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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ching Dynasty Beauty

This gorgeous 1850's yixing teapot belongs to Kai, a serious yixing collector and frequent visitor to the shop. Until this post, there's only been a handful of us lucky enough to see pieces from Kai's private collection. He brought along this Xianfeng Era teapot a couple Fridays ago. It fit perfectly in my palm and I felt the supple clay come to life as I warmed it with my hands.
I ask him if his teapot will pose for photos while he's having tea. He's more than accommodating, "You can keep it till my next visit. I have faith in you." I'm touched by his generosity and trust. But then he (half-joking) made me understand any serious damage to his pot would result in the immediate surrender of my strand of Tahitian black pearls. I guess it's easier to have faith when it's bolstered by collateral : )
Afraid my recent streak of clumsiness would result in 20 grand worth of pretty pottery shards and the loss of one cherished necklace, I hurriedly snapped some pics and returned the teapot to Kai before he left. Part of me wanted to keep it forever.
Lush peonies, chrysanthemum and even a sprig of bamboo are topped with a decorated finial.
Kai says this teapot was most likely produced for export to the West. Although the body is a traditional Yixing pear shape, the illustration and decorative accents would not have appealed to Asian tastes. I love how the unusual amalgam of styles makes it exotic even among other Yixing pieces.
Even the spout has some abstract adornment; something I've never seen before.More decorative glaze on the handle. Although the art is quite elaborate for such a small teapot, the simple shape supports all the incredible detail. Not an artist's stamp but a carved inscription. One that was difficult for us to make out.Fanciful butterflies play in a garden of floral delights. Even the wings have elegant streaks of gold!
I wish I could convey to everyone just how incredible the clay felt. There was something buttery and smooth in texture. It seemed to pull the heat away from my hands and I could have held on to this perfect little gongfu pot for a long time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Remnants of a past

This beautiful shard of porcelain used to be a gaiwan. A notably elegant one that managed to stay intact for over 50 years until one day, several years ago, it was dropped by Winnie. Even dainty, gracile Winnie has clumsy moments (not me... I have clumsy weeks). This one resulted in shattered porcelain. Naturally, Winnie was upset over the loss of a favorite tea vessel. Michael helped her pick up the pieces but instead of throwing them away, he insisted they keep every shard found. " You never know, we may find a way to use them again", he said. "Besides, it's still beautiful to look at."
Picking through remains, I had to agree. Still beautiful...
The reason Michael and Winnie wanted to show me these fragments: This exquisite bird.
There's something poignant about this delicate bird, separated from it's tree. Pert and lively, it looks as if it will sing or fly away at any moment.A beautiful show of brushwork from beak to tail feathers.

Speaking of porcelain remnants...
Here are a pair of identical lids long separated from their cups. As I mentioned in my previous post, surviving lids can have a second life as shallow cups for tea or rice wine. I can only imagine how beautiful the missing cups and saucers were.
These lids are reproduction pieces from 1900 - 1950.
The stamp on the lid says it was made in QianLong era. That tells us the original design was produced between 1736 - 1795 during the Ching Dynasty. The playful pattern is delicately embossed. Bright colors are subtly brought together, enhancing the lyrical design.

Whether it's saving the unbroken parts of a gaiwan or holding onto a handful of shards, there is still beauty to be found, new perspectives to be learned. I'll think twice before judging something just because it's less than whole.

Til next time...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Vintage Gaiwans

I ask Michael if I can take photos of his vintage gaiwan collection to share with some friends on the web. "Just be careful with them," he says as he watches me raid the cabinets. "It's hard to find the older styles." Knowing the hefty price tag on some of them, I'm very careful with the gaiwans. But I do trip over a wire and knock his super expensive camera off the table. Surprisingly, he allows me to live and continue taking photos. Here are a few of my favorites. No gaiwans were harmed in the making of this post.
Lively brushwork on a rich orange surface. Michael believes this piece was crafted as early as the 1930's. Vintage gaiwans enhance a collection with different clay, discontinued colors and shapes. There's a variety of artistic styles missing in more modern forms; not to mention a level of creative expression that was stamped out during the Cultural Revolution.

A playful piece with bold primary colors. Is it a psychedelic plant creature with multiple heads? Was the artist recreating a childhood dream or nightmare?

From retro outburst to an elegant floral motif.

It seems there really is a style for every mood and every tea.

Let's compare a pre-Cultural Revolution gaiwan to it's modern counterpart:
Many older gaiwans are characterized by a bluish-grey tint to the porcelain. A hue made more apparent when compared to this modern gaiwan with it's milky white complexion. It's not hard to see why the short, shallow nob and straight walls of older styles have fallen out of vogue. It takes a skilled tea brewer with adroit, nerve-deadened fingers to maintain a secure grip on this type of vessel filled with dangerously hot tea. Newer gaiwans generally have a tall, easy-to-grasp nob and a flared rim that allows for a comfortable grip.

What's the safest way to handle a vintage lid with a shallow nob?
Pinch one side of the nob with thumb and index finger and brace the middle finger against the opposite side of the nob.

Another eye-popping design. This one I've used (very carefully) for tea tastings. I love to pair a decades old gaiwan with an equally old tea. The opportunities are rare but the experiences are unforgettable.

A more traditional looking piece with delicate artwork. Little details like the cobalt blue mountain peaks add something precious to the already graceful scene. Subdued and refined.
For a more contemplative tea experience. A rare find: the skillful brush strokes and delicate coloring by the artist increases the value of this piece from the 1930's. Sadly, many gaiwans of this caliber do not survive the decades of use. Often times, cups are missing lids or vice versa. But separate pieces still have a value and use. What was once a beautiful lid can be flipped over and used as a shallow tea or rice wine cup. The nob now becomes a little foot. New life for old porcelain.