11 April 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Tea Leaves

Everything moves in cycles, my mother never tired of telling me when I was growing up. It used to drive me crazy, but now, I often find myself agreeing with her.

It even applies to tea. Of course, there's the obvious analogy of the Camellia sinensis leaf cycle of bud, growth, harvest, processing. Beyond that, though, tea has been up and down for me lately.

The lecture I was lucky to attend a few weeks ago at the American Museum of Natural History was one of the ups. I haven't been to many tea-centric events, and it was a treat to spend an evening immersed in listening and tasting. The talk was divided into the history of the Silk Road- unfortunately, not too much on the specifics of the tea that was transported over it for thousands of years- and a more general lesson from Sebastian Beckwith of In Pursuit of Tea on the different types of tea, its cultivation and culture.

Much of the ancient Asian history was new to me (such as the role tea played for 13th and 14th Buddhist monks, not just as a stimulant for meditation, but also as an aid to Zen's practice of inner self-examination) but most of the teaspeak was not; however, judging from the sold-out audience’s fervent questioning at the end of the lecture, tea was indeed a hot topic for them.

The attendees' average age may have skewed toward the grandparently, but I was pleased- and surprised- to feel such enthusiasm from them. For a few hours, none of us tea freaks were out of place.

But the cup never stays half-full for long.

Last week, I stopped in my favorite tea store, Ito En, to replenish my precious uji gyokuro and okimidori sencha. I've tried teas from many other places, but nothing has ever quite measured up to its Japanese greens; when the clerk would open the carefully sealed bags, gently shake the leaves and invite me to take a deep sniff, I'd close my eyes and the essence of spring and green would absolutely fill my head.

I discovered Ito En in a Saveur article- on uji teas, I believe from early 2001- that I was reading while on a heaving, crowded subway on my way to a miserable new job. I had only been in New York for a few months and was still trying to adjust to the gaping humanity that exposed itself at every step; somehow, the author's description of the veiled leaves' delicate treatment transported me that morning, to a silent, tranquil place. I twisted for more room so I could I flip to the sources page in the back of the magazine, and found a Madison Avenue address that was just north of where I worked.

On my lunch break that day, I walked into Ito En, strode to the ancient wooden counter in the back, and asked for an ounce of uji gyokuro. The clerk gave me thorough instructions on proper brewing, and the next morning, before I steeled myself for another day, I made a cup.

And it was the best tea I'd ever tasted.

In the years since, I've gone back again and again, dragging pretty much everyone I know at least once. So when the clerk told me the store was closing down at the end of that week- two days ago- I felt stunned.

It will still be possible to order online, but the loss of my ritual, and sanctuary, cuts deeply.

Goodbye, Ito En. I'll miss you.