In Seoul’s 종로 Jongno district, as the clock strikes midnight to herald New Year’s day, crowds cheer, friends embrace, and (in modern times) fireworks explode in the sky above. Years ago, during my first visit to Korea, I witnessed this first-hand. Today, years later, and days after the bells rang in the 보신각 Bosingak bell pavilion (the bell of which gives Jongno it’s name, which literally means “bell street”), I woke with the faint echoes of it ringing in my ears.
The biting cold of a Korean winter drives all into the warmth of their homes and, for some, into the comfortable climes of a teahouse. My first journey to Korea was marked by much of this, darting through the tight alleyways of Insadong, discovering Korean tea, in all its depth and diversity, for what seemed to be the first time.
Recalling this today, I sit down to brew cup after cup of one of Korea’s more unusual teas: 발효차 balhyocha.
Grown amongst the shaded groves of bamboo in 지리산 Jirisan, the tea is semi-wild. Its leaves, when viewed, appear as a tangled assemblage, dark and curling.
Having been left to dry and then rehydrate with the morning dew, the leaves were left to partially ferment during the final processing stages, resulting in the tea’s uniquely chocolate-like aroma and flavor.
It has been almost a decade since I last had this tea.
Left to sit in the warm interior of my grey-colored 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teapot, this distinctive scent fills the air of my tearoom.
Instantly, memories begin to flood my mind.
Set to brew for only a moment, I pour-out the amber-hued liqueur into the waiting sookwoo (of which I atypically use as a serving vessel). From there, each cup is served.
Three small vessels. Three precious jewels. With each sip, the echoes of 108 strikes of the bell. Savoring the new year.