Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A season of Aloeswood

Tea isn't the only thing Michael's been brewing these past few months. He partnered with Toki of The Mandarin's Tea Room in a little side project. Lately their interest had been in the rare and rarified Aloeswood. The resinous heart of an evergreen tree that's found in parts of Southeast Asia and cherished for it's intense fragrance. One that conjures up exotic forests, spice markets and perfume soaked nights. What makes aloeswood different from other naturally scented woods? The tree must first become infected with a fungal parasite, then it exudes a dark resin as part of it's defense against the fungus. This rare but natural process has to occur for the tree to become the fragrant Aloeswood.
But why were we brewing it at The Tea Gallery?
Most often used in incense and perfume, Toki thought the wood's fragrance might enhance a basket of liubao tea if stored and aged together. Winnie noted a flavor and scent in certain aged teas that reminded her of Aloeswood. The more it was discussed, the more associations between tea and tree were discovered. Also, making a tisane of Aloeswood wasn't uncommon. We just had to try it oursleves.

This tiny splinter of Aloeswood was all that was needed to fill four gongfu cups with the most incredibly scented water. There were layers of fragrant wood and warm spices wrapped in sweetness. I was reminded at once of sandalwood, cedar, cinnamon, clove, ginger, allspice and none of the above. There was something familiar and yet an alien profile was now altering my tastebuds and pulling up random recollections in an effort to fit itself into my sensory banks.
While Michael steeped the precious splinter many times that afternoon, the fragrance did not dampen. It was obvious we would have to stop before the Aloeswood did. When I asked Toki if this was normal, he replied, "Not all Aloeswoods are equal." Many believe that the best specimens were harvested to extinction decades ago. The wood that may have scented the perfume or incense of a Ching Dynasty aristocrat may have been far more powerful than the modern grades available now. Many trees are deliberately infected to meet the demand but these are considered an inferior grade to the wild Aloeswood. You can find Aloeswood to brew but the strength and complexity will be determined by the grade and age.

While the alluring perfume danced on our palates, Michael decided to give our other senses something to indulge in.

An Aloeswood carving of a boy sitting atop a bull and his companion on foot.
About 6 inches tall and possibly early Ching Dynasty. I'm always impressed when Michael produces the appropriate antique for a tea gathering; it's like bringing the perfect dessert to a party only much cooler.
Amazingly, there was still a fragrance but one that had mingled with dusty storage rooms.

Although the figures lack finesse, there's a beautiful rythm and fluid movement to the overall piece. The gold accents glow softly against the dark wood. Expressive poses and swirling branches brings this carving life.

At the foot of the carving are two wooden peg inserts. This was once attached to something much larger and we can only guess at what it was. Part of a greater artwork or something more utilitarian? If so, was the rest of the piece also made from the precious Aloeswood? Having been passed through several owners before it reached Michael, it's history has been pretty much lost to us.
I asked Michael the age of the carving and he would only say a few hundred years, give or take. When I pestered him for more information, he pointed to the shelves of antique catalogues and books and wished me luck on my research. I'm still searching...

Sometimes it's the other things you learn that bring you back to tea.

Months later we are still sipping water steeped with a little splinter.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Song Dynasty Teaware

I was having an accident free week and Michael deemed it safe enough to pull out some pieces from his collection of Song Dynasty ceramics for my education. Michael uses words with great economy and he prefers to teach by showing. He did turn down my offers to help him carry the antiques to the table and suggested I stand perfectly still until everything had been safely settled.

A scattering of stars against a deep ebony glaze. The beauty of this tea bowl lies in it's deceptive simplicity. A sophisticated expression of muted form and minimal color that characterizes many Song ceramics. Pieces like these are understated and easily overlooked by untrained eyes. The bowl fit perfectly to the curve of my hand. The surface was cool and inviting to touch and I marveled at the natural and seemingly effortless styling.
The rich glaze is allowed to pool, thick and luxurious towards the base.
The naked foot adds a lovely and thoughtful contrast.

Tea bowl next to a tea or wine cup.

These might be the smallest cups from the Song Dynasty I've ever seen.These cups are very dear to Winnie's heart and still in use. If you catch her in the right circumstance, you may be lucky enough to sip tea from them one day. Now if only there were a tea old enough...

