Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Anytime, downtown

I've been waiting to drop this tune on you. It's New Year's, we're thinking about time, and tea ... and Petula Clark is here to say, relax, "anytime is tea time now"! She covers everything I love about tea: Making good friends, enjoying a cuppa and drinking to your health. Here's to 2010!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Visions of sugar lumps dancing in our heads

San-tea Claus stops for a cup of tea in S.C. (via the Independent Mail)

Everyone is safe and sound, I learned over several cups of tea. Mom made it to my sister's before the blizzard hit. The Oklahoma clan survived the snow and made plenty of merry. Cynthia's here, Chris is there, Joyce might come next week instead. We sent a catered feast to Vicki since her no-good kids wouldn't. Dan's TV went out, but he's found a way to watch the games. Daniel and I stayed put (ahhh) and kept the fireplace roaring. We're all fed (I made a killer cassoulet last night, ahem) and sheltered (Dave and Dan in the new house!) and mostly employed and thank goodness for all of that.

Friends and loved ones know me well: great tea and a pile of tea ware surrounded our Christmas tree (a new purple yixing pot!). Daniel and I braved the cold Christmas Eve rain for a lovely afternoon tea at the Peninsula (lovely, but still to my surprise not as good as the Drake or the Four Seasons). I'm drinking Dave's hearty China Breakfast this afternoon at work (yes, a Christmas shift). Tomorrow morning: Singapore Breakfast and pain perdu.

Life is good, life is grand, better still with tea in hand. Happy Christmas, tea lovers! Enjoy your cup, and enjoy your company. I leave you with this link to Tom Hegg's "A Cup of Christmas Tea" — a tad cloying, sure, but still a fine festive philosophy, especially for secretly sentimental old bastards like me. In fact, here's what seems to be the author himself reading his work:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Happy Christmas to all!

"Tea at the Night of Christmas," by Hyakkoku Hajime and from the soundtrack to a short-lived Japanese anime show earlier this year called "K-On!"

And to all a good cuppa ...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tea overboard!

In November 1773, three British ships arrived in Boston harbor. They carried, among other items, 342 chests of tea. Though Bostonians loved their tea just about as much as any Brit, they refused to allow the cargo to be unloaded in an effort to protest the king's tax on imported tea (and there wasn't, and still really isn't, any other kind here in the States).

The resulting "Boston Tea Party" is now a well-known pivot point in the American revolution. Since it took place 236 years ago tonight, here's a different report on the events from John Andrews, a selectman of Boston, who wrote this account to a relative (from Eyewitness to America). He reports that he heard "such prodigious shouts' while he was "drinking tea at home," and went to investigate ...

They mustered, I'm told, upon Fort Hill to the number of about two hundred and proceeded, two by two, to Griffin's wharf, where Hall, Bruce and Coffin lay, each with 114 chests of the ill-fated article on board; the two fomier with only that article, but ye latter arriv'd at ye wharf only ye day before, was freighted with a large quantity of other goods, which they took the greatest care not to injure in the
least; and before nine o'clock in ye evening every chest from on board the three vessels was knocked to pieces and flung over ye sides.

They say the actors were Indians from Narragansett. Whether they were or not, to a transient observer they appear'd as such, being clothed in Blankets with the heads muffled and copper color'd countenances, being each arm'd with a hatchet or axe and pair pistols; nor was their dialect different from what I conceived these genuises to speak, as their Jargon was unintellible to all but themselves.

Not the least insult was offered to any persons, save one Captain Conner, a letter of horses in this place, not many years since remov'd from dear Ireland, who had ript up the lining of his coat and waist coat under the arms, and watching his opportunity had nearly fill'd 'em with tea, but being detected was handled pretty roughly. They not only stripp'd him of his clothes, but gave him a coat of mud, with a severe bruising into the bargain; and nothing but their utter aversion to make any disturbance prevented his being tar'd and feather'd.

One day, when my mother and I resume our genealogical research, I hope to look into whether we are in any way related to this Captain Conner. I can't help but feel pity for the man. Here he was, dragged down to the wharf for all this rabble rousing, and he thought, "Geez, what a waste of good tea!" So he stuffed some in his pockets. They caught him and beat the hell out of him. Hey, he was cheating the king out of his taxes, too!

Tea infiltrates your holiday treats

It’s sad to watch snow struggle to be snow. It’s been doing that all day — trying to fall as snow, but barely eking out a crystal. Just rain, really. Still, I’m in uber-holiday cozy snuggle hibernate mode. (And it’s looking like we’ll have a white Christmas!) My partner reaches for hot chocolate in this mode. I’m reaching for tea. Believe it or not, there’s common ground here.

