Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tea and tobacco — smokin'!

(awesome pic by Tony)

It really is a lot like tea. I keep mine in a hardwood box handed down to me by my father. It's got a nice jar I put the leaves in to keep them fresh. Like tea, the more the whole leaf is cut and dried, the less flavorful and more bitter it becomes. And I prefer the flavor of the plain leaf — no added aromatics required.

I'm speaking of tobacco, specifically for pipes. I was a cigarette smoker as a youth, but let it go easily. Cigars make me queasy. Good quality pipe tobacco, though, ideally paired with a comfy chair and a glass of port (gawd, I am such an old man) is a heavenly moment.

Recently, one of our fellow Chicago-based tea bloggers wrote to us: "I was drinking some pu-erh the other day, and noticed that, again, I had likened a pu-erh to tobacco. It occurred to me that it might be fun to have a tobacconist taste pu-erh and tell us what he or she thought." Last Saturday, three of us met at Iwan Ries tobacco shop, the oldest family business in Chicago, hunkered down in a conference room with certified tobacconist Ron Carroll and swapped pu-erhs and pipes.

The pu-erh came from Tony Gebely of the Chicago Tea Garden, big bell-shaped discs of old and recent tea, one of which was called "camouflage" pu-erh because the two shades of green whorled around the cake looked like camo gear.

Ron was game: He and his wife had discovered real tea years ago during some extensive travel in China. "I've often joked that when they outlaw tobacco, I'll pursue the 'other leaf.'" he said. Ron also supplied a tin of great tobacco — from the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club Selection, a variety appropriately called Samovar. The label describes it saying, "Warm, spiritually satisfying, this dark, full Oriental Mixture is redolent with exotic Syrian Latakia. Soothing a sa cup of rich Russian tea."

And it was. Once we got a few pipes smoldering, the pu-erhs had to sweat to compete with the flavors and scents. But the coupling was not bad, especially with the final aged tea (I think it was a 1990), which really opened up and waltzed around the tongue with the hardcore smoke taste. A great afternoon, and a very butch tea party.

Tony (left), the tea guy smokes a pipe,
and Ron (right), the tobacconist pinches some tea.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: Dream about tea

The rendez-vous described in Blondie's "Dreaming" begins with a cuppa:

You asked me what's my pleasure, a movie or a measure?
I'll have a cup of tea and tell you of my dreaming ...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

London: Tea shopping, and Postcard Teas

OK, final London post. Thanks for your patience. I saved my favorite for the last ...

London's loaded with quality tea shops. Many people will steer you toward Harrod's. Ignore them. The place is a nightmare, crammed with tourists, with no maps or guides to help orient you. (The only reason to investigate their tea offerings is that they sell the fantastic TWG blends; but just buy them online and spare yourself the claustrophobia.) If you must do the British department store thing, go to Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly. It's roomier, calmer and the sales people are friendly and helpful. They have a more impressive tea selection, and the first-flush darjeeling I bought there is delicious stuff. I'm also told they present a splendid afternoon tea.

Tea canisters at Fortnum & Mason

For serious tea lovers, I insist one shop be at the top of any London itinerary: Postcard Teas. I visited this airy spot on Jane Pettigrew's recommendation. It's tucked away on a quiet, tiny block called Dering Street just off the shopping bustle of Oxford and New Bond.

The owner, Tim d'Offay, has traveled the world for 15 years, imported tea for 11 years and had Postcard Teas open for five. Postcard Teas, get it? "In one sense, these teas are the postcards I send from around the world," he said. The labels of each tea he sells are designed to look like postcards — the 50-gram postcard bags allegedly can be written on like postcards and sent legally through the mails — with each cancel stamp listing the tea's origin.

