Gardens of Suzhou

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

I am backing up a bit but wanted to share some photos from the beautiful city and gardens of Suzhou. We visited this rapidly growing area and stayed at the lovely Sofitel Hotel, which I highly recommend.

The first garden we visited was the Lions Grove Garden, one of four famous Suzhou gardens. Dating back to the Yuan Dynasty 1342 A.D. the garden is known for its lake stones and rockeries. This grand rock work forms a three layer maze, winding paths and numerous caves.

After falling into disrepair the garden was purchased by an ancestor of the original archirtecht, I.M. Pei, in 1917 and was kept up by the family until they donated it to the people's government. Lion's Grove opened to the public in February 1954.

The next garden, the Humble Administrators Garden, is the most famous of all and recogonized as the best-preserved and a typical example of clasical gardens created by craftsman in ancient China. The largest private garden in Suzhou the 5.2 kilometers was first landscaped in the Ming Dynasty 1513 A.D..

Until next time, Beth

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Eating Like Royalty

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

After visiting East Mountain we were invited to join our hosts along with the Chairman of the Shanghai Tea Council, Mr. Chen (yes another Mr. Chen) for lunch at the renowned, historic Suzhou restaurant, De Yue Lou. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty the restaurant was beautifully updated with 3 floors of exceptional eating.

The owner of the restaurant was gracious enough to join us and we spent the next couple of hours enjoying one of the best meals I have ever had. The presentation was worthy of photographs so I got my tourist on and started taking pictures (see below).

At one point Amy asked me if I knew what I was eating and I kindly replied "no and don't tell me now, tell me later". When we talked about it later that day I knew I had made the right choice! Regardless everything I ate was fabulous and I would do it all again without a second thought.

As the toasts, cheers and good wishes wrapped up we took some more photos and said our good bye's and spent the rest of the gorgeous day walking Suzhou city, the weather is sunny and really nice.

Until next time, Beth


Mr.Chen and I

Mr. Chen, Mr. Wu and I

Labels: , , , ,

Bi Lo Chun Tea

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What an amazing day. We were invited to join Pauline, Mr. Yu, Mr. Chen and the Agriculture Director of East Mountain, where the original Bi Lo Chun is grown, Mr. Wu for a visit to the factory where the finest early spring Bi Lo Chun is produced.

This exceptional tea is completely hand processed from the first plucking to the final downy buds in the cup. I was honored to enjoy a cup of the rare first flush, so limited in supply that it is not available in the commercial market. Unlike many of the Bi Lo Chun teas that I have previously experienced this soft green tea has obvious fruit tones and a sweet, complex character, what a treat.

The factory owner and Mr. Yang, head of the East Mountain Farmer Cooperative, explained that the original and only certified Bi Lo Chun, one of China's 10 famous teas, is only produced in the East/West mountains. Most of the Bi Lo Chun teas, especially in the US, are copy's, not the real thing. Authentic Bi Lo Chun teas are certified, like a trademark, and are extremely expensive. Certified teas can not be sold randomly without an agreement with the cooperative, which is what the meeting is all about today, procuring the selling rights for certified Bi Lo Chun teas in the Shanghai market.

Mr. Yang went on to point out the many differences in the environmental conditions that add to the exceptional character of the tea. The East, West Mountains are surrounded by water and connected by only one bridge. The moist, humid conditions create the perfect atmosphere for growing tea. In addition the surrounding lake acts as a barrier, protecting the area from unfavorable conditions, man made or natural. Pauline suggested to me that this is a "clean tea" because of this barrier. The teas grow among various fruit trees giving them their naturally sweet, fruity character.

Special processing is precisely carried out by hand and is extremely labor intensive. We entered the factory to witness a long line of tea plucker's waiting to see if their teas would be selected for processing. Once selected the teas were collected by workers and the leaves and buds were striped, the best way I can describe it, ending up to appear as a single bud the size of the tip of a small pinky finger. It was amazing watching these workers so carefully, yet quickly prepare the teas for firing.

Although very expensive I was able to purchase some of the first flush teas we had cupped and am looking forward to sharing them with family and friends when I return home.

We had a great meal I will tell you about later, going to the Humble Administrators Garden in Suzhou, more photos later to.

Until next time, Beth

Bi Lo Chun Leaves

Labels: , , , ,

From Shanghai to Suzhou

Saturday, March 22, 2008

O.K. my friends would tell you this could only happen to me. I am packing to leave the hotel in Shanghai I pick up one of my bags and it begins to make noise, sort of like a frog. So I kind of kick it and it stops. I pick it up and it starts agian, I toss it in the bathroom and shut the door.

