Thursday, August 09, 2018

The 2000th article: a tea class about Chaxi

Last week, I gave a tea class about Chaxi. I started with the theory contained in Teaparker's book 'Chaxi - Mandala' that was published 10 years ago.  Then, I proceeded with some practice. I brought all the above tea ware and the Chabu below so that my students could create their own Chaxi and use it to brew tea. This was one of the most interactive and creative class I ever did!
The mandala concept is very helpful to explain what a Chaxi is all about. It's creating a universe, a perfect world where each little part is connected to the whole with the purpose of making good tea. It has been called practical beauty, a multimedia performance involving all 5 senses. Literally, Cha Xi means 'tea play' where 'play' has the meaning of a theater play, a performance. We could go on about the theory and abstract meaning of a Chaxi for several paragraphs and the longer I'd write about it, the more philosophical and less comprehensible my text would be!

Let's start with the beginning: the tea. It's like the story of your theater play. This is the backbone of what you want to express, what you want to perform. So, I started by letting my students choose a tea. I gave them the choice between a spring 2016 Tsui Luan high mountain Oolong and my 2017 spring old arbor sheng puerh. Both chose the Oolong, because that's the kind of tea they drink most (in Taiwan!). The second item I asked them to select is the Chabu: this piece of textile is the background to your performance and its colors are going to create the atmosphere of your tea moment.
The third item to select is the tea vessel (teapot or gaiwan). This is your lead actress! She must be chosen with great care. Her job is to be in harmony with the world you are creating and the tea you are going to brew. Then, choose the other accessories you'll need with the same double constraint: that they fit the Chaxi aesthetically and practically. And choose a plant or flower to add connection with nature and a touch frail beauty that reminds us that life is short and precious. 

Then, place your accessories on your Chabu. The brewing vessel is in the center, because it's the most important ware. Next come the cups, the kettle, the jar, the tea display plate and the waste water bowl. Everything must be within the reach of your right and/or left arm. It must be close enough that you don't need to get up during the tea brewing.
Here a few comments on Antonio's Chaxi here on top. You may have noticed that the qinghua cups were not included in the wares I had prepared. These are cups that he had brought (I allowed the students to bring their own ware). They are from the 1980s and are made with good quality porcelain. However, they are tall and have thick walls. This underlines the thickness of the taste and preserves the heat longer. For that reason, they are more suitable for winter than for summer. On this dark and complex Chabu, these cups made sense, though, because this Chaxi's theme is more depth than lightness. High mountain Oolong can express both depth or lightness. It depends how it is brewed and with what. In this regard, while the silver teapot looks nice here, it produces very light aromas. It would have been better to choose the Yixing zhuni teapot!
Let's turn to Manuel's Chaxi. Manuel is a tall fellow and it's interesting to see that his teapot is much farther from his body than Antonio's. There's no set rule for the distance between the brewer and the teapot. The only principle is to feel comfortable when preparing the tea and pouring in the cups.
With this Blue Waves Chabu and a bamboo mat with sand color, Manuel wants to emphasize the fresh energy of the high mountain Oolong he's brewing. The choice of the celadon singing cups and bright Chatuo makes sense to underline the light aromas. The carp jumping out of the water jar is also a nice touch on this setup. The qinghua plate under the teapot features a water and mountain landscape is also OK.
 However, the Yixing zhuni teapot produces a thick taste and it would have been better if Manuel had switched his teapot with Antonio! The silver teapot would have looked cool and would have produced lighter aromas that would better fit the Blue Waves feeling of this Chaxi.
Manuel and Antonio were curious about my spring 2017 wild top old arbor sheng puerh. It's a very unique gushu puerh, because it comes from a remote forest with (at least) 500 years old trees that had never been harvested to make tea in modern times! 2017 was their first harvest. So, to satisfy their curiosity, I made my own Chaxi with the accessories they didn't use. And, unlike them, I decided to set up my Chaxi on this wooden floor. There's nothing wrong with a Chaxi on a table, but I wanted them to experience how it feels on the floor. It's the way many people (including myself) prepare tea in Asia. There's one practical advantage: there's less risk of breaking porcelain when you're so close to the floor!
Since I was brewing a new tea for Antonio and Manuel, I thought it's best to use a neutral porcelain gaiwan to discover this tea. The gaiwan is a great tool to learn about tea and is very useful in a tea class! I used 2 Chabu: a long one on its black side and this Turquoise Flowers. Raw gushu puerh is pure and powerful. Even young, it has darker notes (than Oolong). The wood chatuo and old presentation plate for the cups (taken from my old bamboo basket) are echoes to the old puerh tree. The plant on this Chaxi is rather wild, but has very fine leaves. This sums up this puerh!
(Above, you can also see that I used the bamboo mat as a screen so that the guests don't see the modern induction plate on which the tetsubin is heated).
Since this is my 2000th blog post, I would like to make this article particularly meaningful and complete. What you're missing from this class is the most important: how the tea is actually brewed! A Chaxi isn't just a beautiful and harmonious tea setup. Its main function is to make tea in a very smooth, simple and elegant manner. That's why I made these 3 videos of the spring 2018 Tsui Feng high mountain Oolong I brewed today. 1 video per brew:

