Unlike some of the agricultural products we love to consume but tend to picture as originating in boring, endless fields, tea is liable to grow in some of the most breathtaking, beautiful places on Earth. No where is this more true than in the majestic Wuyi mountains in southeastern Fujian province where tea still grows wild in the mineral-rich gravelly soil, producing incredibly unique and complex oolongs.
In the early days of the European tea trade these were some of the most beloved teas being purchased by the British and the Dutch and were commonly known as "Bohea", a simple mistranslation of the word Wuyi (pronounced woo-ee). Due to the elevation and southern coastal climate in Fujian, the plants that grow wild in these mountains have large, waxy leaves that don't produce very good green tea, a task which requires small and delicate down-covered leaves and buds. This encouraged the production of darker tea varieties such as the pine-smoked black Bohea -- one of the teas infamously dumped overboard at the Boston Tea Party and an ancestor to the modern day Lapsang Souchong -- and paved the way for the development of oolongs. In the late 1500's Buddhist and Taoist monks living in the Wuyi mountains perfected a method of partial oxidation, leaving the leaf somewhere between a black and green tea and creating flavors and aromas unlike those found in any other teas. These days the Wuyi rock oolongs (yancha) are ranked as being among China's 10 Most Famous Teas and include such varietals as Big Red Robe (Da Hong Pao), Rou Gui (Cinnamon Bark oolong) and one of our favorites at the shop- Lao Jun Mei.
So as we sit and sip a lovely cup of that very Lao Jun Mei and appreciate the complex notes of toasty grain, woodiness and a touch of dark chocolate, what could be a better pairing than to contemplate some images of the environment and atmosphere of this tea's birthplace:
For a more comprehensive depiction of this beautiful region, we recommend watching the Academy Award winning adventure film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Credit must also be given to James Norwood Pratt's "Tea Dictionary" and "New Tea Lover's Treasury" as wonderful resources for all manner of history and lore relating to tea. Both were very useful while writing this post.