One of my favorite sites, Lifehacker, shared this suggestion: using teas to flavor hot chocolate. Like a little mint in your cocoa? Toss in a Celestial Seasonings bag o’ mint. Do you usually add a little vanilla extract? Try infusing a vanilla tea with the choc. These folks even tried “less obvious choices like Earl Grey.”

I’m also ready for egg nog, by gum. Bigelow has a nog-flavored tea (read: tea ‘n’ nutmeg); I find it a bit noxious, but a friend says it’s great infused with almond milk. A good chai, or the lip-smackin’ Singapore Breakfast, goes well with a goblet of egg nog, or perhaps some eggnog bread. Me, I’ve been known to whip up some egg nog scones. Delish …

The recipe: Mix 3 cups flour, ¼ cup sugar, 2 ts baking powder, 1 ts baking soda, ½ ts salt and a pinch of nutmeg in a large bowl. Cut in ¾ cup of chopped butter (got a pastry knife? or use two knives) till it looks and feels like cornmeal. Make a well and pour in a cup of eggnog. Stir with a fork till the dough pulls away from the bowl. Divide into two balls, pat ‘em with flour, flatten ‘em into thick discs and cut into wedges. The wedges go onto a lightly greased baking sheet. Before firing them, you can brush the tops with a couple tablespoons of milk, then sprinkle with sugar and/or cinnamon. Bake at 425 degrees for about 12 minutes, till they lightly brown on top. Eat and be jolly.

So good you'll wanna be caned

Fresh off a jet from Singapore, a co-worker just tossed me a canister of TWG's Singapore Breakfast blended tea. And I am loving it.

A couple of months ago, I'd read this story about the founders of TWG, in which Singapore Breakfast is used as the hallmark of the company's global success. TWG aims for a pretty high-end market (Singapore Breakfast, for instance, is most easily found on transoceanic flights and the Singapore Four Seasons Hotel, as well as through Harrods), but I've enjoyed a few of their blends before, notably their Rum tea and Christmas Lights tea. Singapore Breakfast, however, tackles something I'd only theorized about: mixing black and green teas.

The result is almost a chai — an even offering of nice curly black leaves, flat sencha-like green leaves, plus spices (including some nice chunks of orange rind) and a ton of vanilla. For that many ingredients, it's not a multi-layered experience. But it is fairly tasty (random note: it's divine with gingerbread cookies) and I'm squirreling it away for Christmas morning,
for sure.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A local confab, and the path to the middle way

Here's the thing about tea (one of a thousand): You meet such nice people.

Last weekend, three other Chicago-based tea bloggers — Lainie, Steven and Tony — graciously included me in an afternoon confab. Just four tea lovers sharing a few pinches of kick-ass and some scoops of OMG. The table was strewn with food and cups and packages and tea ware. We drank some great tea. I made note of the Antlers twig tea from Pearl (full-bodied infusion from the stems, still getting better by the third infusion), the Lu Shan Yun Wu green tea from Dream About Tea (vibrant green tea with zest and go-get-'em) and a Song Zhong Shan No. 4 from Tea Habitat, the kind of tea that makes you realize how deep this rabbit hole really goes.

Then there were the eye-openers from Tony, he of the soon-to-be-launched Chicago Tea Garden company. The lucky son-of-a-what was fresh back from an excursion in and around San Francisco, hoisting teacups with people like David Lee Hoffman (as well as Les Blank, who made the documentary about him) and others. The guy brings out what looks like a rotten pumpkin left over from Halloween — a small, black gourd with fat ribs and a hole on the top. It's a pummelo fruit — or it was 15 years ago, when it was hollowed out and jammed full of pu-erh. Now the tea is scraped out with a chisel, and the resulting dirt (really, it looked like compost ... and I suppose it actually is) was funneled into a pot. The brew: like drinking fresh rainwater runoff from holy ground — holy ground with an orange grove.

Good stuff, yum yum. Worth mentioning, I suppose, by a still-starry-eyed tea novice like myself. I don't want to ruin the relaxing get-together by writing about it each time it should occur. But I left thinking: here are three experienced, extremely knowledgeable tea lovers, each of them talented tea reviewers. We were gathered in the name of tea, and we can each talk about tea in our own ways. We do. My way, I hope, will be to write about something slightly more than what's cupped, if that's possible. I love tea, but I love even more what happens in the presence of tea. Because of it, as an excuse for it, in spite of it, who knows — on Saturday I simply enjoyed meeting three interesting people and indulging in treats and conversation on a wintry afternoon, probably more than the taste of the tea itself (though even attempting to slice the experience into matters of degrees strays from what I'm after in this tea-blogging experiment). There's the experience of the senses, but — fantastic as that can be — that's not enough to explain the magic of this beverage and its humble conquering of the world, of humanity, one person at a time. There are personal and social phenomena wafting from each pot like wisps of dream steam, and that's what I'm after. I don't mean to go guru on you. I'm not meditating on the spirituality of tea. I'm after the humanity of it. I'm steering for the middle way, as it were. I just want to enjoy the moments, tea moments. And notice them. Maybe celebrate them, but at the very least be thankful.