And d'Offay is big on origin. "We seem to be pushing tea like wine now, but how can we, really?" he said. "There's such poor labeling, with no information on the estate or the maker. On a bottle of wine you get the type of grape, the name of the maker, the vineyard, and at least its location. Tea often has none of that information." Having sourced all of the tea he sells (except the Vietnam offering), d'Offay is particular about this point, which he continues on his new blog, launched just last week:

For over a decade we have traveled to work with small scale traditional tea producers and crafts people across Asia. These artisans are true experts and the keepers of their local tea knowledge and heritage. At a time when tea is internationally appreciated like never before, we believe these often silent heroes of the tea world have much to tell us about their culture’s past, present, and future. The site is called Single Estate Tea because we wanted to help spread their knowledge and campaign for all good tea to have proper provenance starting with the maker’s or estate’s name.

I visited Postcard Teas on a sunny Saturday morning. Tim was leading two young men through a tea tasting. His assistant, Sarah, made me a cup of tea — his own blend, Mayfair Breakfast, named for the central London neighborhood and a nice strong blend of stout but well-behaved blacks — while I wandered the basement-level gallery, looking at Tim's tidy displays of small teapots and large discs of pu-erh. When the tasting wrapped up, Tim clearly was not tired of talking tea, and I suspect this rarely occurs. We tasted more tea (the Yunnan Red Cloud is a sultry, cocoa-y thing — a summer pluck from a bush whose first pick makes pu-erh), and as Tim pours cups of tea he hands you photos of the people who made the tea, of the trees it came from, of the workers who processed it. He talks about what machine-processing methods still qualify a tea to be labeled "handcrafted," and he gets pretty fussy about the application of the word "rare." He plans to follow these threads on the new blog, bringing the people who make the tea into the light for the people who drink it.

London: A voluptuous banquet

Now I ask you: Is this what you want to see over a cup of tea?

The strangest afternoon tea experience I had in London was at the Volupté Lounge, a self-described "decadent little supper club" hidden away near Chancery Lane. Over afternoon tea, guests are treated to a 1930s-style burlesque show. Dolores Delight belts show tunes (and I mean belts 'em, which is stunning given the tight corset she's wearing). Millie Dollar emerges in stunning gowns and then emerges from the stunning gowns, down to her pasties and tattoos. Various performers present visual tableaux and interpretive dances (like the butterfly, above). And through it all you get a traditional afternoon tea menu of sandwiches and scones and such. Like I said, strange.

Why anyone would want burlesque (a) in England, where the locals' reserved character doesn't exactly generate the desired whoops and catcalls, or (b) over tea eludes me. Zoe Fletcher, who created the program, answers, "Well, that's me. I like to have a gossipy tea with my friends, and I love burlesque, so it just fit." The fit is questionable. You'd think this would be an attraction for men, but judging by my Saturday afternoon visit you'd be wrong. I was one of three, each of us in female company (thanks again, Sarah! — she took the photo above and provided the best definition for the afternoon: "Burlesque is just stripping for girls who went to Sarah Lawrence"). There were, however, three "hen do's" — that's a British term for bachelorette parties. London gals go all out for these things: coordinated dresses, balloons, oppressive penis accessories (whistles, straws, etc.) and everyone wears a sash. Young women with marriage on their minds ... watching sassy women strut their stuff and shake their goodies. The applause, as you might imagine, was tepid. But the place has been open since 2006. Go figure.

The tea experience is not great. To deliver a full program, they drag out the presentation for nearly three hours, bringing each course in between performances. So the tea gets cold, and you're consistently hungry. Oddly enough, though, this place served the best scones of all the afternoon teas I enjoyed in London: crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, real scones!

Volutpé does its thing for dinner, cocktails, theme parties, etc. I suspect the burlesque is much more fun then.

London: Chatting with Stephen Twining

My first encounter with Stephen Twining was indirect. A colleague visited Epcot Center and chanced upon Twining signing autographs; he sent me a signed tea cup. When I met with Twining a couple of weeks ago during my exploration of London tea, he was fresh off a plane from Singapore. He'd been glad-handing business associates there and tea farmers in Java. This is what Twining does. He's a 10th generation member of the family business, but he doesn't run the company. Associated British Foods handles that. ("I wouldn't have gotten into the family business if I'd thought I had to run it," he says.) Twining's title is "director of corporate relations," meaning he doffs his very British smile and talks up his company's product, whether he's talking to growers in the gardens or drinkers at the mall.