With this Chaxi I go back in time to the early beginning of this blog. The Chabu is one of the first my mother made for me. And because this blog has connected me to so many generous, amazing, wonderful tea friends around the world, I am using tea ware made by potter friends (Michel François, David Louveau, Petr Novak). It's a mix of new cups and old mini plates. A mix of Chinese Yixing, Japanese tetsubin, Western porcelain and Taiwanese tea because tea has no bounds.
I made a big mistake in the first brew and a small one in the third. These humbling incidents are reminders that I still need to practice daily to master the art of brewing tea. The second brew is the smoothest and, this is no coincidence, it's also the brew that tasted the best!
To celebrate this milestone of 2000 posts, I have discounted this spring 2018 Tsui Feng Oolong along with other teas on my online boutique (until the end of August).

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

1999 footprints in the electronic snow

Atypical zisha teapots is Teaparker's latest book in his art of tea collection. In this book, Teaparker starts his exploration of the immense world of teapots by a study of Yixing clay and its secrets. He also goes back in time to look at Yixing teapots from the past (from shipwrecks or museums). The largest section of the book is then focused on water polished Yixing teapots that were sold in Thailand (see the cover of his book). Other atypical teapots include painted Yixing teapots, master teapots and red Chaozhou teapots. (Note: a picture of this Chaxi is featured at the start of Chapter 7 on a full page!)

I thought I'd illustrate this book with a small Chaozhou teapot in which I'm brewing a winter 2017 Hung Shui Jinxuan Oolong from Dong Ding. This type of red clay is rather soft and porous. It's a good fit for medium to high roasted Oolongs.

The shape of Chaozhou (or Chaoshan or Shantou) teapots will bear resemblance to that of very classical, small Yixing teapots. The difference in making these teapots is that Chaozhou teapots are wheel thrown. The other difference is barely noticeable. It's the shape of the mouth of the spout! While it's mostly round in Yixing, Chaozhou teapots usually have a slightly pointed mouth (enlarge the picture to see it).
Shantou clay is always red and it appears glossy because the teapot is covered with a bright red glaze, because otherwise the raw glaze would look quite dull. It seems as if the teapot had already been seasoned for some time! And in terms of taste, it manages to lower the roasting aromas and bring a lot of freshness from the leaves into the brew!

Spring 2018 RouGui Baozhong
The Forgotten Stories of Purple Clay is another book about teapots that has come out recently (in Hong Kong). This book features articles written by 5 "specialists and scholars in purple clay art" and Teaparker is among them. This is the first book I see where his writing is translated into English since it's a bilingual Chinese and English book!
For this Chaxi, I'm brewing a spring 2018 RouGui Baozhong in an Yixing Zhuni teapot from the 1980s. By showing a teapot in a Chaxi, I stress the point that teapots are not made and collected for their own sake, but that their primary function is to make tea, and to make it well!
But once the tea tastes right and beautiful, it enables you to enter a world of art, culture and poetry. The title of this article was inspired from this book, because I read that Gu Jingzhou liked Su DongPo's poem 'Leaving footprints in the snow' (願留鴻爪踏雪泥). The 1999 footprints refer to the fact that this is my 1999th article on this blog! (A big celebration for the 2000th article is coming!) 

