The following post was written by Drew Hanson.
One of the advantages of living in a house with a wood-burning fireplace and using it regularly during the winter season is the seemingly endless supply of ash that is produced. For some people, the thought of having to deal with ash is so repugnant that they install ‘instant-on’ gas fireplaces instead. I, on the other hand, revel in my good fortune. Not only have I judiciously incorporated ash into my garden soil, but I’ve also used it to make an ash glaze for my ceramic pieces. Most recently, however, I’ve recycled my ash in a new way by making batches of shimeshibai, the moist ash which is used on top of the basic ash formation in the ro (sunken hearth used in the tearoom in the wintertime).
During the ro season, I use charcoal almost exclusively in my sunken hearth. My choice to heat water in this way requires that I have a ready supply of moist ash. In the past, I ordered bags of ash from Japan and processed it in the traditional way into shimeshibai. This year, I decided to ‘do it myself.’
Like so many processes in tea, making shimeshibai is labor intensive; however, the end product is well worth the investment of time and energy. Its color is rich, and its fragrance is earthy and slightly spicy. And there’s the added pleasure of having used the fireplace ash in a ‘green’ way.
Here’s how I make my shimeshibai from ‘scratch.’
I don’t remove ash from the fireplace after each use. Rather, I pile it in the back corners, making ‘mountains’ similar to those that are created when ash is arranged in the ro. These mountains help to direct air flow down and under the burning logs, insuring a steady, hot flame. (I use my fireplace as a supplementary heat source.) More importantly, as the mountains grow with new additions of ash, their weight compacts the ash closer to their bottoms. This compacted ash is the ash I use for shimeshibai.
I carefully shovel out a bucketful from the bottom of one or both the mountain and then begin to sift it. First, I use a wide mesh sieve to remove any large cinders and other debris. Next, the ash is sifted through a medium mesh sieve. I use a regular kitchen strainer that I purchased for this purpose. Finally, I put the ash through the traditional Japanese sieve designed for ro ash. The difference in texture from first to last sifting is truly amazing.
Now it’s time to wash the ash. As I fill the bucket with water, I stir the mixture. Immediately, the very fine ash particles—the ‘flyaways’ as it were—start coming to the surface. I skim off these particles, and when the ash settles, I pour off the top water (which in itself may be used to water house plants) and refill the bucket. I continue filling, stirring, skimming and pouring until no more particles come to the surface. I fill the bucket with water one more time.
Next, I line a colander with a large piece of cotton fabric which I wet and wring out. Typically, I use a large kitchen towel made from a flour sack. I set the lined colander on top of another bucket, stir the ash/water mixture and pour it into the colander where it will drain for a day. On day two, I squeeze out any water remaining in the ash and dump the wet blob into a plastic dish pan.
I now bring approximately two and a half quarts of water to the boil, throw in a handful of houjicha and some whole cloves (10-12) and let the brew boil slowly for half an hour. I strain the tea over the ash and stir it well. The tea leaves and cloves go into the compost.
For the next three or four days, whenever I pass the ‘ash tea’ I give it a stir. Initially, the layer of ash is very difficult to incorporate into the liquid. However, over time it becomes easier, and after the second day of soaking, I can see that the ash has begun to change color. Four days into this part of the process, it’s time to drain the ash again. As I did the first time, I set up the colander, wet towel and bucket. I give the ash tea one final stir and then pour. This time I let the ash drain for two days and then dump it into the plastic pan and break it up into pieces.
Over the next several days, the pieces of ash will slowly begin to dry. I monitor the drying process very carefully, continuing to break the chunks down into smaller pieces. When the ash feels damp to the touch, not wet, it’s time to start working with it. I don a pair of rubber gloves and rub handfuls of ash between my palms. At this point, the ash resembles damp, dark cornmeal. After all the ash has been rubbed, I bring out the sieves and begin to sift it all again. This time, however, I use only two sieves—medium and fine mesh. I put the ash through the medium mesh twice, wait a day and then put it through the fine mesh.
Voila! Shimeshibai . . .
And only 10-12 days have gone by!