae Valley, the heart of Korean green tea. We arrived in the valley an hour ahead of schedule, so we met the Cheong Seok Gol tea master by SsangGye Temple and made a quick visit to Korea's first tea field, originally planted over 1000 years ago beneath a large bamboo grove. About 30 minutes further up the hill, there is also an ancient tea tree that is the biggest in Korea. We didn't have time to see it, but what a great excuse to come back next time!
Once we arrived at the house, we dropped our bags, climbed into little, hand-made monorail carts, and headed up the hill, through the tea bushes. At the top, we were given a little crash-course in what to look for. I knew the concept of what to look for, but while actually picking the leaves, I was more difficult. What you're looking for is a single, furry bud with one partially opened leaf and one small fully opened but tender leaf below it on a short stem. Since I usually drink Sejak (세작, second flush) or occasionally Ujeon (우전, first flush, ridiculously expensive), I had an eye for much smaller leaves. After a quick look at Mr Ahn's cull, I realized I wasn't doing too bad, though he did remind me to be sure to pick the second leaf. The bud and first leaf give the tea its sweetness but the more bitter second leaf round out the flavour.
After a couple of hours of picking, you start to feel it in your back as your shoulders start getting tired and tight. Then mental fatigue starts to consume you, like the first time you hike a mountain, or try meditating for more than 30 minutes and you start wondering if it's ever going to end. I took a few moments to breath in the mountain air, take in the beautiful scene and enjoy the moment. I couldn't help but notice the degree of intensity in the focus of Mr Ahn, as he carefully searched each bush for the best buds, working his way well down the slope while most of the rest of us were still close to where we'd first started.
As my harvest slowly started gaining weight, I tossed the sweating leaves around a little and held a handful up to my nose. The smell was a beautiful mix of soft, floral sweetness and strong, grassy citronella. After a few hours, we all gathered together, minus Mr Ahn, who'd made his way all the way to the bottom, we all began remarking on the intense smell of the leaves.
Not similar to my experiences hiking, but quite like my experience meditating, knowing that we were finished gave me a second wind, and since we'd arrived at the wild-bush section of the field, a few of us started topping off our harvest with the larger but still very tender wild leaves, pushing out from the stony slope.
Once we were all gathered in the workshop, the tea master weighed our hauls and we combined them in a couple of large, flat bamboo baskets. I managed to pick 300g and the fifteen of us together picked about 2kg of leaves.
When asked how we did, the tea master didn't come out and that we were terrible, but instead mentioned that one professional picker (usually old local women) could pick 2kg of leaves in a day, or 800g of tiny Ujeon buds. It wasn't the most direct of answers, but it had me laughing!
|Leaving Kkik Da Geo|
|Arriving in Hwagae Valley|
|Below Korea's first tea field|
|some nice tea buds|
|About $40,000 worth of Ujeon, Sejak, & Balhyo cha (fermented tea)|
|looking at leaves for Balhyo cha|
|boarding the tea train|
|heading up the mountain|
|Mr Ahn, picking tea|
|picking wild tea|
|my personal effort|
|Heading back down the mountain|
|our combined haul|