I do like a nice cup of tea: PG Tips for the morning and maybe Earl Grey for afternoon tea. This may come as a surprise to regular readers as the blog is largely powered by coffee, but tea holds a special place in my routine as the first drink of the day.
For something i hold so dear, i am remarkably unadventurous. Tea bags and a mug being the tools of choice, either plucking the bag out rapidly with my fingers, before they burn, or using a tannin stained tea spoon. Bags invariably gather in the sink until their evening eviction.
But the other day i visited a friend who is a true tea aficionado. Our afternoon cuppa to round up a working lunch was served from a glass teapot on wooden tray where we admired the petals unfurling in the boiling water as the tea ball was dropped in. She had boxes and bags, strange pots and all sorts of leaves ready to brew. Indeed, i left piled high with ziplock bags containing dried, aromatic promises of heady brews to come. Each bag comes with a description: White Pu-Erh Moonlight 95 degrees, Pal Mu Tan Special White Tea 70-80 degrees and Organic Swirling Mist White Tea, as well as some mysterious dried balls of vegetable matter, like some kind of owl pellet, packed with the promise of thirst quenching delight.
Like so many fields, tea is something that seems so familiar and yet, when we scratch away at the surface, reveal hidden depths. Whilst I interact with the world of tea at a superficial level, boiling the kettle and pouring the water, it turns out that there is much more subtlety and nuance involved, or at least there is if you want a really perfect tea experience.
I suppose we engage with many things on a superficial level, missing out on the richness and depth that lies beneath, accessible only to those with sufficient interest, knowledge, privilege or time to find them out. Curiosity is one thing that may drive us to deepen our knowledge, although need can be an equally strong motivator. I may know next to nothing about car mechanics, but i am likely to be motivated to learn how the change the oil if i discover the garage will charge me twice the price for it.
The dynamics of how we access and use knowledge are changing: if i want to know about a chinese tea ceremony now, i need only Google it, but alongside this ease of access to knowledge can come a cheapening of the value of it. Surely the experience of learning to brew the White Moonlight at 95 degrees and the Pal Mu Tan at only seventy is something sensuous, something easily described, but better felt, savoured and drunk in calm surroundings. The internet can give us knowledge, but lacks the nuance of experience.
Learning is about more than pure knowledge: it’s about experience and how that experience changes us, because to learn is to change. It’s somehow comforting to know that, whilst i know next to nothing about tea, someone out there cares enough to know nearly everything. I am reading a book about salt at the moment. A whole book. And the author has just declared that, in the basement of the New York City library are over a thousand other books about the subject. It’s unimaginable to me that this level of scholarship exists, but then up until a week ago i had never paid any attention to the white crystals, beyond sprinkling them on my chips. It turns out that empires have risen and fallen to the taste of salted fish, something that had entirely passed me by.
So for me, the mug of tea sat on my desk represents, today, the world of things i know nothing about, the promise of knowledge not yet discovered in a world full of surprises. It’s somehow exciting to know that so much potential exists, hidden behind such a small mug. We shouldn’t underestimate the curiosity of learners.