Monday, November 18, 2013

Shakespeare's Tea Caddy, If Shakespeare Drank Tea, Which He Did Not.

{ Tea Caddy from Shakespeare's Very Own Mulberry Tree. }

Shakespeare did not drink tea.

No, no, I kid you not. Unless you believe conspiracy theories that make the writers of his plays into Roger Bacon, or Francis Bacon, or Kevin Bacon, we know a man named William Shakespeare died in 1616. The United Kingdom never saw tea until 1658, and it wasn't until 1665 that the East India Company started importing it to the UK.

NEVERTHELESS, once upon a time, a certain Shakespeare fellow planted a mulberry tree. A century or so later, the Most Reverend Francis Gastrell purchased New Place at Stratford-Upon-Avon and was so overwhelmed by annoying fanboys wanting to see the tree that he decided to chop it down and burn the corpse. Of the tree, that is. (On a side note, in a fit of pique, Gastrell destroyed Shakespeare's home because he didn't like the taxes on it. Quite a piece of work, eh?)

But wait! Brilliant entrepreneurs instead got hold of the mulberry's remains, chopped it into craft-sized pieces, and they started making tchotchkes out of the wood, which they began selling to tourists. To this day, Stratford-Upon-Avon maintains is mercantile charm.

{ Paraphernalia, Just Like Mom Used To Make }

According to The Daily Mail,

A tea caddy carved from a mulberry tree may have been planted by Shakespeare himself has gone under the hammer for £13,000 at auction. The antique - which features a tiny carved bust of the Bard - was whittled out of wood recovered from the famous tree planted outside the playwright's home.

Apparently, Shakespeare planted the tree because landowners were getting in on UK silk production--yet another replacement for import from China that the Emperor was not happy about.

So if you like your Shakespeare, you like your tea, and you like your history: well, too bad you didn't get there first and buy the caddy to add to your collection!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Brothers K and the ingenuiTEA gadget

{ "ingenuiTEA, with Russian novel and office window,"
media mixed with afternoon sunlight, 2013 } 

As many of you have surmised from my last post several weeks ago, I am now a teacher of English literature. And I have an office that is not embedded in my home, which is a giant plus for me, forcing me out of my cave and into the wide world. I find it a bit exhausting, because PEOPLE. You've perhaps noticed that I avoid taking pictures, because I don't have some cool macro lens, and my knowledge of photography is limited to . . . well, the above. But it's a moment I caught, with sunlight, tea, and Russian literature combining pleasingly.

Because I'm in an office, I've been casting about for a way to make tea that isn't completely hopeless.

I'll tell you about the tea later. Today I'll focus on the ingenuiTEA, which is available through my friends at Adagio Teas.

Happily, there are many tea gadgets out there, ranging from amusing tea balls, to mini French presses, to cast-iron tetsubin with mesh baskets for the tea to float about in. This is a testimony to the growing tea culture in the US and elsewhere, and it behooves us to take advantage of these fun accouterments to our tea-drinking experience.

The ingenuiTEA is one of several similar devices, sold by a number of online tea marketers, which are a boon to the office-working tea drinker. The device above is made of clear plastic, and it has a removable mesh strainer for easy cleaning. It invariably makes the students and staff ooh and ahh over how cute it is. The ladies, that is. The young guys do not ooh and ahh over anything, but they do try to ask me questions about tea so that they don't have to discuss 19th-century Russian literature.

I brought the ingenuiTEA and a Darjeeling oolong to class recently, and I gave the students a point on their test if they could guess where it came from. Several of them got it right, just by sheer luck.

Adagio's device is an open container into which I can pour my boiling water, and the tea leaves have plenty of open space to steep. Once they're ready, I place it on top of a cup, and a cleverly hidden lever inside opens a sluice through which the tea pours into the cup below. I've discovered how much my cup will take, so I don't overflow as much anymore and endanger my computer hardware.

I like gongfu cha, and I also like convenience when I'm at work. This thing sits at that sweet spot, where I don't have to bring in a complex set of teaware to get a decent cup of tea, and it takes what seems like a rather complex system I have at home and simplifies it for the workplace, where mucking about with six or seven different implements just isn't practical.

It won't replace my precious purple-clay teapots or my gaiwan and tea table, but it's just right for making a cup of tea that honestly tastes almost the same (particularly because I use good water that I've purified using Japanese white charcoal, as well as decent tea), and it makes my afternoons much better.

If you haven't experimented with such a device, please drop by their website and try one out.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tomorrow I Teach

{ World's Smallest Teapot

Today I am a man, but tomorrow I am also a teacher. I shall be instructing on Literature and Composition for prep school students at my son's school, Valeo Academy, while still running my small business, Chicago Captioning.

Though my mental process are being impaired mightily while I write this (!) by the boisterousness (!!) of my two children, and I apologize for any appalling mistakes you may find, I can say I'll continue writing here, and I'll be using my knowledge of tea (such as it is) to help my students become more aware of their senses and writing about them, along with Beowulf and The Brothers Karamazov.

Wish me well as I bounce, Tiggerishly, into the world of English Lit., while keeping my other plates spinning. And keep dropping in to The 39 Steeps to see what we're doing. I might even have a precocious prep school student write a guest piece or two here from time to time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

TEA MYTH BUSTED: "90% of caffeine comes out of tea leaf in the first 30 seconds."

Because so many people approach tea from a health perspective, there is a huge volume of marketing information out there, much of it nonsense.

One of the more persistent myths I've come across is this:

"90% of all the caffeine comes out of tea in the first 30 seconds of steeping. You can naturally decaffeinate by pouring off the water after the first 30 seconds and resteeping the leaves."

Nope, false. The Web site, Wonder of Tea, deals with this myth here:

Tea Caffeine Legend #3
You can have a decaf cup of tea by pouring out the first infusion after steeping for about 30 seconds

When you pour out the first infusion after 30 seconds, you remove some of the caffeine but not all so it’s wrong to label this “decaffeinated “.

According to a study done by Hicks et all published in 1996 in Food Research International, steeping a tea for 15 minutes and then flushing it out removes 100% of the caffeine. Personally, I think that will also take away most of the flavour of the brew. Experiments have shown that steeping for about 5 minutes works quite well in retaining the flavour and that removes about 70% of the caffeine.

