When green tea is mentioned we automatically think of China or Japan, but never South Korea – hardly a producer par excellence. This is because in South Korea only around 1,500-2000 tons are made per year: total national production corresponds to that of just one of the main villages in China, which gives us a good idea of who dominates the sector.
As Koreans are passionately fond of this drink and supplies are so limited, all the locally-produced green tea is also consumed in the peninsula, and the rest of the world knows nothing about it. Which would not be a serious problem, were it not for the fact that it is of excellent quality and deserves to be publicized, at least. The region in which it is made is the green and luxuriant (as if it could be otherwise!) area of Hadong, in the extreme south of the country, along the banks of the clear Jirisan river, one of the cleanest rivers in Asia. Here in the village of Hwagae, (population: 4,000) there are 100 green tea producers which make this tiny place the equivalent of a capital city in terms of Korean production.
The community of producers is led by Kim Tong Kon, a mild-mannered man of 53 (54 according to the Korean calendar), whose 10 tonnes per year make him the most productive private green tea-maker in the area (only surpassed by a cooperative). The respect he enjoys both locally and on a national level is due to the famous quality of his brand of tea. His family has lived here for 300 years. Kim Tong Kon’s father and grandfather before him were in traditional medicine, and were therefore experts on herbs and roots. The son (and grandson) did not wholly follow in their footsteps. As a child he was fascinated by the plant used for the most famous brew in the world: tea plants grow all over the place here, they are part of the local landscape and for the young Tong Kon the development of a youthful passion into a real profession was just a short step. He obtained a production license back in 1974, when he was just 27 years old.
“Since then the passion has never left me”, he explains, as I enter his tea-room, full of light, on the upper floor of his company building. Below in the warehouse, Kim Tong Kon’s workers pass by at regular intervals, emerging from a path which materializes in the vegetation, walking bent over with a load of leaves on their backs, which they put on the large weighing-machine before returning into the countryside.
The tea-room is a large, stylishly unadorned room, with a long, low cane table under the large windows on the wall opposite the door, which overlook the lush slopes of the Jirisan valley. Leaning against the walls are framed color photographs, illustrating all the production phases: first the tea is harvested by hand, then the leaves are heated without water in large steel pots. The tea is then cleaned and twisted by expert hands and heated again for a final drying. “This is the key step of the whole process”, my host informs me gravely, “because this worker decides when the tea is ready. It is a tricky role, and the final product depends on how well it is carried out. This is the job that makes or breaks your career in the tea sector”.
The slender Kim Tong Kon sits cross-legged on the ground, with a grace that a westerner, however fit, could never imitate, and with a firm but courteous gesture invites me to do the same. I’m here to try the top product in his range, the feather in his cap: the tea made from the smallest, most valuable leaves, which only accounts for a tenth of his overall production (about a ton). This type of tea is sold in an elegant wooden box, containing a cylindrical tube with two 100g bags inside. This package – representing just under a hundred individual servings – can be bought in the shops for 100,000 won (about 160,000 Italian lire): this market value makes it a luxury food item for the average Korean consumer. In China, where quantities are different, green tea costs on average four or five times less than Korean tea, but there is one type that is considered so precious that a gram of leaves is worth even more than a gram of gold.
Why this passion for green tea? What makes it so special? According to Kim Tong Kon, the answer to the first question is to be found in the taste: light yet persistent, tannic and aromatic in the best varieties. The Koreans love to indulge in a small, steaming hot cup at the end of a meal, to aid digestion. The answer to the second question is: its properties. Green tea is a stimulant, like the “red” version, but differs in that it is rich in vitamins, anti-oxidant, prevents cancer, even burns off fat… All these qualities, plus tannins, are lost in the process of transformation (like fermentation) of the tea-leaves, which all come from the same plant, from green to “red”. The latter are naturally destined for the British five o’clock tea ritual. This process mainly occurs because of the climate and requires very high temperatures with semi-tropical humidity levels. In Korea, the climatic conditions are not suitable so all the tea harvested is destined for green tea production. But inevitably not all of it reaches the same level of quality as Kim Tong Kon’s. He divides his production into quality and price brackets. The lower quality product is made from the larger tea-leaves and ends up in teabags, which are as convenient as they are loathed by tea purists. “All local producers,” he explains pointing at me, “have bought bagging machines from a manufacturer – Italian, like you – called IMA”. But not him. Italian bagging machines are three times as expensive as Korean ones, he explains, so he opted for the latter.
In the meantime, he has prepared everything necessary for tasting the tea. He takes the hot water from an electric kettle and pours it into a clay bowl with a spout. “The temperature is very important,” explains Mr. Kim, raising a forefinger. “The water is first boiled and then it must be left to cool to about 60°”. This is why he poured it into the bowl. Then with religious calm, he uses a bamboo spoon to remove the right quantity of tea (more or less one gram per person). The water is now transferred into the teapot with the leaves, and left to rest for a few minutes; then it is poured back into the bowl, this time filtered through a tiny wooden strainer, to catch any leaves that managed to get up through the spout of the teapot. Now the tea can be served in small rough china cups without handles and tasted. It is a very pale amber color with a pungent, almost sulphurous perfume. The flavor is bitter and sweet at the same time, and the tannin, although delicate, gives each sip a surprisingly long-lasting flavor. The same quantity of leaves, my host tells me, can serve three teapots one after the other, but no more.
My time is up and I must set off again. I reserve a slightly impertinent question for last.
“After thirty years in the profession aren’t you tired of the daily tea ritual?” I ask.
“Do you know what?” he answers with a sardonic smile. “I still drink 30 cups a day”.
No, I agree as I get into the car – he isn’t tired of it yet.
Stefano Sardo is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office
Photo by Stefano Sardo
Translated by Ailsa Woods