Just some thoughts on what the hell I'm doing here. At least I'm trying to figure that out ...

'Ode to Tea'

On the peaks of Mount Ling,
a wondrous thing is gathered:
It is tea.
Every valley and hill is luxuriously covered
with this wealth of the Earth,
blessed with the sweet spirit of Heaven.
In the month of the harvest moon,
the farmers get little rest.
Couples at the same task, searching and picking.
Take water from the flowing river Min,
drawn from its pure currents.
Select vessels and choose ceramics
produced from Eastern Ou.
Emulate the example of Duke Liu:
Serve tea with a gourd ladle;
In only this way can one begin to perfect
thick froth, afloat with the splendor of the brew:
Lustrous like piling snow,
resplendent like the spring fluorescence.
— Tu Yu (4th century)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: The talking horn

Not a Christmas song, though it was on a Christmas collection. And it's kinda festive.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Green tea espresso?!

I am so not L.A. But there we were last week, seeing some shows and visiting friends — and escaping Chicago’s first round of wintry slush. The city of angels isn’t exactly known for tea (not as much as the bay to the north, anyway), and this unfortunately wasn’t a tea excursion for me. To my everlasting dismay, our arrival was scheduled a few days after the close of the “Art of Tea” exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy some playful tea creations at Urth Caffe near our suite in West Hollywood. Allegedly a celeb-spotting site, alas we saw no stars. But I loved a pumpkin chai my beloved ordered me one morning — I keep expecting to loathe the pumpkin flavor with the tea, and I keep loving it — and I found the perfect respite the next afternoon as twilight came on with a cup of “green tea espresso.” While not quite the “revelation” I’d heard about — it’s just thickly brewed and steamed matcha tea — it’s a great way to offer crossover appeal. And, frankly, few places that actually use matcha powder use it very well. Urth’s “espresso” was well mixed and had a light froth that was both unusual and appreciated. It also came with two nibbly matcha-sesame cookies.

Finally, given this week’s music-embed debacle in the wake of the Myspace takeover of Imeem (gee, thanks for the warning before you up and destroyed all our Imeem links and playlists, Myspace jackasses), let’s close with a song from (appropriately?) the Lala service, the only song that for me adequately sums up my L.A. experiences …

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Myspace still exists?

Sigh. Myspace has purchased Imeem, the music service I use for embedding songs and song clips for the Tuesday Tea Tunes. Since that occurred early this week, every Imeem embed I've ever posted has gone haywire and become unusable. Please bear with me until I figure out how to fix this under the new management. Ugh.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Teaku No. 6

holiday teacups —
snowmen designed for display,
form over function

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Kiss me, kiss me, Kusmi

I'm not shy about confessing: I like the occasional cup of tea you can stand a spoon in. I found my way to tea from coffee, like many Americans, and in order to make the transition, by God, it had to be strong effing tea. Black like coffee. Bracing like coffee. The kind of strong stuff that, as my dad would have said, puts hair on your chest (regardless of gender).

So I started with a lot of Russian blends. I still love an overbrewed mug o' Russian Caravan (a storied blend of oolongs, keemun and lapsang souchong). I'd give anything to own a real samovar, so I could spend whole days pulling from the same thick pot, or at least firing it up for parties. Anyone have a line on an affordable one?

Anyway, here's a gift idea for the holiday: The next tea brand that seems to be all the rage with the jet set is Kusmi Tea, a French supplier finally making serious inroads stateside. Given the company's history, they have a hearty line of Russian blends, currently spotlighted for the Christmas shopping season. I'm a sucker for their Samovar blend, which re-creates the caravan with a little extra camel power, and the Troika blend (black teas from China, Ceylon and India, flavored with multiple citrus, including bergamot) is a stand-out for the orange tea lover. Their Christmas tea is a spicy dream, too — it's got this cozy attitude that stops short of being just another chai. Makes me want to curl up and re-read the madcap misadventures of Raskolnikov (like this tea passage!).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tea as 'divine service'

From W. Somerset Maugham's short story "The Creative Impulse" ...
Mrs. Albert Forrester, confident in the judgment of posterity, could afford to be disinterested. With these elements then it is no wonder that she had succeeded in creating something as near the French salon of the eighteenth century as our barbarous nation has ever reached. To be invited to "eat a bun and drink a cup of tea on Tuesday" was a privilege that few failed to recognize; and when you sat on your Chippendale chair in the discreetly lit but austere room, you could not but feel that you were living literary history. The American ambassador once said to Mrs. Albert Forrester:

"A cup of tea with you, Mrs. Forrester, is one of the richest intellectual treats which it has ever been my lot to enjoy."

