I was recently in China doing some research. I have written a little bit about that, intermittently, in the last month or so. While I was there, I arranged to get my hands on some new and different sericite samples. These have now just arrived here last week and I have done my first tests with them.
I now have 4 different Chinese sericites to compare.
Although it isn’t immediately obvious from the image above. If you look closely, there are 4 different colours of rock samples from top to bottom, white, cream, grey and pale buff. They all look more or less white, but they each have various tints or shades of colour to their whiteness. They all do have one big thing in common. They all throw badly, the palest ones being the least plastic and most difficult. They feel a lot like my local Mittagong porcelain stone, only better behaved.
I felt like I’d gone all the way around the world and come home again when I threw these tests. They felt so familiar.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the results fired. I had a bit of trouble with the usual shrinkage and drying cracking problems, but I did get some of them through successfully. But I lost quite a few. Still, nothing that I’m not used to, and I’m getting good at recycling the turnings and failures.
I almost filled the tray on my old wooden kick wheel with turnings after trimming just 12 small bowls. I must be removing at least half of the weight of the original material to get them thin enough to look and feel like porcelain. I aim for 2mm at the rim and 3 mm lower down, graduating 5mm at the foot. This tapered wall thickness allows the best translucency at the rim and higher up the pot, while retaining sufficient strength to hold the pot up against gravity while it sits at 1300oC in the kin to develop enough glass in the body to be come translucent.
If I’ve done it right, the whole finished, fired, ceramic mass, has the correct quantity of primary and secondary mullite crystals to glue it all together, while becoming glassy enough to allow plenty of light to pass through.
Too glassy and/or too thin and it slumps. Too thick or not fired high enough and it stands up straight, but isn’t very translucent. It’s a bit of a fine line to tread.
As I sit and grind away at this damp, ground-up rock dust with my tungsten carbide tools, I realise that I’m truely happy doing just this. There is a gusty wind outside, but I’m in here sitting in the sun and I don’t want for anything more at this moment. This is fun. I can’t wait to get them into the kiln.
It has all the promise of something special about to happen.
We get to spend a day in the Longquan Celadon Museum. I am travelling with my friends Len Smith and Robert Linigan. I am very interested in these old Celadon pots, particularly from my point of view of the inspiration that I can gain from the best pieces and equally importantly from what i can learn from the shards and broken sections. There is so much to glean from being able to see inside the clay body and looking at the interface between the body/glaze layers.
I love these rich and sensuous fatty celadons, guans and ‘ru’-like glazes. These are some of my favourite pots. It’s not too surprising that I like to try my hand a making glazes with this kind of influence. I wish that I could make something as good as this. It’s a quest.
In particular, I am keen to make my clay bodies and glazes as authentically as possible, by digging up all my own minerals, rocks and stones, then mixing them with ashes from my fireplace, where I burn the wood from my own forrest. It’s a complete commitment to my philosophy of self-reliance, not just in ceramics, but in my life. This coupled with a keen interest in the soft delicate beauty of ceramics the way I envision it. Not just the look, but also the feel of the surface. Equally important to me is the tactile impression -‘feel’ and balance of the pot in my hands, as well as how it will function when I eat or drink out of it.
My favourite coffee bowl at the moment, for my morning bowl of coffee, is a small white tenmoku bowl that is very translucent and very white, made from one of the Chinese sericite bodies that I have experimented with. It gives me a lot of pleasure just seeing it and handling it, even before I drink the coffee from it. It is beautifully balanced, only slightly weighted to the lower half for stability. It looks and feels gorgeous. I’m particularly fond of the slightly out-turned rim that is an essential quality of the tenmoku form. I’ve been using it for a year now and I’m still not bored with it.
Some of the unique qualities that I find I really engage with, are all its ‘faults’ – if that is what they are. I prefer to think of them as being part of its unique character. You can’t buy this bowl from Aldi on special for $2. Their white bowls may look superficially similar, but this pot has a story embedded in it that is only very slowly revealed over time as you get to know it.