And the biggest reason why I continue writing is because I have the kindest and most wonderful readers, tea lovers from around the world. That's why this Chaxi features this painting from my tea friend Elisabeth, in Canada. That's where they literally know what it means to leave a footprint in the snow! Here, of course, it means creating a fleeting moment of tea art and taste. It's a great feeling to be connected to so many people who are intimately touched by their tea experiences!
The brew has a very clear yellow color in the light celadon cups. That's a sign of above normal oxidation. The leaves are indeed green inside and red on the edges (like this Chabu!) The aromas of this Wenshan Baozhong differ greatly from high mountain Oolong. The forest flower fragrances and soft Chinese spices aromas gives this Baozhong a very distinctive and complex scent.
The hard zhuni clay helps to extract the finest fragrances from this fresh Baozhong by opening the leaves completely and absorbing very little aroma. Tea can replace wine and give us inspiration to find beauty and poetry in each cup!

Friday, August 03, 2018

Les plantations de Shizhuo à Alishan

L'été à Taiwan, c'est comme la canicule que connait la France actuellement, mais pendant 3 mois! Cette canicule est parfois entrecoupée par un ou plusieurs typhons, issus du Pacifique, qui vont passer une partie de l'ile au Karcher avant de finir leur chemin en Chine ou au Japon.
Les averses tropicales de fin d'après-midi l'été sont un peu moins fréquentes quand lors de mon arrivée en 1996. J'avais été stupéfait par leur régularité cet été-là. Chaque jour, la pluie commençait à tomber vers 15h30 et s'arrêtait autour de 17h, si bien qu'il faisait super lourd et humide en sortant du boulot, mais au moins il ne pleuvait plus.
 Vingt deux ans plus tard, je découvre une autre facette de l'été à Taiwan: l'école pour les enfants! (Note: mes enfants vont à l'école locale et non à l'école française). Il ne s'agit pas colonie de vacance, mais de vrais cours pour les collégiens et les lycéens! Cela varie d'une école à l'autre, et pour celles qui n'en proposent pas, les parents trouveront des cours privés pour leurs enfants! Ainsi, l'école de mes enfants fonctionne de la mi-juillet à la mi-août.
 C'est ce qui explique pourquoi je suis actuellement chez moi, à Banciao, réponds à vos messages et envoie vos commandes en moins de 24 heures (comme d'habitude).
Je bois souvent des Oolong de haute montagne de ce printemps pour leur fraicheur, leur énergie et leur finesse. Dans ma tasse, j'ai ce Qingxin Oolong d'une nouvelle plantation de Shizhuo. Il me transporte à plus de 1300 mètres d'altitude, là où l'on peut vivre sans air conditionné tout l'été! J'en profite donc pour poster ces photos prises un matin d'avril 2018 à Shizhuo lors de ma recherche d'Oolongs de haute montagne.
Alishan êtant un parc national public où les fermiers n'ont pas le droit de planter du thé, les Oolongs dit d'Alishan viennent, en fait, des villages comme Shizhuo qui précèdent ce parc, l'une des plus belles destinations touristiques de Taiwan. Déguster, sentir et toucher ces feuilles d'Oolongs en fermant les yeux, c'est déjà presque comme si on y était!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Babooshka Babooshka

I brewed my latest spring 2018 concubine Oolong from Shan Lin Xi 2 days ago, on Kate Bush's birthday! She's the singer of Babooshka, which gave me the idea to link this Russian doll with my Concubine Oolong.
My fondness for Kate Bush comes from the journey back to France from a class trip to London in early 1986. I had bought my first walkman for this trip and, in a tourist market near Piccadily Circus, I purchased some of my first tapes of music: Jean-Michel Jarre's Rendez-Vous and Kate Bush's Hounds of Love. I kept playing these 2 albums during the night of bus travel.
Then, something quite unexpected happened while listening to Kate Bush. The elder sister of a classmate we called Moustique exchanged seats with my neighbor and gave me my first French kiss! I never knew the tongue could trigger so much passion and pleasure! Until then, it was a muscle busy chewing and pushing food down the throat. Who knew it could be so sensitive and salivate to the point I'd feel melting away?!
Thank you Babooshka, my one night little concubine for bringing back this sweet memory!
With gratitude for this awakening to all the pleasures of the mouth...

