Grave Sweeping Day by Du Mu
On Grave Sweeping Day the rain drizzles endlessly
a traveler on the road feels his heart sink
where he asks can he buy some wine
the herdboy points off to a hamlet nestling amidst apricot blossoms far away
In early April we will celebrate the Ching Ming Festival, also known as "Spring Remembrance" or 'Grave Sweeping Day', and this poem by Du Mu of the Tang Dynasty is simply the most famous one for this occasion. In this Ching Ming ("clear and bright") day, most of us will make every effort to return home to honor our deceased parents and ancestors. In front of their graves, we will burn some incense sticks, paper offerings like paper money and paper clothes and clear away the weeds that have grown up since last visit... But before I do all that jazz, I will head to the tea shop and buy myself, not the deceased, some ming chin long jing (明前龍井), or dragon well before the Ching Ming Festival, which some argue is the best (and most expensive!) among all Chinese green tea.
The most famous place for making this dragon well tea is the West Lake of the Hangzhou Province. In fact, green tea connoisseurs swallow only those from this locale. Though there are scores of village producing long jing, the Première Cru selections are produced by only 5 villages in this area. The five villages, so-called the Big 5 are elegantly named as the "Lion, Dragon, Clouds, Tiger and Plum," with tea from the first regarded by most as the 'crème de la crème.'
But why does ming chin long jing cost so much? It is mostly because the production cycle is very short: only ten days before the Ching Ming Festival every year. Before that the leaf is not ready but thence it is overripe and will reduce to a lower grade (still consider quite prestigious nonetheless) called yu chin long jing (雨前龍井), or dragon well before the Rain (a rainy day in Chinese lunar calender, about half a month later than the Ching Ming Festival). In this 10-day span, the sprouts at the tip of the stalks are exquisitely hand-picked by seasoned workers. After the harvest, the leaf are dried for 3 to 4 hours. Then the 'tea master' will fry the tea briefly for 30 minutes to get rid of its grassy smell (a process called "killing the green"). A catty of premium long jing usually takes about 60000 to 70000 heads of sprout.
Tasting wise, the aroma for Ming chin long jing smells quite like that of orchid. For the palate, it is fresh and vibrant with suggestions of olive and, believe it or not, egg yolk. If, you can find it and most importantly -- afford it, you may as well tell yourself this is the Romanee-Conti of Chinese tea. The best ratio, so the tea masters will tell you, is 1 to 12 (one portion of tea leaf to 12 portions of water), not boiling hot but water at about 80℃. You pour the water in and let it brew for about 3-5 minutes before imbibe. And like fine wine, it is always better to use glass to brew long jing so that you can admire the sight of the tea in addition to its smell and flavor as well. Indeed, don't just drink it: long jing is a tea with life! Watch it. Watch the leaf turning and nibbling in the glass is by itself a great joy -- what tea connoisseurs called "The Dance of Tea."
-- picture courtesy of BJBusiness.com.cn