For instance, because I’m not a very good potter, I don’t go to all the trouble of trying to make things perfect. Simply because I realised long ago that perfection only exists in the mind of the beholder, therefore can never be achieved, so why bother. Better to make things with character. This bowl for instance has a slightly mottled surface to the glaze, it has a very gentle undulation where the very thin clay body saturated during dipping and the glaze didn’t adhere perfectly. I have come to love this slight quirk of its appearance more than the very smooth glazed surfaces that I can sometimes make. This is a special part of this pots own history of its making.
Another point of interest for me is the hint of the remainder of the clay slurry on my hands left embedded in the surface of the clay after I finished throwing the pot on the wheel. I left it there as a reminder of the touch of my fingers. It is almost imperceptible, but it remains. I wasn’t aware of it presence initially, but it slowly became apparent to me as I got to use it, handle it and wash it up often. Not all my pots have this effect left in them, sometimes I wipe the inner surface clean with a fine textured sponge. At other times, I turn the inside of the pot with a trimming tool when I turn the foot. It all depends on how I am feeling about the pot as I make it. I never quite know how I am going to feel about what I make on the day. So its a surprise to me to be reunited with my own pots, post firing, and to re-discover their special qualities.
I can just see this swipe of my fingers in the image above. You won’t find that in a pressure cast or jigger-jollied bowl from IKEA.
This bowl also has a single iron spot in the glaze, just below the rim. It’s a bit like a beauty spot. I didn’t put it there, but I’m OK with it. This is a real object of beauty and interest. It isn’t perfect. It’s just gorgeous. It also shows my two stamp impressions. One is my initials, the other is the workshop stamp.
Finally there is the total lack of an obvious foot ring until you turn the bowl over and look underneath. I hid the foot recess inside the bowl form to minimise the weight, so as to keep this delicate bowl as light as is possible, but still have an elevated form that lifts it up off the table in a continuous elegant curved line. This is not true tenmoku form, but I think the it is better on this pot.
In the Longquan Museum we saw a lot of shards with loads chipped edges, shattered rims and broken bases. I loved this part of the display. It was all real. Many of the perfect examples had long ago been taken away to other larger collections, as this is only a smaller regional Museum. What was left in this Museum were all the other pots. I learnt a lot form looking inside the shards to see the very same qualities, problems and faults that I get in my work, using very similar materials and and almost identical techniques.
What I found particularly reassuring was that I am not alone. Someone else, 800 years ago also went through all these technical trials and difficulties to arrive in a similar place. Ultimately, there is the reward of the occasional lovely piece that survives.
This bowl is lovely, but what others probably don’t see, but I did, was what, at first glance, appears to the an incised line inside the bowl. That is easy to see, but it is in fact not an incised line, but a remnant of its making that appeared in the kiln during firing and wasn’t there when it was packed in the setting. It was formed in the fire. That wavy line is the raw glaze surface drying out and cracking slightly. The crack then doesn’t completely heal over when the glaze surface melts, but remains as a line in the glass. Perfectly fused, but hinting at its life before it became ceramic. I get it often in my glazed surfaces. It used to annoy the hell out of me, as there was no way that I could see to prevent it happening, if you fire long and low to make that particular satiny surface, it’s just what sometimes happens. If you fire hot, it disappears in the fluid melt at top temperature. This ‘scar’ is a relic of its process and making. I now look on these healed over cracks as an authentic product of the unique process that I indulge in.
Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. Nothing is ever finished, and that includes learning.
While in the Longquan traditional celadon region researching celadon, we took some time out to visit a former celadon factory, that was forced to close when the economy was modernised. It has now re-opened as a celadon museum/cultural park.
I found it a bit shallow and lacking in depth. That is to say what was there didn’t grab me. It may be of interest to the more general tourist, but there wasn’t enough there to speak to me, as I’m interested in the more intricate details and technical information/insights that could be included, but weren’t.
However, there was an old wood fired tunnel kiln that had been restored. This kiln was the main means of firing the celadons here right up until 1998. One can understand why it went broke and couldn’t compete with more modern factories with up to date facilities and equipment.
