When I remove a chunk of tea from a pu'er cake, I begin at the center dimple of the cake and work my way around it and outwards, a sort of spiral from the center. I have several reasons for breaking the tea this way:
- It slices off half the thickness of the cake, making the cake easier to break later with fewer broken leaves.
- It gets the hardest chunks to break off out of the way first, leading to more whole leaves later.
- It keeps the face whole. This has two benefits, one purely cosmetic and one practical. Aesthetically, the face of a cake looks better than the back. The practical reason is it that it avoid the neifei (the inner label), which I get to last. By the day I get to the chunk of tea around and under the neifei, the tea around the neifei has had time to breathe and the neifei comes off with less damage to it.
- Most importantly, it keeps the cake round. When a cake is rewrapped, the most taught areas of paper are on the edge and face, jagged tea leaves and stems left sticking out when breaking tea off the edges and faces of cakes can cause the cakes' wrappers to tear, which has several drawbacks. Torn wrappers look sloppy, and the holes in the paper often spill dust out onto the tea table, floor, etc.
There is one drawback to this method, which is that for cakes with "pretty faces, ugly butts", where the face of the cake has different material from the back of the cake, taking leaves only from the back (or, later, only from the front) does not yield a 100% representation of the blend. In my experience, those prettier face leaves are not very important to the overall taste of the pu'er cake at hand, so I don't suffer the loss. But, your mileage may vary, and the information may prove useful.
So, a question to you: do you have a preferred method for breaking up cakes, bricks, tuo, etc.? Please share!