There was a buzz in the air resounding on the second floor of the stately hall and it wasn’t only due to the tea that nearly 1,000 enthusiasts of the leaf were imbibing at the first San Francisco International Tea Festival on February 25. Thanks to a series of well-planned tastings, seminars, and discussions led by many of the Bay Area’s top tea experts and purveyors (spearheaded by Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court and coordinated by children’s book author and tea enthusiast Babette Donaldson) plus exhibitors from far and wide, people were comparing notes about their favorite brews, breeding a conviviality that it seems only tea can generate.

Participating in the festival was indeed an honor. As I have done at tea festivals over many years, I got to do what I like to do best – communicate my enthusiasm to eager audiences wishing to learn about the culinary pleasures of the leaf in savory and sweet dishes. A foodie’s paradise featuring the best of artisanal produce, prepared foods, and other gourmet goodies, the historic Ferry building on the Embarcadero was the site of the festival. One couldn’t find a more fitting location for putting the culinary side of tea front and center. Beginning with a morning cooking class (tea-smoked mushrooms was the dish I presented) sponsored by CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) in a nifty portable kitchen set up adjacent to some of the farmers’ market vendors, I moved on to offering tastings of a spring salad of Japanese soba with artisanal tofu in a matcha tea marinade (courtesy of Ito-en’s Rona Tison) and concluded with (what else?) a dessert of lapsang souchong tea-flavored chocolate mousse, composed of only three ingredients. It was quite the day for cooking with tea.

When thinking about whom tea engages, I was struck by the utter diversity of the attendees, representing a wide range of ages, all bound by a singular love and passion for tea or, even more importantly, a hunger to learn more about this ancient beverage. Not surprisingly, more than a few of the attendees with whom I spoke not only had opinions as strong as some oversteeped tea about what they tasted, but also showed a receptivity and open-mindedness about learning how tea can be more than a beverage.

Whether drinking tea or cooking and baking with it, in these times of solitary and soulless Internet browsing, emailing, and texting, it’s encouraging to think about how tea can be a social lubricant (as it was on festival day) to bring about meaningful human connections and conversations. In these unsettling times of information overload fueled by a compulsion to remain plugged-in everywhere at all times, the simple combination of fragrant leaves and good water, heated properly and brewed conscientiously, can be a restorative, a balm for the soul, a way of getting away from it all.  If tea festivals are the catalyst to that kind of activity, we all have reasons to be optimistic about many more follow-up events celebrating the simple and complex pleasures of the leaf, a welcome and soothing antidote to the pressures of modern society.

Plan to tune out and repair to the kitchen after accessing the recipe for the Tea-Smoked Mushrooms that I demo’ed that day. It’s available, thanks to CUESA, on their website. Happy eating and happy drinking!