Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The fire in the cup

That's a picture of me. No, i'm not going vainglorious on you all of an egotistical sudden. This piece is about me because my life has suddenly become me, as in just me. Me. Such a little big word. The wonderful Mr Nietzsche once said that in the last analysis we experience only ourselves. That was my favourite quote for a good few years. Nietzsche was a pretty lonely guy though, one of his most intense emotional experiences being with a wounded horse, but that's a story for another day. Alas, Dan and I are no more. Yeah, 'ouch' is a good word for it.
If that relationship was a Doors song, it'd be The End...a song that always made me smile a bit because it's just Jim hypnotically singing over and over this is the end, the funny bit being that it just goes on and on and on, endlessly (stay away from pot, eh). I know what some of you are thinking, and no, it wasn't the Pear Cake Debate that caused the final divide, nor did he blaspheme against The Beloved Bonsoy. We can just blame it on petrol prices, they're totally the reason the world and everything in it is falling apart.

It has been the most amazing two years of my 28, we were a whole heavy jewel box of unbelieveable experiences and opportunities and places. Places, especially. When I think about what it was I can't quite catch the edges of it all, the magnitude is a bit daunting. Sort of like trying to think about how big the universe is, you just come up smack against the limits of the mind. With our usual weird way of doing things, we have ended much more cake than knife, so it still occurs to me every now and then to feel incredibly lucky for it all.
Just before things fell, I had started reading a book so interesting that I can't say i've come across anything else like it. It is a slow book to read, an odd one as well, The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia (the image below is taken from the novel, I think it's adorable). It is a book about pain, love, paper, Saturn, war, fire, limes and Salvador Plascencia. It speaks of all the things "the fire had cured". It got me thinking about fire alot, how we feel when it is with us, and how we feel when we have to find it again. Fire is so, so beautiful. It's what makes people beautiful too, I think. Candice's fire, Erin's fire, Tatsu's fire, Dad's fire. There are lots of beautiful fires burning in people everywhere, sometimes they make too much of the burning or the embers, because fires are not always comfortable things to carry, and they forget the flame itself. I think I might have forgotten my own for a while.
Okay, heartbreak, book, fire, it's a bloody food blog...where's she going with all this? Tea! This is literally the hardest piece for me to write. Tea. Tea. Tea. I have so much to say about thee. I would trade my ancestors for a cup of good tea, the lot of them. Jesus, I can't even think about how much tea means to me. It's a love so deep it hurts. I feel the same pressure at this momentous moment as parents when they sit their kids down to give them the BirdBee talk, the only difference being that I want to include as much detail as my upload limit possibly allows. Okay, here goes:

Many years ago, in my former Dark Ages of Beverage, I used to be a coffee chick. I thought tea people were silly frilly hippies who just ordered tea because they wanted to show off with all their anachronistic floral paraphernalia. Little cups. Little saucers. Little strainers. Little strainer holder thingies. Little sides of sugar and honey. Pots. Cosys. Jesus. I probably shouldn't be this honest, but I am going to be, i'd actually sit there and say (to myself, of course), just grow some balls already and get a flat white, a short black, a macchiato, anything, just show some self respect! I can't totally blame that viewpoint on what coffee does to the personality, it's partly Arabness and unbringing as well. heh. How wrong I was. I recant. I am going to visit some pristine Darjeeling estate at some time in non existent future, locate a specimen of the sacred camellia sinensis plant and actually apologize to it in person, I don't want to live with nasty tea Karma.

The difference between good coffee and tea is like the difference between a person with good personality, and a person with character. Someone with personality can amuse and distract you, leave you feeling zinged for a while, the effect is instant, it leaves you off center. Someone with character (and this is tea, for those you still following this dubious analogy), effects you slowly, subtly, they are like presence you are drawn into that leaves you revived, true, whole, grounded, energized in a peaceful and not a forced way. That's the nature of tea.

