Tea is WAY ancient wisdom, and UD has always been happy to drink it by the gallon. Mr UD, a coffee man, has, under UD‘s influence, begun to drink quite a lot of tea too. For UD, it’s almost always a good black fruit brew: Harney & Sons Mango; Mariage Freres Marco Polo…
I finally remembered “Lament” by Thom Gunn. One of the most beautiful AIDS-era poems, it recalls the long sad death of a friend, and among its lines are these:
… Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased. Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you down To the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown: I’d never seen such rage in you before As when they wheeled you through the swinging door. For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom The hedonistic body basks within And takes for granted—summer on the skin, Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea In a dry mouth.
UD is a tea freak (as faithful readers of her blog know), so she’s stood around watching for decades as people predict this country’s Big Tea Breakthrough. Here’s the latest on that, from a writer who went to a tea convention.
…The tech and gaming worlds have embraced tea as both a nerdy cool hobby and a type of a natural wonder drug to help with focus whilst on all-night coding/gaming soirees, and that has created a marketplace for a certain type of high-end buyer who didn’t exist before…
[At the convention,] I had tea made from the avocado leaves, and adaptogenic teas (“Big with endurance athletes!”) that contained CBD and turmeric, and white champagne raspberry tea, and a Belgium lemongrass chai tea and Kenyan purple tea, and red rooibos tea, and Lapsang Souchong black tea and Darjeeling black tea and Assam black tea and Ceylon black tea and moringa tea and Sri Lankan mango iced tea and “Got Nitro” iced tea slush, and something called “duck shit fragrance oolong,” which is a real thing. I had Psychic Teaz from a man named Dr. Brains (a name Oprah gave him, FYI) who used to travel with the Grateful Dead and other musicians in the ’70s to help them maintain their health while on long tours, and Lover Tea from Vietnam with a college-aged translator who told me it grows in craters made during American bombing missions during the Vietnam War, and Matcha Kaori tea blended with what looked like a shaving cream brush by Japanese tea farmer Kunikazu Mochitani…
Tea is the perfect cultural drink for right now. It has such a big tent — you can like it for the caffeine kick, or the rituals, or the scientific experiments in brewing time and temperature, or the cool hobbyist gear, or the Eastern religious undertones, or the dietary benefits, or matcha’s Instagram friendly coloring. You can like it because it separates you out, or pulls you into a new community, because it makes you feel simultaneously like an outsider and an insider.
UD has sequential tea enthusiasms. Right now she’s mad for this, which as you can see she buys in bulk (through Amazon).
[SOS so far withholds comment. But she wonders how, even with caviar and champagne, a tea service could cost six hundred dollars.]
Key Details: Focusing on caviar and champagne, Tsar Nicholas II is Baccarat hotel’s new, luxurious take on the classic afternoon tea. Competitors: The Peninsula ($60–$72 for classic afternoon tea, $285–$395 for afternoon tea with caviar and champagne); Mandarin Oriental ($48 for classic afternoon tea); Ritz-Carlton Central Park ($56–$89 for classic afternoon tea) Price: $400 paired with Lung Ching Imperial tea, or $600 paired with Krug Grande Cuvée NV 750ml Why It’s Worth It: If you’re going out for Champagne and caviar — not afternoon tea — you’ll spend as much anywhere else. And the interiors at the Baccarat are like no other.
[The article appears in Bloomberg, a business publication, so maybe the author figures the busy Wall Street people scanning this piece will expect it to look like a consultant’s report, extracting key details up front for a person in a hurry. Quite the ethos of the tea ceremony, yes? I wanna take high tea, and make it snappy… Figure I’d like to spend say six hundred dollars for the forty minutes I’ve got available for this. Is it worth it? … Peninsula’s got the same deal for $60. So… $60/$600… But there’s that ‘like no other’ hotel interior… What did it cost me last time I sat down inside the Baccarat? Oh yeah, nothing. OTOH, that Nevada Cuvée sounds intriguing…]
Take the elevator to the second floor of the glitzy, year-old Baccarat hotel in Midtown Manhattan, and the doors will open in the Grand Salon, a bright and dazzling parlor with giant windows that overlook the Museum of Modern Art and Baccarat crystal dangling from every nook and cranny. Since the hotel’s opening, it’s been a place filled with women in fur coats and business meetings over $24 whiskey cocktails. Now it’s also home to the city’s most expensive afternoon tea service.