"My job is to teach people about this marvelous gift of nature," Twining says. "Whether I'm speaking on television or one at a time at places like Epcot, I'll get to them."

Twining delivers the company line, no doubt about it. But he's a font of historical data and anecdotes, as well as current tea trends and business predictions.

He spoke with me about Twinings' blending process. "Our products are blended, so that if you like our Darjeeling, that's how you like it. We provide that constancy." That means that a cup of Twinings darjeeling poured right now, yesterday and tomorrow will have the same color, the same leaf size and the same taste. This is accomplished by phenomenal skill. The flavor of tea coming from the farms can change week to week, so blenders and tasters select teas from a variety of locations and keep mixing them so that all those factors reach the same balance in every tin of tea. It's the goal of the industrial age: everything is manufactured the same.

Trends that Twinings is following: the company has just expanded its green teas and its range of chais. (They just added a Brazilian tea. Not great reviews thus far.) And he thinks the flavored blacks are the way ahead. "New drinkers, we find, are coming to the flavored. It's the old human factor. 'Mum and Dad drank classic teas; I've heard tea is good for me, but I want to do my own thing.' So the new generation is getting into flavors and greens. It remains to be seen if they'll then graduate to the classics." Fruit flavors, too, he said, add sweetness without sugar. "I preach the gospel of no sugar in tea," Twining said. "There's no right or wrong way, I just think sugar in tea is barbaric. It's like putting a blanket over a beautiful sculpture. So much effort goes into the growing and processing of this wonderful product, but when you add sugar you only taste the sugar."

Our chat took place in the Twinings shop in London's Strand. As you walk along the street looking for Twinings, it's a bit of a surprise when you find it — because it's a tiny, tiny shop. That's because in 1967 the company moved its headquarters into the suburbs (to Hampshire), part of a mass exodus of industry at the behest of the city council, which wanted to reduce the number of "heavy lorries" in the city. The London shop is the site of Thomas Twining's original coffeehouse, where he began offering tea as a way to make his spot stand out.

Here's Stephen explaining the backstory behind a painting of Thomas ...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Celebrity tea lover: Jake Gyllenhaal

You couldn't drag me to see the silly-looking "Prince of Persia" video game about to hit movie theaters, but Jake Gyllenhaal is still a cutie and in this video he discusses shampoo and conditioner — over tea in a lovely private room somewhere, with some killer sweets on the table ...

There's a nice tea moment at the end, where Jake indicates he's a tea lover. Then the bimbo interviewer, of course, asks him what kind of mate he's looking for, to which he replies, "Just someone to sit and have a nice cup of tea with." Aw.

Tea with honey stings like a bee

Here's a great anecdote just relayed to me by one of the Sun-Times photographers, John H. White: Many years ago he was flying to a training camp in Pennsylvania, and Muhammad Ali was sitting next to him on the plane. The Champ was eating his breakfast — he used two forks, one in each hand — and drinking his orange juice. John ordered some tea, and when it arrived he began to shake out his sugar packet. The Champ stopped him.

"You shouldn't put sugar in your tea," Ali said. "Spoils the tatse, and it's bad for you. You should only put honey in your tea."

Since then, on the Champ's advice, John's done just that, when he sweetens his tea at all. And you should do likewise, lest Mr. Clay gives you the beatdown.

Tuesday tea tunes: 'For the Price of a Cup of Tea'

Jolly, jaunty, maybe even cheeky. Belle & Sebastian, ladies and gentlemen ...