This pale beauty is a cup with connected saucer. Michael and Winnie wanted to show me these early influences that shaped the modern gaiwan. Since we rarely use the saucers that come with most gaiwans (except for display), it was interesting to see how long cups have been married to saucers and even fused into a single piece. Cups and stands were also made into separate components.
How to drink out of one these works of art? One hand grasps the saucer and carries the cup toward the mouth. The other hand screens the tilted cup and bottom half of the face while you drink.
With almost modern looking silhouettes and beautiful finishes, these works seem to exist out of time.
My communion with the past was at an end and Michael carefully put the ceramics back, away from harm's reach. Seeing the despondent look on my face, he said, "Cheer up. There's still so much more you have to see."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Like Water for Tea

I think for as long as Michael has been studying tea, he's also been learning about water. Whether it's a new understanding or rediscovering an old tradition, he wants to know the how and why of water. He's played with many types water from springs, wells, melted glaciers and so on. At the Gallery we boil our water with mineral rocks from Mongolia in our kettles to add fullness and and a soft, silky texture. In China, it is traditional to soak these types of stones in water for drinking and cooking purposes. Although the why was not clear, the result was a better tasting water and tea that kept people healthy. Our clients also enjoy using the stones but we could never explain why these rocks worked the way they do. To help shed some light on this, Scott, a close friend and patron of the Gallery, had our rocks examined by a mineral expert and discovered some interesting results.
There was a surprising amount of water soluble potassium. And though the expert couldn't test for exact amounts of silica, he was certain the rocks contained a large amount. To explain what the effect these minerals might have when dissolved in water, Scott also sent a link to an article on the nuances of drinking water. Most enlightening was this description: "Potassium, for example, may give water a sweet taste. Silica may impart silkiness. Calcium can give the water a lactic taste some people find refreshing. Others enjoy the cleansing quality of water with a high sodium content."
There's something else the rocks impart: A pleasant clinking sound from the kettle as they get jostled by the boiling water. The gentle ring of stone bumping up against the glass is incredibly soothing.

What else can affect the taste of water? Here at the Gallery, Michael is still experimenting with water. Sometimes he starts with spring water or filters his own and stores it in this late Ming to early Ching Dynasty water jar for a few days before using it to brew tea.

The result of many blind taste tests with the unwitting participation of shop visitors had everyone preferring the flavor of the water from the antique water jar. "Sweeter and softer" was the most common response. We still don't know why a 200 year old, glazed porcelain pot would have such an effect on water. The same water did not have that sweet fullness when we used other contemporary porcelain vessels.
Of course not everyone can haul out a Ching Dynasty water jar to store water for tea but I hope others will experiment on their own local or imported waters with different materials and share their results.

As for Michael and friends, the experiments continue...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ching Dynasty Pewter Teapot

Kai dropped by last week with another unusual teapot from his collection. I had mentioned an interest in pewter clad Yixing teapots during an earlier visit and he was kind enough to bring his own and satisfy my curiosity. Another Ching Dynasty teapot from the 1850's. Kai confided that pewter clad teapots were not a style he particularly admired. But he did appreciate the historic value and craftsmanship of this one. It's in great condition except for some damage to the all pewter lid. And no, I am not responsible for the dent.

The shape of the teapot mimics a common good luck symbol, one that is often seen in jade jewelry. I asked what the inscription meant but there was trouble deciphering some of the characters and I hope maybe a reader of this post could illuminate me.
A common embellishment seen in pewter teapots are spouts and handles carved from jade (nephrite). I think it's a beautiful touch, the pale stone lightens up the metal composition and gives elegance to plain pewter. Kai was quick to point out the jade was of moderate quality and added little to the monetary value of the pot.
From certain angles the clean, sharp lines gave this teapot a modern silhouette.

I found the artist's stamp inside the teapot.
I'm grateful to Kai for sharing his collection and knowledge with me. I look forward to his visits and a chance to sit by his side while he talks about his appreciation for Yixing teapots and the joys of collecting. I know it's inspired my own passion for these teapots and opened my eyes to the many beautiful styles.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Saturday at the Tea Gallery pt.2

The continuation of Toki's visit with Betty and Conrad...We started Saturday's tea session with a 1970's loose, supposedly "cooked" puer from Conrad's collection. Conrad was very modest about his knowledge of tea and he had little to say about his collection, only hoping we would enjoy the experience.
Michael weighed out 10 grams of the puer.
There was a light, woody fragance with a hint of must and old parchment.
Once the leaves were heated in Michael's puer pot, their warm aroma was as inviting as a traditional Korean herb sauna.
My first sip was sweet, delicate and silky. There was a refinement and a velvety finish that's hard to come by in shupu's, even aged ones.
By the 2nd cup, I was taken over by an immediate sense of calm and felt more relaxed than I had in days. "So smooth", Toki said, "It's like air."
As we continued to drink and admire the color of the tea, we wondered if the puer was possibly a blend of raw and cooked leaves. So delightful with an elegant body, Toki didn't believe the puer was cooked at all.

Betty started describing the wonderful effects of the tea.
Although the conversation never got serious, there was a more contemplative aura surrounding the table. We were all surrendering to the chaqi. My normally dry palms were moist with sweat and I felt an incredible warmth emanating from the seat of my spine. The 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th cups were consistently smooth with a lovely phantom coating of a fat. There was a sweetness that flooded the back corners of my mouth and I tasted more sugar every time I swallowed. By the 7th cup I was feeling drunk with tea and qi. My own tasting notes are indecipherable after this point. General consensus was that Conrad's puer was actually not cooked at all.

