I am new to the realm of tea drinking. Recently, I have been pondering the possibility that my love for coffee is interfering with my ability to explore the vast world of tea. Working in a business that serves both coffee and tea, I find myself asking people whether they are coffee drinkers, tea drinkers, or both in an effort to understand whether the worlds of coffee and tea can co-exist harmoniously? As my excitement to explore the world of tea grows, I find my desire for coffee curiously waning. I love the taste of coffee, but find less to explore. Perhaps the realm of tea calls one to a true devotion, a full immersion – an immediate desire to experience more, rather than be content with the mere occasional taste. The relationship between tea and coffee is something I will continue to ponder, but as a relatively new perceiver in this realm, I am excited to share a recent experience.
All I really needed to feel fully immersed in the world of tea was a true tea house. Dobra Tea in Madison, Wisconsin (originating in Prague and also found in Vermont) is such a place. I have learned a lot about tea simply from reading their menu. I recently ordered chrysanthemum tea, a traditional Chinese herbal tea, which they served in a Kyoto cast-iron teapot. The small simple tea cup I was given fit perfectly in my palm and its thin iron rim gave the flowery tea a very light, lovely, metallic aftertaste. When I opened the lid of the teapot to infuse its flowers again, I interrupted a story my friend was in the middle of to announce my surprise at finding whole flowers in an iron pot! They were not crushed into tiny pieces, but were full and “blooming” in the hot water. I really enjoyed the visual sensation and physical experience of lifting an iron lid to find beautiful white and yellow flowers underneath. It felt like something so real and organic blooming out of a piece of the industrial (albeit an ancient one) world. Certainly the humble ironware contributed to the taste of the maroon-colored liquid.
My experience with chrysanthemum tea inspired me to read about its history, which originated in China. I discovered that many ancient Chinese poems included the imagery of chrysanthemum flowers, infused with various meanings and symbolism (autumn, nobleness/honor, beauty, strength). I will leave you with one such poem, written by Chinese poet, Tao Qian. Although its title is “Drinking Wine,” I find it apt to the study of chrysanthemums in China, the place where tea itself, including chrysanthemum tea, first originated. This translation is by William P. Coleman.
Tao Qian : 365-427 CE
I’ve made my home among people,
yet I hear no noise of cart horses.
You ask how am I able to do that?
A heart in a far place seeks its own.
I pick chrysanthemums from the east hedge
and gaze, at leisure, on South Mountain.
In this mountain air, day is beautiful — and night too;
birds fly out, then return together.
These facts all have a clear meaning;
I want to argue for my points, but already forget to speak.