Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Stretching out tea time

When I roamed the streets of London early this year, I made a lengthy playlist of songs about the city — Willie Nelson's "London," Lily Allen's "LDN," "Picadilly" by Squeeze, Duke Ellington's "Hyde Park," Nick Drake's perfect "Mayfair" (it is strange!) and such — to score my ramblings whilst high from low tea. One of the songs was a folk classic I'd heard of but never heard before: Ralph McTell's "Streets of London," a sad tale of those less fortunate out there among us. It includes an anecdote of an old man killing time in a cafe: "Looking at the world over the rim of his tea-cup / Each tea lasts an hour, then he wanders home alone."

Monday, November 29, 2010

'Take tea and see!'

I love this old tea commercial. It's not advertising a brand, it's just selling tea in general. Ahhhh.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Milk in tea: You busted!

A funny addendum to my recent post about milk in tea: Bill Todd, of the great tea merchants Todd & Holland, told this tale recently during a tasting at their Forest Park, Ill., shop.

The trick of pouring milk into the cup first in order to prevent the porcelain from cracking, he said, was common among lower classes in Britain — those who didn't have access to the good china. Rich folks poured the tea right into the cup partly to show off that they had the good, expensive porcelain. Thus, afternoon tea served as one of many tests for suitors or the suited: a gentleman would invite his girl to tea, and the parents would watch carefully in which order she added the milk ... to see if she was a maid masquerading as a lady!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All in this cup: A new bit of 'steepware'

Here's the cool new steeping cup I got from the Tea Spot (fancy photo of it, long story; thanks, D.), a shop I like and not just because they use the word "steepware." It's a well-made, three-piece set — cup, steeping basket and lid — all made of glazed porcelain. It's proven wonderful for tastings as well as those one-cup cravings.

Most regular teas I steep without worrying about covers and lids, unless of course it's in a pot. Some herbals, though, especially a milk-thistle blend I like (helps the ol' liver), really benefit from a lid over the cup, as some of the oils can lift away in the steam.

Just sharing for those Christmas lists out there ...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tea is one of Oprah's favorite things (and VWs!)

Oprah's final season on TV is chugging along at full hype, including yesterday's big finale of "Oprah's Favorite Things" — which included the above assortment of teas by Oprah's favorite tea source, Talbott's. "Everyone knows I love a spot of tea," she said as she gave away some to her audience.

After that, she gave everyone in the audience a 2012 Volkswagen Beetle. Those have teacup holders, right?
(Thanks, Tess!)

Tuesday tea tunes: An aria for assam

I'd like this brief operetta about afternoon tea cued up as entrance music for every gathering I host at home. From Sam Brown's album, "Stop" ...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Afternoon tea in London, redux

Tea at Royal China, a fabulous Chinese restaurant
in London's Queensway, off the northwest corner of Hyde Park.

My trip last spring to London to explore afternoon tea is finally immortalized in print today in the Sun-Times. It's a run-down of the traditional and not-so-traditional twists on afternoon tea in Britain's capital. Much more info, of course, was blogged here earlier.

Irish stout: Barry's Tea offers golden moments

I like good tea, I seek out good tea, I've had a lot of good tea. But there are still teas that tea snobs would frown upon that I adore. This whole thing started, truth be told, with Mother's boxes of Constant Comment, a cup of which still warms my heart with or without her. More than most, though, I love a cup of Barry's.

Lainie used to say you could clean an engine with this stuff, and I'll bet a hot cup of Barry's would at least degrease a windshield. But I can't help it. I like the strong stuff — a strong "cupan tae" ("cup of tea" in Gaelic).

Barry's is an Irish company, with a huge chunk of the market there. "Irish Tea for relaxed people who enjoy life and good company," they say. I'm partial to the Barry's Gold Blend, bags of finely chopped tea usually blended from Kenyan sources as well as Assam. Ireland tea blends used to be almost all Assam, until Ceylon teas came in during the ’60s. The Kenyan teas came later, from the Rift Valley, and they provide perfect balance for the maltiness. There's usually a lot of hullabaloo about these teas working best with Ireland's water, but it has the ring of myth or marketing. Even with my filtered Chicago tap, every bag brews flawlessly and delivers a hearty liquor with a bewitching amber-red color.

Barry's has fun with social media. They just started a new video series, interviewing Irish artists for interesting segments (although so far these have little or nothing to do with actual tea). On the main website, they're soliciting customers' "golden moments" as experienced with cup of Barry's. I submitted mine: I can't have a bowl of oatmeal without a cup of Barry's. The strong brew with a hint of malt is heavenly against the oats, the brown sugar, the butter, the occasional fruit. A golden moment, indeed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: 'Would you care for some tea?'

