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.)

GUEST POST: Here Is My Handle, Here Is My Spout

Dripping tea kettles and burnt hands. Blecch. Please join me in welcoming Samantha Joyce of Seattle Coffee Gear, who has joined us to share some thoughts on this pernicious subject. Samantha makes the case for Bonavita's electric teakettle, with its well-thought-out spout that might just help solve the problem. Please continue the conversation with us below in the comments section. --Steven

Here Is My Handle, Here Is My Spout

While many tea drinkers select a teakettle based on aesthetics and capacity, they overlook the two most important variables immortalized in song. Yes! The handle and the spout have more influence on the functionality of a kettle than anything else.

For many years I used a heavy enameled steel teakettle that I received as a wedding present. This year I upgraded my tea preparation and invested in a digital variable-temperature gooseneck kettle. From kyusu to gaiwan to tea ball, all tea prep benefits from a careful temperature-controlled pour.

Just the Facts Ma’am

To convince folks that already have a serviceable kettle, I have two words for you: fluid dynamics! Science, safety, and precision brewing are all reasons technological advances trump tradition:

Pour spout tips vary, even amongst gooseneck kettles. Generally speaking, the thinner the material at the lip of the spout, the less likely it will dribble. Stainless steel kettles have the advantage of being sturdy, lightweight and easily manufactured to avoid the teapot effect. The size of the spout opening also contributes to flow rate and control.

Some users of the iconic Hario Buono kettle install a flow reducer at the tip. This makes aiming it easier. Roger Whittman, Bonavita Brand Manager, told me they “rotated the spout forward to give better flow control” and made a smaller angled aperture for their models.

The shape of the gooseneck spout combined with a well-balanced handle provides amazing control over direction. It is one thing to dribble on the countertop, it is quite another to spill boiling water on your wrist as you reach to stabilize your tea infuser.

Another potential for injury occurs during lid removal. “We added adjustment tabs on the lid so the user can easily control how much force it takes to remove and insert the lid,” Whittmann explained of Bonavita kettles.

Just Right
White tea, black tea, and green tea all have different temperature requirements from 160F212F. Take the guesswork out of steeping a proper cup. Sure, you could use a measuring cup and a pocket thermometer, but the set-it-and-forget-it ease of a digital model is hard to beat. Set your temperature exactly, and it will heat and hold without the risk of spills or steam burns.

Out With the Old

”It’s the little things in life,” such is the case of a quality kettle. A variable-temperature, gooseneck kettle heats up faster, sits without a trivet, and waters hard-to-reach plants on my windowsill. Now that I know the novel hydro-capillary adhesion phenomenon, I can go with the flow! I might never dribble again.

+Samantha Joyce is a writer for Seattle Coffee Gear and enjoys sharing her knowledge of all things coffee (and tea!)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Panda Poop Tea. Just what we've been waiting for!

{ Pandas make the best tea }  
For the last several years, coffee drinkers would rub our noses in their supposed superiority by throwing their Kopi Luwak coffee at us, by saying, "Ha! We Coffea arabica connoisseurs are willing to drink something a civet cat pooped out, just to prove our dedication to coffee, glorious coffee! You tea poseurs, just keep drinking those Camellia sinensis leaves. You are nothing to us."

Well, tea drinkers, do not despair. We can now drink tea pooped out of an endangered species. An endangered species, I tell you! Stew on that, coffee jerks! Nobody tries to one-up a tea drinker, you espresso-stained morons. Until civet cats are an endangered species, or until you can train white rhinos to eat coffee beans, consider yourselves pwn3d. We're connoisseurs of an entirely higher order than you are. In your face!

Mr. Yanshi, who has begun marketing his product, says the following:

"Pandas have a very poor digestive system and only absorb about 30 per cent of everything they eat. That means their excrement is rich in fibres and nutrients." 
Yanshi - seem here wearing a panda costume - plans to sell his most expensive blend for nearly £50,000 per kilo and aims to secure the Guinness World Record for the planet's priciest cuppa. 
"It has a mature, nutty taste and a very distinctive aroma while it's brewing," he explained.

