Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's luck: From greens to green tea

We've stocked the black-eyed peas and mustard greens for our New Year's Day repast. We're not bad-off like many others we know, some still struggling after layoffs long ago, but like anyone we're not shying from good luck rituals and talismans as this new year rolls in. The black-eyed peas and greens tradition goes back to the Civil War — as Union troops ravaged the South, they left behind black-eyed peas and greens for the animals, but these are nutritious eats that allowed many Southerners to survive the winter. Mom always told me, too, that the beans represent coins and the greens are greenbacks. So we're chowing down.

Make tea part of your new year festivities, too. In Japan, a tradition exists to serve Big Happy Tea! It's just basic green tea or matcha, served on New Year's Day as a means of taking on good luck. According to a thoroughly informative book I acquired in London this year, Chado: The Way of Tea, A Japanese Tea Master's Almanac, the tradition of new year's tea in Japan goes back to Emperor Murakami (926-967), who became ill, drank tea around this time of year at the temple for the Goddess of Mercy, and recovered. As the tale spread, commoners began drinking tea on New Year's Day, hoping to acquire some of the same timely luck for the next calendar. Back then, they made the tea with water drawn precisely at 4 p.m. and poured the brew (made by the youngest member of the family) over pickled plums. After that, veggie soup with rice cakes.

Oh, and don't forget to sprinkle flakes of real gold on the tea.

(p.s. Here's my post from last January about a local Japanese new-year tea demo.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: New year tea on the heavenly road

Here's a song that was performed at a gala New Year's celebration in Tibet back in 2000. It's a song called "Tian Lu (Heavenly Road)." Travelers on this road will find that "barley beer and butter tea will taste more sweet." Happy New Year, all ...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Delicious Nippon! Japanese green tea

I'm in love with this video (shared via the Facebook tea group) with some good information about Japanese green tea. Got some down time during the holiday? Curl up with this. Come for the interesting presentation of tea facts, stay for the animation and the worst. background music. ever.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hong Yue arrives in time for a helluva yule

Just in time for Christmas, it's one of the most unusual and intriguing teas I've tasted all year.

New from Rishi — quickly becoming one of my favorite tea companies, based in Milwaukee just north of me here in Chicago, and now the tea provider for my neighborhood coffee shop (hooray!) — is a Hong Yue tea, something I've read about before but never had the opportunity to try. It's a tea that results from a complicated lineage and processing: Assam plants brought to Taiwan from Japan in the ’20s, then blended with local varietals, then processed sometimes like an oolong and sometimes like a fully oxidized black tea.

When you read the description of how this tea tastes, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a flavored blend. Rishi bills its Hong Yue as "a distinctive aroma of clove, wintergreen, camphor, red date, raisin and cinnamon." But the only ingredient is tea. A warm, red brew delivers all those scents and some of the flavors. It's not just marketing, they're really all there. Sounds kind of gross on paper (camphor?!), but it's an alluring aroma and a winning taste. The scent brings the minty camphor and the two fruits — the date is heavy, and maybe a kind of paraffin smell — but the flavor is less of a jumble. It comes on confidently, and it's jammy, like a cup of figgy pudding. But it's remarkably even-tempered, unless you make the mistake I did and brew the first pot without an infuser; as the leaves sit in the water, the brew goes way bitter. But don't give up: this tea stands up to repeat infusions (I did five one afternoon, using my castle cairn pot; Rishi says it's got the stamina for 16) without losing its sting.

I can't wait to begin experimenting with food flavors around this one. A little dark chocolate was a beauty alongside that first pot, and I think it'd be a knockout with some seared pears for dessert. We shall see. Regardless, this one's a stunner, just in time for the best-o'-2010 lists.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Christmas and tea, sort of

Each Christmas week, I'm amazed at how difficult it is to find songs that incorporate both the holiday and tea into their subject matter. (Really, no one's recorded a parody called "O Christmas Tea"?!) It's enough to make me dust off my guitar and four-track and write something. In the meantime, there's this sweet reminiscence, an acoustic ballad about trying to remember (and hold onto) a moment — a tea moment, perhaps — written and performed by a band named Joe Christmas.

No YouTube video, but you can preview and/or buy the track right here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tipping a cup of Tipu's Chai

It's chai season, and I love the stuff. Love authentic chai with Indian food, but love taking some on a stroll with me, too. But good stuff, real stuff, not the overly sweet Starbucks-ruined crap. There's a fantastic Middle Eastern shop in a nearby neighborhood that sells its own blend, to die for.

After reading reviews of it on several blogs, I sought out some Tipu's Chai — an instant chai mix, and a legacy of a defunct Indian restaurant in, of all places, Montana.. I've never understood America's need for instant things, especially beverages, and each experience I've had with a powdered mix has fallen somewhere between so-so and dreadful. Tipu's delivers a fairly typical powdered drink experience, though the flavor is pretty great — good spicy balance, salty even (in a good way).

Heat some milk (I used soy), add the mix, stir. I get how easy that is, I just rarely find myself in a situation that calls for — quick! make some chai! and fast! The company touts the product's "microgrind," which makes it dissolve readily, though I still had some inevitable sludge at the bottom of the cup. The nice thing is, Tipu's mix comes unsweetened, which I learned the hard way. But once I sweetened it to my taste, it was a satisfying cup. I'll be sticking, however, to my local blend.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Special tea blends for the December holidays

I recently wrote about Stash's surprising Christmas Morning blend. Here are some other holiday-related teas ...