N.B.: It appears that every music service I turn to for the purpose of embedding songs and samples on this blog eventually disappears. stopped allowing embeding, imeem went under and now Lala has been bought out by Apple, which is killing it. So, Tuesday Tea Tunes fans, please bear with another round of shopping for music services. And if you have any to recommend, by all means.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

London: Gin and tea with Jane Pettigrew

Afternoon tea requires good tea, good food, a lovely setting and, ideally, charming company. A cocktail doesn't hurt, either. Last Friday, during my exploration of afternoon teas in London, I hit the bullseye with all five.

The Palm Court of London's Langham Hotel (seriously, are all these rooms called the Palm Court?) claims to be the birthplace of the very tradition of afternoon tea. So you might expect a staid, stuffy and somber affair weighed down by history. Not here. The Langham's Palm Court is a crisp, bright room with unexpectedly modern flourishes, from the understuffed chairs to the pianist slipping in Elton John and Coldplay tunes.

My guest for tea that day was Jane Pettigrew, the name in books about tea, particularly in her native Britain. Together we sampled the Langham's special twist on afternoon tea, the G & Tea.

It's a menu based on the flavors of a gin and tonic, which is what you get first, expertly mixed and in a nice tall glass. Then comes the tea, based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24; it's a green tea base with added juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel and other whole ingredients. The result is a strange but enticing tea, kind of musty and musky, the juniper slightly overpowering the taste of the actual tea. It's very light, and it's tasty with the food.

During our conversation, Pettigrew began a litany that I would hear repeated throughout London, one that accuses most Britons of knowing little about tea — despite how much of it they drink. "If you stop the average person in London, most of them have nothing to say about tea," she said. "If you mention white tea, they think you mean black tea with milk in it. Tea has been ignored and abused in this country for centuries, turned into something unrecognizable from its natural wonders by the big packers, the Tetleys and PG Tips and such." France, Pettigrew says, is the European tea mecca now. "We're very lazy about food and drink, with all the fast food. Marks & Spencer's main business is ready-made meals. We don't cook. In France, people's palates are still important, and more finely tuned. They cook, they take longer with the experience. So now that tea has found them — a country suited to the fine hues of wines — it's really taken hold. And it's a broader palate of teas in Paris. Here, our connection to tea started from the empire in India: black teas. In France, the historic connections are more in Indo-China and Vietnam, so they are open to a greater variety of teas."

The Langham tea menu offers quite a variety, though, including British-grown teas from the Tregothnan estate near Cornwall, as well as a choice yellow tea and a cooked pu-erh. We opted for a second pot of the Jing Ceylon, which was good company for the desserts, including ginger cookies and a far-out Cointreau-orange cream cake with a chocolate dome. One other nice thing about the Langham service: the edibles are presented on the classic three-tiered trays, but these are on floor stands. They meet level to the table, so there's more room on the table surface. Nice touch.

Pettigrew overflows with information and suggestions of other tea spots. One of them turned out to be the best place I visited in all of London. More to come ...

(I also later followed up on an earlier recommendation of hers, from an article in World Tea News: a bustling restaurant called Royal China in Queensway at the NW corner of Hyde Park. Before eating possibly the most tender chicken I've ever had, the waitress asked me what kind of tea I would like: "Jasmine, fine or strong?" Turns out their "fine" tea is a lovely, woody Taiwanese oolong. The "strong" tea is a black tea, though the waitress called it "red.")

Green Teaist opens a second location

Just a little news: When I last visited the Green Teaist — the intriguing shop north of Chicago — last summer, the owner was considering options to open other locations around the country. It's finally happened. A second Green Teaist opens May 20 in Beverly Hills. You lucky Angelenos.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rufus Wainwright and 'the crystal meth of tea'

How do I love Rufus Wainwright? Let me count the ways, including this extra tidbit about his beloved tea, which he mentioned this week in a New York Times blog post about some of his favorite things:

Oh, and also Yorkshire Tea. It’s the crystal meth of tea. I want to do an ad for them where it’s me with the beautiful English countryside behind me, and I go: “Enjoy Yorkshire Tea. It’s the crystal meth of tea.”

