Thursday, September 29, 2011

A fine excuse to enjoy espresso again

Today is National Coffee Day, and I'm not a bigot. I have catholic tastes. I am large, I consume multitudes. This afternoon, I did something I haven't done within my searchable memory: I drank some coffee.

Once upon a time, this wasn't so unusual. Coffee was my first stimulant as a young fool. Many a Sunday mornin' have come down with a cup o' joe. I enjoy coffee with dessert, especially. The bitter vs. sweet — happy warfare for the territory of my tongue.

I made a bean-line to Stella, a shop in my 'hood where I often retreat for afternoon laptop labors. They have a decent tea selection, and they know how to steep. But everyone else comes for the espresso, and if I'm going to join them for coffee then I want to taste coffee. Also, why volumize the experience with more water and milk? I ordered a shot.

Anything served in tiny glasses has my attention. I have racks of cordials here at home for the port, the sherry, the grappa, the homemade limoncello, and there are a couple of wee stemmed shot glasses in the freezer with the aquavit. Would that tea could be concentrated down to such a form — though I actually enjoyed some matcha once in a Los Angeles tea shop that billed it as "green tea espresso."

I'd forgotten two things about real espresso. One, the joy of crema. No dairy products required, just expert preparation to deliver that little cap of textural bliss on top. Second, the jagged experience of caffeine without tea's theanine. What a trip — the imbalance, the rush of yin, the feeling of being all jacked up and nowhere to flow. My body was alive, but my mind was still weary. No fair.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

'Modern Marvels' episode about tea

Last week I watched an episode of "Modern Marvels," a series on the History channel that promotes industrial boosterism by examining the various whizz-bang technical creations behind modern manufacturing and consumption.

The episode on tea is interesting — and eye-opening — for its footage of several tea factories, from Bigelow's U.S. factory to the Celestial Seasonings sinus-clearing mint room. The clip below (the full episode used to be on Hulu but has now expired) shows the Charleston facility — its conveyor belts, its shredders, all kinds of whirring blades and spiraling screws that'll make you appreciate the hand-rolled stuff. Interesting, though, to peer behind the curtain a bit ...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Iron & Tea

If we're getting autumnal, there are few artists who do that better than Iron & Wine, here singing "Her Tea Leaves" about the end of summer — "When autumn comes, she’ll be there / jasmine still in her hair / her tea leaves dry by the sea."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Teapots by the pound

Baskets full of teapots for sale at a weekend public market
in my neighborhood. Teapots by the bushel!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Real poetry about tea!

Normally, I'm loath to promote the cutesy side of tea culture. I tend to be allergic to anything with an embroidered cat on it or a purely decorative cozy. I've read my share of dreadful tea-themed "poetry," too — but there's a book available (Amazon shows it slated for Dec. 1, but you can buy it now directly from the author) of real poetry that happens to sing of tea.

Distinguished Leaves: Poems for Tea-Lovers by Elizabeth Darcy Jones is a neat volume of pert verse celebrating tea and its accoutrement. Cute by occasional default, most of the poetry here is quality and at least strives for literate standing beyond being a mere gift book from the acquaintances who perhaps know you as "the tea person." Try this sample:

"Afternoon Tea from Cornwall"

My gaze falls on the Fal – it’s dead on three
Tregothnan’s sun makes butter of my bones
Someone’s thinking, ‘Now’s the time, it’s time for tea!’

Tourists talk of Eden, Marazion and the sea
While clotted cream is spread on fresh baked scones
My gaze falls on the Fal – it’s dead on three.

Torn leaves – from bushes only feet away – are free
To swell, and fill the pot until it groans
Is someone thinking, ‘Now’s the time, it’s time for tea?’

It’s young, organic, grown right here and, naturally,
It tastes of rivers steaming smoky tones
My gaze falls on the Fal – it’s dead on three.

