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!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tea on the move

Golden gingko leaves, my favorites.

It was already a pretty perfect afternoon. The rain had stopped and the sun was spreading out. Not that we needed it. With trees this golden and bright, who needs sunlight?

Leaves fluttering and falling, like gilded snow, the outside world beckoned. The soup was in the pot, and Rufus needed a walk. My afternoon tea would be a chai latte to go. (I've been doing these a lot as the season hunkers and cools. A small bit of chai tea, an equal amount of milk — soy, in my case — warmed in the microwave. Squeeze a goodly amount of honey into a cup and pour both hot liquids over it. Stir.) Leash, travel mug, hat, scarf, we're off.

Years ago, I encountered my first prayer labyrinth outside a church. It was a revelation for two reasons. One, it was the first time I encountered focused contemplation in the Christian sphere; before that I assumed all meditation was Eastern. Secondly, and more importantly, I relished the explosion of another previous assumption: that meditation and movement were mutually exclusive. This was before I began a yoga practice and learned more about how to focus the mind while being upright, stretching and stepping.

Similarly, tea is something we often enjoy on our ass. At home, in a cafe, wherever — we pour the tea and have a seat. My ramble with Rufus was an invigorating reminder of the pleasures of a moving tea service. A slow one, of course. The natural warmth of the chai was easily more satisfying in the face of direct contrasts from the chilly breeze and the damp chill from days of off-and-on rain. Once tea mind settled in, the colors of the autumn leaves were maybe a tad more resplendent. Kids were playing in the leaves, other dog walkers were out, an elderly woman shared my momentary joy staring at a fiery red maple. A father with his young son, and carrying a large pumpkin, stopped to ask The Question ("What kind of dog is that?") and chatted for a while after the answer we're so used to rattling off ("He's a mix of Great Pyrenees and Wheaton terrier, which basically makes him a big white Muppet"). We kept walking, Rufus as happy to be strolling as I was. When we got back home, we sat on the stoop and watched the squirrel channel. When I reach a point where I can share the simple happiness of my dog, I know the meditation — or the tea — was worth it.

Rufus one day in the sunroom,
as seen through the handle of one of my stoneware pots.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Two nifty design finds

Just a couple of cool teaware designs I've spotted recently ...

First, dig this pretty retro cup. I love the ’50s modern-nature design, particularly the colors, and the depth of the saucer. [via Illustrated Living]

They sell canisters with the same design.

Secondly, this tea set is pretty flash. While I'm not wild about the smoked glass, the overall design and functionality is interesting. I'm also not sure exactly how that teapot would handle given that big knob. The teacups, though, are each two small globes, with a screen between each hemisphere. Pour the water, steep, then flip and remove the top hemisphere containing the leaves. Could be good for serving different teas to each person, or a tasting. [via Yanko Design]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

If you can drink it there ...

The Post this week printed a feature about afternoon tea in Manhattan. The premise is that young hipsters are making the tradition trendy. Even Lourdes, Madonna's spawn, drops in for tea after emerging from her Upper East Side school. But the meat of the story is a good round-up of a few choice locations to enjoy great afternoon tea.

Makes me hanker for my own Manhattan tea days. When I was a layabout on the Columbia campus during a midcareer journalism fellowship, I spent countless evenings holed up in Tealuxe. This was in 2000-01, when the Harvard Square shop had opened a few franchises in New York. They didn't last, but the one at 116th and Broadway kept me propped up for nearly a year. They had a green Earl Grey that I consumed by the tanker-load, and they made fantastic toasted sandwiches with sandwich presses. What I wouldn't give for their assam tea and a PB&honey sandwich today.

Buzzing from the academic environment and the tea, I would frequently emerge from the teahouse and scribble things like this in my journal ...