This from a guy who concludes one of his songs with this verse:

Where ya been, Zebulon?
Let's meet up, why not tonight?
In the lane behind the schoolyard,
and we'll have some tea and ice cream

That sounds like one delicious dessert.

London: Historic teaware is everywhere

Sunday in London: rainy, cold, blustery. Time to hit the museum! And museums in London are gloriously free. I opted for the Victoria & Albert Museum, for two reasons. First, they have some gowns by Norman Hartnell in their collection, and he's on my family tree (alas, none of them are on display currently). Second, they just opened a Grace Kelly fashion exhibit (alas, it was already sold out for the day when I arrived). So I wound up roaming the collection and snapping photos of all the teaware — in the British collection, in the Asian collection, many continents and many eras.

This, I discovered, was the third reason I enjoyed the V&A. They focus less on Art and more on art. The collections are filled with handiwork, everyday stuff rather than fine art — I'll stop short of saying "crafts." Thus, they have a lot of tea items in house.

Forgive my crap photo skills, but here's a look:

In the Asia gallery, straddling the China and Japan rooms, there are two shelves in a case along one wall dedicated to teaware. Instead of snapping a couple of dozen photos, I simply passed my video camera along the cards and then the shelves of pots, cups and other artifacts. Sorry for the soft focus on the cards, but here they are ...

I loved both of these pots because of the mixed media, which I'm not sure I've seen before. The one on the left is a classic British silver design with a wicker handle. The one on the right, circa late 1600s, is Yixing clay with a silver spout and a wicker handle.

This beautiful silver tea pot was made in western India around 1880 by (deep breath) Oomersi Mawji, the court silversmith to the ruler of Kutch, Maharao Shri Mirza Raja Sawai Khengarji Bahadurno.

Dig the colorful detail on this pot in front, showing a Cantonese viceroy from 1745.

A black bowl and stand with intricate dragon motif from 19th century Japan (left), and a stoneware tea pot with a crackled cream glaze and a phoenix vs. dragon design made in Kyoto, early 1800s.

Finally, for a different take on teaware history, here's video of Stephen Twinings — during an interview with him at the Twinings HQ in The Strand — talking briefly about the background of the antique tea box collection on display there:

More to come on the chat at Twinings ...

London: Some twists on afternoon tea

So I ask you: should I cry or laugh?
Drinking tea in a King's Cross caff
A leather jacket against the cold
Gone down to London, changing coal into gold
— Joe Jackson, "Down to London"

Well, blokes and birds, I'm just back from four nights (well, five after the canceled return flight) in London, the sole purpose of which was to drink as much tea as possible. I organized the trip with the help of the friendly folks at Visit Britain, and I'll be writing about the trip extensively here on the blog this week as well as for other outlets in the near future. So here goes ...

The mission of this voyage was to dive into the epicenter of afternoon tea, that storied Western (and specifically British) custom, and explore some places that are trying to do it a bit differently. In four afternoons, I sat for five afternoon teas. Here are some thoughts on three of them ...

Afternoon tea at the Ritz
I started in the belly of the beast, as it were, figuring that tea at the famed Ritz would set the controls on this experiment. Tea at this Piccadilly hotel is an institution in London, and the service wins awards fairly regularly. People line up for the experience; reservations are required and must be made months in advance. The Palm Court is certainly an opulent room, just off the hotel's Long Gallery (read: lobby), rich with golden decor and an air of wealth that stops surprisingly short of stuffiness.

But I must say, I found the whole tea experience there fairly underwhelming. I ordered a strong tea, Russian Caravan, which was not strong, though it was served in a splendid, heavy silver pot. It's a basic menu. But the sandwiches were bready and a bit stiff, the scones were biscuity and bland (they could've come from a tube, really), the sweets were OK (the coconut macaroon with a fruit jelly is a winner). The experience seemed more touristy than traditional. They pack people in for five seatings a day — the first afternoon tea seating is at 11:30 in the morning — and charge £38 for the basic tea and up to £49 with champagne. That's a lot of silver for tea that's fine but not spectacular, and an experience you can't really linger over because they're fluffing the tablecloths as the next round of hungry shoppers drifts in.