Philosotea 101:
If I were a philosophy teacher and I wanted my students to understand Time, I would teach them how to drink tea properly. I know that sounds a tad Mr Miagi, but it's true, Grasshoppers. Tea is all about time, and not just the making of it either. Any good tea drinker knows that when your tea arrives is not the time to drink it. You wait, you get a sense of when to pour, and then once you've poured, how long to wait for the heat to settle. The waiting itself makes you settle, the pauses that are necessary for a perfect cup become pauses in you, in your day, they are not steps that separate you from the process, but, like a silence between piercing or gentle notes, they are an essential part of the actual substance of the experience. Tea is Slow. It's Inside. It draws down. It warms, not just physically, viscerally. It's fire in the cup. I have wordlessly sunken into so many solitary or shared cups of beautiful tea that have dissolved things in me that needed to be broken away. Whether anxious, sad, sullen, lost, frustrated, I make tea. I even make tea when I am happy, like twice every whole year! Heh. Even if I don't feel like it, the ritual of the making draws me into a self and a mind and a heart that is slower, better, more real. It's a rhythym (Candice and I are scared of the word rhythym, we're never really sure how to spell it). To hold a cup and wait..your hands begin to drink the tea even before you taste it, the warmth sinks in you through your skin like touch, and the slowness too.

Kettles should always be filled with fresh, cold water, that is never reboiled again. Filtered water is nice if you have it. Using warm water or reboiling or using old water makes a damn dull tea, reboiling especially makes tea taste metallic. Stay with the kettle, allow it to approach the summit where it whistles or steams full, but don't let it arrive. Take the kettle off just below boiling point. I'm toying with getting a stove kettle to use on gas, I think water heated by fire rather than by electricity would give a much more dynamic infusion (yeah, that sentence is pretty tragic, eh, true anyway).

Pots depend on the tea. Glass gives a cleaner taste for tisanes (herbal teas that aren't even actually tea) or delicate Whites and Greens. Metallic is good for keeping the heat in and fully infusing the taste. I don't like ceramic pots any more. I don't even like ceramic cups, they just don't taste the same.

Cups are so important. Firstly, I promise you all tea tastes better, cleaner, fuller and more alive drunk out of glass. It just does. I can't drink green or white tea especially if it comes in a ceramic cup or a mug, it just tastes wrong. Aesthetically, the cup should make a shape that is pleasant to wrap your hands around. I don't like handles, they spoil the way I like to cusp the cup. Glass cups don't just make the taste sharper, but they allow you to look at the infusion more fully, a good tea is bright and not dull, you can see from the colour alone whether what you are drinking has good flavour. I am in love with Bodum Double layered hand blown cups in the beautifully generous larger size. They are a gorgeous shape and the double layered glass allows heat through without burning your hand. Most importantly, the weight of a cup is crucial. A tea cup should be heavy, it should sink into your hands. Thick weighty mugs I can sometimes handle, but those sad pathetic little thin flighty jobs you see in every homewares shop make me want to cry. They suck. A heavy cup is necessary for the groundedness of the experience. No unbearable lightness allowed. The weight is precious, like Kundera said, it pins you to the earth.
Tea: Certainly Not T2. Not even a big fan or Mariage Freres, they're not bad but not great. Whittard's are okay. My favourite tea, specifically, is Hampstead Organic Loose Leaf Earl Grey, and, surprisingly, Clipper Organic White tea bags with Raspberry or Strawberry. The English are my eternal empire on this score. I don't normally use tea bags, they are almost categorically dull and weaker than loose leaf, but these Clipper unbleached teabags have the most potent white tea I have ever tasted. The fruit infusion is delicate and real, vital and not sugary, it's subtle as well. I carry a box of these teabags with me everywhere, I ask for a cup of boiling water at restaurants or cafes and I put my own teabag in. The clipper tea, which in the Raspberry and Strawberry I have only ever found stocked at Macro in Crowsnest, has been a favourite with so many people. Waiters in restaurants I have been in have taken some off me when I have had it to give or else taken the name down themselves, bought it and later told me they are converts. It's a great tea. Kieran drinks it, Mum drinks it, Perie and Juno drink it. It's worth trying if you are tea timid.

With loose leaf, add the tea to the pot, then pour boiling water over, with the bag I do the same. Keep in mind the delicacy of the tea, whites especially and greens to a lesser extent should not be brewed long, you lose the flavour and burn them otherwise. Go by smell when buying tea and for when you think it's ready to pour. Never let the water be boiling, just almost boiling is what you want.