The data from their finding extrapolated below shows the caffeine extraction percentages within the 5 minutes period. Steeping for:

30 seconds – 9%
1 minute – 18 %
2 minutes - 34%
3 minutes - 48%
4 minutes- 60%
5 minutes - 69%
10 minutes - 92%
15 minutes - 100%

In other words, you can remove 100% of the caffeine in the tea after 15 minutes of steeping. Now, I don't have access to the study, so I can't verify the number of tests, how the caffeine was measured, nor what temperature the leaves were steeped at. But even so, it's pretty clear that the myth is busted.

For an even more in-depth look at caffeine and tea, go here:

[This is a repost from 7/28/09, and it's been one of my most-read articles. People must be very concerned about their caffeine intake!]

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tea Horse, Wuyi Yancha

{ I'm late. Well, not yet,
but if I keep fooling around
with this tea blog,
I will be. }
Oh, you tea-blog readers, sitting in your verandas, sipping your top-shelf cognacs and counting the butterflies as they flit through your walled English garden; you world travelers, stopping in at a WiFi station on Mount Everest; you CEOs who are pretending to work while you've cleverly delegated everything, and now it's a choice between your golf swing and a few minutes reading The 39 Steeps. You all think that all I do is, well, what you do. But, no! I am late. I have no time to write a tea blog today. I'm busy! So pardon the unedited writing, the quick typing, and the inevitable typos and stupid verbal tics I employ when I'm in a rush.

However, I have a tea that, if I don't write about it now, I never shall. I'm at the bottom of the package, the last portion, the final bit. If I wait until tomorrow, it'll be too late, and my brilliant observations will slowly fade, like memories of Collette What's-her-name, that girl whom I had a crush on in seventh grade. (Yes, I know her last name, but I'll spare her the humiliation of association with me.) The tea is a Wuyi Yancha, served by Tea Horse in the UK.

Watch the clock. Don't write too much. Pardon me, all, because I type 90 words per minute, and I don't have the time to make this shorter. --Hurry, hurry! Break all your rules about taking your time, so you can get this out and not blow your deadline!

{ Thank you, BoingBoing, for finding this lure. }

I'm going to make you do your homework. You know how to Google, right? Look up Wuyi Yancha. It's an oolong, grown around WuYi, which is to say, the Wu Mountain. (If you say Wuyi Mountain, it's like saying, "Wu Mountain Mountain." Unless I have my Chinese all screwed up, and I don't have the time-- the time!-- to look it up properly to double-check my assertion. Rats. Well, catch me if you can.)

the tea flight

As I finished my first steeping of this tea, gongfu style, of course, and I sat at my computer, the aroma hit. It's deep, with a kind of a musk to it. It's complex and foresty, sort of like a rich plummy taste; but not terribly floral, neither vegetal. You tea drinkers know what I'm talking about. It reminds one of Autumn, of the aroma of the mulch underfoot as you walk through a dark path in the woods, with mature grasses and decayed leaves in the underbrush. It's a deep summer smell, an almost-Fall smell. And it caught me, lured me in. (Ha! See? You knew the lure picture would show up eventually. Don't you love that pig-elephant-bee thing? Brilliant.) 

The flavor on the first, 30-second steeping: A touch weak (my fault), but complex with a beautiful aftertaste that lasts and lasts and lasts. (Missing Oxford commas. I'm late! No time to fix.) There's a sharpness there, along with the deeper notes, which nicely offset one another. This tea might have legs, but I don't know yet.

{ David Bowie's pants might also have legs. }

And the second steeping, clocking in around 40 seconds. The leaves are a deep black with hints of deep green; long, beautiful leaf-looking leaves, just opening up. They had been tightly curled, but now they're relaxing, kind of loosening up their ties, letting their hair down, and getting ready to dance.

{ Relaxed, but not as hostile or byronesque. }

The Yancha is, frankly, just a bit less exciting than I had hoped for. Strongly mineral in quality, rather less fragrant than the first time 'round, and the aroma from the pot is almost nonexistent. Note to self: Occasionally, follow the directions on the package. They said, Brew for three minutes, not for 40 seconds. Maybe, just maybe, they were right.

{ When a tea infusion fails, I doubt myself.
Like this guy, but without any plans to marry my daughter. }
In previous infusions of this tea, I had a livelier time of it, with a good second infusion-- not a knock-your-socks-off experience, but nicely solid, with a lot of flavor to sink your teeth into. Here, I'm thinking I may have used just a touch too few leaves for the amount of water, and I should have let it steep a bit longer for the full potential of the tea.  This shows the difference between, say, a vintage Cab and a tea. For the Cabernet Sauvignon, you just have to (a) keep the bottle an appropriate length of time; (b) open the bottle; (c) choose the right glasses; (d) pour the bottle into the glasses: (e) wait a while so the esters can uncoil, loosing the flavor; and (f) drink-- hopefully with friends.

But with tea, you actually have to make tea. It doesn't come in a bottle, and you have to get to know your teas, learning from them as they teach you how to make them properly. If I had a half-pound of this Wuyi Yancha, I would then relax over the semi-failure of this experiment, and I'd go ahead and make ready for another tea flight. More time! More leaves! Try again, until you get what you get what you came for!

But as it is, I'll have to settle for a rather mediocre drinking experience brought about entirely by me experimenting to see what works and what doesn't.

Still, a pretty nice cup of tea. When I sip it, I am experiencing it mostly in the aftertaste, what lingers on the tongue after the tea's been swallowed. Rich, complex, a touch smoky. I only wish I had listened to directions! I only wish I had more tea! I only wish I had more time to write and think more about this! But I'm going to be late if I write another word of this review, and I must be about my real bread-and-butter business.

Third steeping: Pleasant. Still on the weak side, but I can taste this smoky-musky-fruit thing that makes me think of roasted plums and perhaps an herbal tint, like a muted but distinct wild thyme. This is definitely a tea that opens itself up to you in the aftertaste, as it lingers on the tongue. Don't be fooled by the first bite of the tea, because the retronasal experience is da money. Advice: Allow the tea to sit in the pot for a few minutes for the magic of chemistry to do its work, complexifying the tea and letting it come into its full body. The third steeping was the place I was waiting for, and I'm happy I stayed for it. Now I'm definitely going to be late on my deadline. I blame you, gentle readers!