Best check your watch and travel West with me
Read the signs! Switch off your mobile phones!
Everybody’s drinking. ‘Now’s the time, it’s time for tea!’

The villain line that I forgot comes back to me
I reconnect to that which no one owns
My gaze falls on the Fal – it’s dead on three
This someone’s thinking, ‘Now it’s time, the time for tea!’

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Autumn is your last chance

We're getting some autumn breezes around Chicago now, for sure, so this week's tune is "Autumn Wind" by a 20-year-old Canadian indie-folk guy who records as The Irish Tea Room. It's a song that definitely sounds like its subject ...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

'Whose kettle scarcely has time to cool'

Happy birthday to Samuel Johnson (center, taking tea, above), one of the world's most formidable tea drinkers. A prolific writer in London in the mid-1700s, Johnson self-described as "a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning."

Amen, sister.

If you haven't read the entirety of his critical essay, "Review of 'A Journal of Eight Days' Journey,'" from whence that comes, it's worth a Sunday afternoon perusal. Johnson eviscerates a fellow author who proclaimed tea to be an evil influence in Britain (and got most of his facts wrong in the process). You can find the text here, after you've poured a cup.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In-tea-lligence from India and China

As I write this, I'm sipping a Japanese bancha from a new mug, one emblazoned with the logo of the grad school where I'm now a master's student. I have a typically windowless, cinder-block office on campus in a typically weird, strangely designed university building, and I've already scoped out where the hot water taps are in the building so I can at least approximate a decent cup of tea as I slave away writing papers, conducting research and reading, reading, reading.

One of the many aspects of campus life I appreciate once more, after having been away as a student for nearly two decades, is the regular contact with people of different backgrounds and experience. In my graduate cohort are several students from India and China, for example — so, of course, we started talking tea.

Raj, a student I'm collaborating with this week, hails from India. She scoffed at the shop in Calcutta I've written about before — Dolly's, from which another friend of mine sends me tea whenever she visits. "That's where you go to show off, not to drink real tea," she said.

She recommended something I tried this weekend, too: a strong cup of Darjeeling with a bit of lemon, a pinch of sugar and a tiny bit of ... black salt. Fabulous, I have several colored salts given to me ages ago by a chef, and I always forget to use them. A big proponent of salty-sweet combos, I encourage this. Salt in tea is something everyone should try at least once, and this balance of sweet, salt (with the added clean smoky flavor of the charcoal-blended black salt) and lemon is as perfect as the world's greatest cocktail, the sidecar.

Another thing Raj said that I loved, as we discussed the ideal spice blend for chai: "Mostly cardamom, no cinnamon. Americans are obsessed with cinnamon. You put it on everything!"

Raj complained that India's tea businesses export all their good quality teas. Another student, Qian, from Beijing, said it's the opposite in China: they keep the good stuff in the country and export the crud.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: Hot tea, cold beer

Back to the working week, folks, so step lively. Here's a beat for you, courtesy the Herbaliser and rapper Jean Grae — who boasts of bringing "100 gallons of flow" to this contemplation of a curious cocktail. Eventually, she concludes: "You know what tea and beer would taste like if you put them together? Not good." (Warning: some strong language, etc.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Boulder and the beautiful teahouse

A friend and colleague, Mark G., drove into the Rocky Mountains for the first time in his life this week. On his way through Boulder, Colo., he followed my recommendation to revive himself at the Dushanbe Teahouse.

Just because it's such a beautiful place, here are some of the photos he sent to taunt me about where he was, while I was at work ...

Thanks, Mark. Ya bastard.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Darling, where's the tea chest? (gasp!)

One of the free books I nabbed off of iBooks (long live the public domain) is Henry Fielding's Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which I dove into because of my previously mentioned fascination with Portugal. The book is true to its title, however; it's all about the journey, and very little about Lisbon itself. What it illuminates is just how excruciating and slow 18th-century travel was, and during the journey Fielding and his companions were bereft when they feared the absolute worst had befallen them: they thought they'd lost their tea chest ...

