Autumn Leaves Nerikoh

Autumn Leaves Nerikoh
Incense is occupying my mind a lot these days, as well as most of my creative endeavours. I'm working on different techniques, and also adaptations of some of my perfumes into incense form. The Japanese art of incense is poetic and technically versatile in a way that sparks my imagination.

Today I've tried my hand at crafting Nerikoh (kneaded incense) using dried fruit instead of honey. I notice apricot used in several of the Nerikoh offerings from Shoyeido, so I decided to give it a try. It seemed especially befitting for an adaptation of Autumn perfume that I wanted to make. It's akin to translating an idea from perfume into incense format.
Autumn Leaves Nerikoh
Autumn was a perfect candidate, as Nerikoh is traditionally used in tea ceremonies in the fall season.  Additionally, it being a Chypre Fruity with spicy notes and labdanum gave it an extra advantage over most of my other perfumes. Labdanum is one of the classic notes in Japanese Neirkoh, and along with the sticky dried apricot fruit, that would have been a great way to bring both worlds together. Other traditional incense materials are sandalwood, cinnamon and cloves, which are also in the perfume. Of course it has some oakmoss too! An early burn over a tea light smells promising already. Sweet yet earthy, complex yet brings on a feeling of serenity of fallen leaves. I even went as far as molding some into maple leaf shapes. And now I regret not doing it with the rest. The experiment seems to have gone well, so there will be more shaped incense pellets to come.  I just have to be sure they don't get suck inside the mold or break once they dried, before meticulously shaping an entire batch. And then there is also the question of packaging...

The Autumn Leaves Nerikoh won't be ready till fall, as they need at least six months to cure or age - and this is a shortcut: traditionally they will be buried in the ground in a clay vessel for 3-4 years! That means they will be ready around Halloween. I can't wait to smell them then, when the temperatures here will finally become cooler again after a long summer.

Spring-Welcoming Tea Ceremony

In this very modern and laid-back tea ceremony, I have incorporated botanical symbolism from a few cultures to create a modern tea celebration to welcome spring. The botanical symbolism was also included in the flower arrangement. The centerpiece at the tea table was this 4 piece bouquet of cherry blossoms, hyacinths, sprouted wheat and white magnolia.

Spring Botanical Symbolism, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Hyacinths (sonbol - سنبل)and sprouted wheat (sabzeh - سب) are both part of the "Haft Sin" - the 7 S's in Persian botanical symbolism for new year, which occurs every year on the day of the Vernal Equinox. The hyacinths symbolize spring, and the sprouted wheat symbolizes rebirth. Some of the other symbols are a wheat-germ pudding, garlic, sumac, apples and vinegar and coins (read more here), all to invite different blessings into the new year.

Magnolias were chosen simply because they are in season. In the European language of flowers magnolia means nobility and love of nature. I think the love of nature in this celebration is quite self evident!

Sakura (Japanese for Cherry blossoms) are a symbolic flower in Japan. Cherry blossoms and tree blossoms in general mark the return of spring. It is the happiest time for Japanese people as they celebrate the beauty of the trees in full bloom (the peak of which lasts only but several days), and even appreciate the beauty of the petal's falling down like snow... Sakura's beauty is intense and short-lived, and it is spiritually symbolic of the samurai warrior's short life: the samurai will sacrifice his life at any time to serve and protect his master, and lives a short but fulfilled life. Sakura symbols are incorporated into numerous family crests and also in the Japanese, and is Japan's national flower.

Interestingly, in Israel, there is a celebration surrounding the blossoming of the almond trees (also from the same family as cherry and plum). It occurs a lot earlier - usually sometime in late January to mid February. It is called Tu BiShvat and is considered the "New Year of the Trees". It is the best time to plant trees, and this is what the whole holiday is about. Other traditions include eating dried and fresh tree fruit, and most commonly - fruit salad containing dried fruits, almonds and nuts. The Kabbalists also celebrate Tu BiShvat with a "Seder" - a seasonal ritual incorporating different blessings, prayers and symbolic foods. The Seder of Tu BiShvat, similarly to that of Passover, calls for drinking 4 glasses of wine. However, instead of them being all red (as in Passover), each glass of wine is a different colour, to symbolize the four seasons, the four elements, and the four worlds of Kabbalah (that would be too esoteric to get into now); as well as the changing of colours of the flowers in the region from fall through late spring: in the beginning of the year (which for the Jewish faith begins in the fall), wild flowers are all white (Chaztav in September). Therefore, the first glass of wine is all white. Next come lightly coloured flowers (i.e.: Cyclamen and Karmelit during the winter), so the second cup is white wine mixed with a few drops of red; The third cup is the other way - red with a little bit of white wine; and lastly, the fourth cup of wine is pure red wine, which reflects the colours of flowers at the peak of spring - red anemonies and poppies.

I have decided to adopt the four cups concept, but use tea instead. I thought it would be neat to celebrate spring with the different phases of tea and how it's processed, from the most pure form of tea to the more fermented and oxidized etc. And I've also used some flowers in the process to make it even more fun and spring-like!

The different degrees of oxidation of tea leaves also affect the theine levels (aka the caffeine that is found in tea). White tea has the least, green has more, oolong is somewhere in the middle and black tea, which undergoes the most oxidation, has the highest theine levels. The white, green and oolong teas also have higher levels of anti-oxidants than black teas.

White Teas, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

White tea is prepared from the first buds of tea leaves in early spring, and is the least processed of all teas. The buds are hand-picked, than steamed, slowly dried and does not undergo a process of oxidation like green and black teas. The result is the most delicate tea, the finest quality of which is called Silver Needle (Bai Hao Yinzhen), which you can see in the above photo and looks like needles covered in fine white silvery plume. The next grade is White Peony (Bai Mu Dan), which has the top bud and also the next two young leaves, which also have some of the same plume. Both are grown in Fujian province in China. Both produce a very light liquor and have a fine, delicate taste that I can only describe as slightly peppery.

