May 20, 2011

Tea Time

As I poured hot water over my Bewleys tea bag this morning, I thought about the art of tea-making, and how much it's changed, or at least been simplified and degraded by the busy nature of modern life. I enjoyed a thorough education in the fine art of tea and its enjoyment yesterday afternoon at the lovely In Pursuit of Tea, on Crosby Street in Manhattan.

Housed in an inconspicuous part of Soho, IPOT specializes in fine teas and hosts regular tastings. My host, co-founder Sebastian Beckwith, graciously made the assembled a variety of teas -white, oolong, green, black, and pu-erh -in the classical style: using delicate pieces of fine china to brew, and providing dainty Oriental tasting cups for attendants. Sebastian provided a wonderful background to each tea, too, in a casual, conversational way, sharing stories about his recent travels through China and about the vanishing arts that contribute to the manufacturing of certain types of tea.

Like my last tea-tasting with Stratford, Ontario's very own tea sommelier Karen Hartwick at Toronto's Hart House, the experience of tasting various teas, and of sharing my observations with the assembled, transported me into an older, more deeply sensual world, one where the eyes, ears, tongue and heart work in perfect harmony. Having Led Zeppelin play in the store's intimate environment added a sexily jagged rock and roll vibe, and provided the perfect bridge between old world and new.

A big part of the old world, Sebastian explained, is the way various teas are handled. Women who know how to treat and process certain green teas - with their own hands - are slowly dying, and they aren't passing on their knowledge to a younger generation, not because they don't want to, but because the younger generation isn't interested in learning. The same processing could be done via machine, but it just isn't the same, in either taste or experience. It would be, I observed, akin to kneading bread by hand or using the quick-rise, no-knead version. Sure, good, but... not the same. It's a question of personal taste.

The same holds true for writing. I recently attended an event at the wonderful Eyebeam New York;. the happening was done with Moleskine, the good people behind the beloved, legendary journals, notebooks, and other fine writing accessories. In my next blog spot, I'll be going into more detail about the nostalgia for older, more tangible forms of art. You see it reflected in the craze for vinyl records, for gardening, for home cooking. People want to experience life sensually, while holding on to (and developing) their digital identities. In fact, they're interested in linking the two. There's a fascinating kind of circular experience happening in popular culture.

That became achingly apparent yesterday as I inhaled the earthy, flowery aromas of infused tea leaves, listened to Robert Plant "ramble on", chatted and laughed with other tasters, and let the buttery (or grassy, or vanilla) flavors roll around my palate. Tasting life never seemed more rich. Who knew it could fit into such a tiny cup?

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