After the evening reading inside Tealuxe, I emerged to a steel blue night just past twilight. The campus arteries flowed with students, youth, ambition, ye olde lust for life. When I left the journalism building and rounded the corner onto the College Walk, there she was – heavy-set, satiated mamma moon. She hung in the sky glowing softly in a faint haze, a warm ivory light, the romantic reflection of enlightenment itself, illuminating this stout campus of thinking men and women. By the time I reached Morningside, she was awesome over the city. I stood on deck at the 116th overlook, gazing over Harlem. The city, alive with restless pinpoints of light, met the sky in a vaguely green aura, an organic soup, as if the whole of Manhattan tonight were thriving in a nutrient fluid, the same kind of phosphorescent oozing yolk that nurtured the planet’s first mating spark of life. Swimming through the soup like a school of electric eels, neatly spaced one after the other, were the planes, the ever-present planes, on line to land at La Guardia airport just beyond the power plant. Always arriving, tonight from the north, always delivering new molecules to the soup, always open the lines of transport, of escape, of new morés, of new accents, of new breath and body odour. Even the park was alive, hibernating below me, a bristly strip of brown twigs now golden and tipped with new potential underneath the sodium lights along the walks. The red and gold lights of the Apollo Theater marquee centered the scene several blocks away. Carl, the stony Hungarian freedom fighter, stubbornly kept his back to the majesty of it all.

I miss Manhattan. I should go see "New York, I Love You."

Me in NYC, 2000, with my favorite blue iron teapot on the coffee table.
(Furnished apt. — the curtains were NOT mine!)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Truly in your cups

If you're going to have tea on the terrace, the terrace might as well be a teacup ...

(via KoS)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Earl Grey Killah!

This is easily one of the most ridiculous, possibly lame, things you'll ever see, but I bring it you, dear readers, as evidence of the power of tea. If enjoyment of a simple beverage can move a handful of young white guys to make utter asses of themselves in such a way, well, here's to it ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Teas in our time

Watched "The Great Escape" recently. Very butch. A bunch of British POWs in a German prison camp, plotting their deliverance — and, of course, discussing it over hard-scrounged tea poured in tin cups. The kettle's on about eight minutes into this segment ...

"Last of the tea until the Red Cross gets through again ..."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Using coffee filters to make tea

I recently bought some mesh bags for use as tea bags — useful for the chamomiles and chrysanthemums I drink at work, both of which clog up my teapot basket with their fine bits. This weekend, though, while flipping through an old Cook's Illustrated, I saw a curious item in the Quick Tips. It's two suggestions for using coffee filters to make tea.

The first: place loose-leaf tea in the center of a filter, gather the edge together and tie the satchel with cooking twine. Voila, instant tea bag. Leave the twine a little long on one end and you can pull it from the cup like any bag.

Second: Line your teapot or cup with a coffee filter, folding it over the rim. Fill with tea, pour the water. When it's steeped, pull the filter and squeeze like a tea bag.

Sounds like a nifty trick when traveling, perhaps.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A sweet lil' discovery

A nearby neighborhood had a "dessert crawl" today. You buy a ticket, you get a map. At each participating location in the shopping district, you get a sweet sample. Our group enjoyed brownies, toffee, truffles, cookies and more — the winner: the red velvet cupcakes, made with beets and with a hint of citrus, from a Southern joint. Suffice to say, when we got home, bloated and bleary, we needed a pick-me-up.

One of the stops along the route was the plainly titled Middle East Bakery. After enjoying bite-sized baklava, I perused the market's tea aisle — bags, bags, bags. But wait, at the end were several plastic tubs of tea blends with homemade labels: Moroccan mint, a hibiscus blend, and an inspiring-looking chai. Turns out they're blended at the market with overnighted tea and spices. The chai is made with northern India black tea, plus sizable chunks of ginger, bits of cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and broken cardamom pods, all evenly mixed. And the inkjet-printed label said, in all caps, 'WONDERFULLY WARMING TEA."

Well, on a grey, chilly evening like this — autumnal, sure, but almost wintry even — it hit the spot. Fine on its own, but wholly satisfying with soymilk, maybe in need of a little sugar — but, thank you, I've had quite enough for today.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sweeping up some links from the tea tin

Art of Tea Promotional Video from One Lens Media on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pour it on

If only all tea sommeliers looked like that ...

Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in "Giant"

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tuesday tea tunes: Work song

Saw this on A Felicific Life and wished it went on several minutes. Listen closely — it's a traditional Ai-Ni (the minority living in Nannuo, in Yunnan, China) tea picking song...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Asma attack: Face culture and buckwheat tea

Spent an afternoon recently chatting with Stephan Asma, a prof at Columbia College, about his upcoming new book, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (coming out, appropriately, just before Halloween). At the end of our conversation, I had to ask him about tea, given the years he spent living in China and southeast Asia — years which fueled a previous book, The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha, the book that finally landed my understanding of Buddhism.