• Fruitcakes have a bad rap, but the same combo of fruity flavors makes for a great seasonal tea blend from Rishi: Organic Cinnamon Plum. This award-winning infusion uses hibiscus for a rich red liquor, and licorice for a chewy tang. Pair with shortbread for a lighter dessert than pie.

• Mighty Leaf put together a special blend called Holiday 2010, also using heavy fruit — but several summery and tropical fruits: cranberry, orange, papaya, apple, peach with the tea and spices. Haven't had this, but sounds intriguing.

• Adagio makes a yummy Christmas blend, with cinnamon, cloves and orange peel. Making glogg or mulled wine? Add some of this as it simmers. (Steer clear of Adagio's Candy Cane tea. Yuck.)

• Harney & Sons' White Christmas Tea is interesting — the usual black tea blend with wintry spices added, like almond, vanilla and cardamom, but with the added twist of chamomile. It creates a light underpinning not usually found in heavily spiced holiday blends.

• Another innovative ingredients list is on SerendipiTea's Holiday Cheer: "peppermint, mint, cloves, cardamom, ginger, spearmint, orange peel, black tea." I had some of this a while back — the mint in the black tea is jarring, then bracing, and somehow the ginger ties it together with a kick.

• Republic of Tea has the best name for its holiday blend: Comfort and Joy. It's a basic black tea blended with the usual spices, and it's Republic of Tea so it's not cheap.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: 'Another Pot o' Tea'

Maternal Canadian songstress Anne Murray puts on "Another Pot o' Tea" for some conversation ... "and I need some sympathy."

Friday, December 10, 2010

'With each swallow, time is sublimed'

A friend recently pointed me toward Muriel Barbery's odd little bestseller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a quirky French novel about some characters a little too smart for their own good and who sigh a lot about life's abundance of despair.

But one of the shafts of light they discover is the peace and beauty in the ritual of tea, on which Barbery rhapsodizes:

"When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?"

"The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed."

"Yes, this sudden transmutation in the order of things seems to enhance our pleasure, as if consecrating the unchanging nature of a ritual established over our afternoons together, a ritual that has ripened into a solid and meaningful reality. Today, because it has been transgressed, our ritual suddenly acquires all its power; we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savor it, lower our cups, serve more, and sip again: every gesture has the bright aura of rebirth. At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasure will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles. Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time. Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn - and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Harry Potter and the goblet of tea

I'm married to a Harry Potter fan, which means I see all the films. (I read the first book. That's as far as I got into this slice of contemporary pop culture.) We saw "The Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1" movie a week ago, and I couldn't help nudge every time I noticed what turned out to be a stream of great teaware in the film — lots of tea pots, tea sets, moments for having tea while discussing Very Serious Events. You have to keep your eyes peeled, but some of the pots are really cool-looking.

Some photos of sets from the film ...

Play spot-the-pot as you watch the film.
Dig this little one hiding on a table with two lustrous cups.

A lovely tea tray makes a show during the wedding scene.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Who's Billy?

These three rogues offer up a traditional Australian folk song about the campfire kettle called a billy. The song is "Billy of Tea," and it begins:

You can talk of your whiskey, talk of your beer
There's something much nicer that's waiting us here
It sits on the fire, beneath the gum tree
There's nothing much nicer than a billy of tea

Monday, December 6, 2010

Every December morning is Christmas Morning

I spent Thanksgiving morning exactly as I hoped to: curled up in my robe on the couch watching the parades on TV and eating coffeecake ... excuse me, teacake. The choice of tea was contrary to the holiday: Stash's Christmas Morning.

When I read the ingredients, I doubted I'd like it: a "blend of Darjeeling First Flush, Indian Assam, China Keemun and Yunnan, southern Indian Teas, Formosa Oolong, and Jasmine Flower." I'm wary of too many ingredients. Sounds like it's trying too hard, or not getting something right to begin with. But don't judge a tea by its packet.

Christmas Morning is a genuine surprise. Given all those black teas listed, it's amazingly light. The tastes comes in this order: a rush of orchidy oolong full in the mouth, hearty support of the Keemun, a whisper of jasmine, a clean sweep from the Darjeeling. I can't say enough about the jasmine — it's why I was most reluctant to try this. Jasmine in the morning? But the amount in the blend is tiny and perfect, adding more character than real flavor, plus a scent that reminds you Christmas is a world holiday.

Now it's my Advent tea, all month long until I run out — hopefully not until Dec. 26.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

In praise of 'ladylike luxuries'

A snippet from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Letter To Maria Gisborne" ...

Though we eat little flesh and drink no wine,
Yet let's be merry; we'll have tea and toast;
Custards for supper, and an endless host
Of syllabubs and jellies and mince-pies,
And other such ladylike luxuries.

