So if you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in awhile, here’s a very good reason:
A newly born tea urchin with his grandmother!
Our baby boy Miles was born into the world January 26th, which coincidentally is Australia Day. Belle and I are overjoyed with this cute new addition to our family, but are also a little tired. We were racing to get our website up before the birth, but Miles decided to come two weeks early, so the Tea Urchin online shop launch has been postponed once again.
It’s been 4 months since I returned from the Autumn tea picking season in Yunnan, laden with 13 boxes of great tea, but also with substantial tea debt. Seriously, who has tea debt? With a baby on the way, and tea creditors waiting for payment, it was a financial reality check that only had one solution - my return to a full time job in advertising. It hasn’t been easy, earning money to fuel my tea addiction. There was a period of 3 weeks where I spent every waking hour at work. We’re talking 80 hours a week with no days off. I never dreamt I would work so hard, to pursue the simple enjoyment of tea. The strange thing is, when you work everyday, for several weeks in a row, you lose track of what day it is. You mark time only by deadlines. In its own strange way, this kind of work is a form of meditative mantra. One attains a selflessness outside of time… until the feeling of sudden chest pain reminds you that dying at your desk is seriously uncool.
There are many advertising folks who dabble in tea, and many tea folk who dabble in advertising. Both are intellectually rewarding fields. Yet advertising as a profession has fallen from grace. My vegetarian artist sister once accused me of selling out to become a yuppie, enriching myself through the propagation of unnecessary wants & illusory needs. But having struggled three times in my life to make money doing what I love, I find advertising is a most precious haven, attracting dreamers, philosophers & creators, people of great imagination who might otherwise never enjoy a middle class life. Many of us dream of one day being the self-actualized artist, producing inspired works of the heart, freed from the whims of clients & practicalities of budget. Which is why I’m still determined to bring the Tea Urchin to life. It is a labour of love that I will unceasingly work on, until I am an old man with more puer than years left to live.
Rained out in You Le 攸乐
There was more rain this past Autumn than normal, and many producers did not bother to make the trip for this reason. The consensus was this Summer (traditionally the rainy season) was actually drier than Autumn. A passing shower or two is not a bad thing, but longer periods of rain swells the leaves with water, requiring longer wilting times and making sha qing more difficult. When wok frying, it is hard to dehydrate the thick woody stems enough without burning the thin edges of the leaf. But if you don’t fully fix the stems, they will continue to oxidize and turn reddish brown, or even worse, turn mouldy, ruining the entire batch.
But for those of us who were patient enough to wait for the clouds to clear, there was some good tea to be had. Belle & I waited a week in Yiwu, before we got 5 days of good weather. It takes a minimum of 3 consecutive sunny days before good maocha can be made. Even so, we were only able to find 8-10kg of good tea on each visit to the villages, and had to come back a second time to top up. I was hoping to make 3 boxes of DingJiaZhai, but just couldn’t get enough maocha for the 3rd box. When quality is this scarce, the little guy is more likely to produce a quality batch. Anyone seeking volume would have to blend with rain-affected tea, or tea from another village.
On the road to Gundagai, I mean Gua Feng Zhai
Luckily we had a four wheel drive pick up, thanks to some tea friends we met in Jinghong, so we were able to traverse the muddy roads and visit Youle, DingJiaZhai, Mansa, GaoShanZhai, LuoShuiDong, and GuaFengZhai. We also spent a week with Mr.Gao, visiting tea farms in his home range of Yibang, Xikong and Mangzhi.
In all, we returned to Shanghai with some fabulous cakes, lovingly packaged with original artwork drawn by my friend & colleague Yue Chen, a young game designer who grew up in Yunnan, studied in the UK and now lives in Shanghai.
莽枝 Mangzhi cake produced by Mr. Gao for The Tea Urchin
Our favourite cake from this Autumn trip - Gua Feng Zhai 刮风寨
With the help of some more friends Eric & Hank, we are slowly putting together our online shop. It is now pretty much built, but we only recently discovered it isn’t easy to take good looking product photos, so there is a bit of a learning curve to overcome before we can officially launch. Until then, we welcome email orders.
We spent 2 months in Banna, Simao & Lancang in 2011, this year I’m looking forward to visiting the Lincang region for the first time. I’m very grateful to my wife Belle, who soldiered through our Autumn sourcing trip despite being 5 months pregnant. She bravely endured many kilometers of bumpy roads & sleeping on the hard floor of farmers houses. With meat & dairy at a scarcity, for protein, she had to eat insects & tea eggs. So despite what you hear about Shanghai girls, they are beautiful enough to be princesses but also tough enough to be peasants!
From China with love,
Eugene & Belle
In the garden of eden
PS. Yes that is a tea tree! The venerable mother tree in Bangwei, Lancang region. And if you look closely enough you just might make out Miles, the 5 month old baby bump.