Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: This Bird has flown

I posted this years ago, but the link seems to have perished. This bluesy tune crossed my path again recently, amid an afternoon of pining for Chicago's music scene, and it's worth repeating: the great Andrew Bird, "Tea and Thorazine."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Cup of Tea'

Brian Vander Ark was always a gracious interview when I was on the beat (once, twice), and his band, the Verve Pipe, always possessed a melodic and strong structural talent that lifted them above other grunge-tinged, ’90s-born bands. This song's about the taste metaphor rather than the beverage itself, but somehow it just feels good in an autumn-approaches kind of way ...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Home of the brazier

Dig these beautiful braziers and more from this blog post (part of a series of instruction and experimental study) about learning to love the way tea was originally fired. Covet, much.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New shop find: Leaf & Kettle

Found another great tea shop, drank some more superb teas — this time north of San Diego in Del Mar, Calif. The local tea-meetup gathered at Leaf & Kettle to learn about this excellent independent shop and to sample some of their offerings. It was one of those nights when the social chemistry sparked a bit (unusual for meetups), the shop impressed, and the tea absolutely wowed.

Leaf & Kettle has been open in a fancy outdoor mall for a couple of years. It's a classic, simple shop built around a tea bar, behind which are a few dozen stainless steel urns full of teas. Their alluring inventory is available online.

Jenna, the manager, poured three teas for our group. First, the organic Kagoshima Sencha, an aromatic spring green from Japan. The first cup was typically vegetal, even grassy (in that good Sencha way). The surprise was the second cup, produced with a counterintuitive shorter steep, which produced more bang for the buck, as it were. One of those teas that seems so light but really packs a wallop.

Next was the stunner: their Hunan Honey Black. Dry, it smells like brandy and freshly baked honey buns. In the cup, it's a rich black tea with a dessert finish — not uncomfortably sweet, not at all off-putting — tasting of chocolate-covered graham cookies. I say that with some irony, because those exact treats were on our table; this tasting note, however, was jotted down before eating one, which I did while enjoying the second steep (which really brought the unsweetened cacao flavor to the fore). The pairing was supreme.

The closer was a tea cocktail of sorts: she mixed an oolong and a fruit herbal (she also added some sliced fresh strawberries) over ice in a cocktail shaker, shook, and poured into glasses with ice and fresh mint sprigs. Very tasty, smooth, refreshing — if you go for the iced stuff. We asked for a second steep of the oolong by itself, Formosa Silk, which was an earthy delight — milky, buttery, a hint of sauteed mushrooms maybe. Had to buy some of that, eager to pair it with dinner.

It is a wonderful feeling, particularly after relocating to a new city, to find that tea shop that connects, that seems to offer just what your palette craves. Leaf & Kettle, hurrah, does so without the come-on of so many tea start-ups. Just a smart, classy joint.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Texas Tea'

The phrase "Texas tea" refers either to petroleum gushing from a well or to a better-known cocktail cribbed from Yankees. Nonetheless, I've found this fresh electronic track by Deadbeat to be great brewing music ...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tuesday tea TV: 'My Proper Tea'

This is the best thing I've seen in a while. The performance-sync is spot-on, the rap is righteous, and I totally agree: nothing fires me to hip-hop-angry levels quite like improper tea prep. Enjoy Brit comic Doc Brown rhyming about, yegods, milk-first madness ...

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Buenos Aires: Yerba mate from the source

Academic pursuits recently afforded me the opportunity to cross the equator for the first time. Five days scheduled in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was excited about (a) seeing water drain the other way around, (b) steak, steak, and more steak, and (c) drinking mate at the source.

You'd think the latter would be easy to find — particularly given stats claiming that "every man, woman, and child" consumes 11 pounds of mate annually — but you'd be wrong. While mate is consumed widely by Argentines, I found that to be largely a private endeavour. Try to find mate served in a restaurant or shop, and you do a lot of walking with nothing to show for it.

Mate is not something I've written much about on this blog. That's largely because the first time I tried a quality dose of it, I wound up with the worst headache I've ever had. Was it the mate? I steered clear, just in case. Since then, I've dabbled amid the trend without getting too excited about it.

Yerba mate has been celebrated as having all the kick of coffee with all the health benefits of tea. (Like most infusion-related health claims, these have yet to be seriously studied.) It's made from the leaves of a holly tree from the South American rainforest. The dried leaves are steeped, like tea, in hot (not boiling) water.

In Argentina, the custom is to steep the mate in a cured gourd and sip the infusion from a bombilla, a metal straw with a filtered submerged end. It looks like a bowl of grassy soup, and the flavor is very vegetative, like a strong white tea blended with sage and geranium.

After some serious hunting throughout Buenos Aires, at the 11th hour I found a restaurant that served mate — but only in the afternoons, after opening at 1 p.m. (or close to it, such is the Buenos Aires easy-go), and only in winter (which it was in August). Cumana, at Rodriguez Pena 1149 (east of one seriously interesting and beautiful bookstore, where I bought a book about mate, even though it's in Spanish, which I don't read), is a good traveler's find: affordable menu, good food, casual atmosphere, and snacky portions. Cumana serves a thermos of mate, with sides of bread or biscuits. The above description stands, and the caffeinated stimulation is significant. I enjoyed a gourdful prior to my departing flight, a 10-hour trek on which I expected no sleep, so mas mate!