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 ...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Careful! Contents may be hot

Happy Friday. This absolutely cracked me up.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Tea means peace

I love this weary little tune about a romantic quarrel — "Harvard Hands" by the Foxymorons — simply because the singer knows how to make things all better, announcing mid-song, "Baby I can end this fight / A cup of tea will make it right."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

All in all, it's just another (teacup) in the wall

More cool tea design — Teacup Tiles. Nice purely as accents but also functional. Store teaware in the cup, hang keys or freshly cut herbs off the hook.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Today's pu-erh moment, aerial view

Just a photo of today's pu-erh moment, with my yixing pot in its silk cozy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: The sounds of Ceylon

A tea pal once joked that the lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water" should have been: "Ceylon, silver girl ..." With that idea planted, enjoy the tune anew, and may the water in your kettle never be troubled ...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tea = mc2

Yesterday, as I gazed out the sunroom window, I finished the last of some Grey Dragon oolong. I'm not one to filter my cups, so mine had developed some lovely leafy sediment. As I set the cup on the table and watched the leaves stir, then sink, then settle neatly in the bottom of the cup, I remembered Einstein's tea leaf paradox. Why do they always settle in the center? Einstein figured it out.

For kicks, I grabbed my copy of Tea Leaf Reading and had a go. Oolong's not the best tea to read, especially with leaves this large. I thought mine looked like letters, actually: a T and an I. Letters, so says the highland seer, signify news. Well, T.I. did just get sent back to jail ...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nifty tea mug for tea bag users

I love good tea design, and the folks at Yanko rarely disappoint. Dig this handy mug — with a notch for the tea bag string (keeps the tag from slipping into the tea) plus a hollow, shallow bottom under the mug and over the saucer (thus the name, the Tea Coffin) for stashing the bag once the tea has brewed ...

Check out the whole page of photos, which includes a few shots of a nifty kettle/carafe. Available in December.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

When it comes to kettles, I've gone electric

I have retired my tea kettle.

My acoustic one, anyway. I've gone electric.

I'd grown weary of the stove top, particularly since I recently packed my tea cabinet with some good oolongs. The gas fire boils the water just fine, but how to reach 190 degrees? I tried it from both sides. I stuck a thermometer in the kettle's whistle-hole, and watched and watched and ... doh! I always got distracted and missed the 190 mark. Or I'd bring it to full boil, then use an iPhone app to time the cool-down. But those are always estimates, never precise.

So after reading this story in Wired a couple of months ago, I went fishing for electric kettles. Wired tested four and picked the Cuisinart PerfecTemp Cordless Programmable Kettle. After my own research, their decision sounded great. I pounced. And it's awesome.

The Cuisinart kettle is magnificent for all these reasons:
  • It's blazing fast. I've had to alter my whole teatime prep schedule around it, since I'm used to waiting and waiting for the stove.
  • It brings water to six preset temperatures: 160 (delicate), 175 (green), 185 (white), 190 (oolong), 200 (french press) and boiling (black). It seems to be remarkably accurate.
  • It holds the selected temperature for 30 minutes. This is a dream. It keeps the water hot while you do other things. Also, if you're hosting a tasting, you can move quickly from tea to tea without waiting so long for the kettle.
  • Super simple to use, with illuminated buttons and an illuminated window for measuring water amount.
  • And it's not bad looking on the countertop. Nicely designed.

Wired noted one drawback: "Tough to get your hand inside for a good scrubbing." The lid is prohibitive. But, using filtered water, I haven't had much to worry about yet.

And, of course, I do miss the music. But I can whistle my own tune.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: 3 little maids from the tea field

Just as great song emerged from the cotton field workers of the southern United States, songs were created in the old tea fields, too. Here's a Japanese one called "Cha-Tsumi" (Tea Picking) that finds the singer imploring fellow pickers: "Pick all you can, young maids, for if you / do not, we Japanese will have no tea!"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Hottle is nottle a good idea

Gaze upon this instrument of torture, fellow tea lovers, and band together with me to eradicate this scourge from our dining and tea-sipping experience!

Tell me I'm not alone. Tell me you hate these things, too — the small, bulbous glass carafes used in restaurants and particularly hotels to deliver refills and (shudder) tea and coffee. Do you know what's called? Restaurant supply stores label it a Hottle, a mutant combo bottle that allegedly keeps liquids hot. The ribbed, black plastic neck allows you to pour hot liquids without scalding. No doubt it's easier to wash than a teapot.

I'm just on a tear because a lovely new restaurant has opened in our 'hood, and they use Hottles to serve tea. They might be convenient in the kitchen, but they're pretty horrible for tea service. You have to cram a bag down that plastic gullet, and stir it in. The glass doesn't keep the water hot at all. Pouring from that wide mouth results in dribbling every single time, poured slowly or quickly. I'm going to have to speak to the owners, give them some better suggestions. I'm just going to have to be that guy.

But, as a recent T Ching post says, I'm willing to demand better tea service! Who's with me?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Tea with a supergroup

Like Pioneers is a good new band built from several old ones. The Bound Stems, Chin Up Chin Up, the Narrator and others — these were acclaimed Chicago bands. Now members from each of them have come together as Like Pioneers. The debut album, "Piecemeal," is a rewarding batch of thoughtful pop-rock.

For today's track, "Teakettles, No. 1," click here to listen and/or download. It's a moody tune driven by a plucky pump organ.

Friday, October 1, 2010

CSI: Darjeeling

We love Laura Childs' teashop murder mysteries here at t2. While those stories are bloody good fun, it seems a cup of tea sometimes is found at real-life crime scenes. Here's a round-up of recent incidents where things boiled over ...

