Thinking about tea and teapots while eating fresh dates

There are so many memories and quotes about tea and teapots.  While living in Britain, I learned that everything is much better with a “warm cuppa.” Even today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, tea can be soothing to the body and soul.

In her book, When Calls the Heart, Janette Oke pondered the idea that a fine china tea set would make life in a log cabin much more civilized when she said, “There seemed to be so many things that I needed, but I held myself in check and purchased only essentials – with the exception of one extravagance. I had determined that I would drink my tea like a lady, even in a log house; so I purchased a teapot and two cups and saucers of fine china. I felt somehow Mama’s mind would be much more at ease about me if she knew that I was having my tea in the proper fashion. After all, civilization could not be too far away from Pine Springs if I had such amenities!”

In Pomegranate Soup, a lovely book that marries Persian cooking with Irish living, the author, Marsha Mehran writes: “There were ceramic teapots in aubergine, mustard, and midnight blue (good for one, sweeter still when shared between two drinkers); and forty small, thin glasses with curved handles, set in gold- and silver-plated holders etched with arabesque swirls. Bahar gingerly lined the tea glasses up on the counter where the cappuccino machine had been stationed. She tucked the teapots into the counter’s glass-panelled belly, where they sat prettily next to twenty glass containers of loose-leaf teas, ranging from bergamot and hibiscus to oolong.”

In The Water Castle, Megan Frazer Blakemore plays with a trunk full of treasures and memories when she describes the moment when the lid was opened. “Ephraim lifted the top of the trunk. Neatly stacked were mementoes from what seemed like hundreds of journeys. Right on top was an etching of the Eiffel tower next to an African mask that looked at him with surprised eyes. He reached in a little deeper and unearthed a small teapot decorated with blue drawings just like the kind his grandmother collected and kept in a locked china cabinet.”

For the first twenty years of my life, I lived in the southern United States. Oklahoma to be exact.  I have no memory of hot tea or teapots even though the china cabinet contained an array of thin, highly decorated teacups.  I recall, as a child, being taken to the window in the dining room and being shown the translucency of the eggshell cups. They were not used for tea but were brought out on exceptional occasions with the coffee service.  Everyone drank iced tea.  If anyone had ordered hot tea at a restaurant, I am not sure the wait staff would have known precisely what to do.  Tea was not hot except for its brewing for iced tea.  There was no flavoured powdered tea.  People in the South are purists.  Teabags were brewed and then water and ice were added, never sugar.  The tea was served in stemmed goblets.  The sugar, if it was used at all, was combined with the help of an extra-long silver spoon and stirred till every last crystal was dissolved.  Some added the juice from a fresh lemon.

It was only as a new immigrant to Canada that the comfort and the Britishness of hot tea and an old Brown Betty pot were appreciated.  The tea that was made was Black and robust, most often requiring milk and sugar to chase away the bitterness.  Hot tea was comforting to hold the cup or mug during the cold of the Manitoba winters, the steam warming your face.  The favourite brand in southern Manitoba was Red Rose.  I was never sure if it was the price, the quality, or the fact that there were often small Wade ceramic figurines tucked inside the boxes for collecting beginning in 1967.

Fast-forward and my life and the world of tea expanded in ways that I could not have dreamed of during those first winters in Canada.  First was the chai simmered in some pretty forlorn tin or aluminium pots on the railway platforms in India.  Delicious and creamy and often made even better with the infusion of cardamon.  In Pakistan, tea was made on the side of the road in brightly painted metal pots while in Beijing, one could sit for hours in the Kempinski Hotel’s tea room sipping jasmine tea made in glass pots.

I am not the only person whose knowledge of tea has changed.  Around the world, there are masters purchasing teas – green, white, Pu’er, Oolong and Black – for our more refined palettes.  Teas are blended in the same way that whiskeys are with the masters identifying the notes in each.  You can take classes on tea.  You can order tea from the tea plantations along with suitable teacups and pots.

Today, I have an extensive collection of handmade teapots.  They range from the most recent, a gift from Grace Han when she was leaving for Vancouver to a lovely lacquer one made by the lacquer master in Bagan, Malaysia brought back by my son.  There are others, tucked away in China cabinets or sitting in my office for students to hold and critique.

 

Top row from left:  Grace Han teapot (2019) made using Korean mould technique (Grace’s rock series); John Reeve temmoku teapot made at Sheridan College, 1976; lacquer tea set made in Bagan, Myanmar. Bottom row from left:  Valerie Metcalfe, Barbara Tipton, and Gunda Stewart.