For the best cup of tea you don't make yourself, the Earth Store in Gould Street Bondi is great. They even have bonsoy and wicked raw honey with the little wooden drippy thing that I love to use. Otherwise, it's more miss than hit. Tea is universally crap. I once had visions of opening a cafe that served only tea, no coffee. Just to be a bit sadistic, I wanted to open it in a really Italian area. The Tea Room in Sydney, is okaaaay, nothing to knock socks off, not even those little anklets you wear with your jogging shoes. The Tea Center in the city is the same, nothing spectacular. My all time favourite tea place ever is Alice's Tea Cup, if I had a private jet, I'd be New Yorking it every other day to this place. I could justify the extravagance on the fact that they superboil their water for purity to 270 degrees! They have a great website that sells amazing teas sourced from everywhere (Darjeeling Earl Grey, My God!), they ship to Australia, so knock yourself out (and your socks off). If you're trying to suss out if a place has good tea, keep in mind that places that stock just one brand usually aren't. Penelope Sach Herbal Teas deserve a mention, she uses the most potent herbs, her tisanes are unlike any i've ever had, it didn't surprise me to see them served at great hotels in America, Asia and Europe. Her Triple E is my favourite, it's peppermintlicoricefennel, but peppermint and I go through stages of liking and hating eachother.

The only tidbit i'm going to add to plethora of things said on tea and health, is that the caffeine in tea does not work in the body the same way the caffeine in coffee does. There are other compounds in tea which make the high you get from it more nurturing and gradual, coffee is too strong. Especially for people with nervous constitutions, it really dicks your system around a fair bit, especially your digestion. Coffee usually makes you hungrier a few hours later, tea leaves you more satiated. It also lights the fire I was talking about, just a tiny bit, each day, and right now that's enough. Thank god for tea. When Summer rolls around i'll tinker with some Sugarless iced teas and see what I come up with, but to be honest, I love hot tea all year around.


Has anyone ever accidentally written a thesis?

I have to end this post now. This is the end. If James Morrison were alive he'd so be calling me a hypocrite right now. But he's not, and I am, and tomorrow is another day. Even if it's probably going to be a shitty one! Thanks for reading guys xx.
Ps..anyone got a favourite tea place in Sydney or anywhere else, spread the word, I need some new haunts.


Unknown said...

hey again after a long time, amanda. sorry to hear about the breakup. i hope you find the one youve been looking for..
back to tea, ive been meaning to ask for your critique for a long time on this. but what do you think of the tea of Toby's Estate, because they source out tea from around the world, pack em, brew em?

amanda said...

have tried a couple of toby's not bad, but again, i dont love them. i remember trying peppermint and earl grey. hope youre well dom x

Unknown said...

ahhh good to know im not doing a T-pocrisy by drinking Toby's -- coz all other places seem to give me a big pot with only a cup half the size... by the time im done drinking my perfectly brewed cup, the rest in the pot is absolute astringent crap.
so wheres the tea you love that can be had in sydney? i bought madame freres and i thought it was great.

e said...

you know, the world would be a better place if the food triangle had vegetables on the bottom instead of sadness.

amanda said...

dominic those are all my tea places. Earth store for earl grey, g + a for chai, i don't really like tea any where else.

erin, are you quite sure that vegetables are better for you than sadness?

Unknown said...

whew, nobody noticed the 'madame' freres instead of 'mariage'...

im sure coffee and a little muffin on the side should be a better fit for the bottom of the food triangle.

e said...

vegetables are the solution to the world's problems

amanda said...

news just in! single origin chai blend with bonsoy from f and b rocks, had it twice and it makes the grade, unlike g + a, no sugar in the mix, quite refined and vanillaish and not too spicy xx

vegetables cant solve the age old question, erin:

where's the beef?

Unknown said...

interesting. im still on the lookout for the opposite sort of chai, the spicy badass one -- some middle asian into this has to be around in Sydney somewhere.
f & b baristas are pretty good, understated yet can execute coffee. though i had the ceylon black tea once and was disappointed in the brewing, although the tea itself was pretty good -- i may have to specifically ask for a spare empty teapot next time im in.