Just a P.S. to yesterday’s post about my favourite traditionally made Tieguanyin oolong tea. If you’ve visited the JING website, you will notice I call this tea ‘monkey picked’ even though it’s NOT picked by monkeys.
I don’t believe that good quality tea has ever been picked by monkeys – please don’t think I am insulting their ability! It’s just that I have never seen it done even though I have spent a lot of time in China and specifically Fujian province where such tea is supposed to be produced and if you ask any serious farmer about whether monkeys pick tea, they will laugh the idea into the ground. I know some foreigners have been shown monkeys in action but it’s just a show. It takes years of practice and dexterity to be really good at tea picking – I know from personal experience, being very slow, and embarrassingly not very good at it.The legend may have started in around 1794 when some of the customers of Thomas Coutts (of Coutts bank) went on a expedition to China. One of the people on the trip was called Aeneas Anderson. They sailed up the Pearl River in Canton (Guangzhou) with a huge banner unfurled from the mast of their ship reading “Foreign devils bearing tribute.” A Chinese official was sufficiently rumoured to present Aeneas with some tea which he jokingly said was ‘picked by monkeys.’ The Englishman swallowed the story and the Chinese have laughed about it ever since.The legend also started in Wuyi where tea trees can grow on ledges on steep cliffs. It is said that monkeys were trained to pick the tea from the most inaccessible ledges. I think this was just a story told to make the tea sound all the more special and exotic.Among South China traders, the term ‘monkey picked’ has come to mean a high fired and oxidised tea, these days usually a Tieguanyin, which is considered to be the best. I use the term because traditionally-made Tieguanyin is perhaps my favourite of all oolong teas (if not tea). Ours is picked, withered, tossed, withered, bruised, fired, rolled and fired (about 25 times), and then finally baked. So much hard work goes into making it that I want people to know how I feel about it and in the tradition of the traders in Hong Kong, with ‘monkey-picked’, I want to put my own stamp of approval on it.