{ Mr. Yanshi marketing a nice, steaming load of panda tea }  
There. Nearly $80 grand for a kilo (that's European for a pound, or something) of Panda Poop Tea. Now, the discerning (and pedantic) among us might say, "But that's not really a tea, is it. I mean, it's not made of Camellia sinensis, but probably some combination of the leaves, stems, and shoots of the bamboo plant. Thus, more properly, it should be called a Panda Poop tisane." To this I reply, "But it's panda-poop tisane, so stop whining unless you want those coffee-swilling weasels to civet-cat us out of the top spot in the connoisseur food chain. Plus, it's good for you, and it keeps you regular, which is more than one can say about civet cat poop. I can only assume your complaints come from a diet lacking sufficient bamboo nutrition, and I pity your ignorance and despise you." For your edification:

[Bamboo] is low in Saturated Fat, and very low in Cholesterol. It is also a good source of Dietary Fiber, Protein, Riboflavin and Zinc, and a very good source of Vitamin B6, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.

{ Bamboo Yixing tea pot would be perfect for panda poop tea  }  

I only wonder which of my treasured Yixing pots I shall use for my first taste. Perhaps this offering from Primatea, which is like unto a stack of bamboo shoots? I shall post further once my shipment of hot, steaming panda poop tea arrives on my doorstep. You won't want to miss that review, I assure you. "A mature, nutty taste and a distinctive aroma," indeed.

(This post is reposted content. Apparently, people love reading about Pandas, poop, tea, and coffee-drinker trash talk at the same time.)

Friday, July 26, 2013

The ROK Espresso Maker and the Necessity of Tea

OCCASIONALLY, I WISH I still could drink coffee. And yes, there's a story here.

{ ROK espresso maker }

Beautiful, is it not? The Italians invented the Renaissance, much of Western civilization, and the espresso machine., for which I thank them. If I were still drinking coffee regularly, I would demand all my friends pony up and buy me one of these. For my birthday. Or for Christmas. Bastille Day. Tooth Fairy Appreciation Day?

The voodoo priest and all his powders were as nothing compared to espresso, cappuccino, and mocha, which are stronger than all the religions of the world combined, and perhaps stronger than the human soul itself.
~Mark Helprin, Memoir from Antproof Case, 1995

Once upon a time, I worked in downtown Chicago. Like all the other soulless, corporate drones, I queued and spent my $3.87 for a café au lait, or a largissimo thunderccino, or whatev. And, of course, another $2.12 for a pastry that I downed before going to work. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

{ I'll have a café au nausaeum, please.
Yes, make room. }

But one fateful day, I actually paid attention through the fog of coffee-induced pseudo-awareness, and I noticed how much I was spending on a cup o' Joe and a metaphoric donut. I was shocked. So I brought my little espresso maker to work.

Well, as it turns out, I have a bit of an oral fixation. Always putting things in my mouth, biting my pens, and . . . [appropriate music for foreshadowing] drinking coffee.

Ah, yes, the young adult who has no sense of his own limitations, being put in charge of his very own espresso machine in his office in downtown Chicago. It's cool to drink coffee! It's very adult! And furthermore, it tastes good! Even though I always feel cold in my extremities as a side-effect of excessive caffeine ingestion, and I'm getting increasingly jumpy!

At some point, I realized I was driving into the existential breakdown lane, turning an already well-developed hyperactive and nervous personality into, well, a cause for alarm. Lack of sleep, constant burning in my stomach, and the ever-present refrain, "WhatamIdoingwithmylife?WhatamIdoingwithmylife?WhatamIdoingwithmylife?WhatamIdoingwithmylife?"

