One of Master Wei‘s children has gone into business with one of the nephews, thereby proving that although they look normal, they are just as much mentalists as Master Wei. They have set up a bespoke restaurant that only serves products that have been made with tea. The clientele is somewhat exclusive, restricted to coach parties of tea nutters doing the Tea Tour, as well as visiting Party bigwigs and foreign film crews.
Chef Chen, the cousin, has drawn elaborate displays on each plate, picking out the National Geographic logo in custard, and drawing a map of the Silk Road in chocolate sauce. He shows me around his brushed-steel kitchen, and fires up the volcano stove, so named because it whooshes into life like a lost jet engine, and heats up his wok in half a minute .
Chef Chen is decked out in all his funny-hat finery, and a chef’s hat is found for me as well so that I can look ridiculous next to him. He treats me to a selection of amuses-bouche, many of which have the slightly desperate taint of a man trying to find an excuse to put tea in things. There are deep-fried tea leaves in batter; goose feet braised in tea, lamb soup with a tincture of tea… you get the idea. I am forced to down far too many spoonfuls of his deep-fried bee larvae with crisped tea leaves for my liking, and there is no beer. Only… tea.
What first appears to be some sort of candy for dessert turns out to be balls of deep-fried salad cream, lightly dusted with… tea.
“You place them here on this map I have done in chocolate that shows the Silk Road,” he says. “There’s Quanzhou, where we are now, and Hong Kong, and Indonesia, Thailand… where are you from?”
“England,” I say. “So on this scale, that should be somewhere over there behind the fridge.”
For a lot of the time, I am mercifully excused from the kitchen while the crew film B-roll of Chef Chen at work concocting his masterpieces from ingredients that might as well have been randomly selected with a dartboard. This leaves me downstairs in the plush foyer, decorated with golden statues of elements of the tea-making process, and photographs of Master Wei shaking hands with a bunch of Chinese people I don’t recognise. There are also displays of the various Iron Guanyin teas that can be bought from the Wei family collective, including the infamous £36,000/kilo “Wei 18,” the most expensive tea in the world.
This leaves me for an hour in the company of the Wei son and his cronies, who while away the evening sipping little cups of… wait for it… tea, made by a prim young lady in business attire. My experiences in Yunnan have taught me the basics of the Chinese tea ceremony, and so I watch as she goes through the motions of cleaning, refreshing, boiling, washing… all seemingly quite common sense to me now, although they seemed impossibly intricate only a month ago. The men witter about nothing, while their serving girl remains impassive and silent. The time passes pleasantly enough, until midnight, when we are then informed that Chef Chen has now finished the food preparation for the documentary, but that now he expects us to eat it.
A tense and malevolently quiet banquet then ensues as we all try to force down as many bee larvae and deep-fried salad cream puffs as we can, before we are finally permitted to leave.
It is half past midnight, but that is of little help to us, since we have been consuming TEA all evening. I don’t get to sleep until 4am.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).