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.