Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tea in the Sahara Sierra

I love it when life does this. PBS has been running a series of programs about the national parks, which we've been eating up because (a) we love the nature shows and (b) a few visits to some of the parks have made us believers in their importance and unparalleled grandeur. Last night we caught up on one about Yosemite, and its history with Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. Reminded of my love of Muir's writings, I snatched my Library of America volume off the shelf to relish once again his "Flood-Storm in the Sierra." I opened the book randomly, and my eye fell immediately on this bit I'd underlined many years ago in My First Summer in the Sierra. He's hiking around and stops to write about food, then mentions:

Drank tea until half intoxicated. Man seems to crave a stimulant when anything extraordinary is going on, and this is the only one I use.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Waiter, waiter, percolator

Today, according to the calendar of the utterly trivial, is National Coffee Day. We are not beveragists here at t2. We do not think java is all jive. So celebrate, experience the contrast, enjoy a cuppa joe. Make it a good one, though, if this is truly the only day each year in which you indulge.

Many shops and restaurants are offering deals all over the country, and Stardrecks is launching its new instant coffee today. (Instant coffee? Lord. What is this, 1973?) One site even has a java-themed writing contest.

Then, enjoy reading this ol' chestnut: Malcolm Gladwell's excellent 2001 piece in the New Yorker, "Java Man." It includes a claim that the modern world was built on a foundation of caffeine, plus an amusing discussion of the dichotomy between the "coffee aspect" and the "tea aspect." It's like a horoscope of beverages, complete with chart. If you're reading this blog, I know which side you're on. Here's to being "decorous," "romantic" and "pure"!

Tuesday tea tunes: Unraveling codes, ingeniously

Roger Daltrey is such a boob. But this is a great ballad, thanks to Pete Townshend's buttressing guitar, and a reflective classic rock tea moment ...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Drink ’em if you got ’em

Brrrrr! Autumn blew across the Great lakes last night, right behind a lovely thundershower. Suddenly my tea cabinet meditations are turning from lemongrass and greens to spicy chais and lapsang souchong. I just bought a small packet of the stuff from a shop in Chinatown. Even wrapped in paper and plastic, the smoky aroma infused my entire tea cabinet within hours. I had to lock it down in a glass jar with a rubber seal.

I do love the pine-smoked teas. Not on their own, mind you. I like to add a pinch — as Colin Hay sings — of lapsang souchong to other black teas and chais, in the fall and winter. Goes wonderfully with whiskey (Churchill allegedly loved that combo) and my father's meerschaum pipes. Goes well with shrimp, too. Does not, alas, go well with poetry.)

That said, this week I tried Mighty Leaf's Bleu Peacock oolong, and its smoky flavor was way too much. Frankly, I found it like drinking the run-off from a fireman's hose.

Hmmm. Speaking of smoke, guess we'd better place an order for firewood before the real rush begins. My favorite season!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pouring over teh tarik

I enjoyed a chat today with Shaun Rajah, the events manager for the Drake Hotel's Palm Court. He's from Malaysia, and he told fantastic stories about tea makers there and the process of their teh tarik. It's a kind of tea latte, made of black tea and sweet condensed milk. That in and of itself doesn't sound that out there, of course. It's not the ingredients that make this special, it's the way they're put together.

Across Malaysia and in Singapore, they pour the black tea into one tin pitcher, the milk in the other. The tea then goes into milk pitcher. The mixture goes back to the first pitcher. And back and forth, back and forth, each time pouring from one to the other from a greater and greater distance, stretching arms out wide to pour the tea mixture in long streams into the opposite pitcher. That's what foams the milk. (Beats that hissing thing at the coffee house.) It also brings the temperature down from boiling to sippable.

The tea makers often compete in teh tarik contests. YouTube has several videos showing some of these, silly dancing pours and very bad grainy video. This, however, is a simple quick look at a seasoned pro showing us how it's done ...

Do try this at home. But be prepared for a mess.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Just drink it

My latest tea reading is a novel, The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery. The author is a longtime student of the Japanese tea ceremony, and she sets her debut novel in the mid-19th century, focusing on the lives of two women — a young French girl and a Japanese maiden — just as Japan begins opening to the West. The Japanese family at the center of the story are descendants of the country's founding tea master, Sen Rikyu.

