A Bit of Honey & Tea in China

by Danuta Snyder

I met Canadian Danuta Snyder in China, where we studied qi gong together. Danuta is my friend for ever. And I’m thrilled that she sent me this story. Many thanks, Danuta. And to Coomi and Jonah!

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Almost every evening during my stay in Kunming, my daughter-in-law Coomi (it’s so much fun to be able to call her my daughter-in-law now) served us a proper Chinese tea.  Coming from a family that values tea, she already had an understanding of it that exceeds a Westerner’s, but now she has taken courses as well and is a tea master.  As an accomplished fashion designer and photographer, she is accustomed to focusing her intelligence and considering style.   A naturally elegant woman, she makes the lovely ritual even more graceful.

A colleague from Coomi’s tea class knew of a place in Jin Dian (Golden Temple) outside Kunming that provides a rustic tea setting.  A group of us drove there for the experience.  The cars went up a narrow alleyway (is there any other kind of alley?).  There were stairs taking us further up a hill.  A casual garden area with outdoor seating neighboured an old building.

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This is when I thought of you, Marian! There were bees buzzing around and flying in and out of holes in the plaster wall!

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An extension of the building had shelves with stacked boxes that served as hives as well.

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There were flowering trees on the property, and I assume the bees feasted on them.  There wasn’t an opportunity to ask for beekeeping details.  I was told the bees are just a hobby.

The place seemed to be a relatively new business enterprise.  Eventually they plan to have a few rooms that will serve as an inn.  The establishment has stations that are fully supplied, but Coomi chose to bringher own bowl and pot.  She also selected from the fine teas she had at home.

We settled in one of rooms with a low table for tea.

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A gentleman host greeted our table.  As Coomi translated his words, he made warm eye contact with each and every one of us saying something to the effect that we meet on a heart level and that even though we do not speak the same language we understand the good will between us.  Indeed, his eyes were saying the exact translation.   Coomi mentioned that at times a Buddhist holy man is here and enhances the place with his presence.  He is known to repeat Buddhist chants to himself (merit is gained with repetitions) in between interactions with guests.

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Coomi regretted that she forgot to bring candies to suck on.  A person who drinks a lot of tea without a bit of food can become “tea drunk”.  We must have drunk for close to three hours.  I did feel a bit light-headed, but it could have been that  I was also getting very hungry for dinner.  The cups are tiny and only70% filled.  This honours the guest by making ensuring the hot tea doesn’t accidentally burn him.  (On the other hand Coomi told me that cups of bai jiu (liquor) are filled to the brim as a sign of respect for the guest.)  Because of the cup size and the pauses between brewing, the tea is consumed at a leisurely pace.    I loved watching Coomi rinse the pot (inside and out), especially when the outer pot gets a gentlewaterfall of hot water from time to time to warm it before receiving a new brewing.

I asked Coomi what type of tea she served.  It’s not easy to answer!  One needs to know the exact region it originated from.  The good Pu erh teas are from specific mountains and villages.  In addition some teas should be aged.  The two teas we had were from Bingdao and Jingmai and came from trees that were at least one hundred years old.  At one point Coomi asked us what part of our tongue or mouth tasted the tea.  I hadn’t given it any thought before.  That particular type of tea’s taste goes toward the back of the mouth.  (She graciously reassured those who had answered “the front” that there is no correct answer.) After a few hours of tea drinking we went to a room downstairs for a satisfying meal.  The downstairs courtyard had a statue of a very happy Buddha.

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We all felt pretty happy ourselves by then.

Gradually various family and friends departed until the last two days of my visit only Jonah and I were left in Kunming.  (His wife left for Lijiang to be with Canadian friends.  He joined her there around the same time that I left for Hong Kong.)  Seeing the bees on the tea house property reminded me of something the professor who taught a course on China Now told us – if we had a chance, don’t miss the opportunity to taste delicious Chinese honey.  I asked Jonah where we could go to get some.  He knew just the shop I was hoping for!  It was a small place with many barrels of honey.  The barrels were labelled with place of origin (all from Yunnan province) and the type of flower nectar.  Some honeys werelight, others dark.  Some were thick, others runny.  Prices ranged from about $7 to $18 Canadian per litre (I believe).

Reasoning that the most expensive must be the most delicious, I bought the $18 honey.   The vendor ladled some of that honey into plain plastic jars – one for me and one for you.  (The jars were smaller than litre size, perhaps holding 700g, but the price was what I thought the litre price was.  I didn’t question the price since it might have been I didn’t understand things in the first place.  I would have liked to take a photo of the place as well, but it didn’t feel right to do so.  Will the meek truly inherit the earth?)  This honey happened to be very light in colour and quite runny.  (It actually looks like a thick urine sample in the unlabelled plastic jar).  I know all honey is sweet, but this one is intensely so.  It tastes perfumed (if perfume tasted good).  These bees feasted on some type of cherry blossom, and the resultant honey is high in iron and other minerals.  It is reputed to be good for the skin.  It only occurred to me now to take a photo comparing it to a Nova Scotia honey.

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As you can see, it is much lighter in colour.  I just smelled the two jars and they smell quite differently as well.  I would term the Yunnan honey as more flowery and the Nova Scotia one as earthier.  (By the way, the Nova Scotia beekeeper’s profile is here.  The photo also reveals how much Yunnan honey I’ve consumed in barely three weeks.

I left Kunming and your jar with my son to await your address confirmation.  Once in Hong Kong you emailed me that New Zealand would not allow the honey to enter the country.  I hastily researched Canadian rules on importing honey.  It did not look promising.  I started to drink honey in my hotel room,but one can only drink so much.  Finally I decided to openly declare it and see what would happen.  It passed!  I don’t think it was supposed to though.  I marked the form to indicate I was bringing foodstuff into Canada.  The inspector asked, “What kind of food?”  I answered, “Honey.”  He asked, “Was it commercially bought?”  An image of the bulk bin style of the shop and its unlabelled plastic jars came to mind, so I phrased my reply with caution, “Well, I bought it in a store.”  Happily the inspector didn’t ask to see the jar.

Every morning since returning home I breakfast on oatmeal with a teaspoon of honey.  Every day I dip brazil nuts into jar to satisfy my sweet tooth and avoid consuming a baked sugar laden pastry. When the honey jar is empty I will be sad because it is such a perfect reminder/remainder of a magical visit to China.

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