29 May 2011

Pu-erh, the first time

I drink Pu-erh tea for the first time, fumbling in my attempts to work out a system that approximates the traditional gong-fu method. The first steeping's strong and powerful — probably excessively so, but perhaps that's not so bad: the distinctive flavours can't be missed and I'll look for them later as the steepings become more subtle, more what I'm used to. I lean in the doorway, looking out at the clearing afternoon, the sunlight breaking through, the shimmer of vivid green ryegrass in the paddock. The tea makes me think of old Chinese alleyways, someone old and hunched opening a wooden door and stepping into the past, red lanterns hanging in the evening, the smell of yellowing paper and weathered wood, the grunting of a pig behind a fence and the sound of fowls fossicking. I hear voices in a language utterly incomprehensible to me and realise I am alien, a stranger, passing through.

The tea smells like day-old chickens in fresh straw under a brooder lamp — the smell I knew so well as a child in a context unknown to most of today's children; a warm, soft, slightly sweet smell. We're primarily visual animals, but for me, smell is by far the most evocative of the senses. An unexpected scent dismisses decades and calls up old emotions: the smell of ripe apples returns me to my mother's pantry; cold ashes from a wood fire take me to a Ruahine hut; a particular fragrance conjures emotions so sudden and strong I half expect to see the woman who stirred them so long ago. Now I remember the feeling better than I remember her face.

This Pu-erh puts me in a past part lived and part imagined and suggests a future still possible. One day I might drink tea in a shop in that imagined alley and the present will be the past. This tea diffuses time and reminds me my life is less a thread unravelling than a tapestry being woven; when I taste, I'm closer to Christchurch and the sixties than I am to Palmerston North a month ago.

I've known this feeling before. Usually it happens unexpectedly. Some months ago as I drove into town I had that peculiar feeling of having returned to the past — not déjà vu but the feeling I'd recovered the sensation of being back in the South Island before I moved north, decades before the quake crushed Christchurch, before agriculture ruined the rivers, before tourism trashed places like Tekapo and Wanaka and created the abomination called Queenstown. A peculiar quality of the light, perhaps? I don't know; I don't know what evoked it but didn't care; the moment seemed imbued with significance — more like kairos than chronos. I held on to the feeling as long as I could, but without an aid like this tea the moment lasted only a few seconds. I managed to recover it; it disappeared; I dragged it back; it vanished.

Someday that feeling might return, but I have no idea when or under what circumstances. Now I have other things to enjoy: the prospect of travel in a few months; seeing my small, delightful friends in a day or two; meeting friends this evening; the sight of the kahu that moments ago circled low over the paddock; the bright afternoon sun through autumn leaves — and, of course, the taking of Pu-erh tea, which, even in my first encounter, draws the past and the future towards the present and enriches a life.

1. Many thanks to Jo, from Ya-Ya Teahouse in Christchurch, for his excellent advice, encouragement and tea.

Photos :
1. A starling at the moment of taking flight, Pohangina Valley.
2. The Ngamoko Range, a branch of the main Ruahine Range, on a nor'west evening from the lower Pohangina Valley.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

One of my favorite teas, redolent is the word, for me. Smells of manure on fields, but in a good way. Rich and earthy and not for the faint of heart.

Lydia said...

Cannot tell you how this gorgeous post from one of my favorite of all writers in the world, past and present, led me away from where I am now and then released me to see where I am loaded with memories yet refreshed for all new possibilities.

Will read about the tea itself in a bit. But I want to look at the swallow (beautiful capture) some more (swallows have the most beautiful eyes.....).

Bob McKerrow said...

Ah...tea in its many flavours, colours and guises, lures many feelings from the depths. I momentarily flashed back to drinking green tea on a pavement tea stall in Saigon, Vietnam in 1971.

Superb writing Pete.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I love the places, memories, and thoughts a cup of tea, and the process of brewing it, brings to you, and your readers.
Just returned from an interesting experience in the Ruahine with Taylor. Now that my work in Taranaki is more settled and Tara turns in her last uni paper on Friday we were thinking it is time for a catch up and dinner. Drop an email when you get a chance to advise a convienent time and we will arrange. Cheers Pete.

Relatively Retiring said...