A British woman becomes annoyed with her companion, so she puts bleach in his tea. She was jailed on a charge of "maliciously administering a poison or noxious thing with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy." The man is standing by her.

This man was arrested for chucking his cup of tea at his wife.

British prisoners may have poisoned the tea of two guards.

Enjoying your tea at a shop near a busy street? Maybe don't sit next to the window.

Two women stole several cases of bottled iced tea from a convenience store, then (oops) hit an elderly man with their car while trying to make their getaway.

I know you have to get all that food to the wedding, but why don't you stop for some tea first. Atta boy. ... Uh oh, someone stole your catering van!

We hear about people being scalded by to-go coffee all the time. This to-go tea sent a toddler to the burn center.

This is an oldie, but I'll link it again: A woman shot in the head makes tea for the police when they arrive.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Sweet baby jelly

"Jenny put the kettle on ..." Never a big fan of James Taylor, this is a pretty priceless performance of "Jellyman Kelly" from an old "Sesame Street," complete with spirited children more than making up for JT's lack of energy. And at least we don't have to censor any cleavage here ...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Some fresh Holyfield ear with your scone, Mr. Tyson?

Why? This video doesn't answer that question, but it is an amusing moment with someone I wouldn't expect to enjoy tea time with: boxer Mike Tyson. "Earl Grey sucks," he declares ...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Over the moon for equinox and Chinese festival

Last night, I stepped outside late for a breath of air. Great night for it: room temperature, a friendly breeze, the city seemed loose-limbed and comfy. I'd been sipping pu-erh while working. I was in tea mind.

The moon is something I try not to take for granted, and last night it wouldn't let me. The air must have been unusually clear, because even through the heart of Chicago's light pollution I've never seen such a crisp, bright round glow. With my naked eyes, I could make out more features than I'm used to. It hung proudly in the sky, just to the southeast, and shone forth the very definition of radiance. Arresting, tracks-halting, gasp-worthy. And directly below it, like a diamond pendant, hung Jupiter. Crown jewels laid out on indigo velvet.

I didn't know till this morning that what I was looking at had a slight astronomical significance. It was a "super harvest moon." Summer ended and autumn began shortly after I stepped outside, at 10:09 p.m. Central. A full moon, particularly a harvest moon, rarely occurs on the equinox — thus the "super" additive. The position helps make the moon brighter, bolder. (Some photos here.)

I was, however, aware that yesterday was the Mid-Autumn Festival on the Chinese lunar calendar — also called the Moon Festival. The central sweet treat offered in China and Vietnam for this festival is the mooncake, a round, fluted pastry filled with a lotus-seed paste (easy recipe here). I was served these once with gongfu, but at a much different time of year. Next year, I'll plan ahead, "super" or not.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Watch the 'Tea Mavericks' panel discussion

I finally caught up with this interesting tea event, a discussion with five "tea mavericks," held last week at Samovar in San Francisco. The folks are Rishi Tea CEO Joshua Kaiser, noted tea writer James Norwood Pratt, Numi Tea CEO Ahmed Rahim, the leader of info-sharing website Digg, Kevin Rose, and tea source expert David Lee Hoffman, with Samovar founder Jesse Jacobs. It's about an hour, and you can watch here ...

Tea Mavericks of America from jesse jacobs on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Return of the lung ching

OK, let's return to our Tuesday tunes, via YouTube until something better and embeddable comes along.

Erykah Badu's "On and On" — in which she sings: "I'm feelin' kind of hungry ’cause my high is comin' down / Don't feed me yours ’cause your food does not endure / I think I need a cup of tea ..."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tea smokin' in Carolina, and Lady Grey's drunk

Catching up on some magazines — found a couple of interesting features:

Food & Wine's Sept. issue has a profile of North Carolina chef Andrea Reusing. The writer launches the piece mentioning that he first heard of her when a restaurant co-worker asked him, "Have you heard about the woman in Chapel Hill smoking chicken over tea?" Loved by celebrities and rock stars as well as lucky locals, her restaurant, Lantern, is revered worldwide despite its relatively remote location. For her "legendary tea-smoked chicken," Reusing brines the birds in a spicy mixture, then uses a combo of rice, tea, spices and chile to smoke with. The full recipe is here. (The magazine previously interviewed her here. My Earl Grey-smoked pork roast meal, plus other tea foods, is here.)

Martha Stewart's Everyday Food mag (I'm not always crazy about her, but this is a nifty little monthly book full of some great simple recipes) this month had a recipe for a sweet tea cocktail — a mini-infusion, of sorts. The Spiked Berry is simply: Combine a cup of sliced strawberries, a cup of vodka and a bag of Lady Grey tea. Steep it an hour. In a pitcher, stir together a quarter cup of powdered sugar with a cup of fresh lemon juice. Toss the tea bag and pour the vodka mix into the pitcher. Yum.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Faithful tea folks, life-changing tea moments

Just want to share a couple of beautiful posts from fellow tea bloggers for your hump day morning.

In the first, Diane at T Ching recalls a faithful tea customer in "George Wednesdays." It's a touching tale of personal connection and those meaningful relationships that sneak up on us, which we then ruminate over during meditative steeps.

