Early in December, Jana and I went on a curatorial research trip to Postcard Teas, on Dering Street in London’s Mayfair district. It was a cold, drizzly afternoon and the shop became the perfect oasis away from the noisy crowds and ceaseless hustle of nearby Oxford Street. It occupies a small space and has a rather special, unassuming quality, far removed from the overt commercialism of many of the neighbouring retailers, most of which are large global brands. We hear that the shop once a specialist emporium of textiles and jewellery, run by current proprietor Tim D’Offay, until nine years ago when it was relaunched as a tea and tea drinking accessories shop, reflecting Tim’s continuously evolving passion for tea.
That day we had travelled to Postcard Teas to sample the 1660 LONDON Tea Cup Connoisseur Set, one of the sets of objects which will be on display in ‘What is Luxury?’ The connoisseur set is one of a small selection of tea drinking sets by the company, developed collaboratively by Tim, the shop’s Creative Director Lu Zhou, ceramicist Peter Ting, curator Brian Kennedy and a specialist porcelain manufacturer, each lending his or her own expertise to the equation. The name 1660 LONDON draws on the long British tradition of tea drinking and refers to a passage in Samuel Pepys’s diary, a notorious social and sartorial commentary on late-seventeenth century London life, when he refers to drinking tea for the very first time on 25 September, 1660. However, Tim and Peter discuss how, in spite of this long tradition, the culture of tea hasn’t really evolved very much in Britain. Compared to wine, where so much importance is placed on provenance and the characteristics of different types of regional grapes, very little attention is placed on the provenance and qualities of different teas. This is something that Tim, Peter and Lu hope to change.
The tasting set is comprised of three separate cups, each designed to enhance different taste and aroma characteristics of tea. Currently the tea cups are named ‘Black Tea’, ‘Green Tea’ and ‘Fragrance Tea’. However, we are told of a conversation which took place on the bus ride over, about how the cups might be renamed in order to be less prescriptive about which type of tea should be served from each cup. Instead, they could describe the taste qualities each shape enhances: textures, base notes and aromas. Ultimately, the purpose of the tasting set is to enhance the experience of pleasure for the individual tea drinker, subject to personal tastes and preferences.
The shapes are very specific and were developed through an intensive process of prototyping and testing. The fragrance cup was the most challenging to develop. Because of its curvilinear form, it had a tendency to collapse when it was being fired in the kiln. The first shape they tested only had a 5% success rate and had to be continuously modified until the right balance between form and structural strength was achieved.
Once we arrive and are seated along a long bench, the tea tasting begins in earnest with a rich, grassy Sencha tea from Japan. It is unlike any Sencha I have tasted before; while I tend to avoid them because of their bitterness and strength, this tea has a vibrant fruity quality which is very appealing. Lu tells us that it is important to know how to brew each type of tea, as overheating certain leaves will cause bitterness and destroy flavor.
Lu also explains how important provenance is to Postcard Teas, and that they only work with growers with small farms, less than 15 acres, which are located at the site where the particular variety of tea leaf was originally cultivated. This involves a lot of hard work on their part, to source reputable producers in often very remote rural locations. They even carry some teas that are sourced from a single tree. Of course, these teas are particularly difficult to market and sell, but are nonetheless highly prized by connoisseurs. For Jana and I, who have been extensively researching the idea of luxury for many months, these single tree teas draw out a fundamental contradiction within the term: on the one hand, luxury is about exclusivity. One the other hand, for something to be valued as a luxury, it must be widely available enough for people to know about it and desire to obtain it. Single tree teas are so exclusive that they are not as financially valuable as more widely available specialist teas.
Jana and I are both amazed when we discover how different the Sencha tastes from each of the cups. It is not surprising that I am particularly enamoured by the Green Tea cup, as its shape is designed to highlight the teas sophisticated textures and umami flavours. Equally, when we taste Master Xu’s Gold Buddha, I find that the Black Tea cup draws out its smokiness and minerality, while the Fragrance Tea cup enhances its earthy aromas. Gold Buddha gets its name from its region of origin, on the White Cliff in Wuyishan, China, where locals used to travel in the morning to pray and wash their clothes. Tim kindly points the region out for us on his raised relief map of Asia.
We leave the tea tasting feeling very inspired by the experience, as well as the incredible stories shared by Tim, Peter and Lu about their very passionate and intensive journey into tea. I particularly enjoy a story that Lu shares about one of her most special tea tasting experiences. She had travelled to the Wuyi region of China to purchase Lapsang Souchong from their supplier. At the end of the day, she was invited to have dinner up the hill, close to the picturesque mountain cliffs that characterise the region. While the finest tea is sold abroad at high prices, locals keep the clippings for their own use. However, brewed in the fresh spring water from the mountains, Lu claims that this was the most beautiful cup of Lapsang Souchong that she has ever tasted. Her story reveals so much about luxury. While money can provide access to objects and experiences and is a way of ascribing value, ultimately the most valuable luxuries are created in relation to a specific context and one’s own personal experience.