Reminded me of one of my favorite Sen Rikyu passages, describing the simplicity of tea:

Tea is nothing but this:
First, you heat the water.
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.

It's like a prelude to Keats' transcribing the voice of the urn: " 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Of course, that word "properly" is the real rub, and people have been arguing about what constitutes the proper imbibing of tea. Then there are those of us who accept any cup of tea as a proper one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The wilder billy: Tea in the bush

Oh, there once was a swagman camped in the billabong,
under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
and he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

That's from the song "Waltzing Matilda," which is a lot like Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" in that it's not the official national anthem of its home country, but it damn well oughta be. To anyone outside Australia, of course, that verse constitutes practically another language. Ahem: A swagman is a migrant worker (Woody probably liked this one), a billabong is a small lake, Coolibah is a kind of eucalyptus — but it's the billy I want to focus on. (Hello, new Australian readers!) (Yes, I'm addicted to my metrics.)

Banjo Paterson, a poet, wrote the song in 1895 about a fellow who steals a sheep, gets caught for the crime, drowns himself and then haunts the campsite. He was just hungry. But he was thirsty, too, and like many rugged settlers of the Australian bush — believe it or not — he enjoyed a spot of tea.

Here's how they did it, according to The True History of Tea (which, yes, I've finally finished, so I'll cease yammering on about it):

You made a neat fireplace with stones, filled it with fallen eucalyptus branches, and built a tripod to hang the 'billy' from. The billy, a simple tin can with a metal wire handle, was filled with water from a nearby creek. Usually, a few eucalyptus leaves were allowed to fall into the can. When the billy boiled, one handful of tea was added for every person, with an extra handful for the billy. The smoke from the eucalyptus spread a wonderful scent, giving the tea a special flavor. After steeping for a minute or two, the billy was swung around the head three times to settle the leaves, and the tea served in tin mugs, with milk and sugar if one happened to have these at hand.

Afterthoughts: 1. Mmmm, eucalyptus tea. I love this idea. I almost want to catch a cold just to try it. 2. Mmmm, creek water. Then, of course — you wouldn't want to do that today unless you wanted heavy metals tea. 3. Next time I complain about the machinations of making tea, I'll stop, chuckle at the thought of me building a fire from scratch and swinging the pot around my head, and thank my modern conveniences.

Tuesday tea tunes: 'Feelng calm and crisp and strong'

From Donald Fagen's second solo album, the closer. If I am ever fortunate enough to own my own teahouse one day, I hope hot players want to hang around with their flat hats and their axes.

(Note: Imeem is frustrating sometimes, in that the song above on their site is the full six-minute version — and, alas, it's the only one available — but the embed code only brings in a 30-second sample. The damned music industry on the Internet. They're never going to get it.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Teaku No. 3

the day will be long
pick me up, can of oolong!
(haiku shouldn't rhyme)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The owls can't see you having tea

First, "Twin Peaks" was one of my favorite shows. Until it amounted to nothing at the end. My clenched fist still has a date with David Lynch's prodigious jaw.

Second, my favorite character was the Log Lady. For some reason, I just remembered the scene in which she makes tea for the lawmen, from the "Cooper's Dreams" episode. In it, she delivers a killer line that's resonated with me for years: "Tea first. Then be ready." Civilized discourse, my friends: take time for the tea, then I'll tell you the big news. (Someone even named their tea company after the line.)

Third, this is the Internet, where everything is available and easily embeddable. I can't imagine who would want to watch an entire episode of "Twin Peaks" on my lil' tea blog, but here it is. The scene starts around 27:30, line at 30 minutes even ...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Instructions: Boil. Chill.

I'm not rocking out. I'm freaking out.

Yeah, so, things are a little quiet here at present because your faithful t2 blogger is experiencing career meltdown. My full-time gig is at the Chicago Sun-Times, which may or may not exist by year's end. I'm spending my time in union meetings and with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I may have a lot of free time to sip and blog in the near future, as long as I can afford tea and wifi. Sigh. Back in the '90s, they told me this would be a stable career.

