Last week I was a lucky guest at a High Mountain tea ceremony at O’Ways Teacafe. Nigiro tea merchant Mingwei Tsai spent over two hours taking us through three cuppings of top quality oolong tea, tastings of over eight teas, and answering all our questions about tea. His knowledge of tea culture and cultivation is encyclopedic, and he was very generous with his knowledge and gentle humour.
Time passed very quickly, I learnt a lot about tea, and as a pottery collector, I coveted his collection of unusual terracotta Chinese tea pots, and identified with his obvious affection for them. I promised myself to make time regularly for quiet contemplation over a cup of tea (Ha! We’ll see how long that lasts. New mothers and business owners alike seem destined to drink tea cold). But above all, it was really interesting for me to be guided by someone else in a tasting.
I have been lucky in the recent weeks to be treated to an impromptu cocoa bean tasting, and a more considered coffee tasting, but this was the first time I really considered the change of roles for me, and looked critically at how I hold tastings in The Creamery kitchen.
We’ve made a very conscious choice to hold all our business-related meetings at our kitchen table, because we feel strongly that the kitchen is where everything in our business starts, and we like visitors to have an uncensored view of how we produce our ice cream. Given the subject matter and our confidence in our ice cream’s ability to speak for itself, it is only natural that almost all meetings end with a sampling of our current flavours.
The tastings evolved very casually. The three-compartment tasting dishes you see in many of our (and other people’s) photos were an impulse buy. We discovered through trial and error that tasting nine flavours is too overwhelming, three are too few (especially given the breadth of flavours we have on hand at any one time! We tried to count once and stopped after twenty) and six are just right. We tend to offer one dish of fruit flavours (think: strawberry, lemon, fresh ginger, blackberry, nectarine), and one of richer, more indulgent flavours (chocolate, peanut butter, coffee, Darling Brew). We try not to be directive in our tastings, letting our visitors mix and match or sample one flavour at a time, as they prefer. Although we do recommend people start with the fruit flavours before moving onto the richer flavours. We serve water with our ice cream, and we give as much information as our guests seem to want (where the fruit comes from, particularly challenging flavours to develop, what aspects we might still be working on). We also always taste with our guests, because it’s kind of weird to sit watching someone as they eat, because we still are totally in love with our product, and because if something’s wrong with a flavour we want to correct it ASAP.
But beyond these simple rules, I haven’t much thought about how I am presenting what is probably the most important part of our meetings.
We were respectful and attentive at the tea ceremony because of the reverence and passion with which Mingwei treated the tea. And our pause, initially out of respect for his dedication, gave way to appreciation for the exceedingly fine tea we were drinking. We became aware of so many little things – the scent of the tea, the change of its taste over time as different flavour compounds were released, blossomed and died, the fineness of the china in our hands, the temperature of the tea, not too hot nor too cold. By slowing down and opening ourselves up to seeing the tea through the eyes of our tasting guide, we had a totally different experience from how we would have experienced it by ourselves. The experience was richer, more nuanced, ceremonial.
Mingwei was obviously initiating us into a ceremony that is as old as the beverage itself. With ice cream, I don’t have that rich heritage to fall back on. Which is both a bit intimidating, but also very freeing.
So despite all the stuff that is going on in the kitchen this week (new staff, new markets, new customers), at the back of my mind, I am thinking, “How do I make this better?” If tea is a trigger for meditation, then I have it (and Mingwei) to thank for renewed inspiration this week. When I need it most, in the eye of the storm.