Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tea, the universe and everything

I've enjoyed the writing of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, etc.) for much of my life, but not moreso than a friend of mine, David Z., who's a devoted fan of the late British author.

David just passed this along to me after reading a posthumous collection of Adams ephemera, The Salmon of Doubt, which includes Adams' stern instructions for making a proper cup of tea. Adams was a tea fanatic like ourselves, to the extent that the Infinite Improbability Drive he created in the Hitchhiker's books included as part of its power source "a nice hot cup of tea."

His instructions, which could face off admirably against Orwell's own, are thus:

One or two Americans have asked me why it is that the English like tea so much, which never seems to them to be a very good drink. To understand, you have to know how to make it properly.

There is a very simple principle to the making of tea and it's this - to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boiling (not boiled) when it hits the tea leaves. That's why we English have these odd rituals, such as warming the teapot first (so as not to cause the boiling water to cool down too fast as it hits the pot). And that's why the American habit of bringing a teacup, a tea bag and a pot of hot water to the table is merely the perfect way of making a thin, pale, watery cup of tea that nobody in their right mind would want to drink. The Americans are all mystified about why the English make such a big thing out of tea because most Americans have never had a good cup of tea. That's why they don't understand. In fact the truth of the matter is that most English people don't know how to make tea any more either, and most people drink cheap instant coffee instead, which is a pity, and gives Americans the impression that the English are just generally clueless about hot stimulants.

So the best advice I can give to an American arriving in England is this. Go to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea. Go back to where you're staying and boil a kettle of water. While it is coming to the boil, open the sealed packet and sniff. Careful - you may feel a bit dizzy, but this is in fact perfectly legal. When the kettle has boiled, pour a little of it into a tea pot, swirl it around and tip it out again. Put a couple (or three, depending on the size of the pot) of tea bags into the pot (If I was really trying to lead you into the paths of righteousness I would tell you to use free leaves rather than bags, but let's just take this in easy stages). Bring the kettle back up to the boil, and then pour the boiling water as quickly as you can into the pot. Let it stand for two or three minutes, and then pour it into a cup. Some people will tell you that you shouldn't have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk then it's probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea you will scald the milk. If you think you will prefer it with a slice of lemon then, well, add a slice of lemon.

Drink it. After a few moments you will begin to think that the place you've come to isn't maybe quite so strange and crazy after all.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Heat Miser vs. Snow Miser

Here's a great article in The New York Times about cold-brewing coffee and tea.

I've never bought into the cold-brew, having tasted some before and found it lacking. This story explains why — because the hot and cold products are chemically different from each other:

Hot water also cooks as it extracts, forcing chemical reactions that transform some of the extracted substances into other things, and driving some aroma substances out of the liquid. Cold water, in contrast, extracts more slowly and selectively, produces a simpler extract, and doesn’t change the original flavor substances as much.

So cold-brewed teas and coffees are chemically different from their hot counterparts. They tend to contain less caffeine and less acid. And, of course, they taste different. If the flavor of hot tea or coffee is your gold standard, then cold brews won’t measure up.

I make plenty of iced tea during the summer — just enjoyed another pitcher of TG's Manjhee Valley first-flush, which does well over ice — but I prefer a strong hot brew poured over ice. You?

Then again, hot and cold have always been fighting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: I wanna be your ... tea

Ah, the Internet. Who knew country songwriter Don Williams was still around? Well, now you do, and now you can enjoy his creamy baritone and soft stylings backed by a nifty digital background as he sings "Cup o' Tea":

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tea and work

Still life: Tea and deadlines.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Green beans: 'The coffee trust'

I've walked by the Kukulu Market ("Ethiopian Specialties!") in my neighborhood a hundred times, and I've always been intrigued by a sign in the window boasting "Ethiopian green coffee." As a tea person, I thought this must be something similar — slightly less produced, or less roasted. Maybe it's actual green coffee beans fresh off the bush ground up and filtered!