There was also an clay processing section that used the old fashioned water-driven, wooden clay hammers, that is a technology that dates back 1000 years. It was exactly fitted with the age of the kiln technology, So out of date for a factory setting, it is hard to believe that it managed to last right up until the 1990’s.
Clearly, this equipment hasn’t been used for many years, possibly since 1998? Just like the kiln.
All the pots produced in the wood fired tunnel kiln, were packed in saggers to protect the ware from the fly ash from the wood fuel, which is so important when making a subtle glaze like celadon.
It is interesting to see that sometime between 60 and 20 or so years ago, they wrapped some parts of the wooden roof frame with ceramic fibre to stop it singeing or charring during firing.
The saggers that were used in the kiln firings are these days used as retaining walls and breeze way walls.
We take the bullet train out of Shanghai for the three and a half hours trip heading South West. We arrive at Lishui station and wait for a cab. There isn’t much at the station and the crowd that we arrived with soon disperse, but are soon replaced with another hoard of people from the next train. They all swirl past us, coming through in waves every 10 mins. There are just so many bullet trains passing through here with astounding regularly. It’s hard to believe. This is a very popular service. It must be on the way to somewhere more important, because this place isn’t anywhere in particular, that I’m aware of. But with 1.4 billion people needing to get around, even if only a small fraction of them live and work around here, it is keeping this service very well patronised. 10 years ago there were very few of these super-fast trains in China. 20 years ago there were none.
These days you can get to near almost anywhere quickly using this service, but mostly on the eastern side of the country. The government has produced a miracle in building this high speed rail system so extensively and quickly. Half of it is bored through the mountains in tunnels and the other half is suspended on concrete pillars above the valleys. It’s a masterpiece of engineering and it appears to run like clockwork. We comment on how Australia takes 5 years to make a 3 km road tunnel across Sydney. While the Chinese are building 3km of high speed rail infrastructure per day here.
Here in Lishui, we are about an hours car journey from our destination, as we wait for our car to pick us up. We try the local station food. This is just OK, not what I would usually want to eat, but I’m in a foreign country, so it goes down a treat.Anyway, there is only one choice. It’s a bowl of monosodium glutamate clear soup, with some fried tofu skin, 2 very small dumplings, a couple of dreadfully, scarily, luminously, bright pink ‘sausage’. I use that descriptor very loosely, and this is brought to life with some really great, bright red, slices of HOT, I mean very hot, chilli. A few drops of oil, some pepper and a lot of salt. It’s fantastic! I love it, but I try not to think about what was in the bright pink, extruded, sausage-like objects. I’ll never know. But when in Lishui, eat like a Lishuan! It was delishuious.
Our car arrives and drives at a little bit scary high speed to get us to our hotel for the night. We settle in and have a dinner of stirred vegetables. Soya beans and onion, mushrooms, fried tofu, steamed and then stir fried green beans, something brown that I don’t recognise, either in shape or in taste, which is quite bland and finally some little, green, mild chilis. something more akin to a small capsicum. It’s all delicious. but there is a lot of it, so I pass on the steamed rice and the soup.
The next day we are off to see the local Longquan Museum of celadon history. Longquan was a centre for the production of Celadon wares for several hundred years, from about the mid 900’s, through to almost 1600 – and it still is an important producer of high quality ceramic Art wares based around celadon.
Apart from Celadon, they also have some Guan ware and something that looks suspiciously like Ru ware, but can’t be, because Ru ware was only made in the Northern Song Dynasty. We’ve been tipped off, we have some local information, about an important new archaeological site. We spend our time dutifully taking in as much as we can in the Museum. But more importantly for me, there is the recently excavated archaeological site. I want to get some understanding of the early celadon manufacturing in these surrounding valleys. I have my pet theories, the possibility of seeing this site takes preference for me over other possible things to see and do while we are here.
The site is a half hour drive out into the country side. We wind our way out into the hills away from the fertile valleys. This is all very familiar to me. Even though I have never been here before. It is the same story. I can see it all unfolding. It has the ‘look’ that I recognise. These fertile valleys were colonised for food production first and pottery came later. The potters had to make do with the hilly surrounds where food production wasn’t a premium.