[I like the murdered Tsar theme, and women in fur coats is also good. In a better world, I’d have bragging rights once I did the most expensive tea in the city, but what hedge fund guy gives a shit about anything that only costs six hundred?]
At $600, the Baccarat’s Tsar Nicholas II menu is 10 to 20 times as expensive as those of most of its competitors. For comparison’s sake, you can spend just $30 to $70 and sip premium teas at the Peninsula, or nibble on dainty pastries from three-tiered trays at the Mandarin Oriental. The hotel is also outdoing its own self; it already offered two excellent tea services called the King Louis XV ($95) and the Prince of Whales ($110), both with artisanal-leaning offerings such as rose-scented madeleines and tomato-white cheddar brioche.
[Wow! Prince of Whales! That must be with caviar from the Beluga whale rather than the sturgeon. Far out. But shouldn’t that cost more than Tsar Nicholas?]
But as much as the Baccarat is playing in a crowded market—there’s an afternoon tea for every need, style, and mood in New York—it’s also reigniting a culinary tradition that can often feel neglected or worn. Its strategy? Make afternoon tea feel indulgent again.
[Yeah, those hundred dollar teas … You feel like you’re at a Walmart cafeteria…]
Whereas Baccarat’s other two services make for beautiful, light afternoon meals, the Tsar Nicholas II is primarily and unabashedly about two things: caviar and Champagne. And tea, if you’d like.
A third of that $600 price tag is allocated to Champagne. The service is meant to feed two, and comes with 750 milliliters of Krug Grande Cuvée NV. You can opt to skip the Champagne and stick to “just” tea for $400.
Another third of that price, roughly, goes to caviar: a generous 30 grams of Petrossian’s Tsar Imperial Ossetra, one of the higher grade caviar offerings from the brand. (The Petrossian shop a few blocks away sells this 30-gram tin of Tsar Imperial Ossetra for $170.) It comes with classic accoutrements of chives, egg yolks and whites, red onions, and crème fraîche, all presented on a tiered Baccarat crystal stand.
[Two hundred bucks for caviar that sells down the street for $170. But that doesn’t take into account the setting and service and crystal plus the whole thing of jamming 30 grams of caviar down your throat at one sitting… What? Are you gonna ask them to put it in a doggie bag? Fuhgeddaboudit! You are not asking for a doggie bag at the Baccarat!]
Pay attention to the warm blinis on the second tier. See that light, reddish tint? The blini batter is infused with Ruschka, a Mariage Frères tea blend with citrus and Silver Needle, a rare white tea made from only the top buds of the tea plant. The infusion is one of the many small touches that differentiate the service and make it memorable. Others include appropriately knowledgeable but not obtrusive servers and sharp attention to details — like not overfilling each tea cup and offering perfectly polished silverware and glassware. It’s the little things that make a big difference in an affair so delicate as afternoon tea.
[The people pouring your tea know how to do it so it doesn’t slop over the sides. Plus the cutlery’s clean.]
Aside from caviar and accoutrements, the Tsar Nicholas II comes with a few additional courses, including an amuse-bouche of pickled sable with fingerling potatoes, sweets of Stoli Kvass sorbet infused with rooibos, and a pair of bonbons filled with Earl Grey caramel. Notably absent are the traditional trappings of savories, scones, and sweets. In their place, however, are exemplary lavender shortbreads, which were flaky and delicate — so good in fact, that Baccarat should consider offering them as a standalone item on the menu.
[Yeah, me neither. Turns out to be a teeny bite-sized bit of food usually offered for free at a restaurant. Literally, a mouth-amuser.]
