Previous in series: The Black Tea Ritual (Part 1 of 2)
There is an untraditional path, seldom taken, which unfailingly produces far better tea and therefore encourages drinking teas of real distinction and nuance. Instead of putting the dry leaf directly into the heated pot, you place your loose tea in a tea ball, sock or infusion basket for easy removal. This allows you to remove leaf from liquor instead of vice versa. Unlike decanting, it requires no ungainly Herculean effort – you simply pluck the tea ball or other container out of the pot and deposit it into a waiting receptacle. Steeping time apart, you have now two main considerations: making sure the leaf has room to expand fully in the infusion device you use, and figuring out what to do with it after removal.
A teapot equipped with removable infusion basket is my preferred method today. Previously the stainless steel wire-mesh tea ball – never the pot-metal variety with its too few holes and unpleasant taint – was my device of choice for years. The main problem in using tea balls comes with large-leaf teas, which sometimes require more than one to insure full extraction. Much flavor is lost if the leaf swells into an impenetrable mass. The removable infusion basket does not present this difficulty. Either way, how do you deal with the object once removed?
I like to place tea ball or infusion basket in a covered receptacle for it to drain out of sight where its utilitarian looks will not offend the eye. A stainless steel or plastic object clashes with silver and china, I think, and besides, uncontained liquid is unwise at tea gatherings. A closed container handles easily and allows your guests to lift the lid and inhale the bouquet of the infused leaf trapped inside, if desired. This enhances the ceremony and adds to the pleasure the tea provides. (Smelling the infused leaf should prove irresistible anyway if the tea is of great stature. The best way is to pour just a little water onto the leaf to release its aroma and inhale it before you fill the pot.)
Since there’s no such covered item as I recommend included with tea services as yet, improvise. (Actually, to be really complete, a tea service would have to include a chamber pot, I’ve always thought.) Teaware is whatever you use, as the old Japanese masters knew. In choosing what to use, only remember that it must be as esthetically pleasing as it is functional. Pleasant harmony is at the heart of what every tea ceremony aims at, in every time or cultural setting. “But thus I write to thee in balmy peace, and tell thee trivial things scarce worthy ink,” as the old author said.