Sort of. I finally stopped in this week. Inside the tiny shop, the owner showed me Ziploc baggies of green coffee beans — dusty-green beans with that tell-tale seam down the flat side — as well as a large wicker basket full of them, plus a big scoop. They're just beans that haven't been roasted yet.

"So why buy unroasted beans?" I asked.

"So you can roast them yourself." Then he said something I love: "For some people, it's about finding the coffee trust, finding the spirit of the bean that speaks to them."

Which Folgers, no doubt, or even Starbucks, is not concerned with.

It's a control issue — and price, the green beans are significantly cheaper — so that consumers can roast the coffee to their taste. Like a light roast? Pull them off the heat when you want. Like it dark? Bake those babies!

Many customers, the owner explained, roast the beans at home, just using a pot on the stove (stirring often). There is, of course, plenty of home equipment to purchase, as well, and many different types of green coffee.

(I was also unaware that, just as there are tea ceremonies, there is an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.)

I couldn't help wish tea was available in this state — leaves fresh off the plucking table, available for pan frying at home. I suppose it is available this way if you live next door to the plantation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Tea at Pitchfork

Just spent the weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival, one of many three-day concert fests here in Chicago — and the most enjoyable.

Pitchfork has a wonderful community spirit to it, and is populated by more people who really listen to the music, as opposed to chatty scenesters. It's still three days in the summer heat, but I survived if for no other reason than Intelligentsia was serving coffee to the artists backstage ... and they also had a splendid lightly roasted oolong. I can't tell you how fabulous it was to write my dispatches late in the afternoon with a good cup of tea.

So today's Tuesday tune is not only tea related but, by degrees, Pitchfork related. Stick with me ...

One of the Pitchfork performers I most enjoyed (to my surprise ... his music has had to grow on me) was James Blake, a piano player and singer who crafts some otherworldly, quite spacious keys-and-beats music usually tagged to a genre called dubstep. I managed to have a lovely chat with him before his show.

Blake is the son of an obscure British guitarist and prog-rocker named James Litherland, who in 1972 was one of several guitarists on a Long John Baldry record called "Everything Stops for Tea" (which also features Elton John on piano and Rod Stewart on banjo, and they each produced a side).

Of course, I can't find Baldry's bloody take on the song anywhere online for you to listen to here. There's this video from Baldry's final U.S. performance, in which he answers a request by running through it spontaneously, but it's not very good. Baldry's album, and its individual songs, is available via iTunes.

Here, though, is Jack Buchanan from the song's original recording made during World War II — it hails from a 1935 musical, "Come Out of the Pantry" — and it may have become my favorite Tuesday tea tune of all time:

p.s. I hear no resemblance to the original, but here's a totally rocking song also called "Everything Stops for Tea" by a current band, the Nervous Wreckords, with more tea imagery in the video.

Friday, July 15, 2011

More tea mystery novels

I've written here before about my love of Laura Childs' tea-shop mystery novels. No surprise then that I recently ran across two other murder mystery series that dip a toe into the tea world.

Leslie Meier writes a popular series of mysteries lead by am affable character named Lucy Stone. Her latest (and 19th!), just published, is The English Tea Murder. The title baffles me a bit because tea barely makes an appearance in the book. It's kind of a running gag throughout the story that the women, Lucy and several college pals, are on a tour of England — a departure from the usual Lucy Stone setting in a town called Tinkers Cove — and their continued attempts to sit down for afternoon tea in London are repeatedly thwarted. When they finally do, at the Wolseley, alas, it's not necessarily worth having waded through this mostly dull tale. But at least they're smart enough to upgrade to champagne all around!

I've just started another novel which feels much more promising: Deanna Raybourn's Dark Road to Darjeeling. This fourth entry into her series involving an upper-class sleuth named Lady Julia Grey follows the very Nick-and-Nora couple to northeastern India to visit a friend. Raybourn's writing has drawn me in, and the book thus far is rewarding, including some amusing descriptions of tea and tea life in 1889:

"I thought we were forbidden from speaking his name," Portia said, handing me a cup of tea. The porters brewed up quantities of rank, black tea in tremendous cans every time we stopped. After three days of the stuff, I had almost grown to like it.