Knowing Betty and Conrad had other engagements that afternoon, we moved on to another tea:
A raw puer cake of unknown origin, possibly from the 80's.

Michael separated 10 grams of mystery cake to brew in a vintage gaiwan.

Winnie, taking a deep inhalation of the rinsed tea leaves.
I could smell the awakening fragrance of flowers, dried fruit and perfume from the other side of the table. There was a sweetly old fashioned note of vintage cosmetics (what Toki refers to as granny face powder). It's an aroma that inspires a sense of happiness and romantic fancies.

Still blissed out from the previous puer, I was happy to watch Michael brew tea so effortlessly. Even taking photos seemed to be taxing my brain.
The first cup was a mouthful of sweetness and perfume with a bit of wild musk. The 2nd cup yielded a pleasant astringence that balanced the sweet. A bouquet of flowers clung to the bottom of the cup. Subsequent steeps built up layers of vanilla, musk and gardenias on my palate. After the beautiful lull of the previous puer, we were starting to wake up with this tea's chaqi. It was an interesting contrast. Conversation became lively and and more animated. Everyone started sitting up straighter in their chairs. The tea also woke up our appetites and I found myself longing for the uneaten half of my breakfast croissant.
As we drank, the taste got softer and rounder but still that beautiful perfume persisted.
By the 7th and last cup we were left with a delicate rose petal finish.
Betty and Conrad had to leave soon after and the rest of us were left to contemplate our beautiful tea experience and lunch options.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ching Dynasty Tea Brick - Saturday at the Gallery pt.1

Last Saturday morning I was staring into the calm visage of this Tang Dynasty Bodhisattva at the Gallery while waiting for our guests to arrive. I don't always work at the Gallery on weekends but Toki of The Mandarin's Tea blog was coming over with friends and Michael recommended I show up. He said, "They're bringing something special and it's important that you see this." I asked Michael what I would be looking at... "A bit of history", he said with a wry smile. And so I started my weekend at work but not working. Staring into the depths of Bodhisattva until the doorbell rang.

Toki's "Auntie" Betty and "Uncle" Conrad came first and I liked the gracious couple almost immediately. Betty was bright and vivaciously pretty. I could see Conrad with his deferential gestures and handsome features at home in a classic cigar club. They had brought over a few exclusive teas from Conrad's collection including a 1970's cooked loose puer, a puer formula cake of unkown date and origin, both of which we brewed when Toki arrived.
But the real treat they had brought along was Conrad's Ching Dynasty tea brick that had been reviewed in Toki's blogpost: Vincero!. This is the same tea that Toki gave to Michael after a week and Michael continued to brew it for over a month almost every day. Now to bring that experience full circle, I was allowed to take photos of this legendary brick and share the beginning while Toki bid farewell to the brewed leaves in his recent post: Sharing a thought...
It was such a wonderful opportunity to finally get a chance to see and handle such an old tea brick. It looked and felt more like a piece of quarried stone than a brick of tea.

A brief origin story:
This tea brick was passed down to Conrad from his mother almost 30 years ago. It had belonged to his grandmother for most of her life before she bequeathed it to her daughter, Conrad's mother.
The tea was over a hundred years old when it finally passed into his possession. Conrad, himself could not elaborate more than that but it was impressive to know three generations of his family had cared for this precious heirloom.

Winne and I wrote down the brick's dimensions:
6 1/2 in. Long
4 1/2 in. Wide
1 in. Thick
Weight - 566 g (Toki wrote 600g in his post)
Considering the length of time it's been around and the amount of moisture it's lost, this brick may have weighed up to 700 grams when it was first pressed.

Notice the little white spots on the surface. I thought they might be mold spores. But a closer inspection revealed a crystalline structure. Winnie said they were sugar crystals from the leaf. I've only seen that on the outside of naturally dried persimmons and I have to wonder how long it must take to start seeing sugar crystals on a pressed tea cake.

This brick was so compact we could see the saw marks from previous tea brewing occasions. Betty said they also used a hammer to loosen the corner piece when they last brewed tea from this brick.
The light colored spots are probably cross sections of the tea stems.
A close look at the surface shows a lovely patina from the age and the tea oil. Because of that, there were subtle color variations when the brick was moved around beneath the light. Sometimes it took on a dark iron colored hue with bluish tints or it picked up coppery accents against a deep mahagony.

Michael with his oyster shucker turned puer knife, looking for a suitable entry point. I had never seen him more careful but I understood. There was a danger of splitting off more than he wanted or leaving cracks in the brick.
I held my breath when the knife went in but there was no need. Michael's a pro and he got exactly what he wanted:

3 grams of Ching Dynasty tea.
The biggest surprise was the delicate fragrance emanating from the leaves Michael pried off the brick. Like a faded perfume, more a memory than an experience. Since we already had a chance to drink Toki's sample, we weren't in rush to brew this. Also, there were the other teas we had to drink as well. Betty and Conrad's visit continues in part 2... coming soon.