For our first cup of tea, I've used a blend of equal amounts of Silver Needle and White Peony, with a little bit of crystalized ginger and vanilla bean that I chopped up.

Ume Sencha, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Sencha is the purest green tea, and like white tea (and unlike Chinese green teas), is not roasted. Steaming prevents it from oxidizing, than rolled, dried and finally - fired in order to preserve them and give their distinct flavour. The result is a very fine, fresh and aromatic tea with a very vegetal and at times even seaweet like aroma. Other sencha tea leaves have a more nutty aroma, or in the case of the one I've picked (organically grown), a little fruity too (similar to peach or osmanthus). I blended it with ume (plum) blossoms, which I picked and dried myself during spring break in Victoria's Esquimalt neighbourhood.

Magnolia Oolong, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Oolong teas are like the champagne of teas. They are classified as somewhere in-between green and black tea (some are closer to green and some are closer to black). The best oolong teas grows in Taiwan or Fujian. The leaves are rolled into balls or longer curls. Many oolongs have a flowery aroma on their own. Some are further perfumed with flowers - such as this gorgeous magnolia scented oolong. Since the magnolias are out I thought it was a perfect occasion to brew this beautiful tea and share it with my guests. It is one of my favourite teas, and the more I get into teas, the more I discover how much I love oolongs in general. They are extremely different from one another and are just perfect on their own, with no sweeteners or any other flavours added. They are very rich in flavour, and are brewed rather concentrated, which gives off a bitter taste at first that turns very sweet aftertaste. They can also be re-steeped for many times (even as many as 7 with high quality oolongs!).

Rose Congou, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Rose Congou (or Gongfu) is a perfumed black tea that is formed into thin strips from unbroken tea leaves. It is oxidized with rose petals, which give off their sweet, fruity-floral aroma, and some of the rose petals are left with the tea for decoration. It gives off a liquor that is a little lighter than some other black teas, but is very rich in flavour.

World Tea Party

World Tea Party, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

World Tea Party tea cart greets the guests upon arrival at Centre A, with a samovar and adorned with ikebana...

Go Have Some Tea, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

On Monday afternoon, I attended an event that is part of the World Tea Party - one of the things that came to town for the Cultural Olympiad! This ongoing world-wide event is "a continually evolving fête éternelle developing through dialogue among people and cultures around the world".

The World Tea Party is series of art installation, cultural celebrations surrounding tea ceremonies and rituals from around the world, which began in 1993 as a collaboration between Daniel Dion, Bryan Mulvihill & Su Schnee. It is now gracing Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics, hosted by Centre A - the centre for Asian culture on 2 East Hasting @ Carral. Almost everyday from 2pm on, there is something to experience at Centre A, so I really recommend you check out their schedule and follow them on Twitter.

The World Tea Party, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.
Tea cups and saucers arranged in a cupboard. I'd like to think that this is what they would serve tea with on the weekend, during the Hight T on Saturday.

Action in the Kitchen, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.
The kitchen, where matcha was prepared for all the guests.

Gathering, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.
Purple tulip flower arrangement, and in the background, a small group of people were engaging in a Chines tea ceremony.

To me, this was the first Japanese tea ceremony I've ever witnessed. Upon arrival, a presentation was just wrapping up, so unfortunately I missed an educational component explaining this ancient tradition. Shortly after, members of Urasenke, in full kimono attire, served us a sweet - it was an oval dry cookie, I think it was made from rice and buckwheat flour. We were instructed to eat the cookie, and only than we were served the tea. The flavour of the tea harmonizes the sweetness of the cookie. This is completely the opposite than how I would think of doing it, I would think the cookie should be eaten after the bitter tea... You must forget everything about dipping biscotti or shortbread in your tea when you attend such a ceremony!

On a stage with tatami and the hearth in where the water was boiling, members of Urasenke Vancouver performed the tea ceremony. It was like watching a silent film of tea. I assume experiencing it rather than watching it, and knowing more about it would make for a more tranquil and meaningful experience. While the tea master and her guests were utterly quiet for the most part, the halls of Centre A were echoing with conversation which, in my opinion, took away from the experience for those observing.

Since it takes a lifetime to master Chado (the way of tea), I would not attempt to explain it here, but rather just share my observations and what meaning I found in doing so. In the Japanese tea ceremony, it seems that every otherwise mundane action takes a ritualistic role:
Pouring the water with a bamboo ladle is done slowly to wash the chawans as well as for preparing the tea; wiping off the chawan (tea bowl) and chashaku (tea scoop) is done in very precise motions with a napkin that is folded and unfolded in particular fashion numerous time in a very specific sequence, and so on. You can read more about the tools and equipment of Chado here.

The ceremony is very, very, very structured. The entrance of the tea master and each guest or participant is choreographed according to ancient etiquette. Many of the movements have a lot to do with the traditional Japanese attire: folds in the kimono and obi are used to hold many of the tools for the ceremony, including the rice paper napkins for the sweets. The shared experience seems to stem from following the steps, and passing the sweets from the tea master (or host/ess) to the guests, and from one guest to another. And the same for the tea in the chawans, which are served to each guests separately. It is passes in a certain way so that all guests take part in serving the tea to the next one on their turn.

Below are just a few pictures (many turned out blurry so it does not show the process so well, but at least gives a visual idea of what a tea ceremony is like):

Chado Ceremony, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Chado Ceremony, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Chawan with Matcha, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

Ikebana & Calligraphy, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.
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