Sips of subtlety | Fashion | The USA Print

“In the liquid amber contained in ivory porcelain, the initiate can come into contact with the sweet reticence of Confucius, the mischief of Lao Tzu and the ethereal scent of Shakyamuni himself.” The snippet could very well be describing the cathartic effects of a newly discovered natural psychoactive, but no, it’s just talking about the tea. The text is an extract from an essay that the philosopher Okakura Kakuzō dedicated in 1906 to this polyhedral infusion. Tea is landscape, it is culture, it is art, it is aesthetics, it is religion: a drink whose meaning goes beyond the limits of the obvious, imbricated in each and every one of the layers of the society that made it known to the world, the Asian . It is the second most popular drink in the world: 15,000 cups with each beat of the second hand, a figure only surpassed by the consumption of water. However, it is almost insulting to talk about tea in terms of statistics, when its consumption has more to do with ritual, being considered by Buddhists and Taoists as nothing less than a purifying process.

Beyond the high eastern limits of its original conception, a reality that is difficult to ignore is hidden, and that is that it cannot become the most consumed drink in the world without a perverse productive mechanism that supports it. India, Sri Lanka, Kenya or Vietnam: their peasants select the greenest leaves to sell them, at despicable prices, to intermediaries who will multiply the price of the product by 1,000, filling their pockets while turning the merchandise into one of the most prolific on the planet. On a trip to Rwanda a few years ago I was able to see first-hand the malevolent character, the complexity of the universe that lies hidden behind the innocent little bags that we lightly acquire in any commercial area. The hills in the north of the country, bordering Uganda, are emerald green, lush plains covered in tea leaves. In them, young and old gamble their monthly salary carrying 15-kilo bales of leaves on their backs, collected with a machete under the sun, in exchange for a few coins, hardly pennies, hardly anything. I remember arriving by car at a plantation, parking on the roadside to exchange a few words with those who were doing a day at the plantation that morning. The foreman, a 15-year-old boy, approaches threateningly, furious to see us. They don’t want visitors, less than whites. As if it were gold, they protect the perimeters of the plantations with ferocity, so that no one stands between the day laborers and their activity, which they know is lucrative for their superiors, and which for them is just a way of subsistence, a poisoned candy whose alternative is nothing.

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As I write today, I am accompanied by a cup of tea. Absorbed, I contemplate the shades it acquires in contact with the pink ocher ceramic of my tiny cup, part of a Japanese tea set (old, imperfect, with a longer life than mine), a gift from my parents a few years ago. Kakuzō reflects on his treatise on the subtle character of tea, which makes it particularly susceptible to idealization, since it lacks the arrogance of wine, the conscious individualism of coffee, and the smiling innocence of cocoa. In any case, and like all treasures that lie hidden under cover of subtlety, its greatness varies in size depending on the observing eye.

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A 'honey and cinnamon porridge'

A ‘honey and cinnamon porridge’

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