[EDITOR'S NOTE: as always, you need only click on an image to view it at a larger size.]
My life is a study in contrasts. While I tend to think of myself as a sedentary person, I find myself these days traveling more frequently than just about anyone I know. I live in what can only be called a tropical paradise, among the banyans and palm trees of one of the lushest environments in the US; with surroundings so beautiful, it's easy to find reasons not to go anywhere at all.
Still, around the time of the summer solstice, it was high time to pay a visit to my lady mother, who resides to this day in southern New England. We always find plenty of things to occupy our time together; but during that visit, with a single brief afternoon to spare, I hopped on a train that took me down the 'northeast corridor' to Penn Station. To emerge from the bowels of this enormous depot into the sunny environs of midtown Manhattan on a summer's day is a marvelous experience in itself; this is the time of year, and I lucked into the sort of weather, that puts the denizens of the locale into their most ebullient mood. So, unsurprisingly, the life of the city was surging all about me, in a happy and vibrant way. From this spot, just a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, it was a surprisingly lengthy taxi ride to 131 Allen Street, where The Tea Gallery is located; I would have done better, I think, to take the subway (the 'A,' 'C,' or 'E' line to Washington Square, and then the 'F' line to Delancey Street). But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
I had made advance arrangements, so Michael and Winnie were expecting me. And indeed, not just me, but (as it turned out) a whole raft of Tea Gallery devotees: this being a Friday afternoon, a number of people had also arranged to stop in at the Gallery, and (by my count) about 14 different visitors came and went during the all-too-few hours that I was there.
I was greeted at the door by Dae, Michael and Winnie's winsome assistant, and led back into the deeper registers of the long narrow shop. The first area one sees, through a keyhole archway, is a honeycomb of shelves lined with canisters and boxes.
Beyond a large square partition, one comes to a long table surrounded by chairs, and it was here that Michael was presiding over the leisurely group. To call it a 'tea tasting,' which indeed it was, somehow fails to do justice to the lively interaction of the company across the hours: the conversation rolled hither and yon in ever-shifting waves, sometimes splitting into twos and threes, sometimes converging again to a single large group. And meanwhile, more or less constantly, there were cups and cups of extraordinary tea being drunk.
Perhaps the ancient Greek word 'symposium' -- which, after all, means 'drinking together' -- might be the best way to describe this experience. Occasionally someone stood up with Michael or Winnie to purchase some tea, but the conviviality never faltered. And the teas we tasted were remarkable.
During the several hours of my visit, we tasted four teas. The first one, described by Michael as a 'mystery tea,' was a sheng pu'er. Its fairly young profile suggested a harvest of perhaps 2005 or 2006. Next, courtesy of our CHA DAO colleague Toki, himself master of one of the most important tea blogs currently online, we savored a Korean green tea known as ddok cha.
More can be read about ddok cha on Toki's blog -- with some gorgeous photos -- and also on MattCha's Blog, in a post that (along with a post on CHA DAO by Steven Owyoung) seems to have inspired Toki to track this tea down in the first place. Essentially, ddok cha is a green tea that has been compressed into small cakes -- 饼 (bing) would be the word, I suppose, though these cakes of ddok cha are much smaller than the average bing of pu'er tea. These were perhaps two inches (or a bit more) in diameter, with a hole in the center like the old fang kong qian, which served as coin in China for over two thousand years.
When Toki brought out these little cakes of ddok cha, it caused quite a stir around the table. How to prepare the tea? What would be the best way to coax out its flavors and nuances? Various worthies debated the question, voicing doubts and consternation. Then Danny Samarkand, who by a stroke of great luck was also with us that day, pointed out that these compressed cakes appeared to be very much like the tea cakes described by Lu Yu in the Cha Jing, the Tang-dynasty 'Classic of Tea.' Why not prepare the tea, Danny softly suggested, the way Lu Yu prescribes?
And that was what -- to the best of our ability -- we proceeded to do. Michael, who is a good sport, got out his tongs and contrived to toast the tea cake over the brazier. Nobody was quite sure how long to let this go on; I suggested that we should aim to give it a toasty flavor without actually burning it. It was an exciting moment -- confronting an aspect of tea preparation that none of us had ever experienced. This task, at once simple and mysterious, put us in touch with tea-makers from over a thousand years ago.
After what seemed an appropriate interval, we transferred it to a stone mortar, and ground it with a pestle. This little heap of coarsely-ground tea was then put into water and simmered awhile over the brazier -- and then we tasted it (omitting salt, onions, and other Tang-era condiments). Each of us, of course, only had a couple of tiny sips, but it felt like a momentous experience to me. The brew, which was a greenish gold in hue, had a somewhat oily surface; its taste was strong and bitter, but it left a sweet aftertaste (might we call this hui gan?). I wanted more.
Because almost none of us had tasted ddok cha before this, we were eager to experiment with it. Thanks to Toki's generosity, we had enough to prepare it in two more ways: the first, in an attempt to emulate the Song dynasty experience, was by whisking some more of the ground tea in a cha wan. Predictably enough, this mixture tasted something like matcha, although a bit more toasty than that tea usually is. Then we prepared the tea in the way that I surmise most twenty-first century drinkers do -- by brewing a chunk of it whole, in a vessel of hot water. After such remarkable ventures into historic tea-preparation, which had something of the feeling of an initiation into ancient mysteries, this modern version seemed almost mundane. And yet, we reminded ourselves, to drink ddok cha in any way at all is an experienced vouchsafed to very few in the West.
It's hard to imagine an encore fitting to follow upon such a moment, but Michael had one ready: he next treated us to some 1950s Red Label Yi Wu. Talk about a rare tea: this is practically the Holy Grail of aged pu'er. Granted, it was already up to its 20th infusion; but sure enough, the tea was still going strong, and we enjoyed several more rounds of it. The word 'sweet,' so often invoked in describing the taste of such old pu'ers, was indeed the mot juste for this brew. There was not a trace of harshness, of mould, or of mustiness, though there was a bit of a papery note at the end -- one of the group described the finish as reminding him of 'old books.'
The participants came and went, the afternoon waned, the conversation flowed, the time slipped away. I took a brief walk round the shop, to have a look at the numerous treasures spread out on tables or housed in cabinets. The Tea Gallery somehow manages to bring together all manner of teaware and accoutrements, in astonishing number, without feeling cluttered: the serenity of the space is not compromised by their remarkable collection of cha jiu. Some, but not all, of these pieces are for sale. Every one of them is beautiful in its own way. I took notes for a future visit.
I sat for awhile longer. Lew Perin showed me his state-of-the-art pocket software for reading and writing Chinese. Then a fourth tea was served -- a 2008 gao shan Guan Yin Wang -- and, with that, though I would have loved to stay for hours more, it was time for me to leave. Goodbyes were said all round; plans were made for future rendez-vous. Off into the balmy Manhattan evening I departed alone, full of tea and warm thoughts. It struck me, as I walked, that what I had just experienced -- while rare indeed in the US -- was something that has been part of Chinese culture for many centuries: the coming-together in the cha fang of travelers from afar and locals, and the leisurely exchange of conversation and goodwill over cups and cups of tea.
If you should find yourself in Manhattan, I urge you to visit The Tea Gallery. It's best to call or email ahead to make an appointment, as one would phone in a reservation at a fine restaurant; you can be sure that Michael, Winnie, and Dae will give you a warm welcome.
THE TEA GALLERY
131 Allen Street
New York NY 10002