Each of my teapots holds a special place in my heart because of the memories and the beautiful people who made them.  They are, in fact, more than just vessels for brewing and serving tea.  It is a way of enjoying a quiet or shared moment with an old friend.

As my knowledge of tea has grown, so has my questions about teapots. Indeed, my taste in tea has changed dramatically.  Instead of buying big boxes of 120 teabags of Black tea, I purchase small sealed packets of hand-rolled black teas from Malawi or small-batch silver tip jasmine white tea from Wuyi, China.  Then there are the greens from Uji, Japan and the roasted nuttiness of genmaicha.  Indeed, the only black tea that I drink is Huntington’s hand-rolled from Malawi.  Its sweetness requires no sugar, and while you could steep it so that milk would be required, there is no need unless you walk off and forget it!

All of this brings me to the question of the teapot.  The way that we enjoy tea today has changed from what it was during the war years in Britain or even on the Canadian prairies in the 1970s.  We are more sophisticated in our knowledge of tea while, at the same time, there have been a growing number of companies and shops to cater to us.  Today, I want to see the colour of the tea develop and to watch the leaves unfurl and to do this, I must use a glass pot.  The same is true for any of the flowering silver tip white teas.  I want to see the colour develop along with the unfurling of the leaves.

New revelations on the best temperatures to use to infuse different varieties of tea have resulted in small appliance manufacturers making electric kettles with temperature controls.  Today, it is generally known that one simply does not boil the pot until the whistle is blowing the roof off unless they want their lovely green jasmine tea to be anything bitter.  There is a French tea company, Palais des Thes, that has a marvellous green tea that is mixed with rose and raspberry leaves.  A friend placed the leaves of the Paris for Her tea in a pot and poured boiling water over it and allowed the tea to steep as she would any black tea.  After she was shocked at how bitter the brew was – so upset that she called the North American head office to complain.  In the end, it turned out that instead of 100 degrees C, the tea required 70 degrees C and a very short steep.  To handle this, some tea companies sell only 150 ml and 300 ml teapots so that you are merely making 1 or 2 cups.  No leaves will turn bitter if you check the water temperature required and the length of the steep – generally supplied with the tea.

So what am I going on about????????  Well, like the right temperature of water to infuse the tea leaves, there has to be an equally appropriate teapot for specific teas.  The Chinese make their Yixing teapots out of a beautiful local clay that is sometimes a purple-brown colour when fired.  There is no glaze.  The pot absorbs the flavour of the tea that has been infused after years (assuming the same type of tea is used) until, eventually, less tea is needed.  Glazed clay teapots can be used for any kind of tea but should they?  And should we make such large pots that the tea continues to steep under the cosy becoming more bitter?  So my argument is this:  If you are infusing a standard black or herbal tea, go for the ceramic pot.  But if you are brewing a rare tea whose colour and unfurling is paramount to its appreciation, then you simply must use a small glass pot.

It’s that time of year…holiday shopping and the Stoneware Gallery sale

I am not sure if it really feels like fall anymore in Winnipeg now that we have had our first dusting of snow but, it is time for all of the local pottery groups to be having their annual sales.  The Stoneware Gallery has been a cooperative venture since 1976, forty-two years ago.  Almost a decade ago I had lunch with Valerie Metcalfe and she was worried that the coop would not be able to attract young people to fill the places of the retiring members.  Fast forward eight years and the site on Corydon Street in Winnipeg is bustling.  They offer wheel throwing classes from September to June; there is always a waitlist.  It is an excellent place to start as a beginner or to remove the rust from once trained hands.  Members take turns in the gallery shop that represents the emerging talents and the well-established potters of our City.

Beginning tomorrow, the members will be opening their doors for a four-day sale.  For those of you looking for a secret Santa gift or for one for your valued other, you will find whatever it is you are looking for.  Steve Jorgenson has been making his casseroles for three generations of buyers.  Kathryne Koop and Valerie Metcalfe have marvelled all of us with their decorative porcelain while Alan Lacovetsky brings in his special wood-fired pieces.  These are the people that I know best but Barb Balfour has her raku and Jennifer Johnson has been getting assistance in spontaneous decorating from her two daughters.

Take an hour, drive over to Corydon Avenue, pick up some gifts for the holidays or, maybe just something for yourself.  Helping support someone who makes their living by making beautiful handmade ceramics is a ‘good thing’.