As for the tea itself? The suggested pairing for this service is Lung Ching Impérial, also by the acclaimed Parisian tea-maker Mariage Frères. It’s made up of prized green Dragon Well and Long Jing leaves from China’s Zhejiang province, signaling a sophisticated (and welcome) departure from the tried-and-true Japanese teas so popular in New York and beyond. These tea leaves are pan-roasted and flat-pressed, rather than balled-up or twisted into little tea pellets as most green teas are.
[I’d pay a lot to avoid the vulgar balling and pelleting you see in most green tea preparation… Flat-pressing is incredibly labor-intensive, as in this advertisement for tea:
Save for the Baccarat Blend, any of the dozen teas offered in the Grand Salon (including the Lung Ching Impérial) can be easily purchased online. So: Is Tsar Nicholas II worth it? If you approach the service not as a traditional afternoon tea service but as an over-the-top, multi-course caviar service, then the answer is yes. The Grand Salon is expansive and luxe, transporting and celebratory in its mood. You come for the food and service as much as the dazzling ambiance (which certainly factors into the price). But don’t expect an afternoon tea that will satisfy like a proper meal. Tsar Nicholas II is purely about pleasure.
[It’s worth it if you don’t want a proper meal, and if you think gorging on thirty grams of caviar is pleasurable.]
In 1906, Kakuzo Okakura told us what we’ve got to live through now, and how tea of all things can help us endure it. The Book of Tea paints the tea room and the tea ceremony within it as a refuge of stillness, simplicity, freedom, and meditation in a frenzied and convoluted world. In Don DeLillo’s novel Players, both of the main characters worry repeatedly that they have “become too complex” – incapable of a reflective inner life, and equally incapable of navigating the dizzying postmodern city outside themselves, a city full of egotistic pleasures, but at the same time oppressive and threatening. DeLillo’s postmodern city is Okakura’s early modern city greatly elaborated, and both writers seek ways to escape or at least distance themselves from it.
Starting with the roji – the garden to the tea room – one is meant
to break connection with the outside world, and produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself. One who has trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary thoughts. One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel as if he were in the forest far away from the dust and din of civilisation. Great was the ingenuity displayed by the tea-masters in producing these effects of serenity and purity.
Irregularities matter; one seeks to avoid the modern cityscape’s inhuman and destabilizing tendency toward massive symmetrical perfection (one of the characters in Players works in one of the twin World Trade towers, but she often gets lost and can’t figure out which one) by creating a small, imperfect, unsymmetrical space. The core value and central gesture here is much like the one Roland Barthes finds in the paintings of Cy Twombley: “a blur, almost a blotch, a negligence.”
The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world… Nowadays industrialism is making true refinement more and more difficult all the world over. Do we not need the tea-room more than ever?
Does true refinement sound too ladidah? Consider the real-world importance of the tea ceremony for Vaclav Havel during his years of imprisonment:
What comforted him most, almost to the point of obsession, was the ritual he made in preparing tea. It was, as he wrote Olga, a pleasure, an extravagance of a sort, something he could control in a thoroughly uncontrollable situation.
“When I was outside, I didn’t understand the cult of tea that exists in prison,” he writes. “…I wasn’t here long before grasping its significance and succumbing to it myself…Tea, it seems to me, becomes a kind of material symbol of freedom here: It is in effect the only fare that one can prepare oneself, and thus freely: When and how I make it is entirely up to me. In the preparation of it, I realize myself as a free being, as it were, capable of looking after myself.” …I schedule (tea) carefully, so it does not become a formless and random activity…”
Well, all of this is a variation on the currently fashionable business of “mindfulness,” which can be undertaken with varying degrees of formality and spirituality; but especially now that so many of us are in a sort of vexatious fog about the fate of our shared world, ol’ UD thinks it makes sense to think about/indulge in the strange formal/informal, ritualized/negligent gestures that somehow calm and focus and even transport us.
So, in honor of Leonard Cohen, who has died, and with UD‘s new tea series in mind, she features his great song, Suzanne.