Thank you, Tea Horse, for allowing me to experiment with your tea!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Q: "Can Ceylon Tea Help You in the Bedroom?" A: "Well, obviously."

"Can Ceylon Tea Help You in the Bedroom?" asks the New York Daily News. Answer: Obviously, yes.

A hot cup of Ceylon tea is better known as being soothing and relaxing, but Sri Lanka is now marketing its most profitable export as a luxury boost for the libido.

The tea industry is increasingly plugging Ceylon's supposed aphrodisiac qualities in a bid to radically change perceptions of the brew, which manufacturers say can sell for less than water in some markets.

"We are highlighting the properties of tea that can give you an edge in the bedroom," said Rohan Fernando, whose firm HVA Foods sells a small 60-gram jar of premium Ceylon for $350.

"Tea has traditionally been the poor man's drink. We want to be at the top-end of the supply chain," he said.

The industry may not yet have hard medical proof of Ceylon's performance-enhancing powers, but they have long been the stuff of legend among Sri Lankan tea lovers.

"When your overall health improves, your sexual performance automatically increases."

{ Ouch, looks hot. And a tea bag? Not sexy. }

As Ceylon gets sexed up, we should plan to create some hot, hot, hot tea-infused perfumes; and we should be aware that, "Would you like a cuppa, IYKWIMAITYD*," will become the premiere pick-up line of the future.

Of course, this cannot be limited to Ceylon teas only. Out of 7 million people on this planet, 1.34 billion are Chinese. And the Chinese invented drinking tea. You do the math.

{ Hey, babe, wanna come up
and look at my engravings
Yixing collection*? }

*"If you know what I mean, and I think you do."

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tea Horse, Black Keemun Mao Feng

Review of Black Keemun Mao Feng, provided by Tea Horse in the UK.

Welcome, tea appreciators and connoisseurs! Today I bring you a black Keemun Mao Feng, which has been provided to me by my friends at the UK outfit, Tea Horse. I'd like to break down the terms used in the title of this bag of leaves and see what we can understand before we get any hot water boiling. And I have a little story for you, which will give you an idea of the origins of this peculiar, exciting tea.

But before we get started on the tea, a big thought from the God himself, conveyed to us by the prophet Isaiah.

"For He says, 'Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.'" --Isaiah 28:10

This verse is brought to remembrance because I was thinking about my readership and the type of knowledge it takes to properly understand the in-voice of a tea blog. And furthermore, how much yet I have to learn. I have something like 80 official followers through the Google doodad, and I don't know how many others who stop by because they read a blurb elsewhere or through a search on "10 ways tea caffeine is better than coffee caffeine," (Ha! Linkbait) and I'm sure that means I have 80 people who know far more than I do about tea who nevertheless have decided to follow The 39 Steeps blog.

So God  gives some good advice about attaining wisdom:

Order on order
Order on order
Line on line,
Line on line 
A little here
A little there

We can't expect to learn all this stuff in a day, a month, or even a decade. Anything worth attaining to is rich enough to drill down deeply into, a mine that will take a lifetime of learning to understand. That being said, you can learn about 80% of what you need to be an "expert," or at least fairly conversant, in a subject in a shockingly short amount of time. That means, take heart ye who are starting to learn about tea, because it doesn't take a long time to get the basics, though it will provide you with a lifetime to find that elusive 20% that only will come to you with much dedication and study.

Order on order, line on line, here a little, there a little. That's a good way to learn about today's tea.

Tea Horse

{National Geographic,
The Tea Horse Road }
First off: "Tea Horse." Of course, it's a company name, right? But behind that little moniker is a reference to the ancient tea route, which was known as the Tea Horse Road, or the Southern Silk Road. Please don't hate me if I use a handy Wikipedia entry to give an overview.

The Tea Horse Road or chamadao (simplified Chinese: 茶马道; traditional Chinese: 茶馬道), now generally referred to as the Ancient Tea Horse Road or chama gudao (simplified Chinese: 茶马古道; traditional Chinese: 茶馬古道) was a network of mule caravan paths winding through the mountains of Yunnan Province in Southwest China. It is also sometimes referred to as the Southern Silk Road. From around a thousand years ago, the Ancient Tea Route was a trade link from Yunnan, one of the first tea-producing regions: to Bengal and India via Burma; to Tibet; and to central China via Sichuan Province. In addition to tea, the mule caravans carried salt. Both people and horses carried heavy loads, the tea porters sometimes carrying over 60–90 kg, which was often more than their own body weight in tea.

It is believed that it was through this trading network that tea (typically tea bricks) first spread across China and Asia from its origins in Pu'er county, near Simao Prefecture in Yunnan.

The route earned the name Tea-Horse Road because of the common trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea, a practice dating back at least to the Song dynasty, when the sturdy horses were important for China to fight warring nomads in the north.

You can learn more by clicking that link above and reading it all, and then going to source materials to really delve into the subject. The Tea Horse Road opened trading in an enormous geographic space, allowing cultures to get to know one another through mercantile enterprise. And even the tea was sometimes affected by the trade. Russian caravan tea, a common style sold everywhere nowadays, came from the practice of the traders making smoky fires on their long trips, sometimes adding smoky fragrance to the tea by the time it arrived in the trading centers of distant Russia. Green teas so often drunk in China might not make it the extreme distances, so black tea was developed to help get this wonderful leaf changed-but-intact to far shores.

As you see, even in the shorthand of a tea company's title, it's line upon line, here a little, there a little. Just keep reading, tasting, and learning, and you're on your way.

Black Tea

As I mentioned before, black tea was not typically drunk much in China. Most of the great Tribute Teas, or the 10 Famous Chinese Teas, were not black teas, which is the type of tea we are most familiar with in the West. The lists for the 10 Famous Teas changes depending upon who is making the list, but here's a pretty handy one for reference, also by the dreaded and much-maligned Wikipedia.

