A Food Lover’s Paradise
Tea trips to Taiwan have always involved a lot of food. Not only is it plentiful, but it’s talked about and shared with enormous pride, generosity and gusto. Evenings at the local night market being introduced to the national dish “stinky tofu” (a dish which is much kinder on the palate than it is on the nose) are organised with just as much enthusiasm as a reservation at the original Din Tai Fung for an indulgent few hours of hot, steaming dumplings. Tea is tasted alongside freshly picked slices of local fruits, seeds or sweets, and tea garden visits end happily with a bag full of pineapple cakes and a long list of recommendations for wherever we’re going on to next.
As well as a powerful food culture, Taiwan has one of the largest densities of mountains of any island in the world. With more than 286 peaks hitting more than 3,000m, ticking off the “Baiyue” – the 100 peaks of Taiwan is a lifetime’s work for many mountain climbers. These peaks run through the centre of the island making at least 50% of the island uninhabited. Instead of settlements, these mountains are dense with lush green forests – forests which make the most of the sub-tropical and tropical climates of the island depending on which side of the Tropic of Cancer, which traverses Taiwan, they fall.
Over the next few months as the tea season progresses in Taiwan, we’ll be diving into individual regions and their teas. First up, as we await the arrival of the spring crops, let’s start with two quite different teas to illustrate the diversity of this green island’s tea offering…
Originating in Hsinchu, a coastal county in the north of the Island, Oriental Beauty is rich and decadent. It’s a complex, fruity and woody tea, often likened to drinking a dessert wine.
Some tea farmers in Hsinchu believe that the warmth and humid atmosphere of the summer allows a very small insect to thrive among their tea bushes. Only found in this area and known as “tea jassid”, these tiny insects feed on the tea leaves, which are then thought to react by producing a polyphenol or plant compound to deter them. Tea producers encourage this, understanding that this unique polyphenol contributes to the distinctive taste and character of Oriental Beauty, enhancing a sweet, honeyed taste in the tea.
Insects or no insects, Oriental Beauty certainly occupies a unique place in the tea lexicon of Taiwan. It’s oxidised much more than your typical Taiwanese oolong – typically to around 60%, which brings out the body and deeper, complex notes from the leaves. The Qing Xin cultivar tea bushes help here too. A widely grown variety in Taiwan, they’re famed for producing fruity and floral teas, even when heavily oxidised. In this case, the tea doesn’t become too dark or malty like a black tea and retains its smooth, round texture with lasting sweetness.
We’d recommend trying Oriental Beauty if you like light, fruity black teas like Darjeeling Second Flush, or if you like the deep complexity of China’s baked oolongs from Wuyi, or Phoenix Honey Orchid. If you want something that’s highly aromatic and combines a dark character with a deep refreshment, this tea is for you.
Taiwan’s the only tea origin to have a classification for high grown tea – recognising that tea grown in the right mountainous conditions will develop unique and special combinations of creamy, fruit and floral flavours. Of these high mountain teas, known as “gao shan” teas, Ali Shan is one of the best.
Located towards the south of the island, Ali Shan National Park is full of peaks, waterfalls and tea gardens. These gardens typically produce lightly oxidised, baked, rolled oolong teas.
They’re prized for their unique milky flavour which comes from the specific cultivar of tea bush, Jin Xuan, that was cultivated and is still grown in Ali Shan. It’s a tea that’s spawned a whole category of oolongs, known as ‘milk’ or ‘milky oolongs’. Because of the popularity of this flavour, it’s now not uncommon to find a ‘milk oolong’ which has nothing to do with Ali Shan which has had a milky flavour added to it.
A good, pure oolong from Ali Shan is highly floral and big on fruity aromas of mango, strawberry and pear. It’s refreshing yet thick, and it fulfils that hard-to-find criteria of being both accessible and complex. It works as a source of comfort on a busy day, knowing it’ll always be enjoyable however you make it, but it also works for a quiet afternoon when you’ve got more time to contemplate the flavours and prepare it slowly.
Try Ali Shan if you want a relatively light tea – and like the sound of milky, floral flavours. If you like the refreshment of green tea but want something with a thicker mouthfeel, a deep fruitiness and a quenching character, this tea is for you.
This highly fragrant oolong tea is carefully oxidised to elicit iconic notes of floral fruit sweetness. The beautifully shaped leaves and buds display a variety of hues that impart decadent and complex flavours.