Thursday, 25 June 2009

Words from The Book of Tea

'There is a subtle charm in the taste of tea... For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal.'
- Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Adventures in Gongfu Cha

The other night I decided to treat ymself to a gongfu cha session, just as an experiment. It's something I've been putting off - partly due to a lack of confidence, and partly due to a lack of time. However, after reading Hobbes' two very encouraging posts at The Half-Dipper (see here and here) on finding your own way with tea and not worrying about 'rules' or 'doing it right' - I thought I would give it a go.

Not having a hot-plate that I could put on the table to keep water heating near my tea session, nor a suitable kettle to use on one anyway, I realised it would be actually okay to walk to the
 kitchen and back, bringing fresh water with me in a teapot. Limiting preconception #1, gone - I was off to a good start!

I set up my little Yixing teapot, set of cups, and a bowl for waste water on the table. The noise of my electric kettle seems like it would be contrary to the soothing experience I was hoping for - so I decided to heat my water in our smallest saucepan on the gas stove in the kitchen. Much quieter and more restful, especially in the gathering dark, even though it takes a lot longer; but I wasn't in a hurry, was I?

The tea I chose for brewing was my Milky Oolong from Zensation, which I've only prepared at home once before; I have a stash of samples of Taiwanese oolong sitting in my cupboard, but my crisis of confidence was still lurking in the background, and I didn't feel like breaking out a completely new tea, yet.

The aroma of the dried Milky Oolong leaves was just as heady, floral and fragrant as I recalled - a good sign, I must have sealed the packet well last time. But what did I need to do to brew it - what were the vital steps again? Well, all my tea books had been packed away in preparation for the upcoming move - no recourse there. The internet? Frankly, I couldn't be bothered. I'd just give the brewing a go anyway - 'no rules', remember - and see what eventuated.

So: warm water into the Yixing and cups. Drain. Add the tea leaves. More hot water, pour it out straight away, to rinse and slightly unfurl the tightly-curled leaves. More hot water; steep time of about 2 minutes is recommended on the packet for the first infusion. Wait quietly; candles are flickering and it's pretty dark in here, but I don't want to turn on the overhead lights yet if I can avoid it. Pour the steeped tea into the waiting warmed teapot for serving, so it doesn't
 overbrew. I can't seem to pour from my Yixing without dribbling tea everywhere. Well, that's ok for now. A steaming stream of tea from the serving pot into the aroma cup; place the drinking cup on top of that, flip. I made that dribble too.  Never mind. Inhale the peachy, flowery aroma, then sip the sweet liquid from the tiny cup.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

I only made it through two infusions at this particular session - despite what some of my friends may believe, there IS a limit to how much tea I can drink in one go - but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the flavour of the first infusion carried over quite strongly into the second; I seem to recall that it dissipated fairly quickly last time. 

I was reluctant to discard the leaves after only two infusions though, so I filled the Yixing up with cold water a bit later, and set it in the fridge overnight to cold-brew a third - which rewarded me the next day with a stunning golden infusion, still rich in peach fragrance and flavour, extremely mellow and sweet.

This tea session was a valuable lesson in, if not quite 'beginner's mind', then something very like it anyway - and it was very liberating to remember that, really, the tea police are not going to come after you. The main thing is to make your tea, and enjoy it in the moment. Sure, there are ways to make the experience more enjoyable - I can't relish a cup of green tea that's been rendered burnt and bitter by water that's too hot - but if you get caught up in the desire to 'get it right', so much that you can't relax, or are too hesitant to even plunge in at all...? Time to let go.

Thanks to Hobbes for the timely reminder and inspiration.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Pride, Prejudice, Tea

My husband and I managed to watch our way through the entirety of the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series (1995) last week. Amazingly, neither of us saw it when it was on TV (though I recall my friends and sister being very keen on it), and the last time I read P&P was so many years ago that I couldn’t remember the plot in any detail. Consequently each episode saw us agog to know what happened next.

And not only agog about the unfolding story either – well, at least not in my case. While I readily admit to swooning over Mr Darcy by the end (sigh!!), I also became – quite naturally, I would argue - rather obsessed with checking out the teawares that featured in different scenes. So many gorgeous patterns – and honestly, just as swoon-worthy as Mr Darcy from my perspective (although I am willing to recognise that not everyone may share this point of view).

Where else to start my search but with the omniscient Google – but even I was surprised how quickly a search for ‘china pattern bbc pride and prejudice’ returned me exactly the results I was looking for. Check out this article about the china pattern used at Longbourn, and this one about the ones at Netherfield and elsewhere – both from the highly informative Jane Austen’s World blog.

How I would love to have a single teacup – an entire set would definitely be too much to hope for – in the Cornelia Green pattern by Mottahedeh as used at Longbourn! Well, perhaps I can always keep an eye on eBay.

But what kind of tea would Jane Austen – and her characters – be drinking? That early in the 19th century it would almost certainly have been China tea – tea gardens did not really get underway in Assam, India, until after 1825, so The Story of Tea informs me. During Austen’s period, tea was generally drunk after dinner (which was usually served around 3 or 4 pm), and not as ‘afternoon tea’ – that only became popular a little later in the 1800s.

There is a great deal of helpful background on daily life in England during the 19th century (from servants, to ‘the season’, to food, clothing and social calls) in the entertaining book by Daniel Pool, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, which I recently acquired from the library. Alas, it contains nowhere near as much detail as I would like about tea; I shall have to explore its extensive bibliography to find out more. Indeed, I am not sure how I shall resist reference works with such arresting titles as this: Movable Feasts: A reconnaissance of the origins and consequences of fluctuations in meal-times, with special attention to the introduction of luncheon and afternoon tea, by Arnold Palmer, 1952. Looks like the kind of thing I could really snuggle up with – so long as I also had a cup of tea, of course.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Brown Betty Teapots

The history of teawares is fascinating – it has been affected by, and indeed itself affected, so many different converging cultural, economic, physical and social aspects of its consumers’ lives. This was brought home to me recently by a couple of posts by Gongfu Girl, on her own blog and on The Taste of English Tea blog, about Brown Betty teapots. I didn’t realise that the name referred to such a specific type of teapot, made with a particular type of clay and glaze.

I don’t own a Brown Betty – though I do have a very lovely large pot in a similar shape made by London Pottery Co. – but I would be most interested to acquire the genuine article (and having read the above-mentioned posts, I shall be careful to make sure that it is genuine). I have seen teapots that look very much like Brown Bettys in the enormous collection gracing the high shelves at Miss Marple’s Tea Room in Sassafras – alas, they’re used for display only, and not serving tea, so I don’t know if they’re the real thing. (I will mention in passing that it is my ambition to one day own as many teapots as there are at Miss Marple’s, but it may take me some time to reach that point).

The other thing that Brown Betty teapots make me think of is a book of short stories called ‘The Dribblesome Teapots’ by Norman Hunter, which I read and loved many years ago as a child. I don’t remember the plot terribly clearly, but it revolved around the difficulty of pouring the King and Queen’s tea without it dribbling all over the place (a major royal disaster, indeed, as anyone might agree) and I have a feeling that the only teapot capable of doing the job was the trusty old Brown Betty. I may be misremembering though, and will have to try and find myself a copy of the book to be sure.


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