{ The Stacks }
Eventually, I was forced to switch from drinking my beloved 10 to 15 espresso drinks a day (which now had an almost immediate effect of resetting my neuron paths to PANIC! mode), to something different. Well, you guessed it. I started drinking tea, and thus my obsessive-compulsive behaviors could be curved toward drinking something a little less dangerous to my health. Plus, all those relaxants in tea help to modify the effects of caffeine on my system, and a measure of peace is found. Or, at least, a measure of SLIGHTLY LESS CRAZY.

I'll still sneak a coffee every now and then, and when I do, I typically go into a pretty spectacular panic-and-depression spiral that is a joy and a wonder to behold. Unless you're married to me, in which case you reach for my meds and make me take them.

I'll keep drinking and writing about tea. But I still think I'll want that ROK espresso maker, just in case.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My Tea Blog Is Melting, Melting!

In my tiny corner of the blogoverse, The 39 Steeps had found a well-appreciated audience over the course of our first year together. And then I got sick, and I stopped posting. And look what happened: Our page views dropped to the level that they had during about the first week of the blog's existence. Wow. I wonder, had I kept writing regularly, what the circle of tea friends I would have met might be by this point.

So it goes to show, while the wages of sin is death, the wages of ignoring your blog is, well, blog death. Of course, every trained journalist would already know this. But blogging is, for me and many others, an experiment. Here we are, in possession of the greatest forum for self-expression since Gutenberg, and it still requires us to sit down in front of an empty page and write.

So we'll keep writing, hopefully. I have to say, though, that unlike some of the tea connoisseurs of my acquaintance, I don't know if I can keep up a daily writing schedule about what I'm drinking every day or week. "Look, everyone! Brown leaf juice!"

{ Notice any similarities?
The 39 Steeps viewer stats look just like Mt. Everest,
just not as, you know, majestic and beautiful }

news from the home front

Today, I'm going to continue my captioning, trying to keep up with my deadlines. A bit later, I'll meet with the principal of Valeo Academy, where I will now be teaching English Literature and Composition (!) to high school students. One part of me says, "Oh, poor them, being stuck with me." But that's false self-effacement. While I'm a bit worried, as any new teacher would be, that the kids will loathe my class and we'll make one another miserable, I think it'll be fun.

In fact, I feel like, in some numinous ways, I've been preparing for this for the last 20 years, having innumerable conversations and hours of contemplation about aesthetics, about thinking Christianly in a lost world, about discovering how to think robustly and confidently, about how to grow as a creator and a communicator. (Yaaah! Numinous and innumerable in the same sentence. Usually, I my verbal tic is to repeat the word. In this case, I used two entirely different words that just sound alike. Leave it or edit? Leave it, but blargh.)

The wonderful thing about schools like Valeo Academy is that, as a private institution, they can acquire quirky, gifted, unusual people like me who would ordinarily not be hired into the public school system. My wife-- who could easily work in either environment and is profoundly qualified-- is happy that I'll be joining her at Valeo, and that I'll be using my expressive gifts and enthusiasm about all things Language, while still meeting the bills with my growing business, Chicago Captioning 2.0. (The 2.0 signifies that I'm restructuring and reengaging with my clients and future clients in new ways I hadn't thought of before. And "2.0" is just so darned '90s-retro, I couldn't resist.) So Professor Steven, here we come. (Unfortunately for the students at Valeo, I don't look nearly as good as this guy.)

{ If the Professor was so smart,
why were they on the island for so many years?
It's because he wanted Marianne, isn't it. }

So I'll be taking my tea table and a stash of good stuff to an actual office, where I'll be relocating my business (sort of) whilst also teaching Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and all them other high-falutin' Greeks. Change! Change is good!

Now back to work. Stop distracting me with your siren song, tempting me to write about tea and life!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

REVIEW: "Assam Melody," Meleng Tea Estate, Babs & Coco's Tea Emporium

Today I shall review Meleng Tea Estate's "Assam Melody," provided by Babs and Coco's Tea Emporium.