The real Suzanne “would invite Cohen to visit her apartment by the harbour in Montreal, where she would serve him Constant Comment tea…”
I’ve sung this song, with guitar when I was a tyke, and on the piano post-tyke, for forty years. Its lack of dynamics, its few, unchallenging notes for the singer (no high notes), and its strange lyrics, give it a soft hypnotic insistence, a whispery chanting truthful feel. A religious song, it sounds like a litany. It lulls you like a child’s lullaby, yet its words are charged with enigmatic-but-feels-importantly-meaningful power.
Like Henry Purcell’s great song Music For Awhile, Suzanne (and many other Cohen works) gets its simple/complex, lulling/enigmatic, balladic/liturgical mix from Cohen’s use of counterpoint as much as from its lyrics. “[T]he counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs,” says Bob Dylan. “As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”
The unsettling independence of Cohen’s two musical lines has, UD thinks, the same effect as the same technique in the Purcell piece, where the singer calmly and simply and affirmatively sings above a dark and complex ground bass; we are in a harmonic and at the same time disharmonic location in these sorts of songs, where manifest human assertions about the world are latently undermined and complicated by a subterranean countervailing pure-musical insinuation. This beautiful but corrosive pure music seems to come from some tragic, obdurate, humanly unavailable, realm of metaphysical power. Cohen’s songs, says Suzanna Vega, are “a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.” Cohen himself at the end of his life said “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process.”
There’s a gentle waltzy circularity to Suzanne, underscoring its theme of willing but confused erotic/spiritual entrapment by Suzanne/Jesus. One keeps going back to her. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind. That is the travel of everyone through this seductive song – it’s the sort of song whose two reconcilable/irreconcilable lines somehow reconcile you to the impossible truths of mortality.
I’m describing here a variant of great art’s cathartic power.
Of its many versions, I like Judy Collins’ best, because her very breathy, low-vibrato, balladic voice (you take in, almost pruriently, her intakes of air before many lines) is a perfect match for the drifty, openly musing, openly sexual content of the piece.
Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
[Wisdom’s the killer – the divinity killer. Wisdom understood as the refusal to travel blind, the refusal to trust Suzanne as she takes your hand.]
And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
And you think you maybe you’ll trust him
For he’s touched your perfect body with her mind
Now, Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river
She’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds her mirror
And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind
This last verse skirts sentimentality (children in the morning); yet it’s also true that whenever she sings the words And the sun pours down like honey (with melisma on sun and a soft/explosive release of air on the h of honey), UD finds forming in her eyes what she’d called triumphant tears. For her, that is the true climax of the song, the cathartic payoff where the natural/metaphysical world finally drops its dark counterpoint against us and opens up a world so unproblematically bright that we can suddenly see everything with a Blakeian double vision that makes the counterpointed world finally (fleetingly) harmonic: flowers in the garbage, heroes in the seaweed.
With a nod to Robert Nozick, this post’s title announces UD‘s decision to shift her attention away – temporarily – somewhat – from the public political world (she’ll still write about poems, universities, sports, pharma scandals, burqas, FGM, crooked business school professors, etc.) and tend her own tea garden.
That is, she will revisit the much-neglected University Diaries category TEA, writing about all aspects of the phenomenon of tea’s incredible popularity in the world. Fine tearooms, complex new brews, the Japanese tea aesthetic and philosophy (Kakuzo Okakura was telling us long ago that the tearoom is where you go to get away from Donald Trump), poems about tea, high-end tea tourism, and even the graphics of tea – all interest UD. By graphics, she means all visual aspects of tea, from the shape of pots to the interiors of tearooms.
Does tea, as Okakura believes,
have a meaning? Although both
drinks have caffeine, coffee
seems to be about rush, tea
… will note only the most upper-crust denials of involvement.
Michael Mates is an ex-Choral Scholar at King’s College, and a former Tory MP for East Hampshire. He is a shareholder in a [Panana Papers implicated] company called Haylandale, which leased land in Barbuda.
Mates claimed his role in the company was “small and uninfluential”, that the company “has never had any real value” and that he was “invited to become chairman by a friend”.
Nothing really… Very … small. [Leans back; sips Lapsang Souchong.] Never had any real bloody value. [Sniffs.] Only did it as a favor you know. [Nibbles shortbread.] Most tiresome.