Lu'an Melon Flake 齐头山六安瓜片
Qitoushan, Lu’an, Anhui
Melon Flakes is a traditional tea that originated from deep within “The Inner Mountain" of Lu'an Guapian, known as “Bat Cave.” Across from Bat Cave is Qitou Mountain, or “Flat Head,” recognizable from afar by its flattened top. This is where our Melon Flakes is from: it grows in a tea garden right on the flat top of Qitou.
The only way to access this peak is by climbing up stone steps for roughly two hours. It is a remote and relatively cool area; after the Qingming Festival tea in Lu’an is only just beginning to sprout. When it does, the elderly women who live in the nearby village travel by foot to harvest the tea from the peak. They carry it down with them on their shoulders to where it can be processed.
Guapian, or “Melon Flakes,” is the only Chinese tea made entirely from leaves. There are no buds or stems in this tea, and thus it looks noticeably different from every other green tea: it is broad and flattened into flakes, with slightly upturned corners, like slices of melon – hence, the name.
How it takes this shape is through an amazingly specific, and very labour intensive, process. The elders pick leaves and bring them down from the peak so that they can be stir-fried in the afternoon. Women work together in pairs, sitting over domed pans, each of them holding a brush made of sorghum stalks. There is a fire master behind the stove who maintains the perfect temperature of the charcoal-fired pans by continually adding wood. The tea leaves are added when the pans are hot and they make a loud crackling sound when they come into contact with the heat. In this stage of frying they are stirred and rotated for about 20 minutes, after which they are quickly transferred to a second pan. At the second pan, an elder in charge of this stage of pan-frying will stir-fry the leaves while raising the handle of the brush periodically in order to “snap” them in order to make the leaves as flat as possible. After another 20 minutes in this pan the fried and flattened tea leaves start to curve up at the edges of both ends, assuming their melon-slice-like appearance.
Ten days after the tea leaves have been pan-fried the artisans begin a process that is unique to the crafting of Melon Flakes. 12 kg of the fried tea is placed inside a shallow bamboo basket. The bamboo basket is positioned on top of a large roasting stove filled with hot charcoal rendered from local blue oak trees. Two to three strong men, each holding one end of the broad bamboo basket, quickly walk back and forth over the blue oak fire. They do this back-and-forth over 200 times, lasting for over 45 minutes, waiting until the tea leaves appear to have a “frost” on their surface.
The entire process of crafting traditional Melon Flakes takes two full weeks. Considering what it takes to create it, that it is still done at all is quite miraculous. But Melon Flakes stands in a category of its own.
Even though it is a green tea, it is made with fully boiling water. And even in boiling water, its taste is gentle, with no bitterness at all. It smells like green smoke, and its flavour is stable and soothing, with a foundation of slate-like mineral. The wet leaves look strikingly like sea vegetables, and the liquor takes on an electric, highlighter-fluid quality.
Melon Flakes maintains its character for what seems like an infinite number of infusions. It may be as inexhaustible as the men that run back and forth with it over the fire, upwards of 200 times.
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The key to brewing this tea is to use boiling water, and fast infusions, starting at 10 seconds.
|Steep time||10 - 60 sec|
|No. of infusions||8-10