Cha Xi Challenge: Tea, with a Story

IMG_1963

The Cha Xi Challenge, hosted by Rie of Tea Curious, wraps up tomorrow, and I have already shared three cha xi arrangements that I’ve created, but I wanted to share a fourth because it rather exemplifies my approach to tea practice. Today’s cha xi is a very playful little setup, where I tried to create a somewhat classic gongfucha arrangement using a very English tea set. I used my Brambly Hedge miniature tea set, with a 4-oz. tea pot and three tiny tea cups to approximate the classic tea-pot-and-three-cups arrangement that forms the ideal gongfu session.

The tea pot is originally made for tiny hands, but holds almost exactly the same volume of liquid as my Yixing pot, making it perfect for gongfu-style brewing, and poured out into three tiny cups, it is very similar to the idea of a teapot the size of a citron and cups the size of walnuts that is discussed in Yuan Mei’s first description of the tea practice of the Wuyi mountains that later came to be known widely as gongfucha. I used my well-loved practice of using a cake plate as a teapot saucer, and found that the milk pitcher made a lovely vase for a single rosebud from my garden, while the sugar bowl made a fitting vessel in which to display the tea leaves. They nestled into a basket with a cotton napkin as a base that fits the rustic-yet-refined aesthetic that Brambly Hedge evokes. As a side note, I chose a bud as a nod to the Japanese ikebana practice of choosing flowers that have not yet opened for arrangements so that the recipient can enjoy the full life cycle of the bloom.

And what better tea to pair with such a delightful setup than a honey fragrance black tea from Taiwan? Taiwan has become a place, which, in my mind, has exemplified the blending of modern innovation and traditional tea practice. Plus, black tea is the perfect tea for such an English tea set, while the honey fragrance suggests the flavors of the countryside and the sweetener that would be most available to the woodland creatures of Brambly Hedge.

But this is not just a playful mix of East and West in my tea practice: Like so much of my tea collection, this set has a story. This pattern dates to the year I was born, and when I was five years old and started kindergarten, my mother introduced me to afternoon tea when she would have a low tea (the traditional “fancy tea party” that is often mistakenly called “high tea”) each afternoon when I returned from school as my afternoon snack. She would enjoy putting together a selection of tiny sandwiches and sweets, while I would enjoy learning about the etiquette of the tea table. Obviously, the practice stuck with me.

Most days, we used an inexpensive white stoneware tea set, but as time went on, my mother found this set, one piece at a time, in antique stores. I remember visiting antique stores in the town in which I now live, looking for specific seasons we were missing, or the tea pot that proved elusive. It was a shared experience of collection in a time when you could not just sign into Etsy or eBay and find a dozen examples of full sets available with free shipping. Scouring antique stores and learning about the pattern became something of a passion for both of us, and we both still enjoy searching for new teaware, albeit using all tools at our disposal now.

IMG_1965

So I suppose this cha xi is a perfect visual representation of the aesthetic of Tea Leaves and Tweed. It is both an attempt to remain true to the spirit of cha xi and gongfucha practice, while using a vintage English tea set, and one that retains a great deal of meaning and family connection. Plus, it is perfectly at home in the garden! And, of course, I spilled everywhere when I tried to pour the tea in the traditional way, circulating around all three cups to make an even pour in each.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

The Virus Diaries: Chaxi and Strolls

IMG_1949

I’m back with another update from social distancing. It’s been almost eight weeks of our new normal and we’re definitely starting to get into some new routines. I think we’ve almost completely figured out the whole getting food thing, grocery shopping once every other week and getting weekly contact-free deliveries of fresh vegetables, with the occasional contact-free delivery of beer and wine, plus picking up flour as we run out (we’re about to run out again). We’ve cooked everything at home since we started staying home since my health complications make me nervous about more contact with delivery people, but we do rely frequently on frozen prepared foods to keep it simple during the day when I’m working and Dan watches Elliot.

But I’ve baked a lot of bread and sweets and I’ve gotten back into the habit of making homemade bone broth when we eat a roasted chicken. We’re definitely moving towards all of our food being produced locally, simply because it’s becoming easier to rely on local foods in a lot of ways. The other week, I made a meal of local lamb chops, with a salad of local pea shoots, radishes, and mint, and pretzels made from local flour and local milk. And I’ve joined the ranks of sourdough bakers and turned out the most amazing boule this weekend after maturing my starter last week. I must say, using really good bread flour makes a huge difference. My first loaf was almost too light and fluffy and I’m considering adding rye flour to my next batch just to make it denser!

I’ve had less success in the growing-my-own-food arena. My two planters are still pretty sparse since the squirrels keep digging things up. The basil we planted seems to have died and the parsley looks unhappy, plus the kale is hanging on, but just barely. A few of my chard and collard seeds have sprouted, but I tried to start a new batch inside, and it looks like the soil might have mold on it. I’m not entirely sure what to do about that. I’m going to replace the basil with more scallions because we have tons of scallions in our vegetable box this week, and if I could have a perpetual source of scallions to make scallion pancakes, I’d probably be happy. I’m less concerned about vegetables anyway, since the Number 1 Sons vegetable deliveries have been such a success. In addition to just getting us more fresh veggies, it’s also introduced us to new things like ramps and sunchokes, and also made me realize that I actually do like salad, but only if it’s very fresh.

But beyond our physical needs, we’ve had to work on fulfilling our emotional needs as much as possible. Besides just feeling a bit lonely and isolated, we’re also dealing with varying levels of anxiety. For me, the two biggest things that help are spending some time outside and my tea practice. Well, over the last few weeks, I’ve been taking more time to make my tea practices really beautiful and meaningful, when I have the energy to do so. And this has been helped by Rie at Tea Curious, who has started her Cha Xi Challenge. Cha xi is something I first encountered listening to Ken Cohen’s Talking Tea podcast when he interviewed Stephane Erler of Tea Masters and it is something I play with on occasion, but the combination of new flowers blooming, lots of time inside, and Rie’s challenge has made me revisit it in a more focused way, albeit with my own flair.

So taking a few minutes to put together a beautiful and cohesive tea session, where teaware, tea, and accompaniments all have particular significance and harmony, helps bring brightness to some otherwise rather dim days. And it helps me bring some of the outside world into my house, which is particularly nice on days when I don’t get out.

Speaking of getting out, the other thing that has helped lately is that, in addition to my morning yoga practice, today I was able to get out for an early morning walk around the neighborhood. My neighbors have been pretty dismal at heeding social distancing guidelines, so, with my health issue, I haven’t felt very comfortable going beyond my own fenced yard, particularly later in the days when everyone is out. But this morning, I managed to get up early enough to go out just after sunrise and walk around for twenty minutes in the quiet of the morning. It’s been over a month since I’ve just gone for a walk, and it was unimaginably wonderful. And all my neighbors’ flowers are blooming, too!

So that has been the last couple of weeks here. We’re still keeping on keeping on and staying as safe as we can. How has life been treating everyone else?