Asma recalled the prevalence of tea culture in China and Japan, even Vietnam (surprising?). Despite all the great green tea available, he said the hardcore tea lovers drink black. Flower teas, too, he said, were immensely popular, "though it's a bit of a chick drink."

"Tea culture in China ties in very much with face culture, and the guanxi," Asma said. "You have to do business in China face-to-face. You have to develop your guanxi, your connections, because they open doors for you. It's an important concept to understand. In China, it's very much who you know. ... When we went to enroll our son in school, you know, here you'd go down and fill out the forms and hand them over, but in China we had to have a personal connection to the school. We had to find someone we knew who knew someone who knew someone connected to the school, and have this meeting where we were all present. It seems strange still to Westerners.

"Drinking tea builds face time, helps build these connections. Younger generations are, of course, getting rid of a lot of this. Everything's online now, and the face culture is disappearing."

Asma said his favorite tea beverage while he lived in China was soba cha, buckwheat tea. First I hear about barley tea, now buckwheat. Anyone up for drinking some bread with me?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Chainess is nice

Chai season is here! Here's a fantabulous illustrated recipe for lattes on the cheap, from Lucy Knisley (via Tea Finely Brewed) ...

(Click it for the Venti-sized goodness!)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making my fortune with John D. Harney

I've always wanted to have my tea leaves read. Lord knows I've had plenty of opportunity — plenty of leaf-strewn cups, anyway. I just always expected that when the moment of prognostication arrived, the person on the other side of the table would be swarthy and wrapped in silks and named Madame Zelda. Not a sweet old man in an elephant tie.

John D. Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, was in Chicago last weekend for a frou-frou Sunday tea dance at the Drake. I enjoyed a nice long chat with him in cozy armchairs over tea. He's quite a guy, the kind of guy who says things like this: "I was just in Boston, on the wharf, where they threw the stuff over. Of course, the English at that time were a pain in the ass."

Harney started his tea business in 1983. "Tea wasn't an important thing then," he said. "It wasn't until ’85 that it started to really grow. There were a few articles that came out then about tea's health benefits, and it started to catch on." What began as a family operation in a Connecticut basement is now a big business with a New York factory and 80-plus employees.

Harney & Sons specializes in blending. "You can take two teas, or three or four, and simply make them better," Harney said. The Harney version of Earl Grey is a blend, he said, of four teas, plus the bergamot. Their English Breakfast, on the other hand, bucks trends the other way: instead of being a blend of assams and such, it's 100 percent keemun.

But at the Drake on Sunday, Harney wasn't present to talk about tea as much as he was there to stare at the dregs. Harney was reading tea leaves and hawking a new, privately published book: Tea Leaf Reading. It's a book with a curious backstory: The owners of a B&B in Norfolk, Conn., were cleaning their attic and discovered a book about reading tea leaves, attributed only to "a Highland Seer." They gave the book to Harney, the tea guy they knew. He investigated its source and could find no copyright for it. So he's had the book reprinted in its entirety, plus a new introduction by James Norwood Pratt.

Women were waiting in line for Harney to find their fortunes in a teacup. "I treat it as a fun thing," he said. "You talk to a person for three or four minutes, you know something about them and what they want." For each reading, he'd scoop two spoonfuls of tea leaves out of a pot and into a cup, followed by just a smidge of liquid. He swung the cup back and forth in the air three times, then up-ended it on the saucer. The tea leaves remaining in the cup were the "ink blots" he examined.

"Oh my God, look at that face!" he exclaimed for a woman named Sharon. "Or it could be a lion." Sharon was skeptical at first, but soon she was caught up and showing the cup to me: "Look, you can see the eyes," she said. OK, sure ...

Harney ID'd shapes and figures in the cups, then looked them up in part of the book. It's like a dream dictionary — look up your object, read what it symbolizes. "Hawk: an enemy." "Ladder: a sign of travel." We could all open up our fortune-telling boutique tomorrow. Harney might stake us. "Anything that makes more people pay attention to tea," he said. "I'm all for."