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Sunday, 5 May 2013

As dragons play

"You can't beat a nice cup of tea," Rachel tells me in Tchai-Ovna, the house of tea, overlooking the River Kelvin. 

"Yes you can," I say. "Tea's too dry. So is wine. I like my drinks wet, cool and thirst-quenching."

"So that would be beer," she says.

"Correct," I say.

"Tea is thirst-quenching," she insists, lifting the blue china bowl of oolong in both hands and sipping daintily."It's why it's the most popular drink in the world, apart from water."

"I've heard that," I say. "It's baffling."

"Two billion people drink tea every morning ," she says. "Two billion people are wrong and you're right?"

"Wouldn't be the first time," I say, taking a sip of my Dragon's Eye, the tea she's chosen for me. "How can liquid be dry?" 

"I know this," she says. "Give me a minute."

So I pick up the chunky menu and browse, while she dredges her memory. Dozens of teas are listed, each with its own story. Dragon's Eye, would you believe, is "a good quality tea to calm the nerves and sharpen the senses, while relaxing under an ancient, gnarled tea tree, as dragons play in the air with plumes of fire."

"Got it," Rachel says, bringing me back to earth with a bump - I always fancied myself as a dragonrider. "It's the tannins in the tea," she says. "They combine with stuff in your saliva to give that dry feel on your tongue."

"You learn something new every day," I say.

"Especially if you don't know much," she says, smiling to soften the sting. "Tannins combine with milk, if you put it in your tea, which leaves less to make your mouth dry."

"Fascinating," I say, slightly disengaged, since part of me is still up there, playing with plumes of fire.

"Am I boring you?" she asks.

"No, no," I tell her, and try to think of an intelligent question. "Would it be tannins that make wine dry too?"

"Yes and no," she says.

"See I've always thought that's a stupid answer," I say, forgetting to smile. "It must be either yes or no. Can't be both."

"That's because you crave certainty," she says. "You don't like fuzzy grey areas."

"Not true," I say. "I pretty much am a fuzzy grey area." 

"You are," she says. "But you need to open yourself more to uncertainty. Embrace ambiguity. It makes life interesting."

"I'll try," I promise. "Why yes and no about dry wine?"

"Yes, wine has tannins, especially red wine. No, that's not what they mean by dry wine."

My attention span is starting to struggle. But the dragon's eye has calmed my nerves and sharpened my senses. "Go on," I say.

"Dry in wine just means not sweet," she says. "All the sugar from the grapes has turned to alcohol. So you can have dry wine with any amount of tannins, or none - or sweet wine, come to that."

"Why are they there?" I ask, since she's clearly enjoying pulling this stuff out of her head.

"They come from the grapes," she says. "Lots of plants use them in their leaves and unripe fruit to stop getting eaten."

"But fruit wants to get eaten," I say. "It's how seeds spread."

"So the tannins get less astringent - softer - as the grape ripens," she says. "Also during winemaking, which changes them in lots of complicated ways."

"Well, well," I say.

"Lesson over,"  she says. "You know what I like most about tea? 

"That it lets you air your vast knowledge in public places," I say.

"Of course," she says. "But mostly that it's a thread of culture connecting me to a long line of tea-drinkers, right back through history. It's a civilised activity that brings people together in an oasis of calm, no matter how hard life is for them."

I stare at her over the china. "And I thought it was just brown stuff that feels like socks in your mouth."

"Would you like another pot of tea?" she asks.

"Yes," I tell her. "And no."

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