On tea

Within this international drink is a microcosm of all the movements and ambitions and exchanges of mankind.
The Merchant's Wife', 1918. Oil on canvas. Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927). Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
The Merchant's Wife', 1918. Oil on canvas. Boris Kustodiev (1878-1927). Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
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My first memory of the colour red is of seeing little glasses of Persian tea served at roadside cafes on the motorway to the Caspian coast where Tehran’s middle class takes its holidays. Red is considered the ideal colour, after proper seeping, of what Westerners call ‘black’ tea. 

Later in the States I’d remember the buzz of the kitchen after Persian-language services in a local Presbyterian church and the sound of the church ladies preparing a makeshift samovar while I’d be discovering my first pieces by Bach on the wheezy old organ in the side chapel. On winter nights, my mother and aunts would sit together and play cards and drink Borage mixed with Ceylon tea and pieces of cardamon while my father and his friends would watch American football and drink strong black tea. This would be done inevitably with a large coarse lump of sugar held between the front teeth while drinking. I, too, would be allowed to have a sip of this as I grew older. Later I found out that the accoutrements of Persian tea culture – even the glass one uses for tea (stakan) and the silver frame in which one holds the teacup – came from Russia, the gateway, as for so much else, for Persia’s tormented relationship with modernity. So tea gave me my first history lessons.

I went to university in California and belatedly discovered the craze for artisanal coffee. As with everything else in my background, tea became an object of the various stages of my latent puerile rebellion. I avoided it for several years, and living subsequently in Italy cemented this protracted reaction against the scents and flavours of my upbringing. 

Moving to Britain made a slight difference, but the coffee in Oxford was so bad (until relatively recently) that inevitably I came back to my home brew. Nonetheless, for a very long time, I was resistant to what the English call builders’ (or builder’s?) tea, which to me for so long looked like dirty dishwater, thus violating the Persian ideal of seeing the colour of one’s tea. But here we have two completely different tea concepts. The first is an accompaniment to the contemplation of exquisite porcelain and the penning of quatrains about mortality; the second is why we have the Clifton Suspension Bridge. 

My avoidance of English tea was most likely a manifestation of my usual contrarian bent which clearly has never been cured, since now that I live mostly on the Continent, builders’ is sometimes all I wish to drink. And it is all I can drink during recordings or rehearsals, a remnant of the days now gone when a production assistant would come into the studio at 11 and 4 with a tray of chipped mugs of strong milky tea. One day I was rather impressed when right before I was to go on air at Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters in London, someone handed me a small glass of tea on a saucer with a lump of sugar. ‘My girlfriend is Persian,’ he helpfully explained. Notwithstanding our moment of meaningful cultural exchange, my performance was my worst to date. 

As with other impressions and images that my mind has stored from childhood, the tea that I have drunk in years of professional travel has stuck with me. There is the extraordinary yuenyung, a fusion of black tea with coffee and steamed milk that one drinks overlooking the misty harbour with a linen shirt sticking at importune parts of the body. Its Singaporean cousin goes with soft-boiled eggs on toast smeared with butter and kaya, a sugary cocoanut jam the colour of low colonial shophouses along the Koon Seng Road. I need only to see a large cake of dark black pu’er cha to recall my first time in humid, chaotic Chongjing, which is as close to a border town on the tropics as I’ve experienced in China. And it was in the back alleys of Shanghai, the scene of repeated day-long tea and tobacco sessions with local hipsters who dressed in scholar’s robes and traded photos of Ming dynasty tombs on WeChat, that I learnt my first few words and phrases of Mandarin, including the reason why my aunts always said that tea was at its best when it is red. 

What we in the West call ‘black tea’ is in Mandarin referred to as hong cha, literally ‘red tea.’ To this day, the taste of those various teas somehow forms in my mouth when I play the pieces that I did in those cities – e.g., the big Bach d-minor (pu’er), Brandenburg 5 (yuenyung), and I think whole swathes of solo pieces by Rameau now are fully experienced only with the delicate pointy leaves of a good Longjing served in a tall thin glass.

Tea in German hotels tends to be a dreary affair, with all kinds of refuse from one’s lawn being packed into bags and desultorily marketed as Kräuter Tee. One’s heart sinks upon checking into a provincial hotel somewhere in China only to find a room stocked with crumpled bags of Lipton when there is probably good leaf tea downstairs in the lockers of the hotel staff. Nonetheless, tea offers its own ways of unlocking the habits and cultures of others in the most unexpected ways. This might sound crazy given the gastronomical miracles that occur there on a daily basis, but it was a rather vigorous and impressive tea culture which sort of brought me on side, relatively speaking, with Paris, a city which otherwise I can take in only very small and concentrated doses. London’s establishments should hang their heads in shame and take a page out of the playbook of even the most average of Parisian watering-holes that at least will have a few varieties — in leaf form, no less! — from Mariage or Dammann Frères.

If I arrive somewhere, at least in Europe and Asia, and there is no local tea culture of some sort, it is unlikely that I will form any real memories of the place. If this seems an affectation, then so be it. For what is this dirty water left over from a few dried leaves but a backdrop to conversation and reading, to the building of cities and the signing of treaties, to evenings at home and mornings before we have to face the good and the bad of the average day? 

One might say that coffee occupies a similar place but, for me it is akin to school kids nervously smoking cigarettes behind the gym when one would be better off peacefully smoking a pipe of good tobacco in the comfort of a big leather chair. Within this international drink is a microcosm of all the movements and ambitions and exchanges of mankind. And as for the Germans and their ideas about tea, well, at least they have Bach. For that, even Kräuter Tee is forgiven.

Mahan Esfahani

Mahan Esfahani is known mainly for his career as a harpsichordist in two major realms: the great works of the 17th and 18th centuries and for championing modern and living composers in halls and with orchestras on four continents. More recently he has a growing reputation as an active broadcaster and commentator with radio documentaries on a variety of musical and social topics for the BBC and articles for the The New Yorker, Guardian, and Opera. Born in Tehran, he grew up in the United States and has spent his post-university life living between Milan, Oxford, London, and more recently Prague, where he spends his time between concerts writing, collecting rare books, and studying ancient and modern languages.

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