It was indeed on occasion a trifle overbearing. ... For my part I found it prudent to fortify myself with a cocktail or two before I exposed myself to the rarefied atmosphere of her society. Indeed, I very nearly found myself for ever excluded from it, for one afternoon, presenting myself at the door, instead of asking the maid who opened it: Is Mrs. Albert Forrester at home?" I asked: "Is there Divine Service to-day?"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Several inches of fresh powder

A friend of a friend owns and operates a lovely gelato spot here in Chicago (they have a yummy Chinese Green Tea flavor, and I even crave the Turkish Roast Coffee), and she threw me a couple of samples from the coffee and tea vendor they use. The company is Big Train, supplying restaurants and coffee houses with powdered drink mixes. It's a weird thing pouring powder into a tea mug and filling with hot water. It's a weird taste, too.

The Matcha Mist, for instance, can be prepared two different ways. As mentioned: powder in mug, fill with boiling water, stir. Not recommended. Looks like Swiss Miss, tastes like Swiss Miss. The other option is to pour milk into a blender, add the powder mix, add ice and blend. Not bad. The mix is basically matcha powder, powdered milk and powdered sugar, but it makes a nice smoothie-shake. (I also tried the Khoi-Na rooibos mix, which managed to squeeze out a decent honeyed flavor, both hot and cold.)

Still, it's easy to make this yourself: Into a blender (I love my Rocket Blender for quick, easy individual smoothies), add milk and/or yogurt (yogurt adds body, plus you can use complimentary flavors from fruit to vanilla) and some ice cubes. For fun, add fruit if you want, or a flavored syrup. Blend it, then add the matcha powder toward the end. (For maximum blending, whisk 1/2 teaspoon of matcha with a couple of ounces of hot-not-boiling water, then add that to the mix.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Drink it straight, or in tea

What I wouldn't give to write about music as well as Richard Goldstein did in the ’60s and ’70s. I'm reading Goldstein's Greatest Hits right now (thank you, Topher), and much of it bowls me over. He writes the way I try to: slightly indirect, colorful, experiential, impressively balanced between traditional reporting and the put-yourself-in-the-story gonzo revolution.

Anyway, I loved this bit of color from his piece on Janis Joplin, "Next Year in San Francisco" (Village Voice, ’68):

But Janis stalks around the tiny room, her fingers drumming against a tabletop. She sips hot tea from a Styrofoam cup. She talks in gasps, and between sentences, she belts a swig of Southern Comfort, her trademark. Tonight, a knowing admirer has graced her dressing room with a fifth, in lieu of flowers. “I don’t drink anything on the rocks,” she explains. “Cold is bad for my throat. So, it’s always straight or in tea. Tastes like orange petals in tea. I usually get about a pint and a half down me, when I’m performing. Any more, I start to nod out.”

Tuesday tea tunes: 'I will not forget this time'

This one's another stretch, maybe a tea song in title only. But the refrain hits me in my tea cozy: "I will not forget these days / I will not forget this time." Tea moments, indeed.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Head 'em up, move 'em out

When my dad started tinkering with restaurant ventures with a relative many moons ago, he learned the most important operating procedure for even hoping to make money in this rewarding but tough business: turn those tables. That is, attract the customers, but then feed 'em and get 'em out, so new paying customers can sit down. The last thing you want, if you really want to make money, is people who linger at the table, stretching out their single check over an extra hour in which another check could've been earned.

That said, it's still kinda ridiculous that this email recently came to Michael Bauer's blog at the San Francisco Chronicle:

My husband and I don't live in San Francisco, but went up to Spork last night for the first time, and while the food was overall very good, the service was off. One weird thing that happened was that when I tried to order tea (iced tea during the meal and hot tea with dessert) I was told that they don't carry tea. At dessert, the waiter finally explained that the restaurant had taken tea off the menu because "tea-drinkers would stay an hour and a half after their meal ended, it was ridiculous." Do you think this is true? Have you seen this at other restaurants?

Bauer investigated the matter here. I wonder, do tea drinkers linger longer than coffee drinkers? I'll bet we do. Tea is all about time, don't chai know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black (tea) Friday

There was the little girl with her grandfather. Neatly pressed wool skirt with little red stockings, her legs swayed back and forth under the chair — from boredom or excitement, maybe first the former, then the latter. Her dark blond hair was highlighted with red ribbons. Granddad, in his tweed suit, beamed in direct proportions to granddaughter's smiles. He looked a little like Robert Mitchum, though I doubt Mitchum ate dainty egg salad sandwiches at afternoon tea. (Then again, I'd never have thought he'd make a calypso record.) This fellow pointed out the various treats, sandwiches, pastries, and the little girl's eyes went wide and wider. She chewed on a finger as she contemplated what to chew on next. She knew it was a special moment, and when little brother showed up — all ha-ha chuckles and grabby-hands — she protected the sanctity of the tearoom. She smacked his hand as he reached for a tart and shooed him back down the stairs of the Drake's luxurious Palm Court, huffing back down in her seat with a grin at granddad as if to say, "There. Now, back to us."