A final photo: The family of Juan Carlos Pallarols has been turning out the finest silver ware in Buenos Aires for generations — which is saying something in a country that's name is taken from the Latin word for silver. They made the silver death mask for Evita Peron, and each president of Argentina receives a ceremonial staff made here. I walked to see his shop one morning (closed, alas), and the window display featured these sterling mate gourds. The next time I try mate, I'd like it to be out of this ...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering John D. Harney

I'm late in celebrating the life of John D. Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, who passed away early in the summer.

An early "missionary of tea," Harney bought a small tea company as a savvy business move and turned it into the spearhead of America's tea renaissance in the 1980s. "All we wanted to do was get out there and convert — sort of like St. John with his gospel of tea," he said in an interview, as quoted in his NYTimes obit. "That’s what I consider myself."

Tea writer Bruce Richardson elaborates more personally in his appreciation piece, describing in detail how the missionary fervor came over Harney in his pursuits.

I enjoyed a brief afternoon chat with Harney years ago. He was immanently affable, humorous, and wise. He even read my tea leaves. You can read that old post here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Do's, don'ts: going out, staying in

An acquaintance writes for Chicagoist and pointed me to this link, a story about how restaurants ruin a simple cup of tea.

One can read this as ever-so justified invective against careless restauranteurs, but one can also take much from its list for our own personal prep. The egregious errors ticked off in the story are as important to be cognizant of at home.

The water temperature issue — burning the tea — is easily managed, though so few do. Green and whites benefit from cooler water. If you don't have an electric kettle that delivers just the right temp, a simple thermometer can set your water straight. I fell in love with a coffee shop on campus not only because they have pretty good tea and selection but because during an early visit one of the baristas asked if I'd like her to put an ice cube in the cup over the tea to cool the water from the instant-boil tap. Not a perfect solution, bu better than nothing — and it showed knowledge and care.

Also, I've become something of an obnoxious evangelist against tea balls and novelty tea steepers. I know, I've posted pics of more than a few of the latter, admiring their design. But the things are really dreadful for tea. If someone finally breaks away from bags only to cram loose-leaf tea into a cramped mesh ball, they don't notice that much difference in taste. Let the tea be. Dream About Tea, a superb shop listed at the end of the story, serves several teas naked in the cup — no bag, no ball, no pouch, just tea leaves directly in the cup. Because good tea sinks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Tea and Toast'

Lucy Spraggan, a singer on the British "X Factor" show, wrote this moving narrative about the simple things in a couple's life ...

Monday, September 1, 2014

What I drank during my summer vacation

Didn't intend to take the whole summer off, just kinda happened, as life does.

Places I drank tea this summer:
— On my patio, staring into the canyon, decompressing after a strenuous but revitalizing school year. Keemuns and Yunnans and Earl Grey, oh my.
— The Tea Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. Not exactly an afternoon tea kinda town, but what a fantastic spread.
— The courthouse during jury duty. Swill, of course.
— Numerous spots in Buenos Aires. Tea and mate. More to come on that.
— At brunch ... after my wedding!
— Lakeside, in Idaho, in the dang-beautiful middle o' nowhere. Smoky souchong as autumn peeked in.

So, yes, back to brewing and blogging ... Thanks for sticking with me!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tea tramp

Charlie Chaplin enjoying a tea break during filming, surrounded by nymphs of some sort.

Just because.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kettle's on, soup's on

Every now and then, I run into posted recipes for tea soup. The variations are myriad, but the best ones, in my experience, center on green tea and salmon.

This is the one that crossed my path recently, a quickie from Samovar which trims away some of the traditional Japanese ingredients in favor of a few extra steamed veggies. The one that's always worked for me is this one: blanching some veggies, poaching the salmon, then steeping the tea in the broth. A little matcha for presentation is a fine idea.

Of note: there's also an old meat-fish-and-potatoes soup colloquially referred to as Fisherman's Tea, though tea is not an ingredient.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

All you need is tea

John and Yoko met in May 1968, a spring romance. Lennon was a regular tea drinker. One of my favorite details of the film "Two of Us" features Jared Harris, as Lennon, making tea for Aidan Quinn, as Paul. (Superb, underappreciated film, a speculative narrative. Check it out.)

A few years ago, Yoko wrote a lovely remembrance of "John Lennon: The Teamaker," including this little turnabout:

“Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” John took the role of the teamaker, for being English. So I gave up doing it. It was nice to be up in the middle of the night, when there’s no sound in the house, and sip the tea John would make.

One night, however, John came up with “I was talking to Aunt Mimi this afternoon and she says you are supposed to put the hot water in first. Then the tea bag. I could swear she taught me to put the tea bag in first, but…”

“So all this time, we were doing it wrong?”


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday tea TV: A very. Serious. Movie.