Monday, July 30, 2018

A Dive in my Cool Sea Chaxi

A successful Chaxi is when everything comes together around a common theme:

- The turquoise waves Chabu, shells and corals on top of a white fabric suggest a cool sea.
- The glass jellyfish seems to swim in the water as if we were in the sea.
- The light celadon tea boat, cups and tea jar have matching colors with the lightest turquoise color of the Chabu and add a feeling of freshness. Also, the thin singing cups stress the light taste of the tea.
- The high mountain Oolong from TianChi is from spring 2018, super fresh. Thanks to its top quality, it's a good match for a brew in a silver teapot (and silver is the coolest looking metal!) That way it can be brewed lightly (with few leaves) and still taste very energetic. That's how I obtain a light brew and very refreshing aromas. So, even the way the tea is brewed is considered in relations with my cool sea theme!
- The qinghua mini plate and Jianshui bowl are blue on white. This cool color combination reminds us of a blue sky with very white clouds on a hot summer day.
- The green plant looks like long seaweed floating around!
I feel cooler just by looking at these pictures!
The Oolong tasted particularly refreshing. Its pure high mountain energy echoed the raw power of the blue sea waves...
Creating a Chaxi means creating a world of meaning and harmony. It's a way to transport your mind wherever you wish to go. The Chaxi can also take more personal meaning. Here, the shells remind me of that white sand beach in Kenting where I found them and go every year with my wife and kids. And the jellyfish is both a reminder of the friend who gave it to me and of the joy I have when I dive in the ocean and see the beauty of marine life!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Un nez et un palais de plus en plus sensibles

Beauté Orientale d'été 2017
Voici une histoire où mon nez, trop sensible, m'a empêché de déguster du bon thé!

Fin juin, je suis allé rendre visite à un de mes amis fermiers à Hsin Chu. Je lui ai acheté son Concubine Oolong de 2011 et le reste de son stock de Beauté Orientale d'été 2017. Ces thés étaient déjà emballés et je les connaissais depuis de ma précédente visite. Je n'avais donc pas eu besoin de les regoûter. D'ailleurs, cela n'aurait pas été possible ce jour-là, car le fermier arrivai de sa plantation et son odeur m'informa immédiatement qu'il y avait fait l'épandage de produits fertilisants organiques. Toute la pièce chelinguait affreusement! Il avait beau se laver les mains, il était clair que cette odeur n'allait pas disparaitre à moins d'une douche et d'un changement complet d'habit! Il me proposa d'infuser un de ses bons OB, mais je déclinai et partis rapidement après lui avoir acheté ses deux thés!
Je ne pense pas que mon départ précipité l'a blessé. J'imagine que dans son état, il devait surtout avoir envie de prendre sa douche et non de préparer du thé pour un client! De plus, qu'importe le thé choisi, ses arômes auraient été recouvert par cette odeur de m...! Cela n'aurait pas été un plaisir, mais une torture pour mon nez de rester un instant de plus dans cette pièce!
Je suis originaire de la campagne alsacienne et les odeurs de purin, de porcherie et de bouses de vache me sont encore assez familières pour ne pas être rédhibitoires. Mais dans le contexte du thé, mes 15 années d'apprentissage m'ont conduit à devenir de plus en plus exigeant. C'est au point que je ne porte plus de parfum ni de déodorant afin de ne pas sentir des odeurs artificielles pendant que je bois mon thé, toujours naturel!

A force de goûter des thés similaires mais différents, mon nez a appris à mieux distinguer ces petits détails qui forment le profil de chaque thé et infusion. L'homme s'habitue rapidement au luxe! Même avec les meilleures feuilles, j'y trouve toujours à redire. Les infusions vraiment parfaites restent une petite minorité. Mais quand cela arrive, le bonheur est immense et soutient facilement la comparaison avec les plus beaux mets et plus grands vins. La beauté fragile, unique et éphémère de chaque Chaxi lui donne une aura presque spirituelle...
Quand je suis chez moi ou bien quand je peux transporter mon Chaxi dans la nature, je contrôle entièrement la qualité du thé que je bois. Mais en voyage, ce n'est pas toujours possible ni pratique d'infuser le thé ainsi. Que faire quand on est devenu tellement sensible que l'on ne supporte plus les thés servis sur la route? Voilà 3 solutions:

1. Un gros thermos avec des feuilles à soi. Certains thés comme les Oolongs torréfiés ou les puerhs anciens supportent assez bien les très longues infusions en thermos (pourvu qu'on n'utilise que peu de feuilles). Et même si cette méthode n'est pas idéale, elle produit souvent de bien meilleurs résultats que les thés en sachet et/ou parfumés qu'on trouve en voyage.
2. Boire de l'eau plate ou de l'eau gazeuse! Des études récentes montrent que ce sont les sodas et les jus de fruits (toujours trop sucrés) qui sont les ennemis de notre santé. Le sucre est une gourmandise addictive dont il faut jouir à petite dose. Le plus simple est donc de boire de l'eau minérale et d'en profiter pour remarquer comment quelques dizaines de milligrammes de variations des minéraux donne un goût particulier à chaque eau minérale. (Personnellement, j'ai horreur de la Cristalline que je trouve pâteuse, une autre manifestation de mon hyper-sensibilité gustative!)

3. Mais parfois, la meilleure solution c'est la désensibilisation et la tolérance! Ainsi, au Vietnam, les restaurants servent souvent un thé léger et frais ("cha da") avec le repas (souvent très épicé). C'est loin d'avoir la puissance d'un Oolong de haute montagne, la finesse d'un BiLuoChun ou la complexité d'un Hong Shui Oolong, mais c'est généralement buvable. Et je les ai presque tous bus, sauf la fois où il me restait du Lishan torréfié de 1998 dans mon thermos: j'ai pu le diluer et le refroidir avec les glaçons qu'on nous avait apporté!
Il y a des moments où l'on doit apprendre à être réaliste dans ses attentes et à juger une boisson par rapport à son potentiel et non par rapport aux meilleurs thés que l'on a chez soi. L'extra sensibilité du buveur de thé doit être maniée comme un instrument pour trouver la meilleure alternative dans ce qui est possible de boire. Cela ne doit pas devenir un idéal inatteignable qui entraine à coup sûr la déception et le déplaisir.

Sinon on passe au règne de la Terreur qui suivit la Révolution française. Au nom d'un bel idéal, la liberté (le thé de qualité), on guillotine (on critique) tous ceux qui n'atteignent pas cet idéal. Ce n'est pas ainsi qu'on persuade les indécis, qu'on donne envie aux récalcitrants. L'idéal n'est pas fait pour être atteint sur-le-champs, mais pour nous servir de guide. La voie du thé (de qualité) est cet apprentissage progressif vers plus de pureté dans le goût, plus de naturel dans les arômes, plus de beauté dans le moment.

J'espère faire de mon mieux pour vous donner un exemple positif qui montre comment je vis le thé au quotidien. Mais quand ce n'est pas vraiment possible, je n'en fais pas un drame. Une boisson ordinaire me permet d'encore mieux apprécier mes Chaxi passés et futurs!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Brewing in sunlight

2017 spring high mountain Oolong from Fushou shan
In my previous article, I was exploring the interplay of light and shadows using a black Chabu. Here, I'm trying the opposite approach: a big white Chabu for my afternoon sunshing Chaxi!

The shadows are long, because the sun is nearing its sunset in the city.

The blue sky and strong light gives a beach feeling. It feels pure and weightless. That's also how the tea tastes, sweet, refreshing, almost sparkling and pure!
The handpicked leaves are thick and full of flavors. The brew is slightly post oxidized because the tea is 1 year old and hasn't been kept vacuum sealed. When this happens with a lower quality mountain Oolong, it's a catastrophe, because all it had going for it was its freshness. But with this FuShou shan Oolong, it's OK, because there is still freshness beyond freshness! Yes, the freshest scents have disappeared, but the freshness of the taste, the lightness and purity are still there! If the tea has been well kept (and this one was), then the slight aging/postoxidation will add some sweetness and depth. Few brewers are getting to enjoy these aromas these days, because most high mountain Oolongs in Taiwan are processed too green...
Speaking of light and Chinese culture, let me share these pictures from the imperial citadel in Hué, in central Vietnam. This palace of Vietnam's kings was inspired by the forbidden city in Beijing and shows the influence of Chinese culture in Vietnam's history.
Vietnamese cities are playing catch-up with the Western world and are rapidly adding modern high rises. Hué is one of the few places where the past is well preserved.
Long life!
A lack of restoration and fading colors adds melancholy to this door.
Is this tame garden a sign of France's past influence?
Vietnam and China in one same place: double happiness.