There were three Trixies at the table next to us. Beautiful young women, each with flawless skin and tasteful sweaters. They were bored. They slumped and spoke listlessly — until the tea came. Then the sighs and murmurs became stories and giggles, then laughter and exclamations. I counted three "you didn'ts!" and eight "oh my gods!" The brunette rose to leave, brushing crumbs from her smart slacks, and sighed with purpose. "I'm so glad we did this," she said. A beat. "Really." She was surprised to discover she meant it.

Behind us, the shopping party. They arrived in a bustle, a Joad-like jalopy of high heels and shopping bags, dozens of them. They'd been in the Black Friday throng on Michigan Avenue since dawn, no doubt, and they were pooped. Bags arranged on the floor and piled in the empty chair, they whewed and goodnessed their relief at finally sitting down, and when the waiter returned for their tea order, the raven-haired grande dame said, "Son, we need a pick-me-up, and you may need to use a forklift."

And there was us: my partner Daniel, Mom and me. She'd come in for Thanksgiving, and we were thankful. This is her first holiday season without my father, who died in March, so we're maintaining traditions but indulging Mom's penchant for branching out a bit. I thought she'd like afternoon tea, at least a little. She liked it a lot. She ordered a nicely balanced black tea blend with orange and other fruit, and talked about scones ("something you just don't make yourself, you enjoy elsewhere") and egg salad ("just can't do it without olive in it"). We conjured the ghosts of Thanksgivings past and discussed what the future ones might look like. She said, "Mmmm-mmm, that was a tasty batch of memories. Thank you." Anytime, mamma. Anytime at all.

Mom and me at the Drake (where all my photos come out blurry).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Chinese, if you please

Yikes, late this week. My apologies. Up late baking, prepping for Thursday's repast with Mom, etc. As the holiday season kicks off this week, enjoy this quick tea-titled dance from the "Nutcracker Suite" ...

Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a: VI. Tea - Chinese Dance - Vladimir Fedoseyev

Friday, November 20, 2009

The power of pu-erh

You hear every now and then about the physical and mental effects of tea — how it invigorates, how it inspires, how it provides wondrous rushes of every kind. I've heard it described in a variety of vague, grasping descriptions ranging from attempts to pin it down with science to efforts at elevating it to some pseudo-spiritual euphoria. I've enjoyed tea for many years now, and while it's not merely the taste that brings me back to cup after cup I've always hesitated to proclaim its magic influence too strongly. Except, that is, when I drink pu-erh.

My pu-erh experience is still quite limited, but I find myself drawn to it more and more. And thanks to a recent discovery at Ten Ren, this week I enjoyed a cup of pu-erh every single morning.

I was skeptical about Oriental Delight, but it's pretty freakin' awesome. It's pu-erh, plus chrysanthemum, and it's in bags. Who knows what the quality of the tea is like, but it smells nice, tastes good, and it does that thing. That pu-erh thing. If there's anything to the whole chakra thing, pu-erh goes right to my spleen chakra. Or is it the root chakra? Whichever, it lights a fire in my belly. It stokes the furnace of my body and gets me cookin'. Not quite a tingle, not really a prickle. And the addition of the chrysanthemum in this blend adds a smooth mouthfeel, not to mention the evenness that comes from its buds. The tea gets you going, the flowers keep you on the level. (And I hear chrysanthemum is good for the eyes.) This may become my go-to workplace tea.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: 'A Decent Cup of Tea'

Some of us cry into our beer. This girl cries into her tea. (Like this? Try Frank Turner's hard-rock band, Million Dead. Great song here: "I Gave My Eyes to Stevie Wonder")

04-frank_turner-a_decent_cup_of_tea_www.file24ever.com.mp3 - Frank turner

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beg your pardon: Hawaii tea promises a rose garden

At the end of a very busy, weary week, I arrived home to find some new samples in the mail from Eva Lee at Tea Hawaii. A cup of tea can revive you, sure, but the promise of tasting a new tea can accomplish about as much.

