Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Green" Ash

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!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Gift of Tea

This past holiday season made me think about giving presents in the context of tea. I’m not talking about giving or receiving tea items (though that’s always nice!), but a way of thinking about tea: hosting a tea gathering for someone as a kind of “gift.”

As a student, when I started learning how to plan a tea gathering, my teachers told me that the most important thing to think about is your guests. What kind of food would your guests like to eat? What kind of bowl would they like to drink tea from? What would be meaningful for them?

It sounds easy, but it’s really not. When you practice tea, you gradually start to develop your own aesthetic. For example, some people really like colorful or playful tea utensils; some people prefer utensils that are asymmetrical, cracked, or even outright ugly, but which embody the wabi aesthetic that’s so valued by tea practitioners. Some people prefer exclusively Japanese utensils, while some prefer the creative challenge of sourcing local items that can be used in tea ceremony.

Is it better to hang a scroll in Japanese calligraphy that your guests can’t read, or a scroll written in English that’s aesthetically at odds with a Japanese-style room? The answer is to put yourself in your guests’ shoes, think about their experiences in tea, and do you best to choose what you think they would appreciate.

As the host, the temptation to show off during a tea gathering is enormous. It starts with good intentions – we’re all taught, from the first day we practice, that we should use try to use special utensils for our gatherings for the sake of our guests, to give them a memorable experience. And as new students, we can all remember the sense of wonder when our teachers brought out their rare, beautiful, artisan-made items. Experienced students know when the host brings out a special bowl or tea container, and they truly treasure the opportunity to hold it in their hands. When the time comes to host a gathering, we’re tempted to bring out our own favorite items, to share them with our fellow tea people.

So where’s the line between bringing out a tea bowl because you like it, and bringing it out because you think your guests will like it? Or, to put it a different way, where’s the line between serving your guests and serving your own ego? Can you put your personal preferences aside for the sake of your guests, if you know your guests would like something different? As a host, can you truly put your heart into making tea in a bowl you don’t like?

I struggle with this myself sometimes. But I truly believe that being able to put your guests’ taste first – to be able to make tea in a bowl that they like but that you don’t – is one of the keys to becoming a true tea person.