We promised to be ready as soon as breakfast was over, but this was not so soon as was expected; for, in removing our goods the evening before, the tea-chest was unhappily lost. Every place was immediately searched, and many where it was impossible for it to be; for this was a loss of much greater consequence than it may at first seem to many of my readers. Ladies and valetudinarians do not easily dispense with the use of this sovereign cordial in a single instance; but to undertake a long voyage, without any probability of being supplied with it the whole way, was above the reach of patience. And yet, dreadful as this calamity was, it seemed unavoidable. The whole town of Ryde could not supply a single leaf; for, as to what Mrs. Francis and the shop called by that name, it was not of Chinese growth. It did not indeed in the least resemble tea, either in smell or taste, or in any particular, unless in being a leaf;...

When a good deal of time had been spent, most of it indeed wasted on this occasion, a thought occurred which every one wondered at its not having presented itself the first moment. This was to apply to the good lady, who could not fail of pitying and relieving such distress. A messenger was immediately despatched with an account of our misfortune, till whose return we employed ourselves in preparatives for our departure, that we might have nothing to do but to swallow our breakfast when it arrived. The tea-chest, though of no less consequence to us than the military-chest to a general, was given up as lost, or rather as stolen, for though I would not, for the world, mention any particular name, it is certain we had suspicions, and all, I am afraid, fell on the same person.

The man returned from the worthy lady with much expedition, and brought with him a canister of tea, despatched with so true a generosity, as well as politeness, that if our voyage had been as long again we should have incurred no danger of being brought to a short allowance in this most important article. At the very same instant likewise arrived William the footman with our own tea-chest. It had been, indeed, left in the hoy.

(Speaking of tea in Portugal, here's a recent article about the tea gardens in the Azores, Europe's only tea production, with some nice photos. It looks better than it tastes, but what a vacation this visit would be!)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Marketing 101, with Prof. Earl Grey

You can create all the funky new flavors you want, but don't mess with the original.

Twinings found that out recently when the venerated British tea company decided to "refresh" its Earl Grey recipe, adding "a dash of lemon and a touch more bergamot," and relaunching it under the company's Aromatics line of flavored teas. "The Earl himself couldn’t have imagined how wonderful his favourite tea could taste," Twinings claimed.

The reviews (many via a Facebook protest page) came in quickly, and they were not "wonderful":
  • "I took a big gulp expecting it to taste lovely and bergamotty but to my utter dismay (and horror as I nearly spat it out) it tasted like lemon cleaning product - vile."
  • "I have to say it is utterly gross. We wont be buying it in the office again."
  • "It stinks, rather like lemon Fairy Up Liquid and is unpleasant to taste. I threw the contents of my box out into the compost."
  • "I can't drink the new blend. The false lemon flavour is just horrid.
  • "I cannot describe how awful this new tea tastes. The old award-winning tea was in a completely different league to this foul-tasting dish water."

A Twinings spokesman reported that, of course, the company had conducted "rigorous consumer tasting" before unleashing the new product and received a "strong preference feedback over the previous blend."

In a move that brings back memories of the New Coke scheme, Twinings announced last week on its website that they were giving in to popular demand — "Whilst many love the new Earl Grey, a group of Earl Grey fans have asked us to make the previous blend available. Not wishing to disappoint, we have introduced Earl Grey The Classic Edition," the statement reads — thereby shrewdly and cheaply reminding the British public of its national treasure.

The origins of Earl Grey tea and its bergamot-tinged recipe have been debated for ages, but Twinings made it the household name it still is today. The company first sold the blend in 1831, naming it after then-Prime Minister Charles Grey.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tuesday tea tunes: 'Summer's good times are gone'

I like this folkie shuffle, a song about reflecting on summer's good times over a cup of tea: "Tea for One" by Jake Roche:

Tea for one by jakeroche