Amy arrives about 5 minutes later and now we are both freaked out, we are sure that there is a frog in the bag. Amy calls the maid, who calls another maid, who calls the supervisor and now 5 of us are between the room and hall with this noisy bag that no one will touch. I suggest, since none of the 5 girls are going to open the bag, that we call a man. Yes I know I hate to admit it but sometimes you just have to have a man.

The 2 male front desk managers, who are equally convinced that there is a frog in my bag, discover through tremendous effort that in fact there is no frog but rather my new headphones making some weird noise. We all stand there laughing hysterically, at me and my frog.

After the frog mystery is solved we are off to the Shanghai train station which is an experience all unto itself! A sea of people as far as the eye can see, all trying to get to the same place at the same time.

We rode the bullet train so it took only 30 minutes to arrive in Suzhou, not long enough. The weather is cold and wet in Suzhou today so we hustled out of the station into the cab line. China never ceases to amaze me, I look over and there is a brand new sleek Rolls Royce pulled up to the curb, clearly out of place.

We check into the hotel, the Suzhou Sofitel, and then go out for a bite to eat. The hotel by the way is definately a winner, not always the case here. We enjoyed a very relaxed Guangzhou or Canton style lunch and then headed back to the hotel, it is just to cold and wet to do anything else.

Tomorrow morning we will meet up with Pauline and head over to West Mountain for Bi Lo Chun.

Until next time, Beth

Labels: ,

Tasting Teas in Shanghai

Friday, March 21, 2008

We cupped so much tea that I forgot to eat!

We began our day traveling across town to a tea market where various brokers have set up small shops selling a wide range of teas. As I entered the market I was overcome with the intense aroma of Pu'erh tea, yum.

There to meet and cup black tea's with our friend Pauline I experienced some wonderful Mao Feng Keemun's, golden Yunnan's and another very interesting tea that Pauline referred to as 1/2 fermented (oxidized). Not oolong, not black tea but 1/2 fermented. She went on to tell me how this tea got better with age, similar to a Pu'erh, and kindly gave me a gift of this special one year old tea. She said I must try it each year for the next 3 years to experience the transformation in the character.

Pauline told us about the celebration taking place this weekend for the first spring harvest of Bi Lo Chun and invited us to go. So we have changed our plans and will be skipping our trip north to Jinan. That will wait until I return in July and is not nearly as urgent or fun as following tea! I was hoping to visit Suzhou on my last trip so I am excited that it worked out this way.

We enjoyed a couple of hours cupping and laughing together and then wandered the market checking out many spring Dragon Wells which are now plentiful on the market.

After collecting samples and pricing we were off to lunch and another tea market. We enjoyed a simple noodle soup lunch, which I love, but was so full of tea that I could not eat much. I think it is so funny Americans are always poking fun at the tiny Chinese tea cups, but those little cups sneak up on you quickly. That aside the best part about cupping with this brewing style, using a gaiwan, is that each infusion of the leaves revels another layer of taste and character.

In the second market I met a new supplier a woman from Huangshan area who had some wonderful Dragon Well, Bi Lo Chun and in about 10 days will have the spring Mao Feng greens, cant wait. We cupped her teas and moved on to oolongs sharing some special Da Hong Pao from our Wuyi tea friends. Many times gardens and/or factory owners will have shops in larger cities to sell there teas this was just that type of market. Again we gathered samples and pricing and set off to meet with our Shanghai freight broker Charley.

We stopped to get something drink in a very "cool" coffee bar, yes coffee bar. The youth of China adores everything western and scoffs at the old tradition of tea. Charley even ordered iced tea! What is this world coming to?

After our meeting in the upscale shopping and business district we were off to get fitted at the Cheong Sam shop where we got to meet and get fitted by the master himself, 91 years old and still going strong. There must be something in the tea here!

Back at the hotel we begin mapping out our newly adjusted travel schedule and planning for the days ahead. I am teaching Amy the meaning of spontaneous.

Off to Suzhou for the very exciting Bi Lo Chun festival, celebrating the first spring harvest of this famous Chinese tea.

Until next time, Beth

Bi Lo Chun and Dragon Well Spring Teas

Lunch with Amy

Famed 91 Year Old Shanghai Tailor

Labels: , , , ,