I've been meaning to use this as a Tuesday tune for a long while now, though it's another stretch. A huge fan of the Chameleons UK, this slight rarity of theirs, "Things I Wish I'd Said," describes a tense tea between two gents — they knew each other in childhood, and the narrator has a few choice things he'd like to say to the visitor. But when the narrator is alone again with his thoughts and his unsaid invective, he seems to rethink his position.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Teaku No. 9

Black tea, blacker night
This tea moment's about work —
I'll sleep when I'm dead

Tea in Portugal: From the aisles of the isles

My quest for some tea from the Azores — the Atlantic islands due west of Portugal, and governed by that once pioneering tea country — was finally rewarded a few months ago. After striking out in my attempts to contact the actual tea producers on the islands, Lucia, a t2 reader at a university in Rome, shared with me a couple of samples of the teas she had purchased locally (thanks again!). I'm just now getting around to trying them.

The chance to sample them was rewarding; the actual taste, not so much. I knew from reading about them that Azores tea was not quality. The only tea grown as a commodity crop in Europe, it's cranked out for high production. The cha verde, green tea, from Gorreana, is pretty awful. The dry cut/shredded leaf is dusty and dirty, though it smells lovely and grassy; the brew looks dreadful, murky, like dishwater; the murky brownish tea has little flavor to speak of. Bummer.

Gorreana's orange pekoe (left) has much more going for it. This dry leaf was tightly rolled and twiggy, much more handsome. The resulting liquor is a beautiful amber color, with a warm, peaty scent. The taste is ... OK, nothing to sing about, a plain black tea. As the New York Times wrote in 1879, "The flavor of the infusion [is] by no means to be despised." I would agree with the back-handed compliment.

Postscript: A short while ago, I interviewed Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the band the Walkmen. Their latest album is called "Lisbon" (and lordy it's good, great retro sounds in the studio plus Hamilton's warm, wheezy ways with his voice). "We went there twice while recording the record," he told me, speaking of Lisbon. "Titling the record that just made sense in our minds. It's such a unique place, so incredible looking. It has its own feel, like nowhere else in the world. It's sort of out of the way, without the big museums and stuff to draw tourists. ... It felt like us, like someplace we could understand. It has its own feel. It's sort of out of the way. There aren't museums, etc., that draw you in like other places. The way it's laid out — it's built on a valley that leads down to the ocean. It's just this big swath of tile, little streets and beautiful buildings — nothing grand, just small joys. The whole city is built for cafe culture, with outdoor terraces all looking over the downtown on all sides. Great views wherever you go. I don't remember drinking tea there, but I could see it happening, on all those terraces. Good port, though. This special dish there is a nasty salty cod — it's gross, so salty you can't believe they eat it."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Polly want some tea?

A minor classic, here's "Polly Put the Kettle On" by contemporary old-timey group Kitty, Daisy & Lewis ...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Teas from down under and to the right

I've mentioned before my fascination with Portugal — which I'll be getting back to shortly — but my other bucket-list country to visit is New Zealand. No, I was never a huge fan of the "Lord of the Rings" films; the breathtaking New Zealand landscapes Peter Jackson presented on screen helped me suffer through those plodding stories. I'm intrigued by the culture, the laid-back population, the beauty. Now, I'm intrigued by the tea.

This summer, the Chicago Tea Garden became the first U.S. company to offer Zealong, the first Chinese oolong grown in New Zealand. The distant island nation has what seems to be ideal tea-growing climate — mountainous, temperate, relatively unspoiled — so it's a wonder no one thought of trying this there before the 1990s. I finally tried some recently, and it's pretty great. The flavors aren't that complex or showy; what grabs you is the fresh floral aroma and light, clean flavor — a really simple, yellow liquor. I cupped it with food and lost it a bit. On its own, it's a delight, a calm and comforting companion. Bonus: Zealong is grown naturally, no chemicals. Double bonus: It resteeps beautifully, and gets fruitier.

While we're fascinated with that here, Kiwis in the last several weeks have been digging Twinings' latest creation, New Zealand Breakfast Tea. The new blend is the result of a contest in which New Zealanders were asked to create a blend that represented their taste. A fellow named Andrew Fenemor won, and his suggestion was fine-tuned by Twinings for this new offering. Doesn't appear, though, that it's made of tea grown in New Zealand.

