Adelante! Gallery & Tea Room

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I'm always looking for a place to write. I go off to cafes because home rarely ever works for me. This is how psychocafegraphy started. It's a very circular thing: I come to cafes to write, about cafes. I've convinced myself that I need the variety of cafes that Ashland has within walking distance of my house, rather than picking one and sticking to it. There are definitely some I go to more than others, but I don't like going back successively to the same one because I'm embarrassed to. I don't want anyone to be privvy to the fact that I go to one every other day or more. They'll start asking questions, or wondering if I don't have something better to do with my life. So I try to rotate the cafes I go to so that I only ever appear at the same place once a week at most. (Not that it matters. I'm still recognized. The staff of one cafe even knows I write this blog.)

So it was with some excitement that I discovered that this gallery has comfortable seats in the back on which to drink the tea advertised at the door. It was both a potential place to write and new material for this blog--something I am always in need of. Though the tea (loose leaf, it read) had tempted me, I had always been afraid to go in because a peek inside revealed that the tea counter was behind a gauntlet of paintings, sculptures, and pottery. My girlfriend and I had been planning on going in here for weeks. She had the same fear that I did: is there somewhere to sit in there, or will they make me stand around looking at art while I drink tea? Steeled by our shared weariness, we finally braved the gauntlet (oh no, landscape paintings!) and made our way to the counter. To our relief, hidden behind the tall counter (with bamboo siding and pebbles-in-cement top, looks like something out of a tropical resort) there were large, comfortable, pink armchairs and loveseats.

Cynthia Wolf, who owns and runs it all, understandably assumed we were tourists.

"What have you been doing today? Just walking around, catching a play?"

We didn't so much tell her we lived here as said something which made it apparent.

"Oh, so how long have you lived here?"

She is quite chatty about her tea, which is stocked in giant forest-green tins. "Do you like tea?" she asks when I come in the second time (there are so few customers that she recognizes me from a couple days before). She says she doesn't drink much black tea, just green, and therefore wonders how I like the assam. It's okay, but the assam that they're running out of, that she kindly gives me a sample of, is much better. It's has flavor I've not had in black tea, and strong, as it should be.

She engages you as if your presence here indicates you're a fellow tea connisseur, or at least would like to think of yourself that way, and asks if you would like to smell this or that. This is not the hurried, professional transaction you might find in almost any coffee shop, nor will she confidently tell you, like Noble Coffee, that such and such variety is really good, isn't it, and has caramel notes and a clean finish. This is a seemingly somewhat bored artist from Oklahoma who runs a gallery in downtown Ashland, and who has devised loose-leaf tea as a way to lure people in, and who seems to like to chat. (I am curious about her story--why she moved from Oklahoma to Ashland, staying with the new branch of her gallery here.) The first time I came in I ordered tulsi with mint and she told me that she loves tulsi, do I know what it is? I didn't. It's a kind of basil. I had no idea, however much I used to join one friend in making fun of another for drinking tulsi instead of tea in the morning.

For all her enthusiasm, the fanfare, and the obviously fine grade tea (we're talking SFTGFOP here--the leaves are completely unbroken), she brews black tea carelessly, or brews it like it's green tea. But even green tea should not be hung in a paper cup of hot water without a top. That would be fine for the teabags sold in most coffee shops, but this is good tea. The water should be the correct temperature (for the assam, hotter), the leaves should have room, the vessel should have a cover which covers completely (to keep heat from escaping), and it should be served with something to time the brewing and an indication of how long to brew it. (Of course, I've been to a tea shop in Portland that despite having all of these things still managed to ruin the tea by using about three times as much tea that should have been done for the amount of water the leaves were brewed in. The resulting brew was nearly undrinkable--more like concentrated Russian zavarka to which hot water is added before drinking.) Strangely, this is that sort of place--they even have "tea flights" for tea's sake--yet it appears to be not about the brewed tea, but the idea of fine tea, the smell of the different varieties, the zen of it all.

Even stranger, she uses a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the water in the electric kettle. Does she deliberately brew the assam in suboptimally hot water? Am I just not used to assam other than CTC, the kind used for chai, which is disgusting unless it has milk? Does she just not bother giving proper teaware to customers (even a paper cup with a tight lid without holes would do, if there were either a removable tea bag or another cup to pour the brewed tea into)? The pathetic part is that I could ask, if I knew how. But instead I act agreeable, saving the commentary for this blog, where I snipe and prod.

Some of the teas come, she says, from someone she knows in Sri Lanka who owns a tea garden. "Tea plantation--no, tea garden," she corrects herself, commenting that one doesn't call them plantations any more. The rest of the tea comes from The Tao of Tea in Portland.

This new-age paradaise was precisely what we needed that day we finally got up the nerve to come in here. The iced tea was nice, the setting quiet and relaxing--not full of the pop-drenched mania of Mix and Noble Coffee. It was the perfect place to talk and to read. Back here I feel removed from the downtown bustle (I know, it's nothing) out the door. Behind me I hear the creek. Out the window all I see are maple leaves, tinged at their edges with the brown of oncoming autumn. It seemed like a good place to write. When I tell her this (because she asks if I'm going or staying here), she says it gets loud in here sometimes, but corrects herself and says yes, it is. Why argue with the praise of a customer?