In the other, the blogger at New York's Mandarin Tea Room shares a beautiful tale of a tea epiphany, titled "Why Do I Use Tea to Meditate?" The answer to that question is a bit of a stretch, but the tea moment described is poignant and moving — simple and natural, as a tea moment should be. "Try to remember this feeling," says the muse in this tale. "This tea moment, you will never forget it."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Teapots hanging in the family tree

My mother recently moved and, as aging mothers do, pared down her belongings. My father, before he died, lived in constant preparation for this event. Closets were always being cleaned (and then refilled), piles always being made. Every visit home would end with, "Do you want to take that ____?" or "Come on out in the garage, there's some stuff you should go through before it gets hauled off." He'd be impressed by Mom's relatively Buddhist trimming down of material possessions.

Part of that process, you may have experienced, involves making sure the stuff with family history — and stories attached — is passed out among the children. I'm eager to share my wares: She handed off two beautiful tea sets from her side of the clan. There's this set, from which I'm drinking keemun right now as I write ...

I know nothing about china, patterns or the intricate histories thereof. Nor does my mother, who remembers very little about the set, which belonged to my great-grandmother. "I don't even remember anyone using it," she says. Always a sucker for early 20th-century design, I love the modern lines and adult baby-blue of this china. I have been able to confirm that it's made by the Noritake company in Japan, manufactured between 1914 and 1921. The cup (there's just the one) is so light and thin I feared it would crumble in my hand as I cleaned it. Great to drink from, though. Here's to you, great-granmamma, wherever you are.

The other treasure is this silver service ...

This was grandmother's. By contrast, this was "used all the time." Mom says: "Mother always was having her little lady friends over. She entertained a lot, and poured tea with this." It's a splendid silver pot — I'm beginning to understand why wealthy Brits insist silver is the best vessel for tea — with a sugar bowl and creamer. Very well-to-do, ahem.

Another random bit of family history came to me this week from my dad's sister: "You may not know this bit of family trivia, but your great grandmother, when she came to America as John's wife, was unable to bring much with her. She did however bring a tea pot and teaspoons and some linen napkins. I'm sure she was horrified when she saw the Nebraska home where she was supposed to live and raise a family. Probably having things from England helped her to adjust."

Hey, I'm just glad to know I'm descended from people who, when evaluating which material goods really matter, include the teapot.

Monday, September 13, 2010

New liqueurs for tea cocktails from Koval

This weekend we toured Chicago's new Koval Distillery, a craft still on the North Side. They make organic (and kosher!) spirits from a variety of grains, including wheat and oats but also spelt and millet. They make five different white whiskeys — clear, not aged, basically legal moonshine — from the different grains. Most of them are sharp and subtly flavorful, but in our tasting the Raksi Millet whiskey was the stand-out, the only one with any real smoothness and nutty flavor.

My reason for going, though, was to investigate the liqueurs. Koval makes five: rose hip, chrysanthemum honey, jasmine, ginger and coffee. These are unusual liqueur flavors and, as you might imagine, they are ideal for tea cocktails. We tasted the first three of those. Two were quite good — the rose hip utterly surprising, sweet and jammy and clean, and the jasmine really enchanting, with just the right floral notes. The chrysanthemum honey was unfortunately cloying, all honey and no blossoms. Pour the jasmine over ice with some Zen green tea liqueur and you've got one little piece of heaven, the perfect aperetif on either side of an Asian meal. The Koval site also has a recipe for Tea Koval, a simple cocktail of Earl Grey with the rose hip liqueur.

Koval distributes to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, and Tennessee, plus these national online sellers.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Adding some sparkle to everyday iced tea

It's already chilly in Chicago. This morning had a definite autumnal bite, and after walking the dog the flip-flops were put away for the season. So, drat, I meant to write about this while the weather was still a bit steamy ...

One of the things we encountered on our European travels early this summer was sparkling iced tea. In the vast majority of cafes we visited, when one of our companions, Richard, asked for iced tea, he was served a bottle of sparkling, usually a Lipton variety.

Richard, it's important to note, likes nearly all of his liquids to be as sparkling as his personality. At home, in fact, he possesses his own carbonation system, with which he adds bubbles to his drinking water. It's pretty marvelous: a faucet, a Brita filter and a SodaStream Penguin Water Carbonator — no more wasting money and glass buying Pellegrino or Perrier. Richard "penguinizes" everything he can, so when we returned home, of course (and at my urging), he tried penguinizing his own tea.

It's tricky and messy experimentation, as most liquids refuse the carbonation if they already have something else dissolved in them. Richard found it easier to brew the tea separately, and strongly, then add the sparkled water. Here's his conclusion:
  1. Prepare steeped tea, 3x strength; chill.
  2. Prepare simple syrup [Water and Sugar, 1:1]; chill.
  3. Place about 1T of syrup in a highball; add squeezed quarter of lemon wedge; fill 1/3 full with strong tea; and top with penguinated water.

