Wednesday, May 29, 2013

making tea at Cheong Seok Gol; sealing the fragrance (Surprise Tea!)

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Despite our 20 hours of travel and labour the previous day, I woke up at 5:30 am, after just four hours of sleep (not sure if it was the 20 hours of drinking tea or Mr Ahn's snoring that had anything to do with it...), but was excited for the day. After the heavy rains that fell throughout the night, Jirisan was enshrouded in a heavy white mist rising from its slopes. After the fresh mountain air woke me up a little more, I headed into the workshop to see how our leaves were coming along.

When I got to the racks, another man from the group was standing there with a puzzled look, which I soon duplicated when I saw that our tea was gone without a trace... We turned around and the tea master was suddenly there behind us, saying that he'd moved the leaves upstairs to dry because of the rain. All I could think was, "Man, he was up really early!"

After breakfast and tea, he brought our leaves down in a single, small basket. I was amazed how much they had changed since a only few hours earlier and how similar they looked to the Sejak leaves I usually buy from Cheon Seok Gol each spring; wiry, twisted, more bluish-grey than green.

It was time for the final step of the process, "hyang olligi" (향 올리기), litterally "fragrance giving", or "sealing the fragrance". The gamasot was heated to only 110ºC and the leaves had to be slowly turned in it over the next five hours to completely dry them.

Throughout the process, from plucking the leaves until the final drying, it was important not to have any scented products on your body, but it was especially important now. We couldn't even use soap to wash our hands before this step because the highly absorbent nature of tea leaves would be ruined by the scent. For this reason, it's important to keep yourself as clean as possible.

The leaves had to be gently pushed up along the walls of the gamasot in a clockwise motion and allowed to roll over themselves back to the center of the pile. Mentally dividing the pile into thirds, you rotate the leaves a handful at a time without stopping. Any bright green leaves that appear have to be tossed out because they did not dry properly.

Again, the scent of the leaves was alluring, much like the scent of dry leaves heated in a pot before steeping, but indescribably more alluring, sort of like the difference between a store bought apple pie or one baked fresh by your grandmother.

Every little while, I would take a break and head out to the porch to watch the white clouds as they thinned and drifted through Jirisan. At 6 am, the mountain was completely hidden, but later it had mostly emerged from the mist, which clung like long strips of cotton, then suddenly engulfed again in opaque white, then materializing again. Mr Ahn and I took a walk a short ways up the hill behind the house, just below the tea field, where a patch of rogue tea shrubs were growing. While he cut a few clipping to bring back to Seoul, I continued to admire the scenery and the sacred plants growing in narrow terraces along the slopes.

Soon, we heard Mr Ahn's wife calling us back down to the house. The tea was almost finished and they were waiting for us to join them for the first tasting. As our tea was steeped and poured, I eagerly accepted, quickly admiring the colour and scent before impatiently bringing the cup to my lips. After the first sip, the group let out a collective "Mmm", then Mr Ahn stood up and exclaimed, "와... 맛있는 차!", "Wha... delicious is the tea!" (No, I didn't intend that to sound like Yoda, the translation just works that way!) It wasn't merely his enthusiasm that told me his words were sincere, but the genuine surprise in his tone and the expression in his face! Koreans, like Chinese, love to make puns, and the man next to me, a professor of dentistry in Seoul, dubbed our tea "Gi D'tong Cha", which is Korean slang for "surprise", but happens to end with the Korean/Chinese word for tea. I think it summed it up well, our "Surprise Tea!"

There was something surreal in the experience of drinking the tea we'd all come here to make, apart from the surprise that it was actually delectable. Everything coming together in a cup of tea, the mountain, the leaves, the smells, the old friends and new, and all our hard work, converged. I'd be lying if I said our tea was as good as the tea master's but the experience filled the cup and was in the taste just as much as the tea did. As Matt insightfully commented on the first post of this series, now we know the true taste of tea!

Once the tea leaves were cooled enough, we weighed and sealed them into 30g packages. There were just enough for each of us to take home three. We took turns as Mr Ahn presented us with the leaves of our labour in a sort of ceremonial fashion. Since I taken the job of sealing the packages, I was last to receive mine. It felt somewhat like a graduation, or perhaps more of an initiation into the tea master's realm. He congratulated me on my good work, and with my tea clenched carefully in my hands I thanked him and bowed deeply, in gratitude for the experience.


the leaves after drying over night, nearly fully dried



the tea master, heating the gamasot

Mr Ahn, inspecting the leaves

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the tea master, demonstrating the technique







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the 'minbak' (guesthouse) and workshop

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organic tea leaves







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