Friday, November 5, 2010

More tea cocktail news

1. The well-to-do foodies and mixologists are playing with pu-erh. I've recently been saving the cold leftovers from pu-erh pots and adding them to my occasional evening whiskey. Awesome. The Sun-Times food blog had this story recently about tea cocktails (featuring more from Rare Tea Cellar's Rod Markus). After lots of golly-wow about expensive pu-erh, it closes with this delectable recipe:

Peter Vestinos' Pu-Erh Cocktail
1.5 ounces Oronoco rum
1 ounce Blood Orange Pu-Erh Tea (brewed double strength)
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce apple cider (reduced by half on stove)
1/4 ounce simple syrup (sugar melted in an equal portion of water)
Shake and strain into a snifter and float a fresh basil leaf.

2. Last night, we toasted the arrival of fall weather — and the departure of summer's flavors — with the last summer cocktail. Usually, I enjoy Zen green tea liqueur simply over ice with a squeeze of lemon, but I saw an ad for it recently that included a simple cocktail ... which also matched the dregs in my bar last night: 2 parts Zen, 2 parts vodka, fresh orange juice. So long, summer.

3. I've had this link lying around for weeks to Tea Guy's post about UV's Sweet Green Tea Vodka. How many sweet tea vodkas are there now? Lots, but they're all black-based. Sweet green tea vodka, well, is pretty much what I mixed last night.

Why add milk to tea? A historical question

This is not the world's 14,593rd blog post about the merits or crimes of adding milk to tea, whether it should be added first or last, etc. This is an attempt to assemble a bit of historic fact about the reasons this custom started in the first place. I was piqued by an article in the current edition of Tea Time magazine, a discussion of tea cups and their many charms, which mentioned the following while running down the history of this crucial vessel:

But porcelain had its drawbacks, as well. Mme de La Sabliére, a French hostess of an influential literary salon during the 17th century, is often credited with being among the first to add milk to tea. The practice began by pouring milk into the cup before filling it with the hot tea. While tempering the tea in this manner made handling more comfortable, Mme La Sabliére was actually seeking to prevent cracking or breaking the porcelain.

That reason for adding milk was a new one on me. I've always heard this discussed as a matter of taste — originally reported by a different madame, Mme de Sévigné, who wrote a letter commonly cited as one of (never definitive) the first mentions of adding milk to tea. She frequently wrote about tea, among her gossipy details of the Sun King's court, once citing our other madame's custom: "Madame de la Sablière took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste."

Every other mention of adding milk to tea that I've ever read approaches it from that perspective, of taste, which frankly always struck me oddly (even though tea's Asian origins have a long history with dairy products, often from animals other than cows, namely butter). Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson's New Tea Companion still features a page about "Milk in Tea," suggesting in the section's first sentence that the custom "perhaps developed because milk and cream were found to soften the slightly bitter taste of tea." In their earlier version of the book, however, The Tea Companion, published just a year before in 2004, they at least addressed the other possibility by way of questioning what the initial motives might have been, adding, "Or was a little milk poured into the Chinese tea bowls used in the 17th and 18th centuries before the hot tea in order to reduce the risk of shattering the fine porcelain?" For the second edition, they excised this thought. (They also added that Ms. Sabliére was alone in her taste for this combination, that it didn't catch on in France before that country moved squarely into the coffee camp.)

Victor Mair and Erling Hoh's great True History of Tea gives similar credit to our French madame, but states no particular motivation:

While milk tea was drunk by the Manchu officials that the Europeans would have encountered, and the Dutchman Johann Nieuhoff had been offered tea with milk at a banquet in Canton in 1655, the honor of introducing the custom to Europe is traditionally ascribed to Madame de la Sabliére, who in 1680 served tea with milk at her famous Paris salon ...

Their discussion of this, however, comes two paragraphs after exploring the development of porcelain, "with its translucent fragility."

As someone who's had that experience — I once poured boiling water into a large glass infusion jar, to sterilize it, and watched the bottom quickly crack and crash into the sink — I can see how the practical matter would drive the custom rather than the questionable taste involved. Just found this curious. If anyone has other primary sources of information on this, do tell.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Visions of China (and Japan)

Via a chain of events too long to go into, I recently rediscovered one of my favorite bands, plumbing the depths of my collection. The band: Japan. In the late ’70s, they provided much of the foundation on which Duran Duran, the final Roxy Music albums and most of the other New Romantics were built. And despite their name they sang a lot about China. So here's "Visions of China" for you tea-drinking Sinophiles ...