This is the same story or scene in so many other places where I have been researching in China, Japan and Korea. It also just happens that there are useful minerals to be found exposed in the wash-away edges of the streams up in the hills. This liminal country is very rich in feldspathic material I can see that from the car window. I’ve seen it all before. I call out to stop the car at one point. I say “We must be getting close now”! I can see out of my window, that we are passing a deposit of kaolinised porcelain stone. This is the local geology writ large in the road cutting. I recognise it from all the other deposits that I have studied over my lifetime of fossicking for porcelain stone and glaze rocks.
If this is the local geology, of course someone would have been inquisitive enough at some point in time over the very long history of human occupation of these vallieys, to just pop a bit of that paler stuff into the existing pottery kiln where they were making earthenware and then later, stoneware, until finally they made porcelain. But it was only because the ‘stuff’ was here and available on site. No sericite and kaolin, no discovery of porcelain. It’s that simple.
The story is much the same where ever it happened in several different sites in a few different countries. If the suitable material was there, exposed near the surface, then it happened. If you are a potter, or several generations of potters. You can’t not make it!
We drive on, eventually reaching the dig site. All digging has now been completed and written up. There is a sign that tells all – but it is mostly in Chinese script and I can only decipher a bit of it using my phones translation app. But this is of little or no consequence, as the signage has a small section of English translation. How very thoughtful! Anyway, I’ve been in this situation before, and I know what I’m looking for and what I’m looking at in the most general sense. I can see what I need to see. As we wander the site for an hour, even making our way down to the small runnel of a stream at the bottom of the hill. There are even a few bits of broken shards in the water, all ground and polished into rounded edges of pale green celadon and off-white/grey-olive, guan-like glazes.
The story board tells us that along this stream was once a well-worn track along the banks that is mentioned in old documents. The finished ceramic work was carried out of this valley along here. We make our way back up to the kiln site. It’s a long tunnel kiln – or was. Only the base is left now. This site dates from 1000 to 1300. There are several layers of occupation/development on the site. The kiln has been partially excavated to reveal at least 3 layers of different kilns on the site over time. This site is called “Fengdongyan” and is 4.5 kms up stream from the small village of Daoyao. Daoyao village is where there would have been other potteries at that time. This higher and more remote pottery site was an ‘official’ government sponsored site. So it must have been important. Or so the info board tells me.
To extend my earlier proposition of the thesis that potters migrated up into suitable nearby valleys, Actually, I believe that they were pushed out by the farmers. I propose that the potters were originally farmers, who grew crops and made pots part time. Pots made from mineral rich clays from the valley floor. Something akin to red earthenware, fired in bonfires, or simple up-draught kilns made from mud, straw and shards. Over eons of time the space on the fertile valley floor became too precious for pottery making and firing. The potters who had by now become specialists, were relocated off the fertile valley floor and the now well developed paddy fields and their sophisticated watering systems.
The potters now finding themselves on higher sloping ground, built their up-draught kilns into the sides of the slopes, becoming more like cross-draught kilns. This resulted in them achieving higher temperatures much quicker and with ease. The clays that they were close to on the slopes and valleys were better drained with certain fluxing minerals leached out. The clays became less fuseable, lower in iron and more refractory, needing the higher temperatures that were now possible, so paler stoneware bodies were evolved. etc, etc. Eventually semi cross-draught, down-draught tunnel kilns were developed because of their greater fuel efficiency and ease of achieving the higher temperatures. The rest is history!
When sites with porcelain stone were located nearby, in these valleys, it is impossible for me not too believe that someone like me, an inquisitive potter, could have resisted trying out this new white material. It needed a bit more work to get the kiln to mature it, it needed to go in the hottest spot, but it was possible, and therefore, at some point in time, it happened. The same porcelain stone body used for making the pots, could be mixed with limestone or wood ash and this now became a proto-celadon glaze that could be raw glazed, it’s that easy! It could be done, so it was done, it’s still being done! You only need 2 materials. Later, saggers were developed/employed to maximise packing and firing efficiency, but also to keep a lot of the wood ash off the beautifully refined glazes. Of course it didn’t happen over night, it took centuries. So much experimentation by generations of potters, each adding just a little refinement to the overall knowledge. That’s my thesis. I believe it. What is missing here is a clay supply. Why, this place so far up the valley?
