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DIGEST | Two Days in Yilan: A Sourcing Trip

For some people, May means the beginning of spring or the final stretch of the semester, but for us it means harvest season in Taiwan. Each harvest brings a new batch of all of our favorites in addition to the array of exciting newcomers to our tea menu. Sourcing can be as grueling as accidentally hopping on the wrong train and ending up in the Rockaways: it often entails several hours of driving, the possibility of nausea (which is why tea snacks are so important), and some serious stamina. Of course, with all the beautiful countryside, wonderful tea makers, and delicious snacks along the way, sourcing also has its perks. Things are a little different this year, and so instead of going to Taiwan, Elena is bringing the sourcing to you, with a little visual journey through two days of sourcing in Yilan.

Day One

8am – Drive from Taipei

Yilan is a small town to the southeast of Taipei that’s also my parents’ hometown. The drive varies depending on how scenic you want it to be: it’s just an hour away if you take the tunnel, which is comfortable though boring; just under two via the route through the mountains–very green but very likely to make at least one person carsick; or closer to two and a half hours if you drive along the coastline, which is the most beautiful of the three. Approaching Yilan, you’ll notice the rice fields and maybe even a scallion farm or two, which Yilan is known for.

10am – Tea Farm Visit: Graceful Hill

As a small town farm, these teas are usually only consumed by locals, which is why Yilan isn’t well known as a tea producing town. This farm is run by an 82-year-old lady, a dear friend of my grandparents who makes the tea with the help of her son. Growing up, my grandpa would send me to school with bags of her teas to make sure I never ran out. Graceful Hill is made from the ‘milk’ cultivar into a lightly oxidized oolong that is lightly floral and creamy. For me, her teas are very sentimental and taste like home.

12:30pm – Noodles & Wontons for Lunch

This was one of the best lunches I’ve ever had on my numerous sourcing trips. The noodle shop was decorated with a beautiful woven fabric full of colorful fish with an adorable garden for customers to eat in. I never learned its name – if it has one – so it’s unlikely I’ll ever find it again. It was on a cross street in the countryside, where some of the streets are narrower than the sidewalks in the West Village. I thought about the wontons and scallion omelet for days afterwards.

1:30pm – Peanut Candies

I usually travel to Yilan with my parents so that we can visit my grandparents between tea farms. One of the benefits of traveling with them is that they know which corner shops have the best stuff. This one has the best roasted peanuts, retailed in plastic bottles, and makes a soft peanut brittle that doesn’t stick to your teeth. Another shop, which you’d miss if you weren’t looking for its vintage sign on a residential block, has amazing nut candies which are the inspiration for our tinybars. The shop is actually the front part of the owner’s production facility with a display of trays filled with a kaleidoscope of nut candies. My family usually gets two types of peanut brittle–one with whole peanuts and one with ground peanuts–and almond clusters.

3pm – Tea Farm Visit

When we arrived, this farm was in full swing: tea leaves were out withering in the sun, the teamaker had his friends helping to roll teas in a machine (this gives the dried teas their tightly-rolled shape), there was garlic drying, and some laundry going to top it all off. The farmer was a true multi-tasker: he was in the midst of transitioning to fully organic farming and expanding his tasting room. We caught a glimpse of the construction in progress, and whatever he builds I hope there is a winder to capture the view of that beautiful rice field.

6:30pm – Chicken Dinner

My friend Max, a food writer in New York, told me about this famous clay pot-roasted chicken from Yilan, so I went looking for it. His tip turned out to be true, because we found the original famous shop and a few copycats driving around town. The clay pot was larger than me, and in it the chicken roasted with tropical fruit charcoal. In that shop, they hand you gloves with the chicken so that you can dig in right away. Delicious.

Day Two

9am – Grandpa’s Magnolias

Before heading out, my grandpa asked me to wait a moment. There is a giant white magnolia tree in front of his house, and when he sees a flower blooming–ready to be gifted–he uses his homemade slicer to harvest it from his second-floor home. As the lucky recipient and granddaughter, I went downstairs to pick up my fragrant magnolias, which according to grandma are only given to granddaughters, bank tellers, and cashiers at the local convenience stores–never to her!

9:30am – A Trip to the Market

We usually stop at the market at some point to stock up my grandparents’ fridge. Sometimes, it’s even more exciting than the tea, full of live shrimp, pink guavas, and multi-flavored mochi. I ended up balancing so many snacks that I missed the chance to document most of them! Those meatballs and fishballs were the juiciest I’ve tasted yet in this lifetime.

12pm – Lunch in the Market

It’s impossible to visit the market in Yilan without stopping at this sesame noodle stall, which is beloved by my entire family. It’s been around since my parents were children, and no matter how many times Fred and I have watched, videotaped, and taken notes (every time we visit), we still have yet to recreate the deliciousness at home. Seven or eight tiny teaspoons of sauces and spices go into each bowl of noodles, but we don’t dare ask what they are–the cooks are much too busy, and besides, good cooks never really share their secrets.

12:45pm – Tea Farm Visit: #2028

Mr. Lin named his tea #2028, after the lab name of its cultivar created in the ‘80s, and we followed suit. In fact, it’s a sibling of Jinxuan, or the milk cultivar, which was #2027. A slightly heartier plant, Mr. Lin sought out the 2028 seedlings to cultivate with organic farming techniques, and when we met him in 2014 he was still convincing his father to convert the rest of their tea cultivation to the #2028 cultivar. The Lins always serve their tea in the tall and skinny aroma cups, which we’ve rarely seen outside of serious tea services and Taipei tea shops. It’s always a welcome touch – a reminder for us to taste tea with all our senses and not just our palates.

3pm – Visit to Kavalan

Yilan is known colloquially as the town of “good mountain and good water”, and you know it’s true when one of the largest bottled water companies is based there. That company is Kavalan, now the most well-known whiskey producer in Taiwan, and as whiskey lovers ourselves we couldn’t leave Yilan without a quick trip. From the terraced tea fields and tea-making methods handed down between generations, we were whisked away to the giant copper distillers and oak barrels of the whiskey world. With so many styles available, we did the only sensible thing and bought as many samplers as we could to bring back to New York. Rest assured, they did not disappoint.

4:30pm – Shaved Ice, Then Back to Taipei

May weather in Taiwan is similar to summer in New York: hot, humid, and sticky. On the way back, my dad suggested stopping for a shaved ice spot my parents discovered last year, and it was glorious. I’m not well-versed in Taipei’s shaved ice shops, but this was the best I’ve had anywhere. It was the perfect finish to our short visit in Yilan.

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