This morning I am in high spirits, which makes this the perfect moment to reflect upon the bittersweet, the melancholy, and that carefully poised place where joy meets sadness to the enrichment of both. If one must discuss emotions such as these, though, it's best to have a bit of distance to avoid being sucked in and becoming overenthusiastic or melodramatic. Not that I'll avoid being either, but at least I can try, right? So I start with a meditation from Psalm 42, by King David, in the Amplified version, and I'll get around to talking about tea eventually.

{ Why so downcast, O my soul? }

Psalm 42

To the Chief Musician. A skillful song, or a didactic or reflective poem, of the sons of Korah.

As the hart pants and longs for the water brooks, so I pant and long for You, O God.
My inner self thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, Where is your God?
These things I [earnestly] remember and pour myself out within me: how I went slowly before the throng and led them in procession to the house of God [like a bandmaster before his band, timing the steps to the sound of music and the chant of song], with the voice of shouting and praise, a throng keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my inner self? And why should you moan over me and be disquieted within me? Hope in God and wait expectantly for Him, for I shall yet praise Him, my Help and my God.
O my God, my life is cast down upon me [and I find the burden more than I can bear]; therefore will I [earnestly] remember You from the land of the Jordan [River] and the [summits of Mount] Hermon, from the little mountain Mizar.
[Roaring] deep calls to [roaring] deep at the thunder of Your waterspouts; all Your breakers and Your rolling waves have gone over me.
Yet the Lord will command His loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to God my Rock, Why have You forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
10 As with a sword [crushing] in my bones, my enemies taunt andreproach me, while they say continually to me, Where is your God?
11 Why are you cast down, O my inner self? And why should you moan over me and be disquieted within me? Hope in God and wait expectantly for Him, for I shall yet praise Him, Who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

If you've never read the Psalms of David, you should start now. They're works of art, and they plumb the depths of the human spirit in a way few authors would ever dare to do so. Knowing the Psalms, or at least having a familiarity with them, should be a part of every serious person's education. Much of our best literature and art comes from people whose minds have been transformed by the raw power of the language and the ideas and spirit within.

A WORD ABOUT BIBLE TRANSLATIONS. These words were originally sung in Hebrew. For English speakers to approach them, we must either (a) learn Hebrew, which is a difficult language, and it's written backwards to boot; or (b) rely on translations. There are many, many translations of the Bible, and most of them have great strengths that can complement one another. Many people rely upon Bibles with multiple translations of the same passages, side by side, so they can try to catch the nuances that they might miss otherwise. There's no "right" translation, but we can still get the big picture pretty well if we open ourselves up to it. The Amplified, while lacking in poetry, is helpful because of the translators' determination to squeeze every drop of meaning from the words.

DAVID'S PSALMS (the above being a good example) typically have an artistic form that derives from what we can surmise is the mind-set of the man as he was writing. He'd start by writing his heartbreak, his bitterness, his anger at injustice, his frustration with God and the brokenness of the world we inhabit; and then, after a bit of reflection, he moves into the knowledge that the Lord is still sovereign, and that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (That last bit was from St. Teresa, not David, but it seemed to fit what I was saying.)  Reading the Psalms is a healing to broken hearts, because David was so open with his pain, and then he is shown the answer to his agonies: God is love, and God is good and does good. That goes a long way toward helping us through the ups and downs of life in a bent world. David's structural element design: bitterness, followed by sweetness.

In the culinary world as in the literary, contrasts like these make for a good meal. Bitter chocolate powder on the outside of a sweet center is a great design for a chocolate truffle. The Japanese tea ceremony involves pretty bitter matcha, the powdered green tea whisked during the procedure; and tiny sweets will often accompany the tea, allowing the experience of both bitterness and sweetness to offset one another and come into balance. Much wisdom for life here, no?

the tea

As long-time readers may recall, I'm not very much inclined toward Assam teas, because the very qualities that draw people to them-- the maltiness, the heaviness, the depth, the darkness, and even the bitterness-- don't really work for me. Because I'd rather not resort to drinking high-quality teas with sugar or milk, that means it's just me and the naked tea.