When we were finished looking at this early Long Quan celadon site, we made our way back up the hill to the road, and on the other side of the road was a short track, that I hadn’t noticed previously, this led to an ancient mine site of very friable, crumbly weathered porcelain stone material. So this is why these potters migrated up here, 4.5 kilometres up this valley, away from the village, into this more remote spot, between 600 to 900 years ago. Now it’s obvious to me. They came here, all this way, simply because this is where the best material was to be found in its easiest, most workable form. No crushing required, just washing/blungeing, settling and stiffening. It all makes perfect sense to me. I’m dying to step off the walkway and go in and steal a little sample for analysis, but I resist the temptation. I’d put money on this stuff being a mix of sericite and silica, perhaps with a small amount of kaolinite or something similar. But I’ll never know!
In a way, I don’t need to. I already know. It’s just like every other site in a general sense. This place would fit very well into my book of ‘5 Stones’, except that I’ve already finished writing it. Every one of the 11 sites I studied in the 5 different countries, all fitted the pattern in some way, and every sample that I collected and and had analysed, with only one exception, contained sericite mica! That exception is Mittagong, where I live, where the mineralogy is similar but the mica is in the form of illite not sericite.
The mine site is quite extensive, it goes in two directions. I might imagine that they simply followed the softest, most plastic, easily dug material. I can see 300 years of potters endeavour, scratching out this hole here. It all makes so much sense to me.
I’m feeling really chuffed. This has been a really rewarding day. Even if nothing else happens on this trip. It has already been completely worthwhile for me.
I’m recently back from China. It’s my 4th trip there in 15 years. I’m always amazed. Each time for different reasons.This time I was amazed how clean the air was. We had only 3 days of smog during the month. On previous trips in had some days where I found it hard to breath. Maybe their efforts to clean up their environment are working? But I don’t travel regularly enough to know. It just could be good luck?
This is Shanghai where we arrived and spent a day in the museum. We were there at the Museum before the doors opened and stayed inside looking at everything until they asked us to leave when they closed the doors.The Museum was a very popular destination it seems, as there were already a 1000 people in the queue to get in when we arrived early. Everything beautifully organised with people queueing in a very orderly fashion, in the zig,zag, hurdles, just as you get in airports to keep it all neat and orderly. As it was 38oC the Museum had placed water misting fans at various places along the queueing system to help keep us cool. There were also a few industrious folk selling very cold water in bottles from ice filled ‘eskyies’. The Museum had erected shade covers all along the lines of waiting patrons. It was all most impressive.
The Museum was great. It’s a good collection, of course I was especially interested in the ceramics, which didn’t disappoint. I won’t bore you with too many images, suffice to say that there was too much to see and 7 hours wasn’t enough, but was too long, in the way that we get when we spend a long time in Museums. We get museum blindness, so after 2 or 3 hours we have to find the coffee shop. Which doesn’t exist in China, not even in Shanghai with all its international flavour and influences. So I spent a month without real coffee, or any coffee at all. No big deal. There was a product by that name, but it wasn’t coffee!I got used to weak green tea. Quite different from the Japanese super strong, slightly slippery, alkaline tasting, high caffeine, sen cha. The Chinese green leaf tea is mild by comparison. We got through the day with just 2 art-blindness, sit-down, recovery breaks.
This was a nice pot!
This begonia? bowl looked to me to be every bit like a simple microcline or possibly a plagioclase felspar and water, kind of pink blushed shino glaze. I wouldn’t have called it a celadon, but hey. What would I know? It appeared to be very low in calcium with no hint of green about it.Colour me confused. It was a really gorgeous pot! This was a very nice opalescent glazed object. Interesting use of both ‘zun’ and ‘jun’ in the English translation of the Chinese?