This morning, I opened the Forest White: "Forest grown under a canopy of Ohia trees and Hapuu ferns and processed in Volcano Village at 4000' elevation." Snipping the bag caused a rush of sense memories for me ... of grandma. My father's mother wore tea rose perfume all the time; the mere whiff of it now delivers me immediately to her immaculate home and the kitchen table where she'd beat me at gin rummy. The tea rose hybrids themselves were named for a strain of the species that allegedly smelled like tea; now here's a tea that reeks of roses. A firm bouquet, too. Eva reports: "The white tea is not scented, pure organic tea grown in the forest. I believe most of the scent is due to our location as other white teas on the island are different and not as sweet." (I wonder if the nearby Ohia trees, with their Pele legend, somehow contribute to the scent in the tea...?) I'm continually amazed by the variety of scents and flavors that come from this single plant.

The leaf of this tea is whole, with dry semi-blackened buds largely intact (like the photo above, a perfect budset). Dry it smells of roses, steeped it smells of roses. The flavor, fortunately, is light on the rosy, with a hint of non-oaked chardonnay. Plus there's that faint earthy underpinning that I so love in Hawaii teas so far — a flavor of loamy soil I haven't encountered in other teas, maybe because of the new territory, or the unique volcanic signature of this island.

It produces a not-altogether-pretty grey color in the cup (try it in cups without white interiors), quite light, and it infuses repeatedly with some strength. I poured a pot with my breakfast, which was a bad move. The floral strength and lightness of this tea would be considerably better in the afternoon with a sweeter and less substantial snack, or perfectly fine on its own.

Contact Eva to procure some (her Makai Black is poised to become one of my fall-back teas, too). She is one groovy tea master, as you can see in this video, and this one, and this one. (Samovar, please allow embeds!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Argh! I don't want to go to Argo

This Argo location and I go back a bit.

Since moving to Chicago five years ago, I have sung the praises of our hometown Starbucks competitor Argo Tea. With a celebrated backstory, the company deserves the kudos it gets for staking tea's claim among the continental coffee klatch. But I'm beginning to have my doubts about its tea.

Maybe I'm just hanging around too many tea snobs. Maybe I'm actually developing something barely resembling a palate. Maybe I'm just a fickle American consumer. But there's no getting around the fact that the green tea I've been getting from my workplace Argo recently tastes like Windex. I thought it was just that location. I stopped off at the Argo I used to hit every other morning, the cozy spot near the Armitage L stop. Uh-oh, same nasty, over-brewed, bitter flavor. I know you can ask for a custom cup at any of the shops, but that kind of defeats the point of supporting a store that came up with what's supposed to be a revolutionary idea of getting tea to the masses. Granted, tea is admittedly a troublesome product to prepare for people on the go — and maybe tea's inherent demand for slowness should be all the lesson we need here — but the Argo folks steep strong concentrates to ship to each location, where hot water is added to smooth the brew. Most of the time, it works ... OK. You know, for a cup on the move. But sometimes — and, seemingly, more frequently of late — it tastes exactly like what it is: old tea made this morning downtown.

I tried branching out, too, and ordered their seasonal Pumpkin Chai this week. In the last four days, my pancreas still has not produced enough insulin to fully recover from the diabetic-coma levels of sugar in the thing. It was so sweet my teeth ached. I'm tempted to reload my Starbucks card. I still love the Tazo ...

Boldly brewing where no one ...

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they react to a flowering tea. I recently picked up a Primula glass mug infuser, plus some of their tied tea blossoms. The compact eyeballs unfurl easily into a chrysanthemum-like flower in the bottom of your cup — tea leaves that do the work of infusing while they go about being beautiful. But beauty is in the eye of the tea lover. Walk around the office with a glass mug and a tea blossom, and the reaction varies from wide eyes and oohs to furrowed brows and icks, plus lots of sea urchin comparisons. I admit, some of them are a little "Star Trek," with undulating tentacles that look as if they're going to crawl out of the cup and suck your brain. But if I'm having a good day, they just look like the peonies and dahlias we just left behind in the good ol' summertime.

Primula makes several flavors of blossoms. Green Tea With Jasmine is one, with the jasmine blossoms in the center of the bloom. This week I tried the Green Tea With Pumpkin Aroma. I tried it simply because it sounded oh-so different, and I fully expected it to be loathsome — the astringency of the green tea at odds with the comfort-food spice of pumpkin pie. But it was surprisingly good. The pumpkin flavor is pretty subtle, and the tea rounder than expected. Two great tastes that, unbelievably, taste pretty good together.

Teaku No. 5

Broadway is windy
(Great White Way? No, Chicago)
— protecting my tea

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Winds of the Saphara

Out of bed in the morning, tea. Commute, settle into work, tea. Maybe tea with lunch. By afternoon sometimes I crave another cup — but maybe I (jitter jitter) don't need anymore (leg bouncing furiously) c-c-caffeine.

