What better way to spend a rainy spring Sunday than drinking tea? (Okay, there’s champagne, but that can happen later, after the Arsenal-Manchester United match.) I picked up a new Yixing clay teapot when I was in Hong Kong about six months ago, but until now I haven’t had time to take care of it properly.
Conventional wisdom holds that one “seasons” a clay pot with tea, and then the same tea (and only that tea) is used afterwards, which imparts its character to the pot and eventually enhances the tea-drinking experience after extended usage. It sounds perfectly reasonable, but in my experience it hasn’t really been true. While it works well for some pots, other pots remain sullen and stubborn, never improving even after twenty uses or more. I thought that they were just bad pots, until I read the theories of Singaporean tea master Lim Kean Siew, one of the world’s great collectors of Yixing teaware.
According to Lim, each pot has an affinity for a specific tea. When the proper tea is used, both tea and teapot are immeasurably enhanced, but if the tea is the wrong one for the pot, there will never be a harmonious accord between the two. I’ll admit that it sounds implausible, but I’ll never forget the first time I experienced this for myself. My friend Eric got married several years ago, and as a gift I chose for him a geometric, yellow clay pot called Water Chestnut Flower made by Zhang Shun Fa, a contemporary potter and certified Yixing craftsman. The pot was beautiful, but I had to accompany it with tea as well. I spent weeks, perhaps even months, experimenting with dozens of teas, and was on the verge of despair when I tried infusing a Fenghuang Dancong, purchased from the Imperial Tea Court in San Francisco.
The effect was immediate, astonishing and profound. As soon as I poured the water into the pot, the clay began to take on a noticeably deeper, more lustrous shine, its color shifting from its normal pale ochre to a more vibrant, slightly reddish glow. The tea itself was remarkable, with a deep presence and rich aroma, prominently displaying the length and complexity on the finish referred to by tea connoisseurs as yun. It was drastically unlike my control of the same tea in a porcelain gaiwan, which seemed much shorter and simpler on the palate, with far less aroma. I tried this several more times and achieved the same results, and since then I have had similar experiences with other pots that I own.
Today my teapot is a far more modest one, simple and rather industrial, for everyday use. But that hardly means that one should drink poor tea. Feeling unusually decadent, I started off with an authentic Da Hong Pao, a rare and legendary tea from China’s Wuyi mountains, purchased at La Maison des Trois Thés in Paris (the finest source for tea in the Western world). It’s a splendid tea, but it showed poorly in this pot, feeling flat and subdued. A Rou Gui, from another fabled Wuyi cru (if Da Hong Pao is Romanée-Conti, Rou Gui could be Richebourg), fared a little better, showing characteristic richness and depth of aroma but not revealing anything out of the ordinary. Switching gears, I tried a Monkey-Picked Tieguanyin from the Imperial Tea Court. It’s not nearly on the same level of quality as the previous teas, but you never know what a teapot will like. (And anyway, monkeys are in possession of magical powers, as vlm would say.) Unfortunately it wasn’t all that impressive, although with this tea the pot took on a better appearance, showing a slightly richer color. A 1995 vintage Pu-erh, from Camellia Sinensis in Montreal, gave the pot an even brighter sheen (though the difference was subtle) and this tea showed fairly well, enough so that I would like to try more Pu-erh in this pot.
In the end, out of today’s teas I preferred a Yu Lan Xiang from La Maison des Trois Thés. Yu Lan Xiang is a variety of Dancong from Guangdong province, with a floral aroma and delicate body. This tea seemed to give the pot the healthiest and most vibrant luster (I haven’t got the photographic equipment to demonstrate the way the clay changes in appearance, so you’ll just have to take my word for it), and compared to the same tea infused in porcelain, it showed more length and more pronounced aroma. I’m not sure it’s the One True Tea for this pot, but I enjoyed drinking it all the same. I’ll continue to experiment.