Translated English nameChinesePronunciationPlace of originTypeOccurrences
1Dragon Well西湖龙井Xi Hu Long JingHangzhouZhejiangGreen tea20
2Spring Snail洞庭碧螺春Dong Ting Bi Luo ChunSuzhouJiangsuGreen tea20
3Iron Goddess安溪铁观音An xi Tiě Guān YīnAnxiFujianOolong tea18
4Yellow Mountain Fur Peak黄山毛峰Huáng shān Máo FēngHuang ShanAnhuiGreen tea17
5Mount Jun Silver Needle君山银针Jun shan Yin ZhenYueyangHunanYellow tea14
6Qi Men Red祁门红茶Qi Men Hong ChaQimenAnhuiBlack tea12
7Big Red Robe武夷大紅袍Wu Yi Dà Hóng PáoWuyi MountainsFujianOolong tea11
8Melon Seed六安瓜片Liu ān Guā PiànLu'anAnhuiGreen tea11
9White Fur Silver Needle白毫银针Bái Háo Yín ZhēnFudingFujianWhite tea10
10Pu-erh tea云南普洱Yunnan Pǔ'ěr CháSimaoYunnanPost-fermented tea10

If you want to have a great tea adventure, by all means look up these teas and give them a try. Of course, you won't get the true "Imperial"-grade teas, which stay in China and only get drunk by the friends of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. But what we get is good enough for barbarian taste buds, and we can still get an extraordinarily lovely cup anyway. Look at the list above: four greens, two oolongs, a yellow, a white, and a puerh. Oh, and a black. One black tea out of 10 Famous Chinese teas. So when a Chinese tea is designated as a BlacikTea, you know they meant to do that, and quite possibly for foreign consumption, because our tastes are fitted quite nicely for that type of tea. But because it was also designated as one of the Ten Great Teas of China, fit for the emperor, it means this tea can be a rare and refined treat.

Please notice, Chinese generally refer to what we call black tea as red tea. This sometimes causes some confusion with Western purchasers, who also see on the shelves something called, red tea, which is actually a red-colored infusion from the honeybush tree, an entirely different kettle of fish.

Mao Feng

Originally I had thought that mao feng was a reference to the practice of plucking only the freshest tea leaves at the tip of the stem, with a bud and two leaves. Where did I get this completely erroneous idea? Why, Wikipedia, of course. (See? Line upon line, here a little, there a little.) My more knowledgeable tea friends said it is more about the shape of the leaves: long and twisty, hand-plucked, carefully treated. Fur peak is the literal meaning, and it is a production style for this tea that can be steeped longer with less leaf, providing a smooth tea with a unique taste palate.


Ah, keemun, or quimen, or qimen, or ;. Remember, this is an English transliteration from a Chinese term, and spellynges can vary. There's probably no right way to spell it, but we go with Keemun for simplicity. Just for kicks, I looked up "Qimen, Huangshan, Anhui, China" in Google Earth, and I found what I was looking for. Qimen, or Keemun, is a tea named after the place it was originally developed.

{ Qimen, Huangshan, Anhui, China }
While I could give you pictures of Qimen, I'll let your Google do the walking instead. Here, I'll simply point out that this region is obviously mountainous, with villages up on peaks, and much green of tea visible from space by Google's cameras. Many tea-growing regions give much of their local economy up to the growing of this scarce resource, and sometimes their economies can suffer when there is a drought or a dip in tea prices. This is not unlike the results of the Potato Famine in Ireland (or even the current state of the city of Detroit), when a location given over to a single crop or product may suffer out of proportion to its potential because they don't have enough of a backup plan if something goes wrong with their production or distribution of what it is they're selling.

A Just-So Story: "How Keemun Tea Came To Be"

nce upon a time, when the world was yet young, and the dew of creation still hung wet upon the glistering leaves; when Brother Raven, and Father Owl, and Sister Otter were still discovering their places in the grand scheme of Nature; and Oscar Wilde was a second-year student at Oxford, and Nikola Tesla began his studies, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was born-- that is to say, 1875-- there was in China a humble bureaucrat of the name Yu Ganchen.

Ganchen grew up in a tea-growing family, as were all the families in his neighborhood in Anhui; but he was known for his frequent bumbles and fumbles. He (and those unfortunate enough to have spent an afternoon picking up after his messes) felt he could not quite fit in as a tea grower like his father and his father before him, so he bent himself upon being the under-prefect of some important-seeming functionary in the depths of the highly organized and restrictive Confucian world of his day. There were plenty of jobs for people who could read and write and shuffle papers about with the appearance of great efficiency. What could go wrong?

Well, unfortunate Ganchen was as marvelous an undersecretary for the assistant prefect of the council for undersecretary affairs (or whatever it was, and don't quote me on that), as he was as a tea grower: that is to say, an utter and categorical failure. While beset by the misfortunes and the many unpleasantnesses that arrive upon the doorstep of any failed bureaucrat in no matter what country or time, he remembered what his Papa had told him: "If all else fails, son of my heart, come back home and make tea."

Well, for lack of anything else to do, he returned, head hanging, tail between his legs, and started making tea. This quickly palled on him, as a humble tea farm did not match the marble floors and inlaid wood of the undersecretary's offices, and he missed the scritch-scritch-scritch of sharply pointed quills writing important diktats to the under-under-undersecretaries to carry out. Alas! Never again would poor Ganchen drink tea in the palace's garden-- so many teas, and so different from the Anhui greens with which he was so familiar-- with his superiors, hoping against hope for someone to die so he could take their place in the great ladder of success that might allow him to return home with a peacock-feather fan and a lovely wife from, perhaps, a family slightly above their own in social status.

Alas, poor Ganchen! In his despair, he took the crop of the day's tea leaves, which he abhorred the very look of-- they stared at him so, saying, "Failure, failure, failure"-- and he tossed them into the corner of his room, refusing to even return their disapproving glares. He sat at his desk, dreaming that he was again surrounded by fragrant cherry trees and the lovely sound of scritch-scritching of such important things.

Sleep came upon Ganchei, as it does to all breathing things. The next morning-- Despair! Failure! He had forgotten entirely to take his day's tea-- which he had taken hours to pluck-- and get them out for proper drying. As we said earlier, Anhui province was famous for its green teas, and a wasted day in growing season was no small thing. Surely, his fathers glower would say-without-saying, "My son, the failure at tea, then the failure at being a useless undersecretary of dung disposal, and now a failure at tea all over again. Oh, Emperor of Heaven, why could I not have had a lovely daughter, even if I'd have to sell all I had to marry her off with a proper dowry? Better than this lout."

Of course, Ganchei's father had thought no such thing, for it was he who had kindly reminded his son that he always had a home, and a work, to return to if for some reason a career in the capitol did not pan out has he had been hoping. But a young man, in the grip of his shame, might be forgiven for projecting such thoughts on a kindly and longsuffering man who wished for nothing but the joy of each of his children, whom he loved more than his own life.

