Picking the Thousand Islands; “No need to wake up the tea master”

We only had 1 hour minutes to fill four baskets. Less, we were told, and the local tea master would dismiss the lot as a waste of effort.

So we went to work on a hill overlooking a road on the edge of Qiandaohu [千岛湖] in the neighboring province of Zhejiang. With baskets strapped to our bellies, our job was to pluck leaves from bushes that were large enough to be called leaves but small enough to retain the desired pale green hue and moist texture.

It didn’t take long for the baby to lose interest. Barely walking then, 1 year ago, she didn’t even feel like tearing up bushes. So she got into my wife’s basket, and they went somewhere to jump and dance.

Only Lao Lao (maternal grandmother), Lao Da (my granddaughter) and me remained. And we lowered our heads. We didn’t expect to be so lucky. It was just something we discussed over breakfast. The owner of the hotel happened to own a small plot of land for growing tea. His 90-year-old grandfather was too old to grow it as a cash crop, and guests like us were allowed to go play.

It wasn’t even a tea party. But we were pretty determined to fill those bags.

It turns out to be backbreaking work. The tea bushes are too low for anyone’s comfort, let alone a man’s. The whole body should maintain a hunched structure while looking and picking. There is a rhythm, but I had to keep it under control. Because, as soon as I felt something like a flow, I also saw a greater proportion of harder and thicker leaves falling into the basket. Concentrate.

On this spring morning, the sun was already an annoyance. And to my surprise, the wind sometimes threatened to blow everything out of the basket, moving the branches I was trying to pick. My most lasting injury was to the tip of my middle finger, where my thumbnail had been choking it for the entire hour. No blood, but that browning chlorophyll has stained the finger for days.

Lao Lao’s efforts matched mine, as did my eldest daughter’s, even though we were nowhere near completing the required four baskets. The baby wasn’t made to hang around, and we drove the bread truck back to the hotel, hoping for mercy.

The landlady poured all the leaves from the baskets onto the tiled floor and shook her head. “It’s not worth waking up the tea master for that,” she said. And there was no equipment in the kitchen to do the withering or cooking needed to make tea.

For others, that was enough. They were happy to leave the sheets behind when we moved to our next hotel. But I picked up as many as I could in my bag.

It became a real Labor Day, long enough for me to break a rib in a go-kart accident, long enough to find out that no one is eating Thousand Island dressing at Thousand Island Lake; their delicious freshwater fish don’t need it.

But all the while I knew that there, on the table in the hotel room, my leaves were trying to wilt. And, every day, I introduced them to hot water, watching for changes in taste. Unable to offer these poor leaves sunlight or drought, they began to turn purplish. And that also made them more interesting.

One of the things I’ve learned is that I basically like the taste of tea. Even in its rawest form it has a banana peel look to it which I quite like. This is partly why I enjoy white teas so much these days.

One day, I may have the courage to tell you about my attempts, at home, to cook my old leaves in a wok. But, dear Strainer reader, right now I’m too ashamed to share with you the many, many mistakes I’ve made.

One day I will be the local tea master. But I will need a thousand more hours.

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