Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: This Bird has flown

I posted this years ago, but the link seems to have perished. This bluesy tune crossed my path again recently, amid an afternoon of pining for Chicago's music scene, and it's worth repeating: the great Andrew Bird, "Tea and Thorazine."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Cup of Tea'

Brian Vander Ark was always a gracious interview when I was on the beat (once, twice), and his band, the Verve Pipe, always possessed a melodic and strong structural talent that lifted them above other grunge-tinged, ’90s-born bands. This song's about the taste metaphor rather than the beverage itself, but somehow it just feels good in an autumn-approaches kind of way ...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Home of the brazier

Dig these beautiful braziers and more from this blog post (part of a series of instruction and experimental study) about learning to love the way tea was originally fired. Covet, much.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New shop find: Leaf & Kettle

Found another great tea shop, drank some more superb teas — this time north of San Diego in Del Mar, Calif. The local tea-meetup gathered at Leaf & Kettle to learn about this excellent independent shop and to sample some of their offerings. It was one of those nights when the social chemistry sparked a bit (unusual for meetups), the shop impressed, and the tea absolutely wowed.

Leaf & Kettle has been open in a fancy outdoor mall for a couple of years. It's a classic, simple shop built around a tea bar, behind which are a few dozen stainless steel urns full of teas. Their alluring inventory is available online.

Jenna, the manager, poured three teas for our group. First, the organic Kagoshima Sencha, an aromatic spring green from Japan. The first cup was typically vegetal, even grassy (in that good Sencha way). The surprise was the second cup, produced with a counterintuitive shorter steep, which produced more bang for the buck, as it were. One of those teas that seems so light but really packs a wallop.

Next was the stunner: their Hunan Honey Black. Dry, it smells like brandy and freshly baked honey buns. In the cup, it's a rich black tea with a dessert finish — not uncomfortably sweet, not at all off-putting — tasting of chocolate-covered graham cookies. I say that with some irony, because those exact treats were on our table; this tasting note, however, was jotted down before eating one, which I did while enjoying the second steep (which really brought the unsweetened cacao flavor to the fore). The pairing was supreme.

The closer was a tea cocktail of sorts: she mixed an oolong and a fruit herbal (she also added some sliced fresh strawberries) over ice in a cocktail shaker, shook, and poured into glasses with ice and fresh mint sprigs. Very tasty, smooth, refreshing — if you go for the iced stuff. We asked for a second steep of the oolong by itself, Formosa Silk, which was an earthy delight — milky, buttery, a hint of sauteed mushrooms maybe. Had to buy some of that, eager to pair it with dinner.

It is a wonderful feeling, particularly after relocating to a new city, to find that tea shop that connects, that seems to offer just what your palette craves. Leaf & Kettle, hurrah, does so without the come-on of so many tea start-ups. Just a smart, classy joint.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Texas Tea'

The phrase "Texas tea" refers either to petroleum gushing from a well or to a better-known cocktail cribbed from Yankees. Nonetheless, I've found this fresh electronic track by Deadbeat to be great brewing music ...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Tuesday tea TV: 'My Proper Tea'

This is the best thing I've seen in a while. The performance-sync is spot-on, the rap is righteous, and I totally agree: nothing fires me to hip-hop-angry levels quite like improper tea prep. Enjoy Brit comic Doc Brown rhyming about, yegods, milk-first madness ...

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Buenos Aires: Yerba mate from the source

Academic pursuits recently afforded me the opportunity to cross the equator for the first time. Five days scheduled in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was excited about (a) seeing water drain the other way around, (b) steak, steak, and more steak, and (c) drinking mate at the source.

You'd think the latter would be easy to find — particularly given stats claiming that "every man, woman, and child" consumes 11 pounds of mate annually — but you'd be wrong. While mate is consumed widely by Argentines, I found that to be largely a private endeavour. Try to find mate served in a restaurant or shop, and you do a lot of walking with nothing to show for it.

Mate is not something I've written much about on this blog. That's largely because the first time I tried a quality dose of it, I wound up with the worst headache I've ever had. Was it the mate? I steered clear, just in case. Since then, I've dabbled amid the trend without getting too excited about it.

Yerba mate has been celebrated as having all the kick of coffee with all the health benefits of tea. (Like most infusion-related health claims, these have yet to be seriously studied.) It's made from the leaves of a holly tree from the South American rainforest. The dried leaves are steeped, like tea, in hot (not boiling) water.