Thank God fellow local tea blogger Lainie Petersen recommended some baby chrysanthemum tea from Ten Ren. Tiny little flower buds, dusty white and green-grey, make a dull, slightly bitter infusion, but she was right: "Very calming. Evens you right out." She and I were the only attendees of a meetup last weekend in Chinatown, and when she pointed that out with that advice, I bought two canisters. I may finish them both by week's end. (Lainie's had a crap week, too, local readers. Send her some well-brewed love.)

I also have a nice bag of German chamomile our travel editor tossed to me the other day — it's a nondescript herbal packaged for Virgin Atlantic Airlines. God knows where it comes from, but it tastes fine. Need the nerve tonic, man.

What do you drink when you need to tame your nerves?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ready, aim ...

Curious image found here (thanks, Dave!).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coffee wins another round

In the perpetual struggle to successfully market teas in America, one Chicago shop has — understandably — caved to the bean (yes, that's a Chicago pun). A shop in the Lincoln Square ’hood called the Loose Leaf Tea Loft has changed its name — to Latte on Lincoln. New owners acquired the place in June and added coffees, salads and flatbread pizzas to the menu.

Says owner Shalini in an email to t2: "We changed the name to Latte because Latte can apply to tea and coffee drinkers alike. Although I am a tea lover and drinker, my husband (and most of the people in this neighborhood, it seems) are coffee afficianados, and so the wider appeal of offering tea and coffee has made good business sense for us so far with the new name and new look. We do still offer all the flavors that Loose Leaf Tea Loft had, and then some ... so I'm hoping tea will become more popular as we go along."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

'Exper-teas' story in the Sun-Times

That's Rod Markus from Rare Tea Cellar. Some of the posts here recently — about his teas, about Chas Kroll's event, etc. — have been by-products of a story I've been preparing for the Chicago Sun-Times, which finally published today — read it here! It's a long one, about what it means to be a tea master or a tea sommelier. As you'll see, few of them have any formal education in tea; they drink, they learn. And now they have the coolest jobs on the planet. (OK, next to Tim Gunn.) Also, enjoy the lovely photography of three different Sun-Times shooters in the photo gallery.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Tea at the Drake

I've been meaning to try some black tea, possibly pu-erh, with salt and butter. As I read through The True History of Tea, I was fascinated by the consistent mention of this method of taking tea throughout ancient Asia. Sounds a bit gnarly, but a few billion Chinese people can't be wrong.

Until then, Nick Drake mentions butter tea in this rarity ...

Black Mountain Blues - Nick Drake

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cherry, cherry, in your tree

So here's one of those finds. Check the photo — looks like a cup of hot water, eh? Believe me, it doesn't taste like it. It's a cup of cherry cobbler. From yo mama.

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of sitting for a tasting of some teas from Rodrick Markus' Rare Tea Cellar (not to be confused with the Rare Tea Co.). Rod poured several things in a sunlit dining room at the swank NoMI restaurant in Chicago's Park Hyatt, including a white (!) pu-erh. I took home a few samples, which I just now steeped for an afternoon delight.

Markus is one of those guys. If it's weird and really rare — and expensive — he'll find it and try it. "If I saw a $30 donut," he told me for an upcoming interview for the Sun-Times, "I'd try it." He had native Wisconsin ginseng. He had crazy herbals. He had, ahem, a white pu-erh!

He also had a few things I snagged some samples of for myself. Like the Sakura Dream — it's just cherry blossoms. Moist, pink Japanese cherry blossoms, "preserved in blossom essence." Steep them for about a minute, you get an aroma of cherry cobbler in the oven — and a taste to match. The liquor is completely clear, except for a slight oily sheen, and it tastes like it smells — of a tart, yeasty cobbler made with just-overripe cherries. If you've ever had brandied fruit over a slice of pound cake, bingo! Pour that in a glass, and that's what you've got here. Pretty amazing, I must say.

In the regular tea department, I sampled a couple of other RTC gems. His Emperor's Tencha ("rare ceremonial grade green tea") is, no doubt, a fine green tea, but I think I botched the water temperature, poured it too hot. I got a sickly brownish-gold color, but a fine taste at first ... of chocolate, to my surprise. But it fell apart pretty quickly in the cup and just tasted woody.

