Turning the bowl slowly in my cupped hands, I admired its elegance, its earth colors, its glazes. I'd never seen the likes of it before. It was handcrafted, simple and beautiful. Raising the bowl to sip the somewhat murky liquid inside, I paused to sample the aroma. The last thing I expected to smell was beef.
It happened during a long-ago visit to a teahouse in Kyoto, Japan's ancient cultural capital, where the tea ceremony and all its rigidly prescribed customs continue as a nearly sacred rite, just as they have for 5,000 years.
It was then that I realized how little I knew about tea, the most-consumed beverage in the world. I've learned more in the time since, including the fact that I now know less than I did then.
Didn't mean to get all Zen on you, but metaphysics is so entwined in the appreciation of tea over the millennia that it's hard to avoid. The 15th-century Japanese Zen master and poet Sen no Rikyu laid the base for the formal tea ceremony by saying this: "Never forget/That the way of Tea/Is no more than/To pour out water/To make tea and drink." Having not reached anything resembling cosmically heightened consciousness, I have no idea what that means beyond what it says. Maybe there is no more.
What I smelled in that tea was, of course, not beef, and the mere suggestion appalled the hosts whom I'd worked hard not to offend. Ah, well, the American nose. It was most likely a whiff of toasted rice, one aromatic element of matcha, a category of powdered green tea used in the ceremony. The tea itself was thick and blanketed with sturdy foam.
To explain this ceremony can takes pages, from the first ritual hand-rinsing in a serene garden devoid of flowers, through the careful measurement of the bright green cha, its blending with hot water by a single short piece of bamboo laboriously whittled into a blossom-shaped grouping of slivers and used as a whisk, and on until the end of the four-hour rite.
It's just one of the thousands of teas that are customary in cultures all over the world. A superlative way to spend time learning more is with The Time of Tea (New Line Books, $20), a two-volume set by Dominique T. Pasqualini with photos by Bruno Suet.
My memories of the ceremony and this half-assed meditation were touched off by my discovery of an online retail and wholesale tea business: www.grandteastand.com.
This spare website, run by Frank Memcaj and Mario Gojcaj out of a corner of their Macomb, Mich., tile warehouse, concentrates on product, including some fine and relatively rare green teas, herbal teas and flavored black teas. I've done some comparison shopping and found that their pricing is exceptional, as is their packaging and brewing advice.
And unless you're already well-versed in the seemingly endless varieties of tea, you'll probably find a lot to be curious about. Rooibos, for one. Also known generically as red tea, it isn't technically a tea at all, but a plant that's grown wild only in one region of South Africa, where one of its many uses is to soothe babies with colic. Much as coffee was cut with roasted chicory to stretch a buck and to deal with shortages during World War II, rooibos picked up a fan base in the same era when Asian tea sources curtailed supplies.
Besides anti-spasmodic effects on colic, it's also reputed to help insomnia (no caffeine), tension, hypertension, headaches and general crankiness, and can be used as a poultice on wounds.
It's also delicious, with a crisp but gentle edge that lends itself to making great "iced tea." And it shines among the many flavored teas offered by Grand Tea Stand.
I'm no fan of flavored tea or coffee, finding even the smell of most to be thick and cloying, sometimes nauseatingly so. What struck me about the teas sold by these boys is how true the flavors are, and without overpowering the taste of the teas themselves.
There's no way in hell I'd voluntarily pop open a tin of Chocolate Covered Strawberry Tea, but Memcaj and Gojcaj begged a chance. Amazing. Even this goopy-sounding selection was light, clearly but gently tasting of the confection in its name; it's a promising gift that likely won't be secretly scrapped or jammed into the dark recesses of a mostly unexplored cupboard.
It's the same with their peach-flavored Chinese black tea, blueberry-flavored Sri Lankan black (I'm hooked), Rooibos Orange and Rooibos Cinnamon Apple (with warm charms to soothe the savage breast).
There are full complements of oolong, the style of tea most likely served in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but of higher quality; green, including Dragon Well, from the Chinese village of the same name, and Japanese Kukicha, whose combined leaves and white twigs produce a nutty taste unlike others I've tasted; and white teas, only recently making a dent on the American market, in part because of their ultra-light body. These are to be enjoyed when tea, and only tea, is the thing.
All the teas are sold in 4-ounce tins with tight seals, and brewing times and temps are right out front on the label some are best made with water at a full, 212-degree boil, others at 180, and they steep for times varying by style from 3 to 7 minutes.
I'm pointing out these guys and their Grand Tea Stand because they work hard, and they deliver on their promises. You may discover a brave old world, and you won't be firstname.lastname@example.org