In Argentina, the custom is to steep the mate in a cured gourd and sip the infusion from a bombilla, a metal straw with a filtered submerged end. It looks like a bowl of grassy soup, and the flavor is very vegetative, like a strong white tea blended with sage and geranium.

After some serious hunting throughout Buenos Aires, at the 11th hour I found a restaurant that served mate — but only in the afternoons, after opening at 1 p.m. (or close to it, such is the Buenos Aires easy-go), and only in winter (which it was in August). Cumana, at Rodriguez Pena 1149 (east of one seriously interesting and beautiful bookstore, where I bought a book about mate, even though it's in Spanish, which I don't read), is a good traveler's find: affordable menu, good food, casual atmosphere, and snacky portions. Cumana serves a thermos of mate, with sides of bread or biscuits. The above description stands, and the caffeinated stimulation is significant. I enjoyed a gourdful prior to my departing flight, a 10-hour trek on which I expected no sleep, so mas mate!

A final photo: The family of Juan Carlos Pallarols has been turning out the finest silver ware in Buenos Aires for generations — which is saying something in a country that's name is taken from the Latin word for silver. They made the silver death mask for Evita Peron, and each president of Argentina receives a ceremonial staff made here. I walked to see his shop one morning (closed, alas), and the window display featured these sterling mate gourds. The next time I try mate, I'd like it to be out of this ...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Remembering John D. Harney

I'm late in celebrating the life of John D. Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, who passed away early in the summer.

An early "missionary of tea," Harney bought a small tea company as a savvy business move and turned it into the spearhead of America's tea renaissance in the 1980s. "All we wanted to do was get out there and convert — sort of like St. John with his gospel of tea," he said in an interview, as quoted in his NYTimes obit. "That’s what I consider myself."

Tea writer Bruce Richardson elaborates more personally in his appreciation piece, describing in detail how the missionary fervor came over Harney in his pursuits.

I enjoyed a brief afternoon chat with Harney years ago. He was immanently affable, humorous, and wise. He even read my tea leaves. You can read that old post here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Do's, don'ts: going out, staying in

An acquaintance writes for Chicagoist and pointed me to this link, a story about how restaurants ruin a simple cup of tea.

One can read this as ever-so justified invective against careless restauranteurs, but one can also take much from its list for our own personal prep. The egregious errors ticked off in the story are as important to be cognizant of at home.

The water temperature issue — burning the tea — is easily managed, though so few do. Green and whites benefit from cooler water. If you don't have an electric kettle that delivers just the right temp, a simple thermometer can set your water straight. I fell in love with a coffee shop on campus not only because they have pretty good tea and selection but because during an early visit one of the baristas asked if I'd like her to put an ice cube in the cup over the tea to cool the water from the instant-boil tap. Not a perfect solution, bu better than nothing — and it showed knowledge and care.

Also, I've become something of an obnoxious evangelist against tea balls and novelty tea steepers. I know, I've posted pics of more than a few of the latter, admiring their design. But the things are really dreadful for tea. If someone finally breaks away from bags only to cram loose-leaf tea into a cramped mesh ball, they don't notice that much difference in taste. Let the tea be. Dream About Tea, a superb shop listed at the end of the story, serves several teas naked in the cup — no bag, no ball, no pouch, just tea leaves directly in the cup. Because good tea sinks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: 'Tea and Toast'

Lucy Spraggan, a singer on the British "X Factor" show, wrote this moving narrative about the simple things in a couple's life ...

Monday, September 1, 2014

What I drank during my summer vacation

Didn't intend to take the whole summer off, just kinda happened, as life does.

Places I drank tea this summer:
— On my patio, staring into the canyon, decompressing after a strenuous but revitalizing school year. Keemuns and Yunnans and Earl Grey, oh my.
— The Tea Lounge in the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas. Not exactly an afternoon tea kinda town, but what a fantastic spread.
— The courthouse during jury duty. Swill, of course.
— Numerous spots in Buenos Aires. Tea and mate. More to come on that.
— At brunch ... after my wedding!
— Lakeside, in Idaho, in the dang-beautiful middle o' nowhere. Smoky souchong as autumn peeked in.

So, yes, back to brewing and blogging ... Thanks for sticking with me!