The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement

Lagunitas, California

After several days spent unbudgingly horizontal, I’ve segued from my slimming diet of Gatorade and Pedialyte to a heartier regimen of BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast). I’m relatively strapping with good health and decide to take my scheduled flight to San Francisco. A change of venue will do me good! At the very least, it’s an opportunity to switch my diet from BRAT to BART.

The flight goes well, and I arrive in San Francisco feeling wobbly but more or less human. I get a good night’s sleep and wake up far more ill than ever before. Bam!

And I remain sick as a dog for several more days. Finally, CHOW editor-in-chief Jane Goldman intervenes, shuttling me to an emergency room for rehydration and antibiotics (I may have started with a virus, but it’s definitely bacterial at this point). I fall in love with the Davies CPM emergency room. After spending the better part of two weeks stranded alone in impersonal hotel rooms trying to cope, people here are taking care of me, smartly and efficiently collaborating to make me feel better. The nurse turns out to be a fan of Chowhound, and I somehow manage to banter weakly with her about restaurants, though at this point I haven’t eaten solid food for as long as I can remember. I don’t want to ever leave the emergency room.

Several days later, on the eve of my flight back to New York, I’m nearly 100 percent, so I drive north to pay a visit to the legendary David Hoffman. Dinner with David (a tea authority who founded the legendary importing company Silk Road Teas, which he subsequently sold) is the appropriate reward after such an ordeal.

David has been, for years now, building a temple in the mist—a series of structures and installations ranging up the flank of a mountain in Marin County. He asked me not to photograph the grounds, a sprawling in-progress work of art with wooden boats afloat in concrete seas, pagoda-roofed temples, glass-enclosed tea-tasting dens, and millions of worms feeding on human excrement (David’s a pioneering expert on natural recycling, and his entire compound runs on, well, shit). But I did squeeze off this shot as I passed through the tunnel under the Buddha pool:

The great fascinations of David Hoffman’s life are poo and pu-erh (pronounced “poo AIR”), an earthy tea, often sold in blocks, that can be aged for years. He brings it back from his innumerable trips to China, where he’s fond of trekking into remote mountain villages, barging uninvited into the homes of perfect strangers, and doing tea with them. He is inevitably welcomed, in spite of his lack of Mandarin skills, out of a combination of utter stupefaction and a nonverbal understanding that this dude Really Knows Tea.

David, a stubbornly iconoclastic rascal, has worked as a race car driver, a recording engineer, and a dozen other things. He has some murky association with Tibet that I don’t fully understand, and he lives with his wife, Bea, who, along with a slow-burning silent Mexican assistant (whom I think of as Gromit to David’s Wallace), is helping to build this complex, whose ultimate purpose seems somewhat fuzzy in concept but downright Olympian in ambition.

Bea is as much of a character as David. She’s Thai, whip-smart, hysterically funny, and an incredible chef. She and David (who’s also a fine chef) cook their own unique cuisine in their dark, dank, charming wooden kitchen halfway up the mountain. One can taste touches of Thailand, Tibet, China, California, Brooklyn, and many other places in everything they make, but the sum is an impossibly delicious amalgam unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. I’ve spent hours watching them both cook … not taking my eyes off their hands for a moment, yet never catching the trick behind the magic.

Each has a station. David hunches on a low stool in front of a huge wood-burning stove that appears to date back millennia, where he methodically whittles down knobs of ginger and other earthy things fetched from burlap sacks deep within a storeroom, some items grown here on the mountain, others brought back from various journeys. He builds a mighty fire in the oven and, while telling tales of varying tallness, gradually flings tubers and lord knows errant what into a cauldron. Bea, meanwhile, mans the range near the sink, sustaining a pitch of highly controlled frenzy, darting around stirring, chopping, teasing her husband, and wailing about how the entire meal is going catastrophically wrong.

It seems like you’ve spent hours squatting on a wooden block in the midst of this scene, feeling as if you’ve been transported to a yurt on the Tibetan high plateau, complete with wind whistling outside past the eaves. You’d swear the kitchen’s dusky lamps are fueled by yak butter, even though it can’t possibly be so. Neither David nor Bea could possibly be so, either, so your compass can’t entirely be trusted.

You descend to the table to sip some of David’s aged beers and a good bottle of wine you’ve brought along (for those who bring merely ordinary wine, David tends to brew relatively ordinary tea).

Then, suddenly, the rafters rain food. Zillions of dishes (did they really make all that stuff?) appear, set down on the low table where you eat reclining on burlappy cushions scattered with pillows. You eat and eat and eat—familiar things that taste completely different than expected, and unfamiliar things whose flavor can be neither described nor later recalled. Not one recipe has a name, and not one bite is less than superb. It’s spicy, garlicky, magical cooking that evokes no previous dining experiences. The photos can’t begin to capture it.

After dinner, David passes you a mysterious bottle …

... and you find that it’s snake in herbed brandy:

You choke down a small cupful, and the strong medicinal herbs and unctuous sweaty reptilian juju knock you further off compass.

Then David casually asks whether you’d like some tea. Even though you don’t ordinarily drink tea after meals—even though it’s late and you’re afraid that tea at this point might keep you up—you immediately and enthusiastically agree. Yes, David. Sure, I’ll have a little tea.

He retreats into one of the tea aging/staging areas, and emerges to hand you a tiny thimble of a cup, filled with about six sips of greasy nectar of indescribable shimmering hue. You sip. And you quietly gasp.

Only after the ingestion of much snake brandy does David permit you to photograph him (not wanting to push your luck, you don’t even attempt to photograph Bea—who, being a sprite, likely can never be recorded on film anyway):

Could there possibly have been a better reintroduction to the pleasures of the table than this? It’s a pity that my West Coast trip was such a disaster, but as I learned in Kentucky, the loftiest peaks appear only after you pass through a ring of fire. There’s a certain purity to ending my long voyage with a single intoxicatingly delicious meal in the dim, warm, yurtlike kitchen on the misty mountain of David and Bea. I may be only a half-hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I feel, as I settle back into the pillows and savor my tea, like I’ve traveled unfathomably far.