High tea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, is reportedly home to more US dollar billionaires than anywhere else in China. Yet, although the city has in the past five years acquired the trappings of affluence - European luxury-goods boutiques and American coffee and fast-food outlets - residents appear to be innately relaxed and refreshingly unassuming, which might have something to do with the serene ancient treasure upon which the city is perched: West Lake.

Although Nanshan Road, on the east shore, is populated by top-end car showrooms, it is teahouses that mostly line the rest of the eight-square-kilometre lake.

Hangzhou's tea is held in high regard throughout China, and the world, in particular the green Longjing variety, which is grown around Longjing village, a few kilometres southwest of West Lake. Longjing translates as 'dragon's well' and it's said a powerful and protective scaly beast lurked in the depths of one particular waterhole in the area, which can be visited. However, interested folk usually prefer to make a beeline for the China National Tea Museum, the surrounding plantations, which stretch for more than 10 hectares, and informal teahouses, the plastic tables and flasks on concrete terraces of which overlook the low-lying rows of tea bushes.

Unlike other types of brewing leaf, Longjing plants are best kept young and it is the shoots that sprout in spring that are the most prized. Narrow and flat, they resemble pine needles. Once carefully hand-picked, they are air-dried for about eight hours and then flash 'roasted' to stop natural fermentation, which would result in the green tea becoming black. The quick dry heat is applied in what look like oversized woks, positioned over a flame. The result gives Longjing its characteristic toasty edge and removes the bitterness that is more obvious when green tea is baked in an oven-type drier.

Time-consuming picking and processing and the resulting fine flavour mean relatively high prices can be charged for the limited amount of tea produced. Leaves picked in the very short prime season - the first few days of April - command the highest prices, selling for more than 500 yuan (HK$590) for 25 grams. In 2007, a batch of 200 grams was sold for 110,000 yuan. Average good-quality tea fetches about 150 yuan for 25 grams.

Local and other mainland tea types are explained in the museum, along with a potted history of Asian growing and drinking habits. Japanese green tea has its origins in Zhejiang province.

A five-minute walk from the museum, at the top of a low-rise village, Landison Longjing Resort, overlooking its own small plantation, offers guests the chance to immerse themselves in tea, literally, to benefit from its detoxifying properties. In-room bathtubs can be filled by staff with powdered Longjing in a relaxing soak blend. The T Spa mixes local green tea into a body scrub. At the Cha ('tea') restaurant, a six-course tea banquet is paired with various brews.

Back around West Lake, there is nothing more enjoyable than sitting back and sipping a steaming cup of Longjing while gazing across the lily pads at the pagodas and bridges that dot its shoreline. Tables and chairs on terraces or strewn beneath trees are populated by locals, animated in conversation, play- ing cards or with children running around. Typically tea is served in a glass, along with a flask of boiled water; there is no strainer, so purse those lips or use your teeth.

Top indoor teahouses offer sets with unlimited dumplings and noodles, on top of an array of nuts, seeds and fresh fruit. With three floors and large picture windows overlooking the lake, the Hupanju teahouse is exceptional. It's only 12 years old but visually reflects the Southern Song dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Hangzhou was briefly the capital of China.

Throughout the Hangzhou vicinity, lower-grade Longjing tea is enjoyed casually with meals and the city is well known for using the leaves with steamed freshwater shrimp and smoked chicken.

Getting there: Hong Kong Airlines (www.hkairlines.com) and Hong Kong Express Airways (www.hongkongexpress.com) operate direct daily flights from Hong Kong to Hangzhou.