As a boy, I spent a great amount of time in my grandmother’s kitchen. We would talk about life and she would do her best to teach me how to prepare meals. “As a host, you only need to know one or two recipes really well and learn how to make them delicious.” Grandma would show me the difference between olive oil and butter and what basil did to a dish when added before cooking or after cooking.
At twelve years old, I took home a recipe card for grandmother’s famous Million Dollar Chocolate Cake. This was a cake that was served only for special occasions, and just another birthday was not quite special enough. This cake is phenomenal, unlike any I have ever had, and now it was my turn to make what grandmother could make.
A recipe that should only, “take you an hour at the most,” kept me in the kitchen that night for six hours, often calling grandma for help or to ask for more details which were left out. I followed that recipe to the exact teaspoon and minute, but guess what? The cake came out of the oven looking completely different and, sadly, tasting nothing like what grandma was known for. It ended up more like a 200 dollar cake than a million.
Fast forward a dozen years, and it was getting closer and closer to what I was used to. I had the benefit of trying Grandma’s cake many more times to know what mine should taste like. We are all masters of something. There is at least one thing that we do better than anyone else.
That mastery, or Gung Fu, in Chinese, came from much practice and thoughtfulness. Time, that precious medicine to fix so much, helps us to perfect what we dedicate our lives to. A 91 year old mother-of-five will most likely bake a cake better than a 12 year-old keeper of toy soldiers. This mastery is important; this mastery is why we can so easily spoil or be spoiled.
We have all experienced this before. We have a wonderful tea at a friend’s home, take it to our home, and it tastes different. Sure there are variables, but we are the biggest variable. If a butcher were to hand me the finest cut filet from the highest quality source, I would completely ruin that steak. This is the same for tea.
With time, I can make that filet delicious, and with time, your teas will become more than you had imagined. The dedication to finding a tea’s FULL potential, and life’s full potential, will allow something so beautiful to come forth, you will swear that grandma switched the cakes when you walked into the other room.
Mastery is present in every step along the way of tea. It is there when they plant the tea tree, as positioning is so important and often the farmer will bring in experts to help them with location. It is there when picking; when firing; when rolling. One can follow grandma’s recipe perfectly with all the same ingredients, but it will not taste the same until we understand what we are doing with each step.
The farmer must know what and why they are doing what they are doing. A few seconds too long in the wok, it is gone. If they try to cut corners, it will be present in the leaf. If a farmer does not fully grasp one step of the process, they will bring in a master – a late night call to grandma – to teach them or to perform it for them.
We must remain humble and unsure until we reach perfection.
We must not blame it on the water or on the utensils, let us instead sit longer and perfect. Pouring the water from this height tastes like this and adds these bubbles; using clay instead of porcelain does this to the aroma; using a small cup versus a mug changes how I swallow.
Each step matters. Each day matters.
Just as we were all born with all that we need to excel, these leaves are given to us with all they need to become a beverage, and eventually, a way of life. The farmer’s dedication and mastery will go unnoticed if the tea drinker doesn’t take the time to first practice Gong Fu for his or her part.
During tastings or events, I will often ask someone to come up from the crowd to prepare tea for us for a pot or two. Grandmother learned her recipe from somewhere, and we are all constantly learning and perfecting aspects of our lives. Once you have had a wonderful day, you will know how to have another; and once you have tried delicious tea, you will know what your tea is capable of and work towards having another.
In so many crafts around the world, skill-sets are passed down by the generations. This is why a new farmer probably won’t produce his best crop his first year and this is why a new tea drinker probably won’t make her finest cup of tea her first few years. However, with time, dozens of athletes each year go from being small names in their community to winning gold medals in the World Olympics.
Gong Fu Cha, the art of making tea, takes tea from a beverage to an art form, and from an art form to a way of life. Be patient and watch what is happening and you will create something beautiful. With time, your grandchildren will begin to call you asking you to teach them all you know.
Images courtesy of Nicholas Lozito of Misty Peak Teas.