When I first worked my way through Assam Melody (gongfu-cha style, as is my wont), which comes from the Meleng Tea Estate, I wasn't terribly excited. Bitter, heavy, blargh. The tea came as a gift from my lovely Suzanne, who took Babs's recommendation for the tea to kind of stretch me out of my comfort zone and try something I might not perhaps like, but might grow to enjoy. I've had enough Assams over the years, and my enjoyment of them has been eclipsed by other teas (high-grown Darjeelings, especially).

I fired up my trusty gaiwan, or lidded cup, and piled in the leaves. Gongfu: lots of leaf, short steeping times. Well, every time I did it, I ended up with quite a lot of bitterness, followed by a lingering sweetness and complexity. My son Gregory pointed out the sweetness to me, which I had been missing before, fixating upon the bitterness as I had been. "See?" my palate seemed to be telling me. "You don't like Assam, and you never will. Just give it up." But I never give up.

{ Eureka! }
One, two, three, four gaiwans later, and I have finally figured it out. Moderate (not enormous) amounts of tea, near-boiling water, and really quite short steeping times of 30 or so seconds for the first round, then slowly increasing the time with subsequent steepings. And it's good! The bitter element is almost, but not quite removed. In other words, the bitter is now in a more proper balance with the natural sweetness, and the complexities of the cup are apparent without being overwhelmed by the bitterness caused by my inept handling of the tea.

It's so important to spend time with a tea you dislike, because you can learn from it. "What did I do wrong? Is it a fault with the tea, or with me? Or am I just incapable of enjoying this type of beverage? Should I switch back to Mountain Dew?" You know, that kind of thing. I felt proud of myself that, following my 11-year-old son's intuition, I could get a great cup out of this tea that at first I would have thought was just not for me.

Bitter and sweet. I suggest you take some time out of your busy schedule, make a decent cup of tea, and listen to Sibelius's 2nd Symphony, which is heartbreaking, so sad, so joyful, so bitter, so sweet. These contrasts are what give the symphony its power and engrave it upon your heart. So much music is built upon this principle, and so much food, and so much literature, and so much scripture; and it works, because it's an integral part of our human nature.

So enjoy some Assam tea, listen to the hour-long work of genius by Sibelius (directed by Leonard Bernstein), and eenjoy the balance of bitter and sweet, discovering something about your human nature and the quality of awareness that embraces both principles as part of the engaged, abundant life.

UPDATE: It occurred to me after finishing the post today that for those of you who like a good, meaty Assam drunk British style (which means a very strong brew with milk and sugar), then follow the directions given on the packaging provided by Babs & Coco, and you'll be A-OK.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tea and Aging: Drink 'em if you got 'em.

{ Folger Shakespeare Library, "The Seven Stages of Man" }  
Last scene of all,
that ends
this strange 
eventful history,
is second childishness
and mere oblivion,
sans teeth, 
  sans eyes,
    sans taste,
      sans everything.

As You Like It
Act II, Scene VII

WHAT DO TEA, beer, pomegranates, Japanese knotweed (yum), Shakespeare, futurists, and death by E. Coli have in common? Well, I'm delighted you asked. YOU DID ASK, DIDN'T YOU? I'M SURE YOU DID.