As for buying it bottled, I still haven't located sparkling iced tea in any U.S. stores yet, though Lipton says varieties like this green tea with berry flavors is in stores (and was just launched last year). But given that it's just another bottled drink that's mostly high fructose corn syrup, I haven't looked that hard. Nestea and Lipton both have sparkling varieties throughout Germany and some of northern Europe.

p.s. Here's a great recipe for homemade sparkling tea with lemon, cucumber and mint!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sweet folks and sweet treats at the Drake

Daniel enjoys his tea, during a recent birthday celebration
at Chicago's Drake Hotel. Thanks to everyone who joined us!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tea is fast food

As much as I admire the slow food movement and the farmer's market missionaries, I can't help wonder sometimes if they're all craving a pastoral innocence that never really existed. This hunger for uber-fresh foods and produce absolutely untouched by the hand of man, certainly machine, strikes me as a psychological response to urban living more than any real nutritional or health benefit.

A new story in Utne Reader, "In Praise of Fast Food," builds on that perspective, pointing out that processed foods were often the only kind earlier humans would or could eat. Rachel Laudan writes:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.

Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

I think about this in relation to tea quite often. It is one of the most processed products on the planet, and it wouldn't be that tasty or enjoyable if it weren't. People used to (and still do) chew fresh tea leaves. I tried this once. You think your overbrewed cup is bitter? Our human know-how tames the bad parts and brings out the good parts. Yay, science!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Teaku No. 8

Even when it's hot
I still take afternoon tea.
Summer, winter — meh.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Not knocking Knoxville for tea treasures

My, we've done a lot of traveling this year, and still more to come. Last week we found ourselves in eastern Tennessee — a family reunion, of sorts, and yes Dollywood was involved! — and the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. While killing time waiting for someone else's flight one rainy afternoon in Knoxville, I Google Mapped "tea" and discovered (thank you, tea gods) that we were very near someplace called Tea & Treasures. I believe the route we took can be described as a beeline. Or a tealine?

Tea & Treasures is a typical Southern shop, a converted old house — as its brochure says, "located under the magnolias at the corner or Martin Mill Pike and Keeble Avenue" — full of what my mother would describe as "antiquey crap." The tea part of the Tea & Treasures equation is misleading and disappointing — a small table by the stairs with a tureen of hot water and some Harney & Sons packets in a styrofoam cup. Some treasures, however, can be had. Bypass the ticky-tacky from local "artists" (though one woman does make a cute array of hand-painted tea cups, and I almost bought one painted like wood on a saucer painted with red autumn leaves) and head for the piles of junk china and old teaware. Among these, I found my favorite new teapot for an absolute steal ...

It's a beautiful, deep pink glaze, with a matching ceramic tray and one tiny cup, and it's weighty and large, holding several cups. Just thought I'd share my find!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not a spot of tea, just a drop

A note leftover from our summer travels: One other item I purchased at the Sing Tehus in Copenhagen was a packet of Green Kiss tea drops.

They're basically lozenges, little football-shaped green drops with ribbed sides, a hard-candy confection of sugar and matcha powder. I'm kind of addicted to Ricola lozenges, as it is, so it was nice to force a switch to something tea-related. They taste just as you'd expect, like a sweet dose of matcha. I find them handy when I'm running errands or between afternoon appointments and unable to work in a cup of actual tea. It's not a huge shot of green tea, but it's better than nothing.

Difficult to find in the States, of course, but you can order them inexpensively from London's Harvey Nichols here — and in different flavors: regular matcha, cherry, lemon and mint.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anton Chekhov and some great old Russian tea

In some recent travels, I picked my way through a particularly splendid used book store and came away with a slim volume of Anton Chekhov's letters from his 1890 journey east into Siberia. Cheers to the editor or academic who spotted the value of collecting this particular ream of correspondence; together it makes for a revealing travelogue, a piece of reportage about not only the sights and smells of a landscape many of us will never see but also the timbre of the society there at the time ("Out here nobody worries about saying what he thinks. There's no one to arrest you and nowhere to exile people to so you can be as liberal as you please"). I, of course, was struck by often he mentions tea in his travels, which take him down the Amur River, with Russia on his left and China on his right:

I'm drinking excellent tea, after which I feel pleasantly stimulated.

This is a reoccurring note in his letters, taking tea with other riverboat passengers, officers of the ship, folks in various towns. Can you imagine provincial tea north of China in 1890? Strong stuff! (salivate)

This, after all, from a man who lived a short while in a tea shop. Reminds me, too, of this passage from one of Chekhov's many short stories, this one focusing on a tea party and titled simply "The Party":

The tables were already laid under the trees; the samovars were smoking, and Vassily and Grigory, in their swallow-tails and white knitted gloves, were already busy with the tea-things. On the other bank, opposite the "Island of Good Hope," there stood the carriages which had come with the provisions. The baskets and parcels of provisions were carried across to the island in a little boat like the Penderaklia. The footmen, the coachmen, and even the peasant who was sitting in the boat, had the solemn expression befitting a name-day such as one only sees in children and servants.