It had a lovely depth to the milky opalescence. I’d have a guess at there being 1or 2% phosphorous in there somewhere, as bone ash, with the rest being 2/3 , or 3/4 felspar and another 1/3rd , or 1/4 ash? Somewhere between 2:1 and 4:1.
This Guan bowl was also very nice. Pity about the images through smudgy fingerprinted glass.
This is a superb pot. I really like guan ware. No! I love them! They really hit my Ge Spot. I’m an old guy and I have an old guys tastes. As always, I am principally interested in all the oldest pots. I start to loose interest at about the Ming. Maybe that is when my blood sugars start to run low:)
So that’s it. I won’t bore you with any more. That’s 7 hours and 1000 images condensed into a 5 minute read, and 12 images. I didn’t go to spend too much time in Shanghai. It just happened to be where the airport was on this trip. I haven’t been there before, other than in transit. My real interest was in getting out into the country side to visit the smaller pottery towns and villages. Our next stop was to check out some celadon wares.
Over summer we don’t go far. We stick around the house, just in case of bush fires. We concentrate on cleaning the gutters, servicing the fire pumps and working around the house and in the garden. It’s a very productive time of year in the vegetable garden with so much produce to harvest, preserve, cook, dry, bottle, vacuum seal. In March the fire danger is mostly over and we can relax and catch up on some music concerts and the Writers Festival.
We returned from Writes Week and WOMAD to find the garden gone mad and a lot of work needed to be done to get it all sorted out, cleaned up, weeded, mown, whipper snipped and mulched. I have it back in good shape now and most of the winter seeds and seedlings are planted for the approaching cold weather. Over summer, we don’t get into the pottery very much. Instead, it’s a time to use the heat for making clay, crushing rocks and ball milling porcelain stone, then drying that porcelain slip.
Now in April, we can start to think about firing the wood fired kiln again. The summer fire bans will soon be over and we can fire the wood kiln without restriction. We have been doing some firings. I have been firing our solar-powered electric kiln and reducing it with a few hundred grams of LP gas to get the reduced colours.
We have been back in the pottery for the past few weeks and started throwing again. I must say that the first couple of full days on the hard wooden seat of the “Leach” style wooden kick wheel leaves me with a couple of sore butt-cheek bones. I don’t think that they are bruised, but they sure get very tender after that first full day. It seems to take a week or so for them to toughen-up. Then I don’t notice it again till this time next year.
I bought some sericite stones back with me from my trips to the UK and Korea last year. These stones are now processed and aged sufficiently to be able to consider throwing them. I always think that this time it will be different. This time I will be able to throw something better out of this wet gravel. I can’t! Every time it’s the same, I start off so optimistic. I’m sure I will be better at it. I’m Not! The stuff is just wet rock dust, I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am!
I struggle with it as it is and refrain from adding any bentonite into the mix. I should just get over it and give in, but I really want to make something authentic. Something that has some meaning in this post-truth, bare-faced lying, compromised, new world order of shallow poseurs, where everything is The Image and The Selfie. I know that what I’m living here has no value to anyone else but me, I persist. It’s the life I’ve chosen. It’s a challenge to make a nice pot from these original porcelain stones. Picked from the ground, in-situ by my very own hands, carted off in my back-pack and then brought home here and processed in my own equipment. Maybe if I aged these bodies for a decade, then it would be easier? I’m certain that it would. I have already done those tests a lot earlier in my career. I know it works. However, I’m not too sure that I still have a decade left in me. I strike a compromise and decide to make some very small beakers and some coffee cups. Now, I can almost manage these OK.
Last year, my friend Len and I imported a tonne of Chinese sericite. I have been going to China each year and renting studio space, making work, getting it fired on site – with mixed results, and carrying the best pots back in my hand luggage, to show at Watters Gallery and elsewhere.