It already reminds me something of The Tea-Planter!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

'Let's go down to Chinatown'

After tea recently in Chinatown, during a meditative moment
near the pavilion in Chicago's nearby Ping Tom Park.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: This tea is your tea

Happy 99th birthday, Woody Guthrie!

The famed American balladeer would have turned that ripe old age this Thursday. I used to attend the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each year in Okemah, Okla. — it happens this week, it's wonderful, you should go — and now I'm stuck in Chicago each summer covering a different festival that always falls on the same weekend.

But in celebration of ol' Woody's near-centennial (and, hey, let's also point out a fantastic new book about him, Woody Guthrie: American Radical), here are the lyrics to a song I found in the Woody Guthrie Archives many years back, dated Feb. 5, 1948, and I'll leave the interpretation entirely up to you ...

"Tea Bag Blues"
by Woody Guthrie

Well, it's awful cold outside
And I'm cold at home tonight
Walkin up an' down my my poor self
God you now this just ain't right

I'm gonna boil myself a tea bag
I'm gonna boil myself a tea bag
If you'll moze over my way
I'll boil you off a tea bag, too

I've come up from Oklahoma
Where that dust and gravel blows
I've got gals with boozeleg rotgut
But I never did learn to know

Just how to boil me off a tea bag
How to simmer up a tea bag
If you'll ease over my way
I will boil you off a tea bag, too

I rode the trains and the buses
Rode the rods and rode the blinds
Hit every kind of bag and satchel
Used every bait that I could find

I never did think about no tea bag
I never did even see no tea bag
But if you'll ooze over closer
Yes, I'll boil you off a tea bag, too

I've used beer, and wine, and coffee
Buttermilk, sodie and rum
And I've rolled them every color
Seen them go before they come

I'm learnin' how to use a tea bag
Learning how to dip a tea bag
Babe, if you'll sneak over my way
I'll strain your little tea bag, too

I'm learnin' how to dip my tea bag
Learnin' how to soak my tea bag
I'm up north in New York City
Singin' my lonesome tea bag blues

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Iced tea and baking soda

My apologies for my recent absence. Life gets in the way sometimes. And I totally missed National Iced Tea Month!

The May issue of Southern Living magazine presaged that lengthy June holiday with a feature headlined "Sweet & Simple: 28 New Ways to Enjoy Tea From Pitcher to Platter" (for some reason, the same feature online lists only 19) loaded with some great drink and food recipes, including a wonderful looking sweet tea-brined chicken and a sweet tea tiramisu. (This is southern living, mind you, so we're talking sweet tea and only sweet tea.)

This one I've tried, for blackberry sweet tea — all hail those buckets of berries at the farmers market this summer! — and is worth noting for a particular ingredient:

3 cups fresh or frozen blackberries, thawed
1-1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
Pinch of baking soda
4 cups boiling water
2 family-size tea bags
2-1/2 cups cold water
Garnish: fresh blackberries

1. Combine blackberries and sugar in a large container, and crush with a wooden spoon; stir in mint and baking soda.
2. Pour 4 cups boiling water over tea bags; cover and steep 5 minutes. Discard tea bags.
3. Pour tea over blackberry mixture; let stand at room temperature 1 hour. Pour tea through a wire-mesh strainer into a large pitcher, discarding solids. Add 2 1/2 cups cold water, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cover and chill 1 hour. Garnish, if desired.

"Er, baking soda?" a friend asked.

Depending on the variety you're making, or the astringency of your particular kind of tea, the soda blunts the tannins that, in this case, double from the tea and the berries. As Fred Thompson writes in his book Iced Tea:

There are as many ways to brew iced tea as there are Southern grandmothers. I grew up on iced tea made by bringing a small amount of water to a slow boil and then pouring it over the tea bags to form a concentrate. More water was added to finish the process. I guess I'm biased toward this method, but it definitely does make good tea. The baking soda might seem strange, but it softens the natural tannins that cause an acid or bitter taste.