How lovely, and how very clever to be able to conjure up the sense of smell in words.

Brenda Schmidt said...

"like day-old chickens in fresh straw under a brooder lamp"

I know that smell! I haven't thought of it in years. This post is so refreshing and wonderfully written. What a gift.

Jo said...

Hi Pete,
I just wrote a blog post about your little pu-erh university and thought I'd read your latest prose and gaze at your latest photos. What a surprise to read about your pu-erh experience. As usual, it is unusual, evocative and rings true of things I would have never thought myself.
Thank you for sharing your insights, I can relate to them so very well, but I could never articulate them in the way you can.

The notion of smell as the most evocative sense holds true for many people, I believe. While visual memories are more "film-like", the memories that are conjured up by a certain smell have an almost physical immediacy to them. I think these "fragrant memories" are the closest to time travel that I'll ever get...

jacqueline b said...

Puer cha! I thought, surely not when I first read the title. This was my staple drink when I was living in Lijiang, Yunnan province - the home of this tea. The best quality tea would sell to tourists at a high price. As well as being sold in boxes, it was also produced in hard embossed medallions which people would keep on their shelves for years to increase its value. My BF at the time was a trekking guide and would get me little sachets of the good stuff for free. He was totally into the ritual of the steepings and as we travelled by train throughout China, and on the local buses into Tibet, he would carry out the tea making business with great seriousness, haughtily ignoring curious onlookers from other provinces. We would carry huge jars of it around with us. I loved the red colour. Bought it once in a Sydney supermarket in China town, but wasn't as good. Thanks for making me remember!

robin andrea said...

I love the scent of things that pull me back to an earlier time, especially when that time is one of great joy and the wide-open expansiveness of being young. There are some songs that can transport me to a particular moment, as well. I like wondering about the things that leave those indelible sense impressions. Why the apples in the pantry and not the potatoes in the root cellar? Why the Jefferson Airplane singing "Coming Back To Me" but not "White Rabbit"? Who are we in those moments when the impression is imprinted for a lifetime?

Hey, thanks for such an evocative post!

Anne said...

I think the primitive nose-brain is connected closely to basic emotion. Scents draw one back to the past suddenly.

Beautiful writing. And I have been needing a reason to like starlings which have overrun my bird feeders. The photo of one in flight reminds me that they can be admired.

Me from Cali said...

Hello, Pete. Long time no read!

I popped in here and what a surprise to read about Pu-erh tea. It’s been a while since I’ve brewed a cup so, since you wet my palate, I made some vanilla mint, organic fair trade Pu-erh tea (Thus says the supplier: Full-flavored and a balanced blend highlights the bold nature of Pu-erh and draws from its ancient traditions. Vanilla Mint Pu-erh has a deep reddish-black, opaque infusion with a cool peppermint note. Hand-chopped vanilla beans and fresh ground cinnamon give this blend a full, somewhat creamy body. Its lightly sweet flavor has accents of espresso and cacao.) ...

... brewed in my favorite little 20 ounce, square, porcelain enamel lined cast iron "Kuro Shikakui" Tetsubin:
(Thus says the supplier: An elegant, square Tetsubin design is richly textured and intensely black with a great, generously sized opening. Created to resemble the famous Japanese musical instrument, the shamisen, the square shape is at once totally different and yet somehow very familiar and comforting. - From the Iwachu Casting Works).

Then, placed atop a perfect fit, square cast iron tea candle warmer trivet, and lifting it from there, I poured this wonderful liquid into my favorite 3 ounce "Black Hobnail" porcelain enamel lined cast iron cup.

It’s my version of a simplified tea ceremony.

If I had to flee from my home real fast, I would make sure to grab these three items on my way out the door along with my tea chest and compact, alcohol camp stove.

This is what I could imagine: My house has been destroyed and now I am holding up in a tent, or in a public gymnasium with rows of cots, but as long as I can get hold of, or make my own boiling water, I can sit on the edge of my cot or on the ground inside my wee tent and with each sip of some warm tea while holding a solid, warm cast iron cup in my hand, and think, “I’m alive; I’m safe now; I have a warm, dry bed to sleep in; I’m leisurely sipping on this warm liquid feeling it infuse my body with sustenance and comfort. Everything is quite fine in this moment.” Then, after I have emptied the small Tetsubin, I pick it up and cupping it in the palms of my hands I press the bottom of it into one of my cheeks, then slide it over across the front of my face and mouth onto the other side and hold it there feeling it’s sturdiness and radiant warmth that affirms, “Yes, everything is quite fine in this moment.”