I've just plugged into a new line of Celestial Seasonings teas: Saphara — fancy blends in pyramid sachets. It being autumn, I gravitated to the rooibos blend (I only seem to reach for rooibos this time of year). It's called Tropical Rooibos, and it's loaded with fruity goodness. Check out the ingredient list:

Organic Fair Trade Certified rooibos, organic apples, organic orange peel, organic ginger root, organic lemon grass, organic coconut, organic pink peppercorns, organic cinnamon, organic cardamom, organic cornflower petals, organic currants and natural flavor

The fruit flavor packs a punch, in the nose and on the tongue. The rooibos is strong and solid, though, its cinnamon starchiness the perfect platter for the apples and oranges and lemons. The cornflower is a nice touch (an unheralded ingredient that makes Tea Gschwendner's Earl Grey Lady Violet such a summertime knockout). And like all other rooibos teas I've tried, it's invigorating without being ... stimulating. The sachets contain a slightly skimpy amount of the blend, however, so I find myself doubling up per cup.

Other Saphara flavors: White Tea with Schizandra, Mango Ginger Green, Gen Mai Cha, Premier Estate Assam and Blackcurrant Hibiscus.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Sigh-chedelic

Do you have what it takes to listen to a Tiny Tim ballad? C'mon, man up, Jack. There's no ukulele on this one ...

Strawberry Tea (LP Version) - Tiny Tim

Friday, November 6, 2009

It doesn't suck

In my continuing quest to find some tea from the Azores, I ran across this nugget from ye old New York Times (July 27, 1879) describing one of the first encounters with leaf from St. Michael. Gotta love a backhanded critique like "the flavor of the infusion [is] by no means to be despised." A century before Frank Rich, no less.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Your dog wants some mmmmmatcha

I crave ice cream any time of year, but before it gets too cold here's an easy recipe for green tea ice cream. Don't ask me why there's a dog on the counter with this woman, or what's up with the narrator's quirky, robotic voice. Nothing surprises me from Japan anymore. [via Teatropolitan]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: 'You can have yourself a tea'

Some woozy Kurt Weillish woes from Chicago's own Andrew Bird ...

Tea And Thorazine - Andrew Bird

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dead man walking

Two notes from the Day of the Dead:

1. Perhaps a good follow to yesterday's post about my bar — and certainly a nice bit of advice for the day after All Hallow's Eve — I have for many years relied on the soothing effects of EveryDay Detox tea.

It's an old-worldy herbal blend, a kind of medicinal flavor (like warm paregoric), allegedly soothing for the old liver. After a night of revelry, this stuff always makes me feel a bit more solid. The box recommends a regimen of three cups a day. That seems a bit much, but it's good stuff. You have to let it steep about 15 minutes, much longer than tea, ideally with a cover over the cup.

2. At our friends' annual Dia de los Muertos party this afternoon — complete with altars for Michael Jackson, the Oxy Clean pitch guy and the Taco Bell chihuahua — I served up an improvised twist on tea for the occasion. Mexico's not a tea country, at all, but I built a chai that worked with the desserts, most of which were already loaded with cinnamon. Black tea, ginger, cinnamon, etc. — plus some dark cocoa, a small bit of spooky-rich chipotle chili powder and a pinch of lapsang souchong. A spicy pepper in chocolate or coffee can work wonders; this more even-handed, smoky pepper was kind to the weaker tea, especially with the powerful pine of the souchong to back it up. With a little sweet (brown sugar or honey) and some soy or dairy, it was smooth and very warming.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bar none

Janet B. wrote in response to my post about green tea liqueur and other spirits, asking about the photo of my bar.

It's one of my treasured possessions, I must say — and not because I'm a lush. It's an old Victrola cabinet. The antique record player was in my family, one of those pieces that was hauled around from attic to attic in every move. No one knew what to do with it or how to display it. My father once remarked offhand, "I'd love to pull the turntable out and make a bar out of it." When I moved into my first house, I lobbied for the Victrola to do just that. It was a great weekend project. Lifting out the turntable works was easy. I put down felt at the bottom of that well — voila, instant dry bar.

The cabinet below was slotted with about a dozen narrow shelves, each with a curved notch in the front, for storing the 78 rpm discs. I removed all but three of these, lined the remaining ones with felt, and that's where I store glassware. One of the shelves I cut in half and attached to the top on hinges — so there's a small surface area on top to work on, or to display a nice or new bottle.

There were still records inside the thing when I got it. Many of them — being early-century popular music from just before and after Prohibition — have cocktail-themed titles. In our current condo, I've hung several of them on the wall next to the bar: "The Alcoholic Blues," "Rent Party Blues," "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine," "Just a Little Drink (Fox Trot)," etc., plus the cover to Jackie Gleason's "Music, Martinis & Memories," about which my pal John Wooley wrote a stirring, sentimental essay in a book we published years ago about lounge music.

