Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things. ~ Okakura Kakuzō in his Book of Tea
It’s tea time — that golden hour of slant afternoon sun that warms tables & fills rooms with light. My elderly cat (18!) sprawls on the table runner, basking in the sun. It’s the time when water burbles happily in a kettle — glass, if you’re lucky, so you can see the bubbles! — and you find a mug, or a cup & saucer, and maybe a cookie. Or two…or three…
Today’s tea is brought to you by poetry, and Okakura Kakuzo, practically a poet of tea. See the above quote if you doubt. One of the lovely moments in life is to read poetry you love (or write drafts you probably don’t! — while you sip tea.
My favourite tea used to be a china black, a nice serviceableKeemun. It’s still the house tea, and the fav. But as my tea time moved later in the day (winter nights come early), I found myself drinking more herbal teas, fruit teas, and occasionally a small pot of matcha when I really need some energy. My favourite is peach matcha. It allows me the ritual I seem to need, to calm down & refocus my dissipated attention. I indulged myself in a little matcha scoop, as well as a small bamboo matcha whisk. To brew it, I use a small (2-cup) glass pot, when I want more than just one gai wan.
There IS a fair amount of caffeine in matcha, but nothing like what there is in two (or more!) large cups of black tea. And theine is significantly smoother to process than caffeine.
Yesterday, however, I made masala chai, as I have often these cold winter days. The gentle spice is warming, and the addition of milk & sugar make it a bit more substantial than the jasmine I tend to drink in summer. Today it’s Hao Ya A, an extravagant holiday treat from my beloved. It’s a glamourous uptick on the usual Keemun, this one even more assertive. And while it sounds almost sacrilegious, I like it with milk & Demerara sugar, as I do most afternoon tea. Again, it just feels more comforting. And while milk & sugar may not seem poetic, a hot cup of afternoon tea — lightly sweetened & with milk to the colour winter grass — is the best kind of material poetry. You can feel the magic grow with each peaceful sip.
So heat up your kettle, if you have one. Or microwave a mug of water. Add a tea sachet (they’re much better quality tea than teabags, if you can afford the little bit extra!). Even an Oreo goes well, and you can have a lovely respite mid-afternoon, when work & all the rest of the world can recede to less importance. I promise: it’s the best moment of the day. And immeasurably poetic, isn’t it, Okakura Kakuzō-san?
In a much-needed break from all the pain of the current national tragedy of government, let’s take tea together. Virtually speaking, of course. Because in the UK, it’s Afternoon Tea Week!
That means we need to talk tea, for at least a little bit. Almost as good as drinking tea is talking (or reading) about it. Just Saturday, I had a nice visit with Jack, who is opening Tea & Jam here in Blacksburg, later this month. I saw his van parking as I walked up to the Farmer’s Market Saturday, and stopped to congratulate him on a great article, about his upcoming opening, in the Roanoke paper. We got to visiting about the health benefits of tea (numerous!), and Jack introduced me to a book I just ordered: Cancer Hates Tea. A family member is fighting cancer, and the book seemed timely.
But tea’s healing qualities aren’t just about polyphenols (one of the health-benefiting elements of tea). The magic is also, as tea drinkers know, about quiet. About the ritual of filling the pot (or cup) with boiling water, and taking a moment to let it steep. It’s also about spoiling yourself just a bit, and taking a moment ‘off’ from your daily grind, whatever that may be.
It’s about savouring the fragrance of peach matcha as you stir it, or watching milk cloud a cup of Earl Grey. It’s about a moment when the world stops whirling & settles, for a warm comfy moment, into focus. You, the cup, the tea. The old be here now thing. Almost impossible to achieve with even the best cup of coffee (which I also like, just fyi). Coffee lacks the magic of tea, I confess. And don’t we all need magic these days?
Sometimes folks ask me to ‘recommend’ teas. Unlike Jack, I don’t own a tea shop. More like a tea way station, where I try to bring order to fractious days. At my house, if you’re invited to tea, there will be a black tea (if you’re a newbie tea drinker, probably just a good China black or maybe Earl Grey). And if you’ve told me you don’t drink caffeine, there will be one of the tisanes or fruit teas I often sip in the late afternoon or evening. I’m partial to lemon verbena, or a fruit tea made with mango pieces.
But if you do drink caffeine, I might go with a flavoured or blended black tea. My favourites — especially if you’re adventurous — are Lapsang Souchong, and a blend from Harney’s tea, Victorian London Fog. Despite my younger son’s dismissal of any tea using vanilla, I adore the London Fog tea, which is basically Earl Grey with lavender & a tiny soupçon of vanilla. And of course Lapsang Souchong is smoky & a bit wild. Good for days when it feels you’re being smothered in everyday minutiæ!
There will be a tea tray w/ a tea cloth. Matching cups & tea pot, drawn from the far too many I own (and use!). A complementary creamer & sugar, as I like my black teas w/ both. And a little honey jar, one of 2-3 I have for various tea sets. And of COURSE there will be cookies! Maybe scones, too, if it’s a mid-morning or mid-afternoon tea, where we need more sustenance. Probably ginger scones, unless I made ginger shortbread. (Can you tell how much I love ginger?)
The whole point of shared afternoon tea is just that: sharing. And the nurturing comfort that comes from someone baking something tasty just for you. Of, as M.F.K.Fisher said,
I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.
Tea’s like that. A way to feed people on so many levels. And here’s the best part of this open secret: you can do it for yourself! You can buy a package of tea bags or sachets (it doesn’t have to be loose tea, if that intimidates you, although the ritual of scooping and filling a tea strainer is pleasant!), in whatever flavour you like, and pour boiling water into a cup where the tea bag nestles. Let it brew for a minute or two, and then add what you like. Or nothing at all!
Now: take a deep breath of the healing steam. Let it out. And enjoy your moment of peace & comfort.