I've been feeling sick for the past couple days, which means I've been drinking lots and lots of tea, which got me to thinking about how I started drinking loose-leaf tea. Have you read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast? I loved that book but I never understood how one page Hemingway would be all, "Ahhh, we are so poor, we live in a garret apartment and cannot afford firewood," and then the next page would be, "I sat down at the restaurant and ordered a bottle of champagne and plate after plate of oysters." (The wise among you will probably observe that those two phenomena are very closely related).
Well, my tea story is kind of like that. I spent a year in Paris after I graduated from college, mostly teaching English at a public high school (a story for another day). It was a part-time job and didn't pay very well, so I was living up in the 19th arrondisement, not far from Barbès Rochechouart for anyone who knows the city. To the extent Paris has bad neighborhoods, I was living in one. I learned to cook lentils in a lot of different ways. My favorite was plain lentils served with a dollop of plain sour yogurt and a dollop of apricot jam. It doesn't sound delicious but mixed together it made for a great dinner & I still make it, just because it's tasty.
Whenever I started to get so fed up with my long commute and tired of lentils and too exhausted for another museum (I could get into museums for free, so I went pretty often), I'd go to Mariage Frères. It's a tea shop in the Marais - no big secret, really, and I've since discovered a few grocery stores in the US that stock Mariage Frères tea. It was always lovely, light, airy, luxurious, perfect. I'd order some tea, and then some sort of tea-flavored food - tea flavored cake! So delicious! On the way out, if I was feeling really indulgent, I'd buy myself a jar of tea-flavored jam (I ate a lot of toast back then, too, and man do I miss that jam).
Eventually I realized that I could visit the tea shop a little less and have lots more delicious tea if I bought some Mariage Frères tea and a pot and made it at home. Since Mariage Frères only sold loose leaf tea, I also bought a strainer. That tea was delicious, and it always had the power to brighten my day - because at least for that moment, while I drank it, I had exactly what I wanted. No compromises or substitutions, nothing more to wish for.
I always think it's interesting when I can look at a taste or a habit (mine or anyone else's) and trace it back to a specific event. A lot of times we don't know why we like what we like, or do what we do. A lot of times so many complex motivations contribute to our behavior that pulling out a single thread isn't very revealing. That kind of clear cause and effect behavior is pretty rare.
Now, tea is not such a big deal. That much is obvious. But here I am in California feeling sick and something that started as a whim or a lark almost ten years ago in another country has become a deeply entrenched habit. Loose leaf tea tastes so much better than bagged tea that once you've got a taste for it, there's no going back. I want nothing to do with those little sachets on a string anymore. It's not a big change; it's the sand in an hourglass kind of change, almost imperceptible but constant.
And now I understand Hemingway and his oysters. Because every once and a while I needed to forget about making ends meet. I needed a moment of extravagance. I needed my tea.