Last year I felt so guilty about my carbon miles, making work in this way that I decided to buy the milled sericite in bulk and ship it here, This way I can stay at home and the clay can log up the carbon miles. I feel that it ought to be less damaging environmentally to ship a tonne of milled sericite stone by sea, than fly my meagre 80 kgs to and from China in a plane. Any way, I buy my $400 worth of carbon credits, just the same each year, to appease my conscience for my carbon crimes.
Buying the material in bulk sounded like a good idea at the time, but like all the best laid plans…. The stuff that arrived was totally different from what we had thought that we had bought, or ordered at least. Back in the beginning, we purchased a sample of the sericite and tested it. It was difficult to work with, but OK. White, semi-plastic, just. It fired white and translucent. We ordered a tonne of that thank you very much!
What arrived was grey, short, very soft and soggy, difficult to throw with and split and cracked in drying. Totally different material. I couldn’t see us shipping it back. We had already paid in advance. I had to make it work somehow. I tried throwing it in the usual way that I have learnt to work, but I lost over 90% of my pieces. I took a while, but I thought it over and came up with what I thought was a cunning plan. I thought about the ancient Chinese and how they coped with the short-comings of their early sericite porcelains. This was just the same, only re-located over 600 years in time and 12,000 kilometres in distance. The old tried and true answers are usually the best.
I tried a small batch in a blend with something that I thought had exactly the right characteristics. Hey presto. I now have a way of making a unique white, translucent, Chinese sericite based, porcelain of my own making. It’s one answer. It works for me.
What I still find perplexing and inexplicable, is that Len has no trouble in making perfectly fine pots out of his batch of this stuff with no problems, while I struggle. Obviously this sericite stuff responds to the hands of a true master craftsman but dumbfounds and perplexes a blowhard wannabe like me.
We start to think about what else we want to do in our last day in Kyoto. We fly out to Korea tomorrow and then on to London. We have a job in Stoke on Trent to build one of our small-scale, fuel-efficient wood fired kilns for the new ‘Clay College’ that has started up there this year.
I decide that I will go back to the Aizenkobo indigo workshop and buy a jacket. I have been carrying the image with me of trying it on now for the whole time that we have been in Japan, as it was the first place that we visited when we arrived. I have chosen a hand dyed indigo, hand-woven, hand-made, tight, dense, cotton fabric, jacket. It’s more expensive than I have ever paid for any piece of clothing in my life at $300, but you only live once, so here goes. I really like it.
We arrive in Seoul and the first thing that I notice are the carpet tiles in the entrance area at the airport. I’ve been here a few times before, but I haven’t noticed them previously. Imitation indigo nylon carpet floor tiles. It’s the perfect segue from our indigo adventures in Japan to Korea.
Miss Kang has given us a present of some special fermented tea from Jeju. Korea has an island to its south called Jeju island. It is a volcanic island and therefore the weathered basalt soils are very rich and fertile. It has elevated slopes that are just right for the cultivation of tea. Being south of the peninsula, it is sub tropical and warmer than the mainland, but being quite elevated, the higher slopes are cooler at night. Apparently it makes for an ideal tea growing climate. There is one particularly large tea plantation that draws all the tourists that visit the island. They grow several cultivars, each one specially suited to each specific soil type, aspect and micro climate.
Miss Kang has chosen for us a particular blend of fermented black tea, that is very mild and low in caffeine. It is processed, fermented, dried, but then re-moistened with steam and pressed into little bricks, then re-fermented and aged up to 100 days in what is described as a Post-fermentation process. Each finished little brick is individually wrapped and the whole lot packaged in tray that is then packaged a very impressive presentation box.
It’s really beautifully done! The packaging is certainly very impressive and the flavour of the tea is very mild, low in acid with a distinctive aroma. I haven’t come across anything quite like it before.
The little individually paper wrapped tea leaf brick is impressive. I like it. It swells up into a pot full of fully formed tea leaves. I have read about ‘brick’ tea in the past, but never actually come across it. It’s a particularly asian thing. As I understand it, ‘Brick’ tea, or blocks of pressed, dried tea leaves were used as a form of currency in China and also throughout parts of Southeast Asia in time past. It was light to carry, easily stacked and packed and could even be crumbled apart and eaten to get a bit of a buzz to keep the labourers going on long treks. There is a rather long listing on wikipedia about brick tea, particularly in regard to the tea trade from China up into Tibet.
