In his book “Kitchen Confidential” Chef Anthony Bourdain recalls certain memorable events that helped to shape him into the culinarian he is today – his first, raw oyster eaten one hot August day in France when he was a petulant youngster, a simple meal of grilled striped bass, made from a crazed fish that leapt out of the waters of Cape Cod one windswept, moonlit evening.
One night a few years ago I had one of those tea experiences that convinced me that tea was more, much more, than just a hot beverage, that not only was there a wonderful, complex, subtle world of taste hiding behind those leaves, but a kind of mysticism, too, one that could enchant, baffle, perplex, and enlighten all at once.
We were at our favourite Chinese restaurant in town, celebrating a birthday.
The food, Taiwanese staples such as “Three Cups Chicken”, was as great as it ever was.
I decided to round off my meal with something from the tea menu. This being a Taiwanese restaurant, Oolongs were the main feature here, High Mountain Oolongs in particular.
Seeing as we were in full-on party mode and pushing the boat out somewhat, I opted for the most expensive tea in the list. The exact numbers have long since been forgotten, but even allowing for wide margins of error it still remains to this day the most I have ever spent on tea by a considerable factor.
After making sure that I was au fait with the best method of coaxing the flavour out of those costly leaves, the waitress left me to get on with it.
The depth and scope of any tea experience is a product of many environmental variables, and that evening I sailed out into a perfect storm. The ambience, the people present, and a tea that was grown in the same soil that had nourished the flora and fauna that shaped the culinary traditions behind the meal I had just eaten, all combined that night to create something utterly new and unforgettable.
It was like walking along a well used, wide trail that runs through a forest, only to hear someone call your name from off to one side, from deeper in the woods, somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere you can only access by taking the less well trodden route.
It was my first encounter with the trinity of the small, unglazed clay teapot, tea serving pitcher, and Chinese teacup, these days as familiar to me as the back of my own hand, but back then strange and exciting.
And the tea! The taste of that tea!
It might sound overly dramatic, but you really could taste misty mountainside. A high cliff face, a waterfall, the scent of thousands upon thousands of tea bushes cascading over the contours of that rocky pinnacle jabbed into the eye of heaven, it was all there, dissolved in the amber liquor, swirling around in my small clay cup.
Bourdain said that he instinctively knew that things had changed forever for him the second he tasted that oyster, that his life had altered course.
I too knew on an almost molecular level that that tea had left its mark on me.
But tea doesn’t force, it persuades. It never coerces, it merely encourages and suggests.
It had made me aware of that path, that I already knew could lead me up through the unknown to new peaks with spectacular views, some of them known to only a handful of determined adventurers. It would have to be my choice to go through the door that it had opened.
The restaurant’s owner smiled when he saw the blissed out, amazed look on my face. He knew all too well what had just happened.
“Not bad, eh?”, he said, about as powerful an understatement as you’re ever likely to hear.
“Not bad”, I agreed, “not bad at all….”