Odds and Sods Around Our House

According to a British psychologist yesterday was Blue Monday or the saddest day of the year. His reasons: Christmas and New Years are in the past so homes are now bare of decorations and resolutions have already been broken; December’s credit card statements have appeared; the weather is less than hospitable here in the Northern Hemisphere; SAD has taken hold of many people; and we are only halfway through the longest (or what seems like the longest) month of the year.

I’m not sure how valid any of that is but I do have to admit that the house seems a little dreary without the decorations and over a week of rain, sleet, snow, fog, ice and cloud make it even more so. However there is a hard and fast rule in our house – the decorations, which go up on St Lucia Day, come down the day after Epiphany. As Laurent was taking them down on January 7th I took pictures of several pieces that decorate tables and window sills here on Water Street at Christmastide .

In one of the arcades between Getreidegasse and Universitätsplatz in Salzburg’s Old Town there is a small shop that sells pewter figurines created by the Wilhelm-Schweizer Company. On each of our Whitsundtide visits Laurent picked up a pewter piece that caught his fancy.

These first three are definitely Christmas decorations.. The tree is approximately 10 inches in height and the figures just a little over five.

Wilhelm-Schweizer has been producing individually cast and hand-painted pewter figurines since 1796 and is still owned by the Schweizer family.

Though their Christmas and Easter collections are their most popular lines – particularly with tourists – the Bavarian folkloric figures are also charming. The little Chimney Sweep does have a New Year connection. In several Eastern European countries there is the tradition of touching a button on a sweep’s jacket for good luck in the coming year. And I suppose the clock seller does have a connection, howbeit tenuous, to New Year’s Eve.

Of course we took a look at their recent catalogue and saw at least two more zinnfiguren that we’d love to add to the small group. Well a return to the Whitsun Festival and Salzburg, if not planned, is at least on the bucket list.

The word for January 17th is:
Pewter pyoo͞′tər: [noun]
1.1 Any of numerous silver-gray alloys of tin with various amounts of antimony, copper, and sometimes lead, used widely for fine kitchen utensils and tableware. The normal ratio is 4 parts tin to 1 part e.g. lead.
1.2 Pewter articles considered as a group.
1.3 A material made of calcined tin, used in polishing marble.
Early 14c., peutre, from Old French peautre (12c.) and Medieval Latin peutrum, from Vulgar Latin *peltrum “pewter”.

Tea for Two

My dear friend Dr Spo often rhapsodizes over tea – no rubbish as he so wisely put it – and the accoutrements for tea making. A recent post of his set my train of thought shunting off to the siding of “I see it so often I forget it’s there.” Now I’m sure we’ve all been there – that thing around the house that is really unusual or lovely or unique (or perhaps all three) that we see so often that we forget it’s there. And a tea service that I bought in Beijing back in 2006 and that sits on a bookcase in our living room fits perfectly into that category.

There are so many tea markets in Beijing and I don’t remember where I purchased this little set – it was one of the twenty or so in Guanganmenwai. These markets are six or seven floors of elaborate shops selling tea and accessories for the making of a considerable number of the 1,500 odd varieties of tea in the world. And that doesn’t include those artsy-fartsy infusions of fat-reducing, sleep-inducing, anxiety-ending herbals which are not teas at all. We are speaking of the real thing: Camellia sinensis in all it’s glory and variations – Black, Green, White, Yellow, Oolong, and Pu’erh. No rublish here, good Dr. Spo.

Though I was immediately taken with the little tea set the process of purchasing it was made complicated by an aggressive sales lady who shadowed my every move while incessantly clicking her pen. Then she interfered in a discussion I was having with Laurent and proceed to quote an unreasonable and nonnegotiable price for the set. So we left, had a cup of – what else – tea at another merchant and talked it over. Our friend Yi went back in to see if he would have any better luck. He did and it now sits on the bookcase in our living room.

The style of pot is called Yixing after the region where the rock used to make the clay comes from. The rock is ground then mixed with water and allowed to sit and rest. It can then be mixed with other minerals or clays to give it a specific colour, lustre and consistency. The clay is not thrown on a wheel but pounded into thin sheets and the pot is built by hand. The Verdant Tea Channel has a video of the initial steps in the three day process to complete a pot. It is 20 minutes long but a fascinating look into the creation of a Yixing tea pot. It can be viewed here.

The clay is then baked in perhaps the oldest form of firing: a sand pit. A fire is built in a pit, often using sawdust or fine kindling, the unbaked pieces are layered in the pit with the kindling material. A fire is lit and when the kindling begins to smoulder the pit is covered. It is a method that has been used for centuries. I ran into it when visiting the much lamented Museum of Inuit Art and wrote about it at that time. The post includes some stunning examples of the ceramics and a video on sand pit firing.

The unglazed clay inside a yixing teapot absorbs tea oils and tea flavors over time. A teapot used for many years will flavor and texture hot water, even without tea leaves. This is a subtle effect that builds up over time and it allows the teas to blend and gives a greater intensity to the flavour. A yixing teapot is never washed, only rinsed and wiped.

There is a good chance that this set was made for export as a more traditional version would have shallow tasting cups and a serving pitcher. The cups in my little set are more in the style of “aroma cups” which were popular in Taiwan and have “saucers” which is not the norm.

As well as being a good way of displaying a set the Gongfu tea tray was designed to facilitate the performance of the tea ceremony. The slats allow overflow or water discarded in brewing to drain off. Simple but highly functional.

There is also a set of tools that are used for the various tea ceremonies. In Chinese these ceremony sets are known as Junzi Liujiantao and have been crafted over centuries to perform specific duties in the preparation of tea.

Tea Tweezer 茶夹 (Cha Jia) a tool for picking up the tea cup to protect your fingers from heat, or taking tea leaves out of a Yixing teapot.
Tea Scoop 茶则 (Cha Ze) used to take dry teas from the tea pouch or tin into the teapot.
Tea Vase 茶筒 (Cha Tong) is the holder for all the ceremonial utensils.
Tea Funnel 茶漏 (Cha Lou) is a cylindrical funnel used to direct the flow of tea leaves into the Yixing teapot, and also used to prevent the tea from overflowing.
Tea Spoon 茶匙 (Cha Shi) used to transfer tea leaves from the tea holder to your tea pot.
Tea Pin 茶针 (Cha Zhen) for clearing the small tea leaves which blocking the filter holes in Yixing teapots, so that the water can go to the spout smoothly.

This video demonstrates tea making using a gaiwan rather than a teapot but the process is much the same.

I have to admit that the set has never actually been used to make tea but simply sits on the bookcase. However when next the good Doctor and Someone come to visit – which hopefully will be in the very near future – we shall give it a try. The best Pu’er we can find – definitely “no rubish”!

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