My favorite part of the Ritz tea was the pianist, Ian Gomes. This kind of playing — providing ambiance, background, subconscious support without performing — is so difficult, and this guy was so smooth knocking out lively but not too lively takes on standards from "Tea for Two" (of course) to "Puttin' on the Ritz" (of course). I chatted with him during his break. Fascinating career: he had a rock band in his native India ("playing real rock, you know, Elvis 12-bar rock — not like these bands today where everything is called rock") and then worked for Sinatra for 11 years. He wasn't Sinatra's on-stage pianist; Gomes played for the Chairman after hours. "He'd finish his show and want to hear piano music in his hotel suite while he entertained guests, people like Gene Kelly and others dropping by to see him," Gomes said. "I played every night for him, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m." As Gomes returned to the keys Thursday afternoon, as he has at the Ritz for the last 15 years, he asked if I wanted to hear something. I said, "Play Frank's favorite song." He sat down and slid into "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" He then merged it into "Chicago," both as a Sinatra reference and a wink to where I'd just come from.

Afternoon Tea for Men at the Mandeville Hotel
Since afternoon tea is often viewed as a feminine pursuit, the deVille restaurant at the comfy Mandeville Hotel has fashioned a tea service that might appeal to XYs. The idea is, according to the hotel's PR folks as well as my waiter, to create an occasion for discussing business that's not as dramatic and maybe even more conducive to talking than a heavy lunch, dinner or cocktail hour. Makes sense. So imagine my surprise when, during my Friday afternoon visit, the tea patrons included me ... and about 20 young women, all in pink sashes and pink dresses sitting with pink balloons, celebrating some lass's impending nuptials.

Here's how the Mandeville butches up afternoon tea: heartier food, and whiskey pairings. It's pretty brilliant, really, and it works. The waiter was flummoxed when I asked for bourbon selections instead of whiskeys (damn Yank) but he brought me a neat glass of beloved Woodford. I have to say, the sweeter nature of a bourbon is a better choice for this than a peaty whiskey. It envelops the flavors of the manly chow — a sirloin sandwich with red onion and thyme jam (awesome), grilled veggies with brie on toast, a sesame beef skewer, chicken satay and a smooth crab salad. The only drawback to this approach is that this chow is served hot, as opposed to the typical tea sandies, and it cools quickly. The second plate, with the scones, included — get this — a deep-fried fig dusted with powdered sugar and with chocolate injected into its center (brilliant, and lighter than you might expect). The usual jams and cream were delivered, plus a chili-cream sauce (great on the satay) and an anchovy paste. Here's where we make our manly "Home Improvement" woofing sounds.

So you don't necessarily want a light green tea to go with this. I ordered the Mandeville Special Blend, made especially for the hotel by London's Jing; the menu said this was smoky, but it wasn't very — rather surprisingly light, but solid enough to mix cheerful company with the second and third plates. And it paired beautifully with the bourbon, creating an eye-popping butterscotch flavor when the tea followed the liquor. The only oddity about the tea service here is that the waiter pours your tea but doesn't leave you the pot, so when you want a refill you have to flag someone down — which is no mean feat while 20 bachelorettes are playing party games.

All in all, though, this was a great experience. And I felt very manly. Harumph, harumph.

Afternoon tea at the Dorchester Hotel
If the Ritz seemed to prostitute its traditions a bit for the sake of turning the tables, the Dorchester stands proudly with an afternoon tea service that illustrates how magnificent the experience of afternoon tea can be. No gimmicks, just superb service and fine offerings, presented well in a beautiful room.

