An aromatic Chinese tea ceremony in Vancouver, for just $800

Fragrant Wood Gallery and Teahouse tea master Lillian Li at her shop in Vancouver.

Fragrant Wood Gallery and Tea House would like to introduce you to an ancient Chinese tradition — a tea and incense ceremony. It can cost up to $800 per person. What! you exclaim. Are you serious? Well, I wondered, too, and went to the shop at the corner of West Broadway and Granville to find out.

The tea room is elegant and tranquil, and so is Lillian Li, a senior tea master and the manager of the tea shop, which opened on June 12. She has a senior tea master’s certificate from Beijing.

“We have the Japanese tea ceremony here in Vancouver but we don’t see the Chinese tea tradition,” she said, as she poured Oolong tea into a little cup with balletic grace. “We want Westerners to know more about tea and the Asian culture. This is the first shop in Vancouver to combine incense and tea in a ceremony that goes back to the Song Dynasty and this tea ceremony, together with calligraphy were very important and it still is.” (Hong Kong was once an important port for incense trade and translates to Incense Harbour or Fragrant Harbour.)

The aforementioned $800 cost drills down to the incense. It’s made from aloeswood, the resinous wood from the Aquilaria tree, which is native to Southeast Asia.

“It’s very, very, very expensive and totally different from the incense you know. We use it in a different way,” says Li. “It’s considered precious and it has medicinal properties. It makes you feel relaxed and calm and reduces stress. It’s part of Chinese culture, drinking tea, smelling incense.”

The harvesting of aloeswood is now regulated as supplies have dwindled and they are slow growers.

Aloeswood incense is made from injured trees — the aloeswood tree releases resins to heal its wounds, producing the sought-after scent. The incense is a powder and uses no chemicals to bind them into stick or cone forms.

“It is pure and it’s not burned, it’s only heated for the aroma,” Li says.

Aloeswood, an expensive wood, used for powdered incense. Can cost up to $3,000 a gram for the best quality.

Top qualities of aloeswood incense cost as much as $2,000 to $3,000 a gram. She doesn’t use the most expensive; the $800 tea ceremony would include what’s called the Vietnam Red Clay aloeswood (more like $300 a gram) along with three luxury teas and Chinese pastries. She presents me with one, a pretty rice pastry filled with fresh mangoes and whipped cream, a perfect match with the Oolong tea which is luscious.

“It’s hand-picked and handmade tea, no machines,” says Li. “It tastes of wild flowers from the mountain. It takes you into a garden. It’s from a peaceful mountain in Taiwan.”

Other incense and tea ceremony packages at Fragrant Wood can range from $80 to $500 per person, depending on the quality of incense. Li says the tea ceremony is about pleasure and she’ll spend a half hour talking tea, then leave you to enjoy the tea and snacks. But for an affordable experience, you can have tea and snacks minus the incense for $9.99.

“I’ve gone to many tea gardens around the world,” says Li. “We have a wide selection of black, oolong, white and green teas.”

Michael-Bryan Gampp, a certified tea sommelier at O5, another fine Vancouver tea shop, checked out Fragrant Wood and liked what he saw.

“They had a Pu’er tea that I value and I know is delicious and after seeing that, I was impressed,” he says.

As for the tea and incense ceremony, he’d only heard of it recently. “It could be one of the secrets of China they’re introducing.”

Part of Fragrant Wood is a wood carving gallery (which Feng opened six years ago) and the signature piece is an intricate 116 centimetre aloeswood carving on 300-year-old wood. It took the artist five years to complete and will likely be auctioned. Owner Neil Feng hopes to open more branches of Fragrant Wood in Vancouver.


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