Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Musings on tea

I have recently been following a thread on Teamail which kicked off with a member posting about her experience at a tearoom (somewhere in the US, I think) which expected visitors to ‘dress up’ – not just in the sense of wearing your nicest clothes and doing your hair and make-up, and looking all pretty, but of literally dressing up in clothes provided by the tearoom: hats, feather boas, gloves etc. Now this sounds extremely odd to me, but apparently it’s something that some tearooms go in for. The person who started the Teamail thread was not enthused at the idea and the thread kind of segued into bit of a discussion of what it meant or should mean to go out for tea and what makes the experience ‘special’.

So this set me to wondering the other night, what is it about tea that appeals to me?

I think the answer to this is multifaceted, and depends very much on the kind of tea that I’m drinking.

If I’m drinking something like gyokuro or Buddha’s Tears or oolong, or a beautiful first-flush Darjeeling, there’s the excitement of having something so exotic and rare (relatively speaking) in close proximity to me, literally in my hands. There’s the thrill of knowing that this tea has come from such a long way away, and that so much care and so much traditional knowledge has gone into growing and crafting it, especially if we’re talking about something like a bouquet tea ball or any of the other fine hand-made teas.

In the case of Chinese and Japanese teas as well, there’s also the link with the Way of Tea and the philosophies underlying the traditional practices of drinking tea. Not that I go in for gong fu-style or chanoyu in any kind of a big way (although it would be exciting to learn them), but there’s a special kind of pleasure in standing at the stove on a quiet cold morning, when I’m the only one awake in the house and it’s grey outside, heating water and watching it boil, listening to the soft sounds of it pouring from the saucepan into the teapot, and sitting down to drink the tea with nothing else to distract me…

And of course there’s that particular kind of comfort which comes from just a good plain old cup of black tea with milk and a bit of sugar, or alternatively from chai masala, and the way it warms you up and fills you up – especially in the early evening after work, and especially in the cold weather we’re having right now. Not to mention the nostalgia – at several times removed from my generation, obviously, but nostalgia nonetheless – for an old-fashioned English afternoon tea; a kind of longing for ritual which I suppose is what the people who run and patronise the dress-up tearooms are looking to fill…

Herbals teas almost always seem less exotic to me, much as I love them (although it depends a bit on what the herb is – a beautifully put-together blend which I’ve purchased will always seem a bit more special than just slinging some chamomile into the pot, even if the chamomile is organic and comes from Egypt, which I think most of mine does). But I love the colours and scents and shapes of them, I love the fact that they can heal so powerfully, and I love the fact that you can grow them in your own backyard if you want to (not something you can do with Camellia sinensis!).

What makes tea special for you?

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