While Olga Mihalovna was making the tea and pouring out the first glasses , the visitors were busy with the liqueurs and sweet things. Then there was the general commotion usual at picnics over drinking tea, very wearisome and exhausting for the hostess. Grigory and Vassily had hardly had time to take the glasses round before hands were being stretched out to Olga Mihalovna with empty glasses. One asked for no sugar, another wanted it stronger, another weak, a fourth declined another glass. And all this Olga Mihalovna had to remember, and then to call, "Ivan Petrovitch, is it without sugar for you?" or, "Gentlemen, which of you wanted it weak?" But the guest who had asked for weak tea, or no sugar, had by now forgotten it, and, absorbed in agreeable conversation, took the first glass that came. Depressed-looking figures wandered like shadows at a little distance from the table, pretending to look for mushrooms in the grass, or reading the labels on the boxes -- these were those for whom there were not glasses enough. "Have you had tea?" Olga Mihalovna kept asking, and the guest so addressed begged her not to trouble, and said, "I will wait," though it would have suited her better for the visitors not to wait but to make haste.

Some, absorbed in conversation, drank their tea slowly, keeping their glasses for half an hour; others, especially some who had drunk a good deal at dinner, would not leave the table, and kept on drinking glass after glass, so that Olga Mihalovna scarcely had time to fill them. One jocular young man sipped his tea through a lump of sugar, and kept saying, "Sinful man that I am, I love to indulge myself with the Chinese herb." He kept asking with a heavy sigh: "Another tiny dish of tea more, if you please." He drank a great deal, nibbled his sugar, and thought it all very amusing and original, and imagined that he was doing a clever imitation of a Russian merchant.

Heath Cereamics sets the bar

I just spent a while grooving on the tea-porn photos on the Heath Ceramics site. Heath is a tableware and tile company founded in 1948, based in Sausalito, Calif. The namesake, Edith Heath, used innovative glazes and some really simple but alluring modern forms to make pottery that's also functional. Heath was bought in 2003, and the new owners seem to be trying to spread awareness of their treasures. It's about time.

They make a lot of stuff, by hand, but here are some drool-worthy pics of their teaware:

The large teapots go for $175 ... but dig this small one — with a cork! — for $68:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking tea — no, really, stealing it

Speaking of the battle of the bottled teas, Honest Teas this summer has tried out their "honor system" gimmick here on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. It's a small stand of cold teas, but unmanned. You pay a buck on the honor system. Honest Tea, get it? Whatever, here's a video about the results ...

Chicago, I'm proud to report, fared well in this lil' test: 78 percent of people paid.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lollapalooza, Lady Gaga and cans of quenching tea

A month away, welcome back, all. What have I been doing in the meantime? Sweating and hiking through Lollapalooza, for one.

I bring this up here only because the biggest performer at last weekend's annual concert festival here in Chicago's beautiful Grant Park was tea-lover extraordinaire, Lady Gaga. (Of course, we keep calling her a famous tea lover — but the tea cups she carries around as apparent fashion accessories are always empty.) I did my utmost to lurk backstage, hoping to spot our lady taking tea. Alas, nothing. Here's my review of her performance, though, plus all our other Lolla coverage, if anyone's interested.

In other Lady Gaga news, rumors abounded a couple of weeks ago that the pop star was the focus of a bidding war between tea companies vying for her spokeswomanship. This report and others suggested she was going to sign with Twinings, and there's talk of a special Gaga blend. Little Monsters Matcha, anyone?

Another Lollapalooza note: One of the sponsors again this year was Sweet Leaf Tea (their Lollapalooza blog is here). Weather was just not-hot enough that I didn't feel I had to constantly be chugging water all three days, so I was able to enjoy several of their bottled teas to stay hydrated. The cans — cans! — of green tea with citrus, and some with mint, were pretty great. I always say this, but getting the sweetness just right in bottled teas always seems to be a challenge. These Sweet Leaf varieties aren't too sweet; they're nicely balanced and really quaffable. Superb on a very noisy summer day, anyway.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Europe: Sir Robert's Blend

I bought a lot of tea in Europe. Had to lug a separate carry-on on the plane home full of tea and teaware. The shincha from Copenhagen, the Goalpara from Amsterdam — my tea cabinet overfloweth. But the first tea I will be reordering, because I'm going through it like mad, is one I chanced upon in, of all places, Helsinki, Finland.

Robert's Coffee is a shop that started in Helsinki in 1987; now it's a chain across Scandinavia. (Sound familiar? The logo's even hunter green.) On our beautiful afternoon in Helsinki — possibly our favorite stop on this trip — we wandered into a shop just off the city's Esplanade boulevard. They offer a fine range of teas from around the world, and I bought a signature product, the Sir Robert's Blend. It's a mix of Chinese and Indian teas, with a heavy dose of Keemun. If you've read the blog this far, you know I'm a sucker for Keemun. This blend, with the Keemun spiciness and some other, rounder flavors — it's fantabulous. My favorite afternoon tea at present.

Coffee and teaware on display at the Design Museum in Helsinki.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Europe: Tea in Amsterdam's Red Light District

Before we took off for our recent vacation in northern Europe, I made a note of some tea shops worth tracking down. I'd read a little something about the Geels & Co. coffee and tea shop. What I failed to realize is that it's smack dab in the middle of Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District.

And I wasn't even looking for it the afternoon we stumbled through that perfectly tame neighborhood of quaint sins. Suddenly, after sex shops and prostitutes and "coffee" houses (which, I discovered, also serve tea — marijuana steeped in hot milk), there was my own primary vice: a crusty-looking tea shop. Geels & Co. has been run by the Geels family for 150 years. The tea canisters stacked behind the counter look about that old ...

