I’m a tea drinker. Here’s how my mother taught me to prepare tea. First warm the tea pot by rinsing it out with hot water, then add one teaspoon of tea leaves for each person and one for the pot. Fill the pot with boiling water, cover it with a hand knitted, brightly coloured tea cosy and allow the tea to brew for a few minutes. Pour the tea into a tea cup and make sure you put the milk in first. My mother’s tea was always accompanied by sweet biscuits or cake, always drunk sitting down and at pre-ordained times during the day. Tea time occurred four times a day and was a ritualistic process which could not be altered.
When I first started work, way back in the last century, we stopped the clatter of our manual typewriters when the tea lady arrived twice a day with her trolley and oversized teapot. We gathered around for a cup of well stewed tea, and to catch up on the office gossip, the tea lady knew it all. A tea break really was a break.
Here’s how I make tea now. I throw a tea bag in a mug, pour in boiling water. Jiggle the bag a few times, take it out and the tea is made. My tea has been frequently accompanied by a heavy work load, often the tea is only half drunk as it’s been left to go cold sitting on my desk. Even at home I don’t necessarily stop what I am doing to drink the tea and have been known to walk around slurping from my cup. My mother could never understand the absence of milk. Despite the lack of ritual and routine a cup of tea can still trigger a relaxation response in me.
Kitty our Taiwanese host, introduced me to the slow art of tea drinking at her home, at the Wisteria Tea House, (a Japanese style teahouse built in the 1930’s) and the Cheng Wei Tea House in the beautifully renovated Lin, Wu-hu Residence, the first building of Dadaochegn.
To drink tea Taipei style first sit down, there is no need to rush, this is a process to engage your senses. With gentle care a tiny teapot is placed in a bowl, boiling water is poured in and over it to warm the pot, then the water is discarded. Tea is placed inside the teapot with a bamboo scoop. The tea has been carefully chosen dependent upon whether you want to feel relaxed or invigorated, how strong you like it and which aroma of the teas on offer appealed to you.
The movements of the tea maker are slow, measured and delicate, like a seductive dancer and the chatter ceases as we watch. The warm tea pot awakens the tea and while we wait the small cups are filled with hot water. The teapot is then filled to overflowing with hot water, the lid placed on it and hot water poured over the pot.
At the Wisteria Tea House our first pot was left to brew for only 15 seconds. The tea was poured into a small jug and the lid taken off the teapot in preparation for the next round as you need to let the heat out to stop the tea leaves from stewing. From the jug the tea was poured into a thimble sized and shaped cups so that we could take our time to appreciate and saviour the aroma of the tea. We then poured the tea into our pre-warmed, small plain white China cups and were finally allowed to taste the delicacy of the tea.
The tray of tea making utensils were then passed to the left and we all took a turn in making beautiful tea for each other. The same tea leaves were used with the brewing time increasing a few seconds each round. We were challenged to notice the subtle differences in flavour. Our conversation became focused only on maintaining the ritual and savouring the tea.
We visited the Cheng Wei Tea House after an evening meal (no longer are we on the hunt for bars) when Kitty spied a light on in the closed shop. She artfully manoeuvred an invitation to enter from the owner who was sitting smoking a pipe and teaching a beautiful young Taiwanese woman the art of calligraphy. He graciously made us tea and again we experienced the slow meditative process of tea making and serving.
Thanks to Kitty when I return home I’ll dust off my beautiful old teapots, buy myself some aromatic tea leaves and indulge myself in the tradition of making tea with care for myself and others. I’ll allow tea to reclaim its role in making a calm and reflective space in the busyness of life.