December 2, 2012 by bethanjthomas
A year or so ago, I got an email from a colleague’s brother asking if a tea that he’d seen online was really picked by monkeys. The website he was looking at was really quite unequivocal…stating outright that ‘resourceful little simians’ were specially trained to pick tea and enjoyed their work.
It gave me a pretty good chuckle, though it was pretty outrageous marketing as the well known ‘Monkey Picked Tieguanyin Oolong Tea’ has not been touched by monkeys for hundreds, if not thousands of years. But originally, many a Fujianese tea was touched by tiny monkey paws….
The remote mountains of Fujian are full of monkeys. On a recent trip to Tongmu Nature Reserve, where the first tea British people ever shipped to to our wee, wet isle, I saw a ridiculous number of our genetic relatives happily frolicking on the rocky cliffs.
Tongmu doesn’t produce oolong teas, but the potentially more famous lapsang black teas. Out of interest I asked the supplier I was with how the monkeys picked teas originally, and she said that they really were trained by locals to pick leaves. This was before tea gardens were established and pruning and plucking techniques hadn’t been developed to allow people to pluck tea leaves well. This meant that the trees grew wild from the inaccessible slopes and it was too dangerous for locals to climb the rocks to pick the teas.
Tongmu itself is stunningly beautiful and it’s easy to see how wild the environment must have been thousands of years ago, and even hundreds of years ago when Europeans first started trading with China.
Today, you can’t enter the Tongmu nature reserve if you’re a foreigner. This is due to Robert Fortune’s interpid adventures to the area where he stole tea trees for the benefit of Britain. I managed to sneak in due to a good friendship with a local supplier who got approval from the local government for me to enter the park for 12 hours, and I’ll be forever grateful for my up close interaction with the tea picking monkeys.