This being The Netherlands, with a long history of trade with (and colonies in) Indonesia and Malaysia, I inquired about the teas available from those places. They had two black teas from Java, hardy-looking stuff in big plastic bags of a few hundred grams. At the shopkeeper's recommendation, I went with a black tea from Goalpara, a tea garden in Sukabumi, West Java. I've been enjoying it since. It doesn't leap out of the cup or dance on my tongue, but it's a sturdy, reliable and even in brief brews a strong black tea. Sometimes you need that.

The other reason to drop by Geels & Co., maybe the chief reason, is because on the second floor is the Coffee and Tea Museum. I'd like to describe for you the wonders contained therein, but we were there on Tuesday and the museum — run as it by volunteers — is only open for two and a half hours on Saturday afternoons. Believe me, I tried to convince the clerk to let me at least peek inside. She was having none of it. The notes I had say it's a "collection of old coffee trade artifacts, like coffee grinders, tins, burners and traditional appliances has been arranged by passionate coffee and tea lovers." I had to settle for a glimpse at the upstairs window ...

A couple of other intriguing tea options for the Amsterdam visitor:

  • Seeing a rock show at De Melkweg? This famous venue has several extra intriguing rooms, including a movie theater and the Tea Room, full of couches and hookahs.
  • You're in Amsterdam, you'll take a canal cruise. Don't argue, it's worth it. There's a tea option for these, too: the English High Tea Cruise, which you can board at Rederij Lovers near the train station. It's not cheap: starts at 38 euro.

My patient traveling companions,
waiting for me outside Geels & Co.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My desire crescendos for Tea Forté

On our recent travels, I finally had the chance to try a brand of tea that was a treat for the tongue. On a cruise, there's always free coffee and tea available in the buffet. But it's crap coffee and crap tea. No doubt recognizing the other side of this market, our Celebrity cruise was equipped with an elegant, Italian-style coffee shop, Cafe al Bacio. You could order something to sip, something to nibble and sit in the comfy wing-back chairs and watch the water go by. To my delight, this spot served a line of really fine teas: Tea Forté.

Tea Forté servings come in pyramid-shaped bags. They're super-sturdy, and maybe actually packed a bit too tightly. But this cafe had purchased pots especially for them; on the end of the bag's string is a tiny plastic tea leaf, which they pulled through a steam hole in the lid, so it stuck out. Nice presentation.

More importantly, the teas I sampled — as after discovering the cafe I returned there almost every afternoon to read and write — were pretty great. They've an Earl Grey that might be the tastiest bergamot I've ever had, perhaps because of a tinge of orange. The English Breakfast is OK. It's a "gourmet" tea brand, so they're heavy on the flavored stuff, and the Orchid Vanilla — with added coconut — is pretty sumptuous. The whole line seems fancy, perfect for restaurants. But, hey, Oprah loves it, singling them out for an endorsement years ago in O magazine, so by all means rush out and snatch 'em up.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

'Boston harbor a tea-pot to-night!'

From The Yankee Tea-Party, Or, Boston in 1773, a stylized account of the Big Brew, written by Henry C. Watson and published in 1852:

It was the fourth of July in Boston. Throughout the city which cradled the Revolution, the anniversary of the birth of the free and happy United States of America was celebrated with rejoicings unknown to the shackled people of monarchical countries. Meetings were held in various parts of the city, patriotic and democratic speeches made, bells rung, cannons fired, pistols, crackers, and fireworks of all descriptions discharged, toasts drank, and festivities of all kinds indulged. ... But a more unusual and far more interesting meeting occurred in Boston, about a quarter of a mile from the wharf known ever since the commencement of the Revolution as Griffin's Wharf.

In the upper room of an old and somewhat dilapidated tavern were assembled a party of old and young men—the representatives of two generations. Three of the old men were the remaining members of the famous Lebanon Club; the first liberty club formed in the colonies, and the one which designed and executed the project of destroying the tea at Boston. They had come from various parts of the country, upon agreement, to meet once more in the house where the disguised members of the club had met on the evening of the sixteenth of December, 1773.

... "Well, the seventeen men of our club determined, whether we were aided or not, to destroy the tea which the East India Company had sent to Boston. The plan was soon formed, as it always is when men are determined to do a thing. We wanted no captain—each man could command for himself. We resolved to disguise ourselves in Mohawk dresses, and carry such arms as would enable us to sell our lives pretty dearly; we also pledged ourselves never to reveal the names of any of the party while there was danger in it. We expected to have a fight anyhow, and the first man who faltered was to be thrown overboard with the tea. We came to Boston and found the people ripe for the deed. A great meeting was to be held at the old South Meeting-house, and we concluded to wait and see what would be done there. We lodged at this tavern, and held our councils up in this room. Well, there was a tremendous meeting at the Old South, and most of us were there to help to keep up the excitement, and to push our plan if a chance appeared. Young Quincy made a speech that stirred the people, and made them ready for anything which would show their spirit. The people voted with one voice that the tea should not be landed. We saw how things were going, came back to the tavern, put on our Mohawk dresses, and returned to the meeting. Pitts succeeded in getting into the church just about dusk and raising the war-whoop. We answered outside. Then Pitts cried out, 'Boston harbor a tea-pot to-night!'"