Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Celadon as palimpsest

In the chilly Autumn,
thousands of porcelain pieces
as green as the mountains
appear from the kiln.
                    Lu Guimeng

Strictly speaking celadon is not a good green. It has none of the vivid energy of leaf buds, nor the sombre notes of eucalyptus. It is neither verdantly mossy or bravely bottle green. It sits somewhere between jade and lichen  - on the colour spectrum it leans towards grey and away from yellow. Rather than lifting the heart it speaks to it - a colour for poets and those of an exquisite eye. Made from earth and ash, celadon has an earthy appeal. The green glaze is composed of iron and cinders. An incremental increase in iron results in deeper greens. One can imagine the Chinese feeling for porcelain as a magic composed of the elements - of fire, water, earth and iron.

That colour is arbitrary or inexact is a notion we rail against. We do our best to describe it as chemistry in terms of mineral pigments - in physics as wavelength and frequency. But surely my green is not your green. Greenness is in the eye of the beholder. Derwent pencils - the last word in colour in my childhood originally produced 10 greens. In 1939 the full spectrum of Derwent colours was 72 - in the 1990's that increased to 120. When on my twelfth birthday I was given a set of 24 I felt life could not possibly be richer. Today there are 14 shades of Derwent green including teal, fern, felt, apple, iron and Ionian. There is no celadon. Perhaps the fact that celadon can be anything from a smoky jade to a oyster shell makes it a poor descriptor.

In the Romance and Icelandic languages the word for green derives from the root word for growth. In many cultures green is synonymous with hope, freshness, Spring, youth, perennial return and in times of ecological fragility with environmental safety and protection. But green can also stand in for callow inexperience, for jealousy, sourness and decay. If the green of the celadon ware had resonance for Chinese poets and princes it spoke to Buddhist teachings too. Pottery is the perfect palimpsest. It has meaning laid over meaning. It is used and wiped clean like a slate. It is at once fragile and concrete. It is a vessel and so are we.

Long before the Japanese fascination for wabi sabi, the Chinese celebrated flaws. Fabled celadons were often crazed - the glaze and porcelain operating differently under fire. Even after being taken from the kiln the finish can move and the cracks travel. This process is said to explain the life of the pot - a resident energy - an exquisite tension expressed in the clay's journey from plastic to some sort of stone. The imperfect finish somehow suggested, hinted at the sublime. How much more perfect can an object be than one where the beauty is somewhat diminished? One must instead hold the idea of perfection in the mind.

The oldest celadons are also the least perfect - their crackle like cobwebs, their porcelain heavier than other pots. Originally this might have been because of limited production compared to other wares. Practice makes perfect. Or it might be direct reflection of its material makeup. But perhaps celadons were also less than perfect in order to pique the jaded eye of the elite.

For a long while celadon was secret. Green was valuable. Like the royal purples of popes, the Middle Kingdom's monied classes kept green porcelains for themselves. The Chinese for secret also means withheld - unspoken, reserved as in shy or reserved for, as in reserved for royalty. The ambiguity is aptly appropriate. Celadon's scarcity enhanced its appeal.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tea with George

Tea is every day ordinary and also sublime. Even the most humdrum brew sets us up for the day, for work, for study, for attentiveness. The Chinese have it that tea brightens the eye - both the I and the outlook. It's a drug which works equally on the meat and mind. It's a hook - on it hangs, history, empire, enterprise and every day.

What you drink says something about you but how you drink it is important too. There are rules for tea drinking and while some ignore them - most of them make sense and add drama and ritual to tea time. Not everyone agrees on what the rules are though.