“Bloody hell! I forgot to grab my back-up hard drive!!”

Anyway, I should send you a photo of this charming tea set.

- Paul

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

as evocative as ever - its true that a flavour or a smell can bring back a certain time and place and its good to reflect: you can only know where you're going if you know where you came from

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, friends — I truly appreciate the thoughts and kind words and explorations, and I'll reply more satisfactorily in a day or two when I have some substantial commitments out of the way.

It's good to know some of you still visit. Thanks for keeping the faith.


Michael said...

I can sometimes call up a similar feeling when I tune in to my peripheral vision. I don't neglect my central view, I add to it. It has always been involuntary in the past. Mysterious. Feels like the bindings on my heart loosen a little and I see something real. My true self?

Anonymous said...

Evocative (mindful) yet sensual (olfactory): a meeting place. With grace you combine these two concepts. Your writing spurs thought and feeling. Beautiful.


pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, the smell of the spent leaves is certainly... distinctive. Not something I'd make a point of savouring, although I've found it interesting to check. Maybe when I'm more familiar with Pu-erh teas I'll grow to enjoy the smell, but for now the characteristics of the tea (liquid) are delightful enough.

Lydia, thank you :^) This one's actually a starling, but here's a swallow for you; sadly, no catchlight in its eye.

Bob, what a compliment, that it took you all the way back to 1971. Still, Saigon in 1971 must have been memorable, and not for all the right reasons.

Robb, I'm so glad the Ruahine trip turned out ok, and that it delivered such a positive outcome despite the anxiety. I'll be in touch shortly; I'd love to catch up with you and Tara.

RR, thank you. Actually, I'm not sure I did much conjuring — more a matter of paying attention to what the tea told me. :^)

Thanks Brenda! It's a lovely smell; I wish more of us knew it.

Jo, your suggestion of "Pu-erh University" was wonderful. I tried the third today (the 2006 Xia Guan) and the differences are amazing — all three so distinctive, yet excellent in their own ways. Many thanks! [Here's Jo's post]

Jacq, he was clearly a man of taste and discernment ;^) I know that slightly (or distinctly) disappointed feeling of tasting something in different circumstances and realising it doesn't live up to the "real" thing. A bit like Indian food here. I believe, too, there are many pretty substandard Pu-erh teas on the market (even a lot of fakes, too). I'm lucky I found Jo's teahouse.

Robin, thanks! I'm intrigued by your question — why the apples, not the potatoes? Very true. Maybe it's the emotions coincident with the initial sensing, or maybe repeated occurrences under the same circumstances? Novelty apparently helps us remember, and some particular songs have strong associations for me because I listened to them repeatedly while travelling in new places (doesn't explain the apples in the pantry, though).

Anne, that's an interesting thought — I suspect our sense of smell (in the loose sense) became refined well before we were able to see as acutely as we can now. Starlings are actually very beautiful when you look closely, and I'm impressed by their intelligence.

Paul, what a great story :^) I trust you'll never have to make a run for it like that, but with that kind of attitude you'd surely be among those who cope best. The tea set sounds gorgeous, too. After I return from South America I'll see how my finances are looking and start thinking about a Yixing teapot and a set of sipping cups.

DFTP, "you can only know where you're going if you know where you came from" — I like that idea. Food for thought. Thanks.

Michael, with me it's usually smell, or some inchoate feeling I can't associate with any particular sense (probably a combination?), but I do wonder sometimes whether it's a glimpse of another aspect of reality — or, as you suggest, my true self. Thanks for the thought.

Gracias, Maureen :^) I trust your travel preparations are going well?

Avus said...

Delightful, as always, Pete. Thank you for this meditation. I do so agree that the primeval sense of smell seems to conjure up memories and experiences like no other way.
No wonder dogs enjoy snuffling around so much!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Avus! Given the sorts of smells dogs seem to enjoy most, however, I have to wonder what those smells evoke ;^)