If you're going to splurge for the glass of champagne during an afternoon tea, do so at the five-star Dorchester. They offer some decent basics, but they also have a bottle exclusive to the hotel, the Gabriel-Pagin 1er Cru 2000, and it's a treat for the tongue — glowing with honey tones and hints of citrus, and it pairs so beautifully with the menu that the sense memory is making me salivate as I write. The sandwiches are vibrant and obviously fresh; they're basic, really — egg salad, chicken, etc. (and roast beef "because it's Sunday," one of my servers said) — but each is made with a different bread (caraway seed with the cucumber, yum) so the basics seem not so basic. After that, the Dorchester offers something that might be my new favorite word: a "pre-dessert." Just a little vanilla panicotta to clear the palate. Then comes the tea, provided here by Harney & Sons. I went commie again, choosing the Russian Country, a blend of four blacks plus (finally, someone gets this) the exact right amount of lapsang souchong. The scones, fine. The jams, delish. The sweets, inventive. (One was a basil-lime macaroon, which was delicious ... but not with tea.) The service throughout was absolutely impeccable. When your tea pot needs refreshing, they don't just bring you more hot water; they whisk away your pot and cup and bring you brand spanking new ones. Huzzah!

The only bad thing I can offer about the Dorchester tea experience is the nature of the room. The Promenade is elegant without being showy, but pay attention to its name. It's called the Promenade because it's just that — a walkway for people strolling between the lobby and the rooms, and the restaurants, piano bar, etc. On one hand, this makes for some fine people watching — London is nothing if not diverse, even in its fine hotels — but, on the other, the traffic can be distracting.

The Dorchester offers just two seatings a day (2:30 and 4:45 p.m.) and is, no surprise, booked way ahead. But the maitre d' gave me a tip when I chatted with him on a very cold, rainy London afternoon: "My worst days are when the weather is beautiful," he said. "That's when we can get up to 20 to 25 percent no-shows." The lesson: If you want tea at the Dorchester (and you do) and you don't have a reservation, try them on a sunny spring or summer afternoon. They hold reservations for half an hour. If folks don't show, you can likely snag their table.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Rishi launches concentrate in Chai-town

Rishi Tea hosted a special launch party in Chicago this week for a new product, a Masala Chai tea concentrate. The creation and marketing of this stuff focuses on its green and sustainable background; it's made with organic, wild-grown, single-origin black tea, and traded fairly. Proceeds from the sale of the Masala Chai benefit Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots youth program, and Ms. Goodall herself was on hand Wednesday at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (and then wound up in interviews throughout the local media, such as this one).

So hooray for all that do-gooding, but here's the real deal about the new Rishi chai: It's delicious. It comes in rectangular cartons like soy milk, so you can keep it on hand and grab it when you crave a chai without the fuss of boiling and brewing. Simply combine equal amounts of the chai concentrate and your choice of milk and heat. The flavor is strong without being overpowering — that is, the spices are balanced perfectly, no cinnamon hogging the spotlight.

Though as I've been working through a carton of the stuff during the last month I actually haven't used it to make many drinks. Here's what else I've used the concentrate for, loving every minute:

  • A splash goes into the cereal bowl in the morning with the milk. My humdrum a.m. ritual has been transformed, and even the blandest box of flakes comes alive with the chai underneath.
  • Similarly, I've added it to oatmeal just before finishing on the stove. It imparts a hearty flavor and cuts the need for added sugars.
  • I made a basic pound cake a while back, and I cut back on the cooking liquids slightly in order to cut in some of the chai concentrate. The flavor delivered a wonderful autumnal edge to the cake (which was perfect with some Bailey's whipped cream).
  • My favorite thing in the world is now: A dish of quality vanilla bean ice cream with the Masala Chai poured over it. I may gain a hundred pounds because of this discovery, but I will be one happy obese dude.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tuesday tea tunes: 'You take as long as you like'

I'm just back from a tea tour of London. Four afternoons, each with one or two afternoon teas. Here's hoping my veins now aren't as clotted as the cream. But this tune was on my playlist for the trip. I'd give up Keemun for a month if I could have afternoon tea with Ray Davies ...

(Thanks, Wooley!)