Over 600 years ago, a few tea seeds made their way up, or perhaps down, a stone cliff, nestled into a crack that may have collected a small amount of rain water, sprouted, grasped the bare stone cliff with their roots, and grew. Monks from a nearby temple picked the leaves, partially fermented them to create a uniquely flavoured Oolong tea.
Secluded in the mountains, no one except the monks knew of these tea bushes growing from the rocks. There are varying legends of how this tea was discovered by the rest of the world, the stories being quite similar, only the character changing. The first story I heard, and what started my interest in Chinese tea, began when an Emperor was over taken in a coup. To save the life of his son, the Emperor told his son to flee into the mountains.
The Emperor’s son ran as far as his body could take him, until finally he collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration. A monk from the temple found him and carried him back to the temple. He revived the boy by giving him sips of tea the monks prepared from the trees growing from the cliff. After a few weeks passed and he recovered, he asked the monk to show him where the tea bushes that revived him were. Upon being shown the bushes, he removed his red robe that signified royalty and draped it over the tree. From that time on, the tea was known as Da Hong Poa, Great Red Cape tea.
The more popular legend, which doesn’t entirely contradict the possibility of the first, is that a Ming Dynasty Emperor’s mother, who was seriously ill, was healed by the same tea. In this legend, the Emperor sent red robes to dress the trees that healed his mother. The healing properties of this teas have been renowned in China ever since.
Only three of the original plants remain, and of these, less than a kilogram of tea is harvested each year. A portion of this is retained by the Chinese government and the remainder is auctioned for about a million dollars. Clippings of the original plants have been cloned and cultivated in similar circumstances, creating nearly identical teas. They are graded by how similar they are to the original plants. The tea house in Seoul that I visit almost weekly sells high grade Da Hong Poa for $450/100g. The lowest grade, the one I drink at home, is still $40/100g. I asked before if she would sell me some of the $60 or $90 grade, but she told me there’s not enough of a difference from the $40 one and wouldn’t let me buy it; I appreciate their honesty!…unless she was hoping I’d go for the $250 grade???
The soil that a tea bush grows in has a distinct effect on the flavour of the leaves. Even in a small field, the taste of the leaves may vary from one end to the other. Da Hong Poa’s flavour is incomparable to that of any other tea. It taste nothing less than you would expect of a plant growing from stone. The fermented leaves are dark brown and crumpled, the tea they produce is a rich orange colour. The smell is warm, like like rocks from a camp fire. The taste first appears sweet in your throat before it’s even tasted on the tongue. It is the only tea that can do this. When it finally emerges in your taste buds it is slightly bitter and you can feel the essence of stone transmitted through the leaves. After a few small cups the taste remains with you for several minutes and a warm presence envelops your perception.