I thought that I had better enlighten myself, so I downloaded this quote from Wikipedia;
Ya’an is the main market for a special kind of tea which is grown in this part of the country and exported in very large quantities to Tibet via Kangding and over the caravan routes through Batang (Paan) and Teko. Although the Chinese regard it as an inferior product, it is greatly esteemed by the Tibetans for its powerful flavor, which harmonizes particularly well with that of the rancid yak’s butter which they mix with their tea. Brick tea comprises not only what we call tea leaves, but also the coarser leaves and some of the twigs of the shrub, as well as the leaves and fruit of other plants and trees (the alder, for instance). This amalgam is steamed, weighed, and compressed into hard bricks, which are packed up in coarse matting in subunits of four. These rectangular parcels weigh between twenty-two and twenty-six pounds—the quality of the tea makes a slight difference to the weight—and are carried to Kangting by coolies. A long string of them, moving slowly under their monstrous burdens of tea, was a familiar sight along the road I followed.
The brick tea is packaged [in Kangting] either in the courtyard or in the street outside, and it is quite a complicated process. When the coolies bring it in from Ya’an, it has to be repacked before being consigned upcountry, for in a coolie’s load the standard subunit is four bricks lashed together, and these would be the wrong shape for animal transport. So they are first cut in two, then put together in lots of three, leaving what they call a gam, which is half a yak’s load. Tea which is going to be consumed reasonably soon is done up in a loose case of matting, but the gams, which are bound for remote destinations, perhaps even for Lhasa, are sewn up in yakhides. These hides are not tanned but are merely dried in the sun; when used for packing they are soaked in water to make them pliable and then sewn very tightly around the load, and when they dry out again the tea is enclosed in a container which is as hard as wood and is completely unaffected by rain, hard knocks, or immersion in streams. The Tibetan packers are a special guild of craftsmen, readily identifiable by the powerful aroma of untanned leather which they exude.
Another prominent guild in Kangting is that of the women tea coolies who shift the stuff from the warehouses to the inns where the caravans start. They have a monopoly on this work and the cheerful gangs of girls are a picturesque element in the city’s life. They need to be immensely strong to do a job which consists of carrying over a short distance anything up to an entire yak’s load several times a day. Many of them are quite pretty (and well aware of the fact); they look very gay and rather brazen as, giggling and chattering among themselves, they move along with their heavy burdens, which are held in place by a woolen girdle around the chest.
So brick tea has a very long history in China. This doesn’t really enlighten me about tea in Korea very much, but it is interesting to me just the same. The Osullooc tea plantation has only been in business since 1979. So it doesn’t have a long history in itself, but uses the long historical aspects of tea in all it’s advertising. The tea plantations are all certified organic, so that is a very good place to start.
I can say that post fermented tea is an acquired taste. The Osulloc company make many claims for the tea. A particular selling point is the clean environment of the island, but they also make special mention of the long, post-fermentation aspect of the curing process. They claim that they use the long and ancient history of Koreas skills in fermentation. As ‘fermentation’ is the current buzz word in culinary circles, I’m just a little bit suspicious, But that’s me. They also claim to use traditional Korean fermented pastes. I don’t know what these are, and they are not saying, it’s certainly not Kim Che.
I can’t say either way, as to whether it is good for you or not, but it has a unique quality. I think that it would possibly be a good bed time tea, as it is low in stimulants and that could be good? I’m certainly impressed with the effort that has gone into the presentation, pity it will all be thrown away! Maybe if they could develop a special paper made out of tea leaves, then we could infuse the wrapping as well, still have a great ‘cuppa’ and reduce waste?
Looking at all the effort that has gone into the presentation and advertising, I think that it just might be a triumph of style over substance.
Maybe it will help me sleep better?
Unfortunately, that isn’t one of their claims!
We enjoy our tea from a Gwyn Hansen Piggott tea pot with matching cup and saucer.