In what looks to be at least partially and unintentionally hilarious, yet another biopic of Rikyu has been made. Based on the 2008 novel Rikyu ni Tazuneyo by Kenichi Yamamoto, "Ask This of Rikyu" retells the tale of the teamaster from fish shop to the palace to ritual suicide.

Here's the trailer, which defies the basic tenets of teaism with exaggerated drama, a thundering symphonic score, and many furrowed brows ...

Monday, May 12, 2014

Crafty projects to dye for

Years ago, I monkeyed with tea-dying fabrics — with varying results. At first, I couldn't figure out what the attraction was to taking a nice, white piece of muslin and turning it, well, dingy brown. Then I learned how to get a little more creative.

Two things changed my outcomes: using a resist to make patterns, and using different liquids.

The resist: Dye the fabric, but beforehand apply a compound in words or patterns that will block the dye, leaving the pattern in the fabric's original color. Some instructions suggest using Elmer's glue; it's often not as easy to remove in the end as is suggested. I've used wax before — I used some beeswax I had on hand in a work bench, but you can buy wax sticks for this purpose, seen here. Crayons work, too, and look here for a nifty technique using bleach to white-out patterns.

As to the other liquids, nearly all tea-dying instructions you'll find discuss the practice in terms of black tea. (And use something inexpensive, of course. Don't waste your fine keemun on the drapes!) I suspect, however, that green tea would provide interesting, if subtle, results, too. I also suspect — having had the misfortune of spilling some on a carpet once — that strong herbals such as hibiscus would also work well. The trick: play around with different dyes on the same fabric. One project I enjoyed a while back: I dyed a set of white napkins with tea, but then I dyed their edges (an inch or two, by suspending them into the liquid with clothespins) with coffee, so there was a nice tea tint to the whole napkin plus ribbons of darker brown at the edges.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tea in the pot — in the garden

At long last, I'm growing tea.

Unable to find the special varietals created for San Diego's particular climate, I ordered a Sochi tea plant from Nichols Garden Nursery up in Oregon. It arrived in splendid condition, a small plant well-established (a foot tall) and moist.

This Camellia sinensis Sochi variety originates, yes, where the Winter Olympics just took place — and one of the northernmost, historic tea-growing regions of Russia. This strain was developed to be especially winter-hardy, which I won't require in southern California, but we'll see how it does.

I've planted her in a firm mound within a half wine barrel salvaged from some debris on this property. I mixed some sphagnum moss, hopefully to aid in holding moisture in the soil (crucial here, especially during last week's awful spell of hot, dry wind). I've rigged a watering system throughout the garden, and it'll feed a dripping irrigation spout at the base of the plant, as well as a fogger I hope to run in the mornings. She'll have dappled shade from a nearby Scotch pine, and some late afternoon sun.

This is a hobby venture, not necessarily a productive one. I can't imagine I'd actually harvest and process any leaves — perhaps on a one-cup basis! Given the opportunity of this wonderful garden, I simply had to try to grow the plant that, on the other end of its life cycle, is so instrumental to my daily life. We shall see.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Smoke and sweetness

Magazine recommendation: Imbibe. It's a well-made, well-edited bimonthly for discriminating lushes like myself, but it doesn't skimp on the coffee and tea features.

The latest March/April edition features two items of note. First, there's a great profile of Steven Smith, the founder of two of the country's most influential tea brands, Stash and Tazo. It's a smart profile of the entrepreneur and his latest, sourced-tea venture.

Second, with the issue's focus on the Pacific northwest, there's a crazy cocktail recipe tacked onto a short feature about Clear Creek Distillery's liqueur made from Douglas fir trees. The cocktail — which sounds insane, great, and insanely great — is called Smoke Signals: bourbon, lemon and orange juices, the fir liqueur, plus a "lapsang souchong tea syrup" (which is just a half cup of the tea, sweetened).

I've used lapsang souchong to add smoke to meats and stews. It's so much better and more effective than liquid smoke. An actual simple syrup made with the piney tea would open up new avenues for flavoring, say, ice cream, apple, anything with maple, maybe subbing for some of the Karo in a pecan pie...?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: Bein' green

Spotted this attractive embroidery on Twitter recently. The Green Man has always been a favorite totem — I used to have a clay Green Man hanging on a tree trunk in a previous garden — especially in spring and summer.

Reminds me of a favorite XTC album track, too. A stretch for the Tuesday tea theme; just pretend Green Man loves his sencha ...

Monday, May 5, 2014

Hi, ho, Hario!

Hario is a nearly century-old glassware company in Japan, and they've generated excitement in recent years with new pour-over coffee makers. Now they've added teaware to their innovating.

Dig this Hario Chaor 4-Cup Tea Maker — a nice, big pot, with heat-resistant glass. The best part, though, is the roomy (important) strainer basket that retracts into the lid with a slide of the handle. Perfect.

Even better, if you're (understandably) averse to confining strainers, is the Hario Largo Tea Dripper, a twist on the coffee designs. The tea brews in the top glass bulb, floating free, then drains and strains into the glass pitcher below. Too bad there are no lids in sight.