A friend gave us something really special, something that I've read a lot about but have yet to experience. Pu'er tea cakes. Called tea cakes because they are loose tea leaves pressed into the shape of round 'cakes', and aged. A completely different interpretation of tea - just extraordinary.
What makes this tea special? This is an ancient tea of Yunnan, made from a variety of tea called 毛茶. Once picked, it is pan-fried in a dry wok, to stop oxidation. It is then pressed into cakes and aged. What is unique is that Pu'er benefits from aging - in general, the more age on the tea cake, the more valuable. Which is a total departure from the green tea most people know, which is most valuable when it's fresh.
The example we were given is known as 七子餅茶. It is hand pressed, as evidenced by the dimple found in the centre of the underside. Aged a minimum of 7 years (although that is not what the seven in the name refers to). I think this was an expensive one - fortunately for us, this friend hasn't realized it yet.
You have to break it up, and clean out any impure bits. It becomes loose tea, which you then prepare in the 工夫 method. Earthen clay pot, strain, and serve. You don't let it steep for more than 20 seconds.
The tea was wonderful. Deep red, almost tawny in colour (to use a wine descriptor). Lovely aroma of brambles and an almost floral component. Becomes very sweet in the mouth, with a velvety texture. Wonderful. My friends, we'll have to have a glass together soon.