Orwell thought enough of tea to write down his rituals - actually they read as commandments and remind us of how taste is custom and culture but also fashion. He warns against China tea preferring black Indias, he rails against tea strainers and muslim or silk bags - he wants the tea to float freely as it infuses. I am with him there. Never add sugar, he says, unless taking tea the Russian way. I wonder if he means puddled into a saucer and sucked up through a sugar cube. This is fun though perhaps not for every day.He has another jab at Tolstoy and Chekhov and their acolytes - never drink tea from an urn. How very English - one of my abiding dreams is to own a samovar.Poor Orwell would have been subject to railway tea - not of the Orient Express ilk either - an urn would have leeched every bit of tannin from cheap tea over hours - to be endured on the rainiest of cold days in the second class waiting room. I'm with Orwell on additions to tea. To my mind most tea is best drunk without milk - builders' tea might want the tannin toned down and sure, milky tea is good for dunking. Billy tea needs to be stronger than usual and laced with torn gum leaves. But mostly with exception of chai I want unadulterated tea.I don't even want a wafer of lemon. 

School tea is a curse on all our houses. I remember an elephant of an aluminium tea pot, hammered with dents and equipped with a dozen tea bags - their strings tied to the handle. Forty or so cups were lined up - pushed as closed together as possible and the weak tea poured in a continuous stream. You hoped to get one of the first pourings because the second, third, sometime fourth were the product of water added to the same tired bags. Edward Epse Brown, in a film about the Tassajara Monastery, spoke lovingly of the kitchen's battered teapots. Cheap, oversized, some stoved in and covered in dings they were to Espe Brown a lesson in service and humility. I wonder how tea tasted from them. 

These days still half asleep my first cup is sometimes brought to me in bed. M leaves it on the night stand and creeps out to work.Often only the dogs open one eye to watch him. Some days this first cup is cold by the time I wake enough to swallow it. The second one of the day is the one that counts. And here our methodology parts ways. Being a coffee drinker who rarely strays towards tea, M boils the electric kettle. I prefer the stove. Most often I boil the tea kettle on the hob. It's primitive but seemingly essential to light the flame and see the steam. I warm our old Arabia 3 cup - throw a measure aromatic leaves into the pot and pour on the boiling water. M is emphatic that the taste is identical between the electric kettle and the stove.(You don't argue with someone who brings tea before first light).If you have a glass pot it's nice the watch the tea leaves steep - otherwise I walk the teapot to the table with a sturdy cup, buttered toast if it is breakfast - or a crumpet for afternoon tea. Turn the pot three times and if you are a black tea drinker like me, pour out that first fragrant cup. Steam yourself in a herbal cloud - its both wholesome and dreamy. 

If you are Orwell you will be using good china and drinking Darjeeling. If you are like me you want something homely in the morning - perhaps bancha or barley and something poetic in the afternoons when friends come - a smoky Lapsang souchong, a Japanese cherry leaf tea or something bright like Orange Pekoe. Even the names are enough to brighten bad weather. 

I have a hierarchy of favourite teacups too.(I have tried M's patience by trying to pack good cups and a teapot for taking camping). I have some wide blue and white cups brought back from Japan, some heavy Denby, some handsome Arabia and the folksy Lotte all from fetes or opshops.For my birthday I was given some of Jane Sawyer's tea bowls. They are at once precious and formed for function.I am immediately reminded of the axiom of daily use proposed in The Way of Tea – that pots “come to life only after they are put to the test of their purpose.” 

I am glad to be giving life to these beautiful objects by using them.

Recipe for Marbled Tea Eggs
Put 6 eggs into a pan of cold water covering by at least two fingers.
Boil for a minute then cover and turn the flame low and simmer for 7 minutes.
Take the eggs from the pan and cool in a bowl of water set in the sink.
Tap the eggs all over with the back of a spoon. Take care to have a light touch so as to keep the shell whole. When patterned all over drop back into the pan adding 3/4 cup of soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tablespoons black tea, (Earl Grey or Russian Caravan is good) and  2 star anise or a stick of cinnamon.
Bring back to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for a further 45 minutes.  
Let cool in the pan for an hour or so or even overnight. Carefully peel to uncover the marbling. Often the peeled shell is as pretty as a bird's egg.