This was made in the household of Yu Minzhong1. There are two types: sweet and astringent, with the astringent one being the better. It is so incredibly delicate and refreshing that the sensations go straight to one’s bones. Its colours are that of pine flowers2, and its flavours are similar to Shaoxing, but much cooler and fresher.
1Yu Wenxianggong is the postumost name of 于敏中, the head of the Emperor’s grand council. He was just two years Yuan Mei’s senior but passed away almost 20 year before him.
2This is a direct translation since songhua could either refer to the staminate (male) pine cones of the pine tree or the abstract crystalline patterns reminiscent of pine branches or needles (e.g. on pidan). In fact, in modern slang, the term alludes to male homosexual love. The first meaning is most likely though it’s not clear whether this is simply referring to the cones’ yellowish-brown colour or if the wine is clear or opaque.
It is in my nature to not drink. And since I am strict and discerning in what I consume, I have in turn gained a deep understanding and knowledge in the flavours of wines.1 Today, Shaoxing is ubiquitous all the way from the sea to deep inland, but considering the delicate freshness of Cang wine, the cool purity of Xun wine, the fresh sweetness of Chuan wine: how could they be ranked lower than Shaoxing! In general, wine could be compared to a old and aged Confucian scholar: the older the more precious. That from a freshly opened jar is the best, as indicated by the proverb: “Wine heads, tea feet”.2
However, when wine is inadequately warmed, it will taste too cool, if over-warmed it will taste weak and flavourless, and when warmed too close to the flames its flavours will change. For the best results one should warm it by simmering it in water, carefully covering the opening of the warming vessel where the vapours could escape. I have chosen the more drinkable wines and listed them below.
1 Whether Chinese rice wine should be even call “wine” continues to be a matter of active debate in the Chinese and Chinese culinary studies, with otherwise sane and well-meaning people arguing that it should be call everything from “liquor”, to “ale”, and even the long-winded “Chinese alcoholic beverage”. My own belief is that the product itself is unique enough from a manufacturing and chemistry standpoint that no Western term can adequately encompass it, and the best way is to adopt the Chinese word “jiu” and leave it at that. However, given that these blog posts are for laypersons mostly likely not directly embroiled in the academic terminology tussle, I’ve decided to just use the well-worn English term (more than a century) for referring to Chinese alcoholic beverages “wine”.
2Not sure what this is supposed to mean. Maybe the aged wine is best at the beginning when the jar is cracked open (like vintage port) and tea is better nearer to its end (when the tea leaves has fully opened up)?
The tea produced in Dongting’s Jun Mountain has the colour and flavours similar to Longjing, however the leaves are slightly broader, much greener, and the quantities plucked are very low. Military console Fang Yuzhou once conferred me two jars of it, and indeed it was incredibly good. Afterwards, others have given me this tea as gifts, but they were all not the real thing from Jun Mountain.
Other teas such as Liuan, Yinzhen, Maojian, Meipian, Anhua could be more or less dismissed.
Yangxian tea has the deep colour of green jade, the shape of sparrow tongues, and look like large grains of rice. Its flavour is similar to Longjing but slightly stronger.
I think this is yet another green Longjing-like tea. Yuan Mei prefers this class of teas, an we shall see.
Someone asked me last week whether there were any recipes in the Suiyuan Shidan for rice cakes to which I said: “Well, yeah, of course!” But while I was looking for the specific translated recipes here along with their links, I discovered to my surprise that I completely missed posting the entire chapter on Appetizers! And to think, it’s one of the most interesting chapters of the book, which includes a whole bunch of cakes, breads, and pastries, many of them with Central Asian and Persian influences.
So, I take back how I will be done posting translations of the Suiyuan Shidan this year. Considering that there are around 50 other sections left, it will be another half a year before everything is posted and finished-up. To keep things well grouped and ordered, I will be finishing the Tea and Wine chapter before going back to finish up Appetizers. And here, I was thinking that I would be done and ready to announce the next project…
In any case, onwards ho!
The mountain teas of Hangzhou are all delicate and refreshing, but the ones from Longjing is the most well known. Each time I return to my place of birth to visit the family tombs, upon meeting the grave keeper he would served me a cup of tea that is clear as water with the greenness of the tea leaves. It is something that even the wealthy could not hope to savour.1
1Bonds forged from the mutual histories of families that money cannot buy.
I used to dislike tea from Wuyi, and found it thick and bitter as if one was drinking medicine. However in the autumn on the year of Bingwu1, I was vacationing at Wuyi and touring Manting peak to visit several temples. The monks and Taoists there fought to offer me tea. Their cups were as small as walnuts and the teapots were small like citron with each holding no more than one liang of tea. When drinking it, I held back and did not immediately swallow, but breathed in its fragrance then tasted its flavours, and in this way savoured, meditated, and dwelled on the experience. Indeed, its pure refreshing fragrance wafted up2 my nose and left a sweet aftertaste on my tongue.
After the first cup, I went for one or two more, which left me completely relaxed and at peace, bathed in joy and contentment. From this I started to feel that Longjing, although delicate and refreshing, is rather thin in taste, and that Yangxian, although pleasant, still lacked in charm.3
Nevertheless, it is rather like comparing jade with crystal, with each desirable for their different traits. Wuyi is praised and renowned throughout the world and indeed it fully deserves it without modesty. The tea can be steep three times without any depletion in its flavour.
1Yuan Mei had two Bingwu years in his life according to the Chinese sexagenary cycle: 1726CE and 1786CE. Given that he likely didn’t go on his Wuyi trip as a 10 year old boy, he went there 1786. This means that Yuan mei was around 70 years old when he understood the point of Wuyi tea.
2The translation of Pu (撲) may actually closer to “invaded”, as in “invaded my nose”. I would have actually like to say “tsunami-ed” into the nose, though that sounds dumb, thus the more gentle and possibly more typical “wafted”.
3Had some problems translating the term “yunxun” (韻遜), but in this context and reading, I know I’m not too far off.