I'm not this crafty, really. Or maybe I am. It's a fitting tribute to my Dad. One his favorite quotations is on a small brass plaque I keep on top of the bar: "Leave the barroom walking backwards so they think you're coming in."

Friday, October 30, 2009

Eu viajaria o mundo para o bom chá

For some reason, a few months ago I began a small obsession with Portugal. I can't speak a word of Portuguese, and no real Spanish to speak of. But besides tea, my other favorite beverages are those produced by the small Iberian nation, namely sherries and ports. I began reading about some of the ports I'd love to get my taste buds on, then bookmarked the Lisbon newspaper, then started looking at photos on Flickr ... Now I'm ready to move there for the rest of my days.

At least I'd still have tea. The only tea-producing spot in Europe (well, "in Europe") is plot of Portugese land — the Azores islands. I'm reading a series of travel essays by a fellow who lived a year in Lisbon — The Moon, Come to Earth by Philip Graham — and a parenthetical description of his breakfast perked me right up: "(buttered and toasted dark bread from Serra da Estrela and black tea from the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores; I am nothing if not a completist in my admiration for Portuguese culture)."

Sho nuff, they produce a lot of orange pekoe on St. Michael at several tea plantations. I can't find anywhere online to buy the stuff, though. I've contacted a couple of them (Gorreana and Porto Formoso) but haven't heard back yet.

Anyone ever had it? Know where to buy it?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I love memory to-night

Anyone out there actually tackled Proust? I've been building momentum, readying myself for the challenge. I have books about the author and books about the books. I just need the actual books. I feel as if I owe it to myself, as a writer and a reader and especially a lover of tea, to follow him down his rabbit hole of tea-unlocked memories. (Reminds me of one of my other favorite passages about memory.)

As a primer perhaps, here's the passage where the tea starts everything, from In Search of Times Lost:

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing it magic. It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down the cup and examine my own mind. It alone can discover the truth.

Teaku No. 4

one, two, three ... lost count
purified and immortal —
must be the seventh cup

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Up to your neck in hot water?

Chase those autumn rainy blues away today. As Robyn Hitchcock once sang, "Vera Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn Lynn ..."

Be Like the Kettle and Sing - Vera Lynn

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Please come back to Boston ... for the vodka

Tea may be my favorite beverage, but I'm no tea-totaler. I've written before about my vodka infusions, and this weekend I finally got a hold of someone else's. Three products, in fact ...

The Absolut vodka makers have started a line of city-specific flavors and recently unveiled the latest (after Los Angeles and New Orleans): Absolut Boston. What did they decide Boston tasted like? Black tea and elderflower. A shop in Chicago finally got a few bottles, so I had a taste. The verdict: ... tea? I can taste no tea in this at all. The elderflower, however ... wow. Straight out of the freezer (the only way to drink vodka, when it's the consistency of 10W-40) in two small cordials, the floral notes were mighty, and lovely. Smells and flavors of heavy rose, of menthol, of spearmint, with a slight blueberry finish. These didn't mellow much with time and warmth, and I never tasted anything resembling tea. I think, however, that this would make one of the best Cape Cods in cocktail history. (They have recipes and more on Facebook.) What do you think they'll flavor Absolut Chicago with? Hot dogs? Pizza? Old Style beer?

My other purchase at the lush store: Zen Green Tea Liqueur. I'd seen this arrive on back bars but hadn't yet tried it. Run, do not walk to do so. This is a winning concoction on every level. It's beautiful, a pale emerald green. It smells like a fresh cup of matcha (from which it is allegedly flavored). The flavor is fantastic — real tea notes, a slight astringency underneath a perfectly balanced sweetness. I really expected this to be too sweet; it's perfect. It was delicious (1) on its own, in a glass, (2) mixed with the Absolut Boston, to add the Green Monster to a Zentini, and (3) mixed with vanilla ice cream, which I did on a whim and immediately wished I had a supply of insulin so I could extend the experience all night long.

Finally, I made my own chai liquer. Same ol' vodka infusion method using simple syrup. When the sugar was completely dissolved, I threw in two cinnamon sticks, dashes of ginger, allspice, nutmeg, black pepper, three crumbled cardamom pods and a teaspoon of French vanilla extract. Then three scoops of black tea (Keemun in this case, figuring its natural spiciness would be perfect). Let it cool, strained it through a large sieve (to remove the tea leaves so they wouldn't get bitter), poured the rest of it into a half-empty (OK, half-full, you optimists) bottle of Lovejoy vodka. Let it sit in a cabinet for three days (could have gone much longer), then strain it twice with a fine cheesecloth. The result: a yummy cinnamon aperitif. The tea flavor gives it body, the syrup sweetness, and of all the spices it's the cinnamon that gets up and shimmies around your mouth. Now I just need to bake a few apples, and we've got one helluvan autumn dessert!