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For 48 weeks out of the year, Meijiawu village is pretty quiet. But in the weeks before and after Qingming, the Tomb Sweeping Festival held every year in early April, the tea terraces looming over the town come to life before sunrise. Tea pickers sweep through the fields, collecting the first buds of the season by hand. These emerald slivers will make up the bulk of the farmers’ annual income, although several more harvests of lesser leaves throughout the year will supplement them.

Like wine from Bordeaux, Dragon Well (龙井 – Lóngjǐng) tea comes only from the hills near Hangzhou (although in China, counterfeit leaves – like bottles of Château Lafite – are everywhere). Meijiawu village (梅家坞村) is just a short drive from the actual Dragon Well (or “Longjing”) Village. The original farmlands were praised by Emperor Qianlong in the 1700s, making them a national name on par with the modern “China Famous Tea” title the leaves received from the Department of Agriculture in the 1950s. And while you can still visit the 18 “original” bushes and the spring that Qianlong saw, locals in this village make more money from the tourism industry than their plants. Of the area’s tea-producing villages, Meijiawu provides a less frenzied setting for hiking up into the terraces and enjoying the environment.

Like all tea in China, Dragon Well is made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant. The distinct nutty, vegetal flavor of the green tea is due to its terroir and processing, and varietals of the tea bush have been bred to showcase the best flavor of the leaves. Once Longjing leaves are picked, they are left outside for 6-12 hours to dry in the sunshine, then immediately roasted by machine or hand to halt the oxidization process. This stops it from turning into oolong or black tea and retains more of the fresh color and flavor.

For the Shus, as for most families in Meijiawu, tea-picking has been a family affair for generations.

Out in the tea terraces, we ran into members of the Shu family, an extended clan of tea pickers. For the Shus, as for most families in Meijiawu, tea-picking has been a family affair for generations. The matriarch of the family hikes up the terraces to pick from sunrise to sundown while supervising the migrant workers from Jiangxi province who come to their fields for the month of April. With the help of her two dogs, both called Pudding (the tan one “Peach Pudding” and the black one “Chocolate”), Mama Shu picks a couple of terraces down from the gaggle of ayis, or aunties, who gossip and tease each other in their local dialect. When their baskets get full, she calls the house and one of the men heads to the fields to pick up their leaves and start the processing.

Back at their three-story home, the men lay out the leaves on bamboo carpets and baskets to dry out, picking through them to toss away any stems or other detritus that made it into the baskets. Two machines calibrated for pressure, temperature and types of leaf run nonstop, through the night. Once the machines have completed all eight steps of the initial roasting process, Mr. Shu finishes the roasting process by hand, swishing the leaves around a large wok, heated to 180 degrees Celsius. Despite the thick callouses on his leathery palms built up from years of touching the hot wok, they are still “machines” he says, calibrated to know exactly when the leaves are done.

These leaves are known as “Ming Qian” (before Tomb Sweeping Festival) Dragon Well, and will eventually sell for several thousand renminbi (hundreds of dollars) per jin (500 grams). Although the Tomb Sweeping Festival is ostensibly unrelated to tea – held each year on April 4, 5 or 6, it’s a day for the living to pay respect to their dearly departed ancestors – it acts as a dividing line for fresh green tea leaves. Those picked before the festival are prized for being lighter and having more subtle aromas, and thus fetch higher prices.

The best way to experience the tea terraces is to hike between Meijiawu Village and Dragon Well Village. Just head to either village and make your way to the tea fields – easy to find, as they’re located in the hills that rise up behind the houses. Once you’ve found the stone step path, follow it up the terraces and you’ll see signs at the top directing you which way to go.

Tea shops line the main streets in both villages, and you can purchase directly from any of the vendors. Enough locals visit the area specifically for tea that you cannot miss the myriad teahouses, and if somehow you do, the touts will find you.

If you don’t want to make the trek out to Hangzhou, here are our favorite spots to drink and eat Dragon Well tea in Shanghai.

Wan Ling Tea House

The hustle and bustle of Shanghai’s busy streets seem a world away from Wan Ling Tea House. The renovated lanehouse is nestled down a sleepy longtang, or alley, in the former French Concession, and inside Wan Ling herself performs tea ceremonies and hosts tea tastings. She also sells direct from tea farmers around the country, and the Longjing leaves she sells are reason enough to seek her out.

While many tea drinkers only buy Longjing from the West Lake area of Hangzhou near Dragon Well itself, Wan Ling sought her leaves from further away. Plucked from a varietal of the Longjing bush nearly 90 minutes from the original Dragon Well, this is “high mountain” tea from old bushes. Grown on an organic farm, the leaves are “not very good-looking,” Wan Ling likes to joke. The proof of the lack of pesticides is in the leaves, with the occasional nibble from what can only be the healthiest bugs in the world.

Wan Ling prefers it from the touristy varieties peddled by most tea sellers, and is upfront with its origin and what makes it better – a more distinctive, nutty flavor with a soft, floral aftertaste that lingers. You can also pao (steep) it 4-5 times, as opposed to the 2-3 for the less complex teas.

The tea usually sells for RMB 260 for 50 grams, but Wan Ling will set the price for this year’s leaves after she heads to the plantation to examine and pick up her leaves just before the Tomb Sweeping Festival.

Dian Shi Zhai 点石斋

Dragon Well tea leaves are not just for drinking – they’re edible too (any impatient tea drinker who sipped their tea before the leaves sank to the bottom of the glass can confirm). This Shanghainese restaurant serves them up in the traditional fashion: stir-fried with the tiny river shrimp (龙井炒虾仁Lóngjǐng chǎo xiārén) that are popular throughout the Zhejiang and Shanghai region.

Editor’s note: To celebrate the arrival of spring this year, we’re looking at seasonal produce and products that are a bit surprising.

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Jamie Barys

Published on April 18, 2018

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