Shakespeare, as usual, has observed everything first. In As You Like It, Jacques the Ever Melancholic starts "The Seven Stages of Man" soliloquy with the grand line, "All the world's a stage," and ends with the depressing bit I quoted at the beginning of this blog post. He's given a depressing character an unusually depressing picture of the life of the elderly. In particular, let's pick out the lines, "sans taste, sans everything."

the bad news

Humans have only five tastes we can sense with our tongues (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami), but we can smell thousands of distinct odors. Most of what we perceive as taste is really a combination of true tastes and odors. And, wow, we sure have a variety of smells we can detect. Elise Hancock at Johns Hopkins describes it thus:

Compared with other mammals, how well do people detect smells?
That depends what you mean by "how well." We are low on receptors: Current estimates say that humans have roughly five million olfactory receptor cells, about as many as a mouse. A rat has some 10 million, a rabbit 20 million, and a bloodhound 100 million.
"Across species, there is a relatively good correlation between the number of receptor cells and olfactory acuity," says Reed. "You can hardly find the olfactory bulb in a human brain--it's a pea-sized object. In a mouse, it's a little bigger. It's bean- sized in a rat, about the size of your little finger in a rabbit, and the size of your thumb in a bloodhound."
Oh. So our sense of smell is not very acute.
Not exactly. While we may not have the olfactory range of other creatures, the receptors we do have are as sensitive as those of any animal. Several recent papers indicate that humans are capable, at least in experimental conditions, of smelling a single molecule. If so, in that sense not even a bloodhound could hope to do better.
We can also think, making conscious (and successful) efforts to sort smells out. A trained "nose," a professional in the perfumery business, can name and distinguish some 10,000 odors. Reed says that a master perfumer can sniff a modern scent that has a hundred different odorants in it, go into the lab, and list the ingredients. "In a modest amount of time, he comes back with what to you or me would smell like a perfect imitation of that perfume. It's amazing." Similarly, using smell alone, trained wine tasters can tell you a wine's alcohol content, year of production, grape variety, and even the district in which the grapes were grown.
While a few people do have a dramatically better sense of smell, most of us probably just don't pay attention. "Noses" say that their abilities are a matter of training, in which the important thing is to practice, to make the distinctions conscious, and to attach words to each one. That makes sense, given the acute sense of smell found in the few remaining aboriginal peoples of the world, for whom smell remains a matter of survival.

Okay, so a trained parfumeur can detect 10,000 different smells. How about the rest of us? We tend not to notice what we're trained to smell, even though we're capable of the same olfactory feats as a trained perfume designer. So far, so good, right? Wrong.

There are dangers lurking. As our noses and tongues become less sensitive to taste and smell as we age, we are less likely to be able to detect spoiled food or other dangers (such as lurking wildebeests or falling pianos, or the presence E. Coli, perhaps). At the University of Colorado's School of Medicine, we find that Professor Diego Restrepo had determined the following:

We found clear changes in olfactory sensory neuron responses to odors for those 60 and up," said Professor Diego Restrepo, Ph.D., director of the Center for NeuroScience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who led the researchers. "When we presented two different odors to the olfactory sensory neurons of younger people they responded to one or the other. The sensory neurons from the elderly responded to both. This would make it harder for the elderly to differentiate between them."
According to the study published in the latest issue of Neurobiology of Aging, those losing their sense of smell are at a higher risk of malnutrition since taste and smell are closely related, they may also be unable to detect spoiled food, leaking gas or toxic vapors.

Social Issues Research Institute tells us that people's olfactory senses tend to peak at around eight years old, and it's all downhill from there. And in people 65 and older, there's a serious drop-off in acuity in senses like smell and taste (though at all ages, women perform better than men do).

While our sensitivities to aroma and flavor do slowly deteriorate over time, training, SIRC says, can nullify some of the effects of aging. "In their experiments on blind and sighted people, the top performers on most tests were (sighted) employees of the Philadelphia Water Department who had been trained to serve on the Department’s water quality evaluation panel. The researchers conclude that training is the factor most likely to enhance performance on smell tests. . . . The importance of ‘training’ in the development of smell-sensitivity is confirmed by many other studies. Indeed, this factor can sometimes be a problem for researchers, as subjects in repetitive experiments become increasingly skilled at detecting the odours involved."

the good news

This brings us back to our parfumeur, who (despite not being eight years old or younger) was capable of distinguishing 10,000 different aromas. Thus, we find, it may be possible to