Ralph Gardner Jr: Tea For Town

Oct 28, 2017

Hillsdale, New York probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind as the setting for a Chinese tea ceremony. But Hillsdale is happening.

There’s the brand new Casana Tea House where the ceremony was held last week. And right next door, connected by new concrete sidewalks on both sides of Route 23, is Matthew White’s HGS Home Chef, a sparkling kitchen store with two teaching kitchens. And across the street is Mr. White’s Hillsdale General Store, hence the initials HGS, where you can appease your appetite for everything from clothes to penny candy.

The tea ceremony was conducted by Carrie Chan, the interior designer who created the teahouse. As she poured our first cup, a delicate jasmine tea, Carrie told us stories about tea ceremonies in her native Taiwan.

I don’t know about you, but the fragrance of jasmine tea reminds me of the Chinese restaurants of my youth. For all his or her merits, the average child isn’t a connoisseur. But there was something magical about jasmine tea, its ability to conjure up exotic places.

The beverage’s power was even more profound in adulthood, abetted by the Zen-like setting of light woods and Carrie’s calming personality. Each of us was offered a delicate, decorated cup on a slotted bamboo tray, the slots used to empty the remains of the liquid before we moved on to the next selection.

We began with a moment of meditation. But the space itself, where everything seems curated according to Carrie’s discerning eye, had a soothing, centering influence. And the ceremony, which lasted a full ninety minutes, was basically an extended meditation session.

We tried five teas in all, moving from light to dark.

These weren’t your average supermarket teas. They were hand-picked and some of them were expertly rolled into tiny nuggets. The resulting beverage was of exceptional clarity, a result of the quality of the tea and Carrie’s virtuoso brewing technique.

“You don’t drink the first batch of tea,” she explained as she poured the 198-degree water. It caused the tiny balls to blossom and explode with fragrance.

The first pour, she added, cleanses the tea before you drink the second and subsequent pours.  

Chinese tea ceremonies tend to be social, even noisy events, Carrie said, remembering the ways her parents friends would come to their home for tea and lively conversation over lunch.

Japanese tea ceremonies on the other hand, which Carrie also conducts at Casana Tea House, tend to be quieter, more formal occasions.

But that Chinese combination of ancient ritual and hospitality was on full display this particular afternoon.

I was looking forward to trying new teas – though to be honest, my palate remains sufficiently juvenile that I stubbornly adhere to the belief that even the finest tea can be helped by a little sugar – but what I wasn’t expecting was all the great food.

There were matcha tea cakes to go along with the jasmine tea. And as we moved on to the next tea, we were served delicious vegetarian spring rolls with mashed potato filling and chicken dumplings, half steamed and half pan fried.

The tea was Golden Lily oolong from Taiwan. According to Carrie, the world’s best oolong comes from her homeland.

Carrie, who also teaches dumpling making courses next door at HGS Home Chef, had made the food, too.

I was encouraged to learn that since good tea can be expensive in China people will store their used tea leaves in the refrigerator and reuse them the next day.

Carrie told us you can brew the leaves up to five times.

This came as good news since I’m a skinflint and also because I’ve always suspected that discarding a tea bag after a single use was a tragic waste.

I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that Earl Gray is my favorite tea, suspecting it might be considered déclassé among true connoisseurs. But Carrie said it also ranks among her favorites. Casana Tea House even makes its own blend, mixing tea with buckwheat flowers.

In fact, our next tea was a robust Earl Gray.

Bolstered by her support, I asked her opinion of not just sugar but also milk in tea. To my mind, there are few things more civilized than an afternoon cup of tea with milk joined by a buttery cookie.

Carrie concurred, even though she wasn’t willing to unequivocally condone the dipping of the cookie in the tea.

Indeed, Casana Tea House will soon be offering a proper British afternoon tea with mini salmon, ham and cheese and cucumber sandwiches, as well as scones and Japanese tea cakes.

Perhaps the tea house’s best deal is a pot that customers can refresh as often as they want, lingering the entire afternoon over their computer, or better yet a book.

Doubling as decoration are shelves filled with clay teapots and cups, works of art in their own right.

Carrie employed one of them to brew our next tea. It was a Pu’er (pronounced purah), a dark tea, that comes from Mainland China. And it came in a condensed loaf that Carrie chipped away at to separate the leaves.

She explained that the Chinese are competitive when it comes to their clay teapots, the shiniest of them suggesting generations of use. Indeed, she poured the dark tea over the pot to enhance its luster.

I was happy to see that our final tea was a return to the start of our journey. It was a jasmine, but even more fragrant than the first. And in brewing the tea, a jasmine flower popped from the binded bulb of leaves.

Call it was a figment of my imagination if you want, conjured from the intoxicating fumes. But I have witnesses.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.