In despair, Ganchei ambled over to the ruined leaves. Instead of the brilliant, rich green, they were now a dull, rumpled brown. "My father will kill me. Or, worse yet, cast me out of the household where I shall have to make a living in the wild world, selling my hair and internal organs to survive." He hadn't thought that latter out as well as he could, which was the mind-set that perhaps might have contributed to his failure as assistant to the undersecretary.

As a sort of last supper, before he would go to his father and bare his failures and the inevitable shame, he pulled out his best teaware-- the imported caledon from far-off Korea, and the tea pot with the slight chip in the pour-- and decided to drink to the dregs this testament to his inadequacies.

"Keemun tea, brought to you by Yu Ganchen, the abysmal." He used his most exquisite gongfu preparations to create this muck which marked the end of yet another unprofitable venture. "Bottoms up, you son of a whore!" he said to himself, as he sipped the first steeping.

Stop. Full stop. Instead of a blasted ruin of some fairly decent tea, he had instead accidentally invented something new. This was not the famed Anhui tea that his entire region centered its economy upon from time out of mind. This was SOMETHING NEW. Rich, with black orchid notes, and something like chocolate (of which he knew nothing), and . . . well, flavors-- dozens and dozens of flavors-- he had never even imagined, even while tasting the great teas while he was working as a minor functionary in a large organization.

SOMETHING NEW. Yes, he, Yu Ganchen, had by accident stumbled upon something new. Well, once is an accident, and twice is a trend. He went out again into his father's fields, picking the most tender and perfect of the leaf tips from the plants, until he had a respectable basket, and he retired to his chambers, claiming a splitting headache. With rolling eyes, the other workers welcomed his departure, so they could get down to work without his constant yammering about undersecretaries this, and jade palaces that, and lovely ladies in costly silk that none of them would ever set eyes upon.

Again, tossing the bag into the corner of his room, he stared at the beautiful calligraphy for patience on his wall, a gift from his departed mother. He made a small offering to his household gods: cheeky, of course, but he took some of yesterday's-- dare he say it?-- exquisite tea and placed it upon the small bowl in his worship nook. Gods from near and far, is this the answer I have long sought? Might it be that you have delivered the humble Ganchen, surname Yu, into something new and wonderful? May it be so. And with that, he tossed a pinch of incense into a tiny fire and prepared for bed.

The next morning: Yes! A bag of leaves that looked and smelled precisely as they had before. He made himself another flight of gongfu, allowing the tea to be steeped through its various voices three, four, five times. This was no mere accident, but a turn of fortune for a most unfortunate son of Yu. Perhaps the goddess of Fortune had finally smiled upon poor Ganchen, allowing this object of scorn and pity to rise.

In his excitement, he broke not one, but two of his private stash of teaware; but no matter. He gathered his things and hurried to his father's rooms. He shouted, he yelled, he howled for the elders of the village to join them. They grumbled that this fool of a failed undersecretary was surely mad, and from bad stock, and would only bring shame upon his family evermore.

Ignoring the muttering, Ganchen prepared his tea. He pulled out the ruined leaves and laid them out in a ceramic bowl for them to view while he prepared the hot water. They glowered and muttered about the ruination of perfectly good leaves, but silenced as the true gongfu ceremony began, which demanded their utmost good manners, even if the ceremony was invoked by such a blockhead by Ganchen, of the family Yu, which had always been respectable until this lunatic showed up.

His father remained carefully silent throughout, which bothered Ganchen immensely. Is father agreeing with the mutters, or does he have deeper thoughts in his mind? Would it matter? Maybe, did I imagine this in my fever madness, and now I shall be finally locked up into a cage of madness or sold off to another village as a shameful clown to be mocked at the mercy of every ruffian who happened by? (And, of course, none of these things would happen, but perhaps we can forgive a young man whose failures had marked his heart and broken it in so many pieces, it would take many years to heal, if it healed it at all.)

Yu Ganchen set out the tea table, pouring boiling water over all the tea implements. He pulled out his best teapot and heated it, and then dropped an appropriate amount of the hideous, brown leaf into the teapot to begin to awaken and breathe. A rich fragrance escaped the pot, and his father closed his eyes. Carefully not watching any of the elders or his father, he poured out the first steeping into the carefully heated cups and, with a tremble and a drip and some splashing, I must confess, filled the cups from left to right and back from right to left. With hands inured to the heat of tea ceremony, he handed each cup carefully to each guest, honoring his father with the last cup.

Ganchen sat back on his heels, with an external mien as calm and smooth as ice. He waited. Each man took his sip, and even the ancient village matron, whose opinion mattered as much or even more than all of the other men combined. Ganchen set about the second steeping. This is where a tea can be made or broken, as everyone knows. The tea has awakened, and now it will show what it's made of. He could hardly breathe has he reached down inside and froze his feelings into a block, allowing him to make the second pour. With no hesitation and the appearance of complete unconcern, he poured.

Cocoa-- which was unfamiliar to him as the scent of copier paper-- overtook his senses, as well as fruits familiar and not, and rich mulchy smells that reminded him of rich beers or freshly overtuned earth. This was no longer the famous Anhui green tea, but--

He finally looked up and saw his astonishment mirrored in the carefully controlled responses of his village's elders. He noticed a twitch in his father's face, which only those who knew them well-- as all did at this table-- that this is what constituted a delighted smile, an epiphany, a bright joy working its way past his near-total control of himself. Ancient Hu, the matron of the village, broke protocol and poured herself the leftover pour from his pot, which he had been preparing to pour over the clay good-luck fish he kept on his table for offerings. The fish pet would get no more tea this day, as once loosed by Ancient Hu, each of the ancients broke out of their accustomed silence and began demanding to know where Ganchen had found such a delightful and surprising tea.

"Is it from Sichuan province?"
"A new kind of puerh?"
"Did this come from the palace?"
"Why did you keep this secret until now?"
"How could you afford such a treasure?"

Father Yu kept his silence.

After a time, and two times, and a measure of time, he looked his son in the eyes over his cooling cup and said, "Son of my heart, what have you discovered? From whence come these leaves, which sing in my heart as no tea has done in my long life?"