The Emperor's White Darjeeling ("Himalayan Silver Needle"), however, is grade-A awesome. It reeks of cirtus and vanilla, even some of the same cherry blossom notes described above, and it's pretty dark for a white tea. The flavor is out-of-this-orchard — a cheerful assault of florals and fruit and vanilla beans snatched from some forbidden equatorial isle. In my notes, I'm almost ashamed to point out that I scribbled, "Tea? What tea? Tasting clouds!" I never said I always escaped hyperbole.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tooting my horns

When my ship finally comes in (if it's not a leaky skiff) I've always dreamed of taking a year and traveling the entire Mediterranean rim. I'd start at the south side of Gibraltar and work my way to the other side — north Africa, the rim of the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, Balkans, Italy, the Riviera and Spain. In my current status as a landlocked wage slave, however, I must experience these places in the kitchen via one of my favorite cookbooks, a round-up of some crazy-good recipes from all of the places just mentioned.

A while back I tried several recipes from the North Africa chapter, one of which has become my favorite teatime treat: Gazelle Horns. It's just a simple dough recipe with which you wrap up a delicious and easy almond paste. The recipe in the book calls for making the dough; I use refrigerated pie crust and get the same result without my typically tragic baking mishaps. Here's a quick summary:
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a baking sheet or two.
  2. Throw 3 cups of blanched almonds into a food processor with a cup of confectioners' sugar. Blend it till the almonds are finely chopped.
  3. Add 1/4 cup orange flower water (diluted orange juice works fine) and 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Process till the mixture forms a smooth paste.
  4. To make the pastries, you can go large or small. The book recipe calls for dividing the paste into 40 portions, wrapping them in small 5"x2" rectangles of dough, crimping the seams and bending them into crescent shapes. I cut the pie crust dough into triangles and wrap them into about a dozen larger, turnover-shaped horns. (Mine look more like this recipe, but I don't use eggs in the filling.)
  5. Bake 8-10 minutes till lightly browned.
Absolutely divine with black teas, particularly my beloved Keemun. Another bonus: they keep really well for a long time.

North Africa is, of course, the land of mint tea (like that cool seaside cafe) — green tea, sugar and fresh mint — which also works beautifully with these treats. The mint and almond are happy traveling companions.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Shaking off the shakes

Despite occasionally desiring a caffeine-free cup of tea, particularly after dinner or late in the evening, I am wary of decaffeinated teas. The ones I've tried seem to taste flat — I've got a box of Lipton decaffeinated green tea in the cabinet that I was given ages ago and I keep around only in case a guest requires such a thing — and I prefer to keep the processing of my foods and beverages to a minimum, if possible. Sometimes chemicals are involved in the decaffeination process, and when you start throwing around terms like methylene chloride and ethyl acetate, well, thanks but I'll just have the chamomile.

But sometimes I don't want an herbal, I want tea. Fortunately, I found that a simple initial steeping goes a long way toward cutting down the caffeine in a cup of tea. I noticed it first when I began attending tea tastings that were presented in the Chinese gongfu style. Eva Lee in Hawaii did this — she'd put the tea in the pot, pour water over it, then fairly quickly pour it off and discard it. She called this "waking up the tea." Aside from that being every kind of cool, I noticed in this and other tastings that I could sample more teas without getting so buzzed. That's because, as the video below from Bigelow Teas explains quite well, the first thing to come out of the tea when the hot water hits it is the caffeine. If you're drinking quality loose-leaf tea, it can stand up to multiple steepings, so why not let a brief first pour suck out a majority of the caffeine for you? Then you can enjoy the second steep while you watch Craig Ferguson.

p.s. Speaking of Craig Ferguson, the greatest late-night host on TV, he once did a commercial for this God-awful Nestea concentrate. You pretty much have to chug the stuff like he does in that video, just to get it down your throat.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

'The solemnity of the silver tea tray'

From My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, 1951:

We did not always sit below in the library. Sometimes she would ask me to go with her upstairs, to aunt Phoebe's boudoir, and we would spread out the books and plans of gardens upon the floor. I was host in the library down below, but here in her boudoir she was hostess. I am not sure I did not like it better. We lost formality. Seacombe did not bother us — by some measure of tact she had got him to dispense with the solemnity of the silver tea tray — and she would brew tisana for us both instead, which she said was a continental custom and much better for the eyes and skin.