Don’t Miss Out – One more day for the Crafted Show and Sale at the Winnipeg Art Gallery!

The Crafted Show and Sale is on at the Winnipeg Art Gallery til 9pm tonight, Friday November 2 with doors opening Saturday from 11am to 5pm.  This is the fourth year that the WAG has opened its doors so that  Manitobans can see the talents of more than fifty of its artists.  The entry fee is $5.

Once inside the door you are welcomed by the team that put together a great charity event.  Twenty of the ceramists and their bowls were teamed up with twenty of Manitoba’s top chefs to create a cookbook.  They are selling for $10 and the majority of the proceeds will go to Winnipeg Harvest.  It is beautifully designed and illustrated and is the perfect gift for all of you looking for a Surprise Santa gift.  Going along with the theme of soup and soup bowls, you can actually have your lunch while shopping.  On offer for $5 a bowl are Smoked Arctic Char Chowder, Curried Green Pea Soup, Chilled Roasted Golden Beet Soup, and Hemp Mulligatawny.  And if that wasn’t enough there is also White Bean Soup, Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho, Kale and Potato, Carolina Crab Bisque along with Vegan Carrot.  It is a great opportunity to rest between floors!  and visit with friends.  Despite it being a Friday, visitors were already flooding the stalls by 1pm.  One of my favorites Indigo Arrows, beautiful hand made and printed textiles by Destiny Seymour, was almost sold out by the time I got to the 4th floor.  Her simple designs on lovely dyed linen represent Destiny’s Cree heritage.

But, I have to admit that it really is heart warming to see so many talented ceramic artists that have been students at the School of Art.  Terry Hildebrandt has just returned from getting his MFA in Alberta (featured image).  Check out his beautiful wood and soda fired work up on the Mezzenine Floor.  He is right on the left as you exit the stairs.  I have a ‘soft spot’ for Terry’s plates, my collection extending back to when he was an undergrad student and more recently some of the most stunning plates found at the Manitoba Craft Centre’s shop.  Directly across from Terry is the talented Jessica Hodgson who not only creates work and teaches at The Edge Clay Centre but also works for the Manitoba Craft Council (busy young lady).  Alan Lacovetsky is part of the cooperative at the Mostly Stoneware Gallery.  His studio is located in St Andrew’s.  Alan is part of the Interlake Wave Studio tour that takes place in the spring and again the beginning of September.  It’s a nice drive and a great chance to check out his wood kiln!

The number of ceramic artists boogles the mind and again is a testament to the thriving ceramic community both within Winnipeg and out.  Their work is so varied and is a reflection of their strong creative spirit.   I do apologize if I miss anyone – you are all fabulous.  PJ Anderson combines her love for basketry and ceramics into distinctive smoked fire vessels.  I have always admired Kelli Rey’s sense of humour and her wonderful ability to handle clay since I first curated her work into the exhibition, Soup and Sustenance, in 2008.  That show also had a charitable theme with the gala soup dinner tickets going to the Portage la Prairie soup kitchen.  Funny too…it was a bit of a snowy blustery day back then.  Several other members of the Mostly Stoneware Gallery are included including the rising young talent of Teegan Walker and the work of the celebrated Kathryne Koop.

I could go on and on…the list of clay makers is long.  But I also want to call attention to two special people on the first floor.  The first is the ceramic technician for the School of Art, Chris Pancoe.  Check out his fermenting jars and his soup bowls.  Valerie Metcalfe, one of the founders of the Mostly Stoneware Gallery on Corydon, is next to Candice Ring just a short walk away.  I have admired Valerie’s work for decades but this year my heart went out to her as she and a group of devoted citizens tried to protect a wooded area, home to a large number of deer, near to where I live, from being destroyed by urban expansion.  In response, she made a lovely series of work specially dedicated to the Parker Forest and Wet Lands.  It was because of that big heart of hers that I had to break a promise not to bring any more ceramics into my house.  Valerie, I am sitting here enjoying the nicest green tea from that gilded mug.  What a tearful day it was and what will now happen to those deer that so long have called this area home?  One found its way into the traffic by Jubilee and Pembina.  Thankfully it wasn’t killed.

Ceramic artists share so many social and environmental concerns while at the same time making objects and vessels to enrich our daily lives.  The Crafted Sale has more than clay but, why not tomorrow, begin thinking of who might need something for the holidays – a teacher, someone in your family, a friend – and head down to the WAG for the last day of Crafted.  Have your lunch, buy a cookbook and feel good about helping others.  You won’t regret it!