Suddenly, Ganchen found pouring out of him the story of his exasperation, his sadness, and the disgusted toss of his day's teas into an untended corner of his room. He described how he forgot them entirely and did not get his day's leaves properly treated for sale. He poured out his heart's shame that he had failed his family, his village, and mostly his father by wasting a perfectly good crop of tea and a day's labor.

Yu Ganchen then described how he had prepared this ruin of a tea as a way of drinking his shame to its dregs, only to find that he had, somehow, by the kindness of the goddess of mercy herself, discovered something new: a black tea that none had ever tasted before. A new thing in a world where new things were usually greeted with fear and suspicion, as they typically upset the good balance of the lives of a thousand generations.

Delighted, the village elders and tea masters set about recreating Yu Ganchen's discovery, and they improved upon some details, adding some steps, removing some wasted motion, and coming up with a method by which they could oxidize the famous Anhui teas and create, well, Keemun teas, now named after the tiny village in which it was developed. Before long, people up and down the Great Tea Horse Road were clamoring for this new tea, and it was sent as a tribute to the Emperor himself. And because this tea was already black, it would not wither and fade on a sea voyage, and Queen Victoria herself tasted this wonderful tea, which eventually became the basis for the English Breakfast tea we enjoy to this day. The village of Keemun became prosperous and happy, with more orders for tea than they could even fulfill. This failure of a fool turned out to be a good luck charm of his own.

All because of a lousy bureaucrat who followed his father's advice and went back to what he had learned as a boy on his Daddy's loving, longsuffering knee.

Little by little, line upon line, bit by bit, a little here, a little there, and eventually we'll find some wisdom that might just change ourselves, our hopes, and even the lives around us. Bravo to opportunities that fail, because they may just open the door to good things we would never have imagined on our own.

{This lady wanted some decent tea.
And she got it. }

the tea

I think my description of the experience of this tea is buried in the story above, so I won't belabor it. It's rich, it's complex, and it's a bit surprising. Take care not to oversteep it, or the bitterness comes out; but experiment with various lengths of steeping and amount of tea, and you'll find something rich and wonderful, which needs no sugar nor milk to cover up the basic flavors. Learn to put up with a touch of bitterness, as it is one of the five basic flavors God has gifted us with, and try this stuff on your own. Then, little by little, line upon line, bit by bit, here a little, there a little, you'll learn more about where this tea comes from, why we drink it, and maybe more about yourself as you learn to take time to indulge your senses.

Thank you, Tea Horse, for your delightful tea. I can't wait to taste more!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Nightmarish Teabag Adverts Are Stalking Me

I am being stalked by Google's advertising preferences with heinous ads like the following:

{ Now, that's just wrong. }

It's the peril of blogging. I use an an image of ugly teabags in the previous post, "Just Slow Down Already," and now every page is covered in stomach-turning caricatures of the royal family.

Note to everyone: I am from the United States. I am a damned Yankee. I do not follow the daily meanderings of the British aristocracy. I also do not use teabags unless I'm under duress. I'm certainly not willing to shell out $14.99 on joke teabags celebrating (or burying) the current silly batch of royals so I can stare at them while I drink their undoubtedly horrible tea.

Google Adwords apparently does not understand irony nor sarcasm. If I mention or take a picture of, say, Kim Kardashian or Lady Gaga, should I expect to see them on every web page I browse for the next few months?

Dear readers, please, PLEASE do not send me these tea bags as a joke gift. Because then I will be forced to send them to "Cinnabar Gongfu" over at Phoenix Tea, like a fruitcake no one knows what to do with. (I would venture to say, however, that it's somewhat unlikely that they have a full set of British Royals teabags in stock, so maybe I'll be helping them meet a demographic that has been ill served.)

I won't even break the seal on the packaging. No, I mean it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Just Slow Down Already

THIS IS NOT A RANT ABOUT TEABAGS. And I know from rants about teabags, believe me, having read countless articles, blog posts, Facebook entries, and Twitter complaints-in-140-characters-or-less on just this topic. That being said, I come not to praise the teabag, but to bury it.

{ A truly epic rant.
Sorry for the cursing, but dang, this kid knows how to emote. }

A Facebook friend who lives in Nantou City, Taiwan, wrote the following today.

Oh, how I loved seeing this in the Guardian today! Guess how many teabags are used in the UK only: 55bn, amounting to 370,000 tonnes of waste per year!

And another tea friend wrote the following comment.

Well, also good to point out that they're not getting the best tea taste from those bags.

{ These tea bags are appalling
on levels even I hadn't thought of. }
Right. No disagreement there. Teabags are evil, because they account for enormous waste, and they make the tea taste worse, and a host of other reasons. (Though lots of the tea in the bags is often of such low quality, making it taste worse is a challenge.) The article Philip was referring to in the first instance was called, "How to make perfect tea without teabags." The delightfully named Henrietta Lovell writes the following:

But the question should be, why do we need any kind of bag when loose leaves make better tea? In 1968, only 3% of households in Britain used teabags – a foreign, American invention that went against our love of leaves. Loose leaf tea, on the other hand, has been made for around 3,000 years, and just requires one brilliant bit of kit – a teapot.

I have never understood why so many of us think it's a real hassle to make proper tea, but happily use a cafetiere for coffee. You get better flavour when you allow the leaves room to unfurl as they infuse. No chemicals, no waste and it's really not complicated.

And the waste isn't just limited to the bags. If you're using good tea leaves, you'll find they can be infused several times. Each time you brew the tea, different subtleties of the delicate flavours will be released. In China it is widely believed that the second or third brew of fine tea is the best.

Good question. Why do we use teabags when we could take a tiny bit of extra time and engage in a nice gongfu sitting? That's the question Henrietta hasn't explored. She does hint that she's aware that there's a real thought provoker here when she writes, "I have never understood why so many of us think it's a real hassle to make proper tea, but happily use a cafetiere for coffee...."

teabags: the symptom, not the cause

One of the great gifts the West has experienced is the explosion of choices, which are made possible by the combination of enormous freedoms and unprecedented prosperity. Never in the world's history has so much been available to so many. In previous centuries, only the aristocracy had any degree of freedom or wealth to enjoy more than the same thing, day in and day out. The reason an orange is a traditional gift that gets dropped into the bottom of a Christmas stocking is that it was such an extravagance, brought from such a great distance at a time when distance meant something, that it could only be purchased at great cost for special occasions, like celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. This points to the dearth of choices and the well-documented lack of variety in the lives of normal people who did not have titles or enormous resources.

Coming to the current day, the people of India and China are experiencing explosions of modernity, with growing (and struggling) middle classes beginning to expect the amenities that have become second nature to those living in the industrialized West. As the Chinese slowly open up their marketplace to freedoms unheard of in their civilization's long history, their middle class is starting to express a desire for, say, decent tea. Incidentally, when 1 billion Chinese decide they want something, it sends shock waves through the world's supply-and-demand chains, and prices will rise as an effect thereof. But if the instabilities in that same economy arise because of inefficiencies in the governmental system they labor under, that causes shock waves, as well. (And fluctuations in the supply of tea leaving China will result in price variances that can make decent tea difficult or too expensive to attain.)

the magic of "no"

With that proliferation of choices brought about by economic and political freedoms, normal people's lives have become busier and busier as they work harder to have the money to purchase. Shortcuts like the teabag and the far newer Keurig coffee gadget were invented to accommodate the acceleration of people's lives and the relative shortage of free time. For a modern person to slow down and make tea loose-leaf style (the only good style), they have to say, "No," to some other activity they could have been doing had they just dropped a teabag into some water. So the discipline of "No" is one that would allow us to un-busy our lives a touch, allowing simple joys like tea to become possible again. The Italians have a useful term for this: Basta! which means, Enough! Back off! No more! Stop! Knock it off! Don't involve me in your plans, you little weirdo!

Look at the daily schedule of a typical family in the suburbs of Chicago. Up at 5:30, shower, shave, find clean clothes that match, take care of the kids' breakfasts and getting them ready for school, find the lost shoes, get the backpack ready for class, leave the house 10 minutes late, rush to drop the kids at school, zoom to work (in traffic moving 5 miles per hour), work hard all day, rush out to pick up kids, zoom home (in traffic moving 5 miles per hour), pick up dinner along the way home at some godawful fast-food place because the kids are too starved to wait, get back to the house after the sun has gone down, get out the whip and chair to compel the kids to do homework, prepare kids for bed, send the kids back to bed five or six times after many calls for water or snacks or the missing stuffed animal, collapse on the sofa, stare at nothing for a half hour, crawl into bed, rinse, lather, repeat. Hardly any room for a nice, focused tea flight, is there.

{ If I didn't know this was Hasenpfeffer,
I'd swear it was carrots. }
For those of you whose schedules are less hectic, thank the living God that you are blessed with free time. Use it well. But many people experience variations on this theme, with (fill in the blank) that fills up every cubic inch of their waking day. Weekends are filled with shopping at a grocery with 1.4 million items to choose from; and movies by the dozen; and available outings; and healthful activities at the club; and classes; and basketball practice; and work-at-home issues; and romance; and football games to watch or attend; and the occasional gallery opening, or book reading, or new restaurant to explore, or camping trip, or whatever. On, and on, and relentlessly on it goes. Glutted with choice, we become like the monarch in the 1962 cartoon, Shishkabugs, who shouted at his chef [and I quote from memory], "Day in, day out, always the same thing: variety! I want Hasenpfeffer!" We have an embarrassment of riches in the form of choices we have to make every day, and maybe we need a time out. Well, maybe I need one.


death to teabags

Okay, so we need a time-out. This is no new idea, nor is it a particularly original thought nor a deep one. But does it need saying occasionally? Indeed, I'd say so.

{ Gerard Dou,
Old Woman Reading a Bible }
Christians are encouraged to have what is often called a "Daily Quiet Time," in which upon waking or at some other good time during the day, we get away from people, get with the Bible, and get quiet before God. We need to listen, to separate ourselves from the madding crowd, and give ourselves room to think. The Sabbath was created with this fact about our human nature in mind, to allow us to get quiet, to practice being introspective for a change, and to get to a place where we can hear from God when he speaks to our hearts.

Other people's religions have their own versions of this, though I can't speak to their meditation rituals because I do not practice them. Some sports-- swimming, running, and so on-- have a meditative aspect to them as well, because it's just you and the road, or you and the bubbles and the motion of your own body, which allow you to pull away from the constant stream of distractions and requirements on your time and attention. If you take enough quiet walks on the beach, and glasses of red wine, and a video camera, you'll have a wonderful recording to share on or whatever. See? That's what I'm talking about. It all sounds so cliché when you describe it, and yet how often do I come to a full stop and let my subconscious get the attention it deserves? Not so often.

and so I drink tea

Though I don't approach brown leaf juice with the religious reverence of a Japanese tea master, nor as a Brit who views tea as part of her national identity, I drink it to slow down, to engage in an activity that is self-consciously crawling along because I choose it. I could pop a cup of water into a microwave with a teabag floating sadly inside it, and I could drink a mediocre cup of tea while I busily keep working, typing, Skyping, Tweeting, blogging, flogging myself along, and I'd never notice how poor the tea was. I probably wouldn't even bother with that at all, but rather just drink the horrid institutional coffee that always seems to be within reach wherever I go.

Why do you think the slow food movement has taken root? Why do the Amish reject modern conveniences that arose after about 1860? Why have Westerners run to ashrams in India to sit at the feet of gurus on mountaintops? Why do we hungrily watch Corona commercials with pictures of silent beaches?

It's because we moderns hunger for silence; for the joys of being apart; for the simplicity of nature; for the dignity of pre-modern, pre-industrial man. Because we feel like we have lost ourselves in the crowd, and we need to find I and Thou in spite of all the distractions pulling us in every direction other than inward.

AND SO I DRINK TEA. By drinking the good stuff and forcing myself to pay attention to what I'm imbibing, by taking the time to let my obsessive-compulsive nature have a proper playground, by creating a bubble around myself for a few moments, I can keep the crazy at bay, push the anxieties down, listen inside myself for solutions to problems, and just breathe. And by doing so, I'm standing athwart modernity, yelling, "Stop!" for just a few moments as I gather myself together to throw myself once more into the breach, and the lights, and the words, and the noise, and the distractions; but hopefully, with a little bit of silence distilled into my soul to keep me whole and healthy a little bit longer.


If you like this post and hate teabags, you may like: A Serial Killer's Guide to Making Sweet Tea (and possibly murdering people)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rick Bayless's Xoco. I have never had hot chocolate before now.

{ Xoco looks good on Suzanne }
A couple weeks ago, my most excellent and lovely wife packed up the kids and bundled them off to my brother's house, and then arranged for us to drive into the City. The City, for those not in the know, is Chicago. I used to live there for quite a number of years, but now I'm out at the bleeding-edge of the suburbs, making it quite time-consuming and expensive to get there regularly. I work from home, don't commute to work, and thus miss out on Chicago's lively culinary scene. More's the pity.

So the wonderful Suzanne got us set up in a couple of nice hotels, and we went to town. And one notable moment: Xoco, which is Rick Bayless's street-food restaurant.  I'll get back to that in a moment.

{ Rembrandt's drawings are remarkable }
When I was about eight years old, I had my first culinary experience. That is, I remember eating at the local Ponderosa Steakhouse, an inexpensive place, and I had . . . Teriyaki Chicken. Hoo, boy. For a kid from the 'burbs, this was an entirely new flavor experience, and I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. I'd never tasted anything like that before! It was much more complex than the food I was used to eating-- nay, demanding, from my mother. The chicken was there, but then the sauce, made with real soy (for which I was just growing out of a severe allergy), and rice wine, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, red pepper-- I had no idea what I was tasting, but it was perfectly in accord with my tastes. I always have loved subtle and complex things and ideas: sunsets in New Mexico, where every cloud explodes with a different shade of pink; Degas pastel drawings; Bach chord changes; the amazing broth in a bowl of Vietnamese pho soup; Mark Helprin novels; Rembrandt pen-and-ink or Conté crayon drawings.

Ever since that moment at Ponderosa, whenever I'd enter a restaurant, I'd make sure to order whatever seemed to be the most exotic or unfamiliar item on the menu. And every once in a while, I still have one of those eye-opening moments, where I taste something I had never previously encountered, and a new palate opens before me like Dorothy's doorway when she entered Oz. I treasure these moments. The first time eating Thai. Cambodian chicken soup. Good dim sum. Chicken Pojarsky at Russian Tea Time. Cinnamon Basil ice cream from Out of a Flower (sadly, out of business). My first cup of true Darjeeling. Dan Cong oolong. West Lake Dragonwell. A perfect bleu cheese salad. And now hot chocolate, courtesy of Chef Bayless.

Rick Bayless, for those not familiar with his work, recently won the hearts of fans of Top Chef Masters with a rendition of a mole dish that he said he took 20 years to learn how to make, and which had been an inspiration for him to become a chef. His story was genuine and touching as he explained his passion for the food of Mexico, and particularly the cuisine of Oaxaca province. I won't go into detail about his several restaurants nor his commercial success with his Frontera-brand salsas or TV shows and appearances. Instead, I want to focus on one single cup of hot chocolate.

{ XOCO by Rick Bayless }

Now, like you, I grew up with Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa, with mini-marshmallows floating on top of the cup, to warm me on many a winter's day, spent outdoors in the snow. (It seemed to snow more when I was a kid than it does now, for some reason.) Snow angels, snow in my boots and collar and mittens, then Mom making hot chocolate and plopping us in front of the crackling fireplace to get toasty. We would stir our hot cocoa with candy canes, giving them a peppermint flavor and turning our canes into deadly, eye-puncturing daggers of doom. I've had Giardelli's hot chocolate at their shop in San Francisco.  I thought I knew everything there was to know about hot cocoa. As it turns out, I knew nothing.

{ Liquid chocolate }
Hot chocolate. It's not tea, is it. But chocolate is easily as complex a substance as tea is, with so much chemistry involved, it boggles the mind. Now, most of the chocolate we taste-- particularly the good German and Swiss chocolates, which are entirely smooth and creamy-- are highly processed. And in the processing, much flavor is lost. As it turns out, a less sophisticated way of processing the chocolate is more conducive to making a cup that will contain multitudes of flavors. (And, like tea, there are a host of chocolate varietals just now coming to the attention of buyers in the West, as our palates develop.)

Xoco. My wife and I entered, and there was a line out the door, as we had expected. Service moved fairly quickly, though; and I asked the server what was her favorite item on the menu, and I ordered that. My wife had her own ideas, of course. Anyway, along with our meal, I ordered the Hot Chocolate, Mexico City Style, which the menu indicated was thick. I ordered several churros to go with this for dipping. (I'd seen this on TV! I was going to taste something authentic, darn it!)

We sat at a charming, winding counter facing a tiled wall in a room with lots of window light. Surprisingly, this was quite an intimate setting as my wife and I sat huddled close together, rather than staring across a table at one another. And we dug in. She took pictures with her iPad plaything, carefully arranging the dishes to her satisfaction before snapping. And then I had my cup of chocolate.

Describing it now, a bit too late afterward, I struggle to remember the flavors. But I hasten to say: flavors, not flavor. Like a good puerh or a complicated 2nd-flush Darjeeling, this stuff was to be experienced in layers. High notes, low notes, sharp notes, smooth notes. Fruity, woodsy, heartbreakingly delicious. I only had one cup. I wanted one cup only, because this experience with Suzanne, sharing this bit of delight, was something I wanted to savor in memory rather than overindulge in all at once. The entire weekend with my Suzanne was like that: heartbreakingly delicious.

{ XOCO has food, too }
Bayless buys his cocoa beans raw and whole, and his team roasts and grinds them on the premises. This is why they retain that complexity I'd never imagined before. Chocolate, in its pure state, is remarkably wide and deep in its taste impressions. Like an excellent tea, flavoring it with strawberries, or hazelnuts, or passionfruit glace would be both unnecessary and a shame, because those flavors-- while melding perfectly with the chocolate-- would cover up its own complexities. Why put fruit in it, when the chocolate has fruit notes of its own? Why combine it with anything at all? Like Lady Godiva, it's much better naked.

So, here on this tea blog, I rant about a cup of chocolate. If you're in Chicago, hasten over to Xoco and allow yourself to be stoped in your tracks as you experience something extraordinary.

Thank you, Chef Bayless, for letting this tea drinker have such a nuanced, complex, delightful cup of chocolate. This goes into my permanent memory bank of Culinary Moments I'll Remember Forever.

And you've ruined me for Swiss Miss, I'm afraid.

(This is a repost to remind Chicago tea drinkers that they have an affordable treasure right in the neighborhood.)