Saturday, 10 July 2010

On the leaf-side

To write about tea, demands that you consider both taste and smell. Not just consider it, but ponder it as well. Can you remember the smell of the forest in October when it’s still springtime? On a winter morning, can you recall the sweet fragrance of a summer’s evening? How do bacon and eggs in the pan smell? Freshly baked bread? The fisherman’s net coming out of the water? And the smell of tomatoes right in the moment they’re being picked? A smell that will disappear as quickly as it came.

To talk about our sense of smell is a curious endeavour-as good as we can smell, we are amateurs when we compare ourselves with other animals. Every dog would dismiss us and the butterflies would openly laugh at us. According to the animals, smell can distinguish love and hate, affection and rejection, (please forgive me for saying it because it’s a bit embarrassing) but smell doesn’t lie. You cannot hide one’s true character when your odour betrays you. Unconsciously, smell plays a much bigger role than we realise. There’s wisdom in an old saying ‘I can’t stand the smell of him’.

from Die Kunst Tee zu trinken (The Art of Drinking Tea) by Peter Martin Urtel

I've been thinking more and more about what effect smell has on how we appreciate tea. When I go into a good tea shop, I'd never purchase a tea until I'd smelled the leaves. As I bring the cup up to my mouth, I first take a deep breath in and have a good idea what's coming long before the tea cools enough to sip it. The smell of tea is so intertwined with its taste, that it's nearly impossible to consider the two separately. Actually, it is impossible. They're part of the same thing.

Barbara, the newly tea-indoctrinated, talked of this as she was first trying on new teas and experimenting with steeping times. You instinctually notice the smell of something long before you'd ever consider putting it in your mouth.

Have had a wonderful trip the last few days. Although traveling can be exhausting, every morning I pack a thermos of tea that I know I'll appreciate at some point mid-morning. Then at the end of the day, I retire to the room and brew up at least a pot (sometimes two) as I review the events of the day. Tonight it's a Sencha Dong-Bai, but it needn't be anything fancy.

As finicky as I might come across here (talking about this or that first flush Darjeeling), there've been multiple times over the last few days where I've been immensely grateful to sit down in a cafe and have a simple, earthy Ceylon or Assam.

Careening in and out of this castle and that museum, I'd see the sign of a cafe. I'd find a seat away from the windows and the burning sun. I'd wonder if this was one of those cafes that hadn't bothered branching into tea as well as coffee. Slowly I'd crack the menu, and rifle through the different finger foods on offer, and the multitude of coffee and coffee drinks. Near the back, I'd invariably come upon the page of tea.

'How do I feel?'. I'd ask myself? Had I had enough strong dark tea at breakfast? If not, an Assam was in order. What about if I felt a bit bogged down by the breakfast tea, and needed a bit of a light break from it? Then a Darjeeling first flush. Depending on the variety of the available teas, I might even risk one of their green teas. Sometimes a mistake in a cafe, but not always. Once again, this has been one of the nicest surprises while away from home.

I no longer feel so alone in an ocean of the unwashed masses. When you think more about a topic, you're naturally drawn to others of the same ilk. I'm sure that if we met on the street we'd have no idea of our similar tastes.

I might lean in and, as if it was a conspiracy, ask you, 'Do you prefer coffee or tea?' The delight you'd see on my face when I realised you were one of us. Those of us on the leaf-side.


  1. A good description of the decision making process for tea.
    I didn't know about the butterfly thing, this is why I like coming here: I can learn things.

  2. Sounds like a great tea book!
    The sense of smell is probably the strongest sense in the body when it comes to making connections in the brain (memory).
    If one has a specific smell that is present during a memorable experience (good or bad) will always think of that experience when they smell that aroma again.
    I like the aroma of a great tea because one can never forget that.
    Great post!

  3. Ice, I don't know that butterflies really smell. The writer might've taken a bit of poetic license with that one.

    Sir Will, thought that might be right up your street. Thanks for the dialogue.