Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tea Time

Photo courtesy Flickr

A well-travelled friend mentioned a certain Parisian tea outlet and asked if I thought it was too fancy. The question was flattering, and thought-provoking, too, but since I’d only seen the web site, I couldn’t say much. As it happens, I had seen the Portland Art Museum’s display of English silver a couple of weeks before. It was a wonderful surprise to find myself in a room with the best of the best, not so much fancy as gloriously designed to occupy space and celebrate the contents of the vessels.

My friend has a natural appreciation of and affinity with good form. My limited education in the art of tea includes having read Okakura’s Book of Tea. The author reminds the reader that Japanese tradition uses metal only for things that can’t be made of anything else. The contrast between the Japanese and English approaches to serving tea could not be greater. It would be wonderful if a museum displayed silver under imitation flickering candles to animate the vessels’ expressive forms. An Asian palette is genetically likely to taste silver, which may account for its absence on the tables of the East.

I haven’t thought about tea for quite a while-to the point of forgetting that “orange pekoe” ain’t a variety. Recently I discovered that opening trade with China greatly expanded the appreciation of and options for tea that are available to the retail customer. Apparently, Seattle’s climate, that lofts camellia bushes far into the sky, is a good one for growing tea. That might make drinking the brew of those tender first leaves affordable. At $200 a pound for first leaves, a few tea plants could put a dent in the property taxes, or at least elevate the standard of living.

When most middle class women worked inside the home, friends often gathered for tea to celebrate, sometimes formally. Any etiquette book will lay out the drill. Now and then I meet friends in a tea room for a brief commercial respite, but I find tea at home the most meaningful.

Certain cups of tea have been memorable. The first was offered by a friend from the north of England, a simple utility “cuppa” brewed from a bag of Yorkshire tips, as natural and unpretentious as my hostess, who can set out a table of tiny sandwiches and lemon curd with the best of them.

The second was equally unpretentious and brewed from good Canadian leaves on a hiking trip up the Elwha River. It seems that the same soft water that impairs tooth development in Port Angeles children brings out the best in black tea served in chilly weather with a side of wood smoke.

On a 1962 visit to the Caribbean, my hostess took me to tea at the home of an English friend. We sipped in a sunny yellow kitchen in humid 96 degree weather. In the corner of the room was a crock that filtered water. The house was fairly small and characteristic of the region, and the conversation was also fairly small and seemed characteristically English.

The fourth cup was an act of mercy: a beloved exercise instructor had melted down after spending days in the hospital with her mother, who was critically ill (and since recovered). An Englishwoman in the group that surrounded the trainer said something about a “nice cup of tea”. I hastened to the cafe across the street. The barrista/drummer slung a tea bag into a paper cup instanter and sent it over on the house. That cup of tea failed on every technical point except the spiritual.

In the late Seventies, I cruised through the Seattle Asian Art Museum with an arts graduate of UC Berkeley, who pointed out a tea bowl that was world famous. They have names, apparently. The most valuable bowls are from Korea, simple works of local potters.

As best I understand tea, what matters is the quality of the experience as one drinks it.


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