Wednesday, July 24, 2013

REVIEW: "Assam Melody," Meleng Tea Estate, Babs & Coco's Tea Emporium

Today I shall review Meleng Tea Estate's "Assam Melody," provided by Babs and Coco's Tea Emporium.

This morning I am in high spirits, which makes this the perfect moment to reflect upon the bittersweet, the melancholy, and that carefully poised place where joy meets sadness to the enrichment of both. If one must discuss emotions such as these, though, it's best to have a bit of distance to avoid being sucked in and becoming overenthusiastic or melodramatic. Not that I'll avoid being either, but at least I can try, right? So I start with a meditation from Psalm 42, by King David, in the Amplified version, and I'll get around to talking about tea eventually.

{ Why so downcast, O my soul? }

Psalm 42

To the Chief Musician. A skillful song, or a didactic or reflective poem, of the sons of Korah.

As the hart pants and longs for the water brooks, so I pant and long for You, O God.
My inner self thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, Where is your God?
These things I [earnestly] remember and pour myself out within me: how I went slowly before the throng and led them in procession to the house of God [like a bandmaster before his band, timing the steps to the sound of music and the chant of song], with the voice of shouting and praise, a throng keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my inner self? And why should you moan over me and be disquieted within me? Hope in God and wait expectantly for Him, for I shall yet praise Him, my Help and my God.
O my God, my life is cast down upon me [and I find the burden more than I can bear]; therefore will I [earnestly] remember You from the land of the Jordan [River] and the [summits of Mount] Hermon, from the little mountain Mizar.
[Roaring] deep calls to [roaring] deep at the thunder of Your waterspouts; all Your breakers and Your rolling waves have gone over me.
Yet the Lord will command His loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to God my Rock, Why have You forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
10 As with a sword [crushing] in my bones, my enemies taunt andreproach me, while they say continually to me, Where is your God?
11 Why are you cast down, O my inner self? And why should you moan over me and be disquieted within me? Hope in God and wait expectantly for Him, for I shall yet praise Him, Who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

If you've never read the Psalms of David, you should start now. They're works of art, and they plumb the depths of the human spirit in a way few authors would ever dare to do so. Knowing the Psalms, or at least having a familiarity with them, should be a part of every serious person's education. Much of our best literature and art comes from people whose minds have been transformed by the raw power of the language and the ideas and spirit within.

A WORD ABOUT BIBLE TRANSLATIONS. These words were originally sung in Hebrew. For English speakers to approach them, we must either (a) learn Hebrew, which is a difficult language, and it's written backwards to boot; or (b) rely on translations. There are many, many translations of the Bible, and most of them have great strengths that can complement one another. Many people rely upon Bibles with multiple translations of the same passages, side by side, so they can try to catch the nuances that they might miss otherwise. There's no "right" translation, but we can still get the big picture pretty well if we open ourselves up to it. The Amplified, while lacking in poetry, is helpful because of the translators' determination to squeeze every drop of meaning from the words.

DAVID'S PSALMS (the above being a good example) typically have an artistic form that derives from what we can surmise is the mind-set of the man as he was writing. He'd start by writing his heartbreak, his bitterness, his anger at injustice, his frustration with God and the brokenness of the world we inhabit; and then, after a bit of reflection, he moves into the knowledge that the Lord is still sovereign, and that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (That last bit was from St. Teresa, not David, but it seemed to fit what I was saying.)  Reading the Psalms is a healing to broken hearts, because David was so open with his pain, and then he is shown the answer to his agonies: God is love, and God is good and does good. That goes a long way toward helping us through the ups and downs of life in a bent world. David's structural element design: bitterness, followed by sweetness.

In the culinary world as in the literary, contrasts like these make for a good meal. Bitter chocolate powder on the outside of a sweet center is a great design for a chocolate truffle. The Japanese tea ceremony involves pretty bitter matcha, the powdered green tea whisked during the procedure; and tiny sweets will often accompany the tea, allowing the experience of both bitterness and sweetness to offset one another and come into balance. Much wisdom for life here, no?

the tea

As long-time readers may recall, I'm not very much inclined toward Assam teas, because the very qualities that draw people to them-- the maltiness, the heaviness, the depth, the darkness, and even the bitterness-- don't really work for me. Because I'd rather not resort to drinking high-quality teas with sugar or milk, that means it's just me and the naked tea.

When I first worked my way through Assam Melody (gongfu-cha style, as is my wont), which comes from the Meleng Tea Estate, I wasn't terribly excited. Bitter, heavy, blargh. The tea came as a gift from my lovely Suzanne, who took Babs's recommendation for the tea to kind of stretch me out of my comfort zone and try something I might not perhaps like, but might grow to enjoy. I've had enough Assams over the years, and my enjoyment of them has been eclipsed by other teas (high-grown Darjeelings, especially).

I fired up my trusty gaiwan, or lidded cup, and piled in the leaves. Gongfu: lots of leaf, short steeping times. Well, every time I did it, I ended up with quite a lot of bitterness, followed by a lingering sweetness and complexity. My son Gregory pointed out the sweetness to me, which I had been missing before, fixating upon the bitterness as I had been. "See?" my palate seemed to be telling me. "You don't like Assam, and you never will. Just give it up." But I never give up.

{ Eureka! }
One, two, three, four gaiwans later, and I have finally figured it out. Moderate (not enormous) amounts of tea, near-boiling water, and really quite short steeping times of 30 or so seconds for the first round, then slowly increasing the time with subsequent steepings. And it's good! The bitter element is almost, but not quite removed. In other words, the bitter is now in a more proper balance with the natural sweetness, and the complexities of the cup are apparent without being overwhelmed by the bitterness caused by my inept handling of the tea.

It's so important to spend time with a tea you dislike, because you can learn from it. "What did I do wrong? Is it a fault with the tea, or with me? Or am I just incapable of enjoying this type of beverage? Should I switch back to Mountain Dew?" You know, that kind of thing. I felt proud of myself that, following my 11-year-old son's intuition, I could get a great cup out of this tea that at first I would have thought was just not for me.

Bitter and sweet. I suggest you take some time out of your busy schedule, make a decent cup of tea, and listen to Sibelius's 2nd Symphony, which is heartbreaking, so sad, so joyful, so bitter, so sweet. These contrasts are what give the symphony its power and engrave it upon your heart. So much music is built upon this principle, and so much food, and so much literature, and so much scripture; and it works, because it's an integral part of our human nature.

So enjoy some Assam tea, listen to the hour-long work of genius by Sibelius (directed by Leonard Bernstein), and eenjoy the balance of bitter and sweet, discovering something about your human nature and the quality of awareness that embraces both principles as part of the engaged, abundant life.

UPDATE: It occurred to me after finishing the post today that for those of you who like a good, meaty Assam drunk British style (which means a very strong brew with milk and sugar), then follow the directions given on the packaging provided by Babs & Coco, and you'll be A-OK.