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2010 Travel Diary #19: Hadong, the home of Korean green tea

Tea Topiary
This giant tea topiary welcomes you to the Hadong Tea Festival

Wednesday 5 May 2010. As we pick up the signs to Hadong, along the Seomjingang river, the other side of which is Jeollanam-do, we see our first neatly trimmed tea-bushes. These, I am later told, are the cultivated tea plants. You know the famous photos of the Boseong tea slopes in Jeollanam-do, with beautifully serried ranks of tea bushes manicured as if in a garden? Those are of course cultivated, and picked by machine: such techniques produce inferior tea as they pick the coarser leaves along with the juicy tips.

Five Effects of Tea
  1. Helps one to absorb oneself in reading, and quenches one’s thirst
  2. Remove one’s spleen in one’s mind
  3. Help one keep a polite rapport and a sincere relationship with guests
  4. Remove parasites from one’s body
  5. Eliminates a hangover
Hanjae Yi Mok (1471-1498)

The best Hadong tea, on the other hand, is hand-picked, usually from old tea bushes which pre-date the Japanese colonial period. The finest tea, the small leaves picked before the first spring rain, is called Ujeon, picked between the 10th and the 20th day of the fourth lunar month. The first taste of this, made with water at no more than around 70ºC, immediately hits you with the savoury “fifth taste”, unlike any other tea you have tasted. Subsequent brews in the same pot change subtly, with the second cup said to be the best taste. Good leaves can sustain 8 or 9 brews, though unlike conventional Earl Grey the leaves should only be brewed for a few seconds rather than 3-4 minutes. At the Hadong tea festival the very finest hand-made Ujeon was selling, at a discounted “Wholesale” price, for the princely sum of 150,000 Won for 100g, around 50 times the price of your average Twinings black tea in the supermarket.

Some of the stalls in the Hadong Tea Festival

But think of the health benefits. The claims made for green tea rival that of kimchi.

Six Efficacies of Tea
  1. Helps one lead a long life
  2. Helps disease to be healed
  3. Makes the spirit clean
  4. Makes one’s mind comfortable
  5. Makes one a Taoist hermit with superpowers
  6. Makes one courteous
Hanjae Yi Mok (1471-1498)

The 15th century tea master Hanjae Yi Mok1 made relatively moderate claims for tea: the Five Effects and Six Efficacies of drinking tea. Some of the Effects can surely apply to a cup of builders’ tea: #1: is the fairly universal “Helps one to absorb oneself in reading, and quenches one’s thirst”, while #5 is “Eliminates a hangover” (somehow, one doesn’t expect tea masters to have hangovers). Strangely, effect #4 was “Removes parasites from one’s body”. Well, at the at the Hadong Tea Festival, green tea foot- and face-washes were available, so maybe our master bathed in tea as well as drank it. Efficacy #1 is “Helps one lead a long life”. The second, presaging more extravagant claims to come in later years, is “Helps disease to be healed”. The most intriguing is efficacy #5, “Makes one a Taoist hermit with superpowers”. Hanjae Yi Mok (1471-1498) died before reaching thirty, so one assumes he met a violent end and these superpowers did not extend to self-defence.

Tea hands
These hands were picking and rolling tea a week ago
Tea Life of the English

In England, tea is much more than just a drink. The act of making and serving tea forms the basis of all social gatherings. In England, drinking tea does not simply mean drinking tea but also refers to the food that will be served with the tea. Therefore “having tea” can be said to be a social reception.

The English made acquaintance with tea relatively late. It was introduced to tea by the Netherlands during the mid 1630s. But a wonderful tea culture flourished in England. The English take about 4-5 cups of tea a day including the “Breakfast Tea”, the “Afternoon Tea” and teas taken with dinner. From the second half of the 18th century to the 19th century, numerous black tea parties were held in private gardens and tea parties were also held at dances.

Hadong Tea Museum

It seems to be only more recently that more extravagant powers have been claimed for Hadong’s green tea. A diagram in the tea museum claimed that tea not only has anti-cancerous properties and prevents obesity but also cures constipation and prevents “adult” diseases. Equally entertaining is the quaint national stereotype of English tea culture, portraying an ancient neverland of lost gentility.

Hadong County claims to be the birthplace of Korean tea. In the third year of the reign of Silla’s King Heungdeok (828 CE), Kim Daeryeom smuggled back some tea seeds while on embassy duty to China. He planted these in Hwagae, Hadong County, near Ssanggyesa temple (쌍계사). Korea’s oldest surviving tea tree – estimated to be over 1,000 years old – is located in the Dosim Tea Garden, Hwagae.

The Hadong Green Tea festival is a bit more recent – having been in existence for 15 years. There’s a range of stalls selling the finest freshly-made green tea leaves, but also other green tea related products. Green tea ice-cream is a familiar delicacy in any Korean city, but Green tea soju? I sampled the deluxe version. I think they said it was double-distilled. It was certainly strong, but I was not tempted. I have bought too many bottles of schnapps and grappa when entering into the spirit of things on a continental European holiday, only to find the thing totally undrinkable when I get home. I settled for a bottle of conventional-strength green tea soju, which will taste very nice suitably chilled.

Teddy bear powered rickshaw. I want one of those

The festival is a great family day out. I was so tempted to try out the rickshaws, powered by robots disguised as giant teddy bears or cuddly elephants. But there was too much else to do. First of all, there was a tea ceremony with some of the ladies who had picked, roasted and rolled the tea a week or so beforehand. Their hands still brown from the tannin, they graciously served their precious liquid, with delicately flavoured dainties of rice cake and green plum jelly. It is said, by those who are sensitive to such things, that green tea can be acidic on the stomach, and maeshil (매실: green plum) jelly is the best way to moderate the balance. Science or no, the plum jelly was very popular with our particular party.

Maeshil Jelly
Tea-time treats, including green plum jelly

As with any Korean festival, the emphasis is on experience. So it’s compulsory for us to try roasting and rolling the leaves, and then lay them out to dry. The freshly-picked bright green leaves gradually go a dark green as you gently hand-toss them in a giant wok, wearing two layers of gloves to avoid your hands getting burned. Next hand-roll and crush the leaves a few times, as if rolling tough pastry, before laying them out on a rack to dry. They then alternately get laid out in the sun and brought inside, and then they’re ready for use. It’s a laborious process, but worth it in the end for some of the finest tea available.

Those leaves that are left in the sun longer start to ferment, producing longer-lasting black tea, while yellow tea is 50% fermented. The precious green tea is unfermented.

Outside the tea museum, we come across the festival’s organiser, Jo Jeong-guk, having a quick breather. It’s the last day of the festival, and soon he will have a chance to rest properly.

Jo Jeong-guk (left), the organiser of the festival
Jo Jeong-guk (left), the organiser of the festival

This year’s festival has had more than its fair share of stress. First, the unseasonably cold weather during the early part of spring meant that the tea was slow in growing, and there was some doubt as to whether any of the Ujeon would be picked, dried and packaged in time for the opening of the festival. Second, there were concerns that the weather would discourage visitors to the festival itself. Fortunately the latter concern was unfounded: the weather for the festival was perfect, and the people came. They estimated that around 500 foreigners had visited during the course of the 5-day festival, including a tour from the US and Canada as well as the usual Chinese and Japanese. On the day that I visited there was a busload of young Americans from Seoul happily trying their hand at roasting and rolling the leaves. They even had a visitor from the British Council on day 1 of the festival.

Hadong Tea Cultural Centre
Night falls over the Hadong Tea Cultural Centre at the end of the festival

What was the highlight of the festival? There’s a sandy bank on the Seomjingang river, where visitors are encouraged to walk barefoot, as if on a beach. The previous night, there had been poetry reading and tea drinking under the stars. I’m sorry I missed it.

Hadong, la città slow
We are looking for towns where men are still curious about the old times, towns rich in theatres, squares, cafes, artisans’ workshops, restaurants and spiritual places, towns with untouched landscapes and charming craftsmen where people are still able to appreciate the gradual change of the seasons and the creation of genuine products respecting tastes, health and spontaneous customs.
from the Cittaslow manifesto

Hadong – along with a handful of counties in neighbouring Jeollanam-do – has branded itself the Slow City, La Città Slow, as its name suggests an Italian initiative. It’s certainly a relaxing place to be, and you are surrounded by greenery at all times. Our local guide, Isabelle, is in fact based in Gangwon province but comes to Hadong every year for the festival as a volunteer, and hopes to settle down there in due course.

While the festival lasts for only five days, Hadong provides interest all the year round. Ssanggyesa temple where according to legend the Korean pentatonic scale was devised, nestles on the slopes nearby. The tea museum itself is always open, as is the village where Toji, an epic novel (and TV drama) The Land, is set. And that is where we are heading next.

Further reading:

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  1. The learned English enthusiast of Korean tea, Brother Anthony of Taize, calls him the Father of Korean Tea: []

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