Floral mystique

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Every part of the lotus creeper is useful, but to make the best tea, it takes a very special flower and very special knowledge

Is there a lingering fragrance? Or is it wishful imagination?

There are no lotuses, for sure.

All the lotus ponds near the West Lake in Hanoi are now completely covered with green lotus leaves, broken in scattered fashion with light pink buds the late bloomers.  

 "It's all gone, come next year," Thu, one of the lotus harvesters in Nhat Tan Ward, hometown of the Dong Tri lotus and other lotus ponds, told a local customer who was looking to buy some lotus flowers.

Thu, sitting in a straw hut near Pond 7 that covered around three hectares, was tying the last flowers of the season into bunches.

"Early in the season, a bunch of ten flowers sells for VND60,000, but now, although it has gone up to VND80,000, I have nothing left to sell."

Thu later plucks leaves and dries them in the sun. "All parts of the lotus creeper are valuable. Each dry leaf sells for VND2,000, and the fresh one, VND1,500," said Thu, who often sells lotus leaves to traditional medicine shops in the capital's downtown area.

"They say the leaf is good for insomnia and lipid disorders."

Standing somewhat lonely within the pond are coracles and bamboo bridges built temporarily for taking pictures. Two months ago, the scene was a totally different one. It was full of people willing to pay VND50,000 to step on the bridge and VND150,000 to row the coracles into the midst of thousands of lotuses in bloom.

There are some straw huts nearby and a few motorbikes that visitors have parked along the ponds' edges.

Thu said that apart from harvesting the plant, she and other local farmers also serve "instant tea" scented with lotus flowers. Since each tea pot is offered for just VND20,000 only, the taste cannot compare with the lotus tea from Quang Ba Village in Tay Ho District, which is priced at around VND 5-6 million per kg.

The formula for "instant tea" is one flower per pot, whereas in Quang Ba Village, to get one kg of lotus tea, local artisans need 1,200 to 1,400 flowers.

Very, very special


Lotus tea artisan Ngo Van Xiem of the Chua Hamlet in Quang Ba Village said that the well known Ho Tay (West Lake) lotus originated and multiplied from the ones found in the Dong Tri pond (near Tay Ho District). But, he insisted, no other place can produce such a big, pinkish, fresh fragrant lotus because this pond's muddy soil is rich in nutrition.

The 70-year-old man explained further, "Lotus sold in the downtown area is a kind of low-quality flower called sen quy that has a small number of petals and do not bloom easily. They turn into a dark purple color and are not very fragrant. The Ho Tay lotus is only for harvesting the flowers that have few anthers."

"So neither the sen quy nor the Ho Tay lotus is qualified to scent tea. Only the Dong Tri lotus, which is also called bach diep lotus (one-hundred-petal lotus), can be used to prepare the beverage," said Xiem.

Though Xiem's village has not been able to escape urbanization, the place still has many lotus ponds, including Pond 7, Dong Tri and Thuy Su.

Ngo Van Xiem's house, number 66 in Chua Hamlet, has been popular among lotus-tea lovers for years. Fourteen generations of Xiem's family have been farmers and lotus tea makers.

Xiem said that he learned the art at the age of seven from his father, who, unlike his son, didn't make tea for sale.

"My father and ancestors were both farmers and lotus tea makers. In the lotus season, they plucked the flowers and sold some at Dong Xuan Market and used some to prepare tea to drink at home," said Xiem, who with the help of his wife, both in their sixties, has produced the tea at their house for years.

Following his ancestors, Xiem keeps the scented tea in two big ornamental jars which he says are big enough to contain tea needed to drink for a whole year.

Then Xiem says something that is totally surprising.

"The dead, pregnant woman and pregnant animals, woman during their periods, or the smell of cosmetics these are unbearable things for lotus tea. Just one of them is enough to spoil the tea, so only men and the elders are qualified to touch the tea. Pictures of young women in pink blouses plucking flowers in lotus ponds are good for the eyes only."

Hien, Xiem's wife, said that the best time to pluck the flower is early in the morning when the dew drops are still on the petals and stamens. Only mature buds that are not yet in bloom are chosen because the fragrance is full and has not yet been exposed to the outside environment.

Both the petals and the anthers inside are materials used to scent the tea.

First the tea is softened with petals one day before the process.

The tea is then scented with layer after layer of anthers, and toward the end of the process, the quantity of anthers must be increased so that the fragrance is strong enough to invade the tea, Xiem said.

The scenting process, done for two hours in the morning from seven to nine, will be repeated for three days. On the third day, the mixture of anthers and tea will be wrapped in tracing-paper to dry in an aluminum bain-marie.

The artisan couple's 30-square-meter room is full of bain-maries of various sizes, of which the 30-liter pot is the drying tool. During the drying process, which takes 12 hours, paper bags of tea, arranged in a three-centimeter-thick carton box will be turned over after six hours.

After the drying stage, the anthers will be screened and replaced with new layer to repeat the process for another three days. The process will be repeated seven times, which is equivalent to 21 days, before the final, perfect lotus tea comes out.

Xiem noted that the last drying process must take place for 40 hours instead of 12 in the previous sessions.

"To have one kg of best lotus tea, which is priced at VND5,5 million, we need 1,200 to 1,400 flowers."

That is expensive tea.

However, "my tea is sold out by September," said Xiem.

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