Cha Xi Challenge: Tea, with a Story

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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The tea pot is originally made for tiny hands, but holds almost exactly the same volume of liquid as my Yixing pot, making it perfect for gongfu-style brewing, and poured out into three tiny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.

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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.

Tea With Friends: Hosting My First Tea Tasting Gathering

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I’ve been running this blog for about five years and have been drinking tea for almost my entire life, and I have hosted my fair share of tea parties. From the late-night, tea and biscuits nights with my friend Rebecca, where we would drink too much Earl Grey, eat Pepperidge Farm chocolate biscuits, and stay up all night watching British comedy, to my ever-so-proper bridal tea, my teas tend to be of the British persuasion. But as I’ve gotten more into tea cultures from around the world, I’ve wanted to try sharing my tea practices with my friends, especially those who have already expressed an interest. So I recently contacted two of my friends who are not seriously into tea, but who have made comments about wanting to learn, to come over and share a tea tasting.

I decided to taste three different teas that I find particularly interesting and that will introduce different types of teaware. I also put out a couple little dishes of nuts and dried fruit, just in case people needed a little to nibble, since we were tasting from about 10 a.m. to noon.

We started with a Rou Gui in my Chaozhou pot, served traditionally in a gongfu style so that I could demonstrate the practice. It was so fun to watch them taste this style of tea for the first time. We talked about aromas versus flavors versus mouthfeel, and they asked a ton of questions. I will say, it was a little difficult to try to avoid steering their perception of the tea, since I’m so used to tasting alone in front of a camera and having to carry the entire conversation, but I really enjoyed getting their perspectives on the tea. They were particularly intrigued that we didn’t need to steep it for a long time, and that the flavor evolved over the different steepings. And when we tasted the rinse at the end of the session, they noticed some flavors that I don’t usually.

Throughout the tasting, we used my Tea Notes pad from Tea Thoughts to jot down notes, and I love how Nazanin has organized the note sheet, with a spot for “Steep Memory,” so that you’re encouraged to connect emotionally with a tea. I also think it helped keep the tasting fun and not too serious.

After the yancha, we moved on to a sort of intermission with the Malawi Antlers tea from Rare Tea Company. I chose this tea in part because the stems will have less caffeine and I know at least one person at the tasting had to be careful of caffeine, but also because it’s a lovely example of how different parts of the tea plant can have different flavors. And it was a good way to demonstrate the use of the gaiwan before I gave each of them their own to play with. They were intrigued that the Malawi Antlers tasted almost more like an herbal infusion than tea because of the lack of tannins, and at least one of them said it was their favorite of the day.

Then, we moved on to the AAA Tieguanyin from Yunnan Sourcing, which you may remember from my recent comparative tasting video. I loved this tea and I thought sharing a really floral green oolong would be a nice contrast to the spicy roasted yancha earlier in the session. I also had each of them steep it themselves with one of my 60-ml gaiwans, so we had a little interlude where we practiced pouring cold water with the gaiwan.

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We ended up spending about two hours tasting tea, talking about it, and just enjoying each other’s company. It was a wonderful way to spend time with friends and share my interests in real life, since most of my tea-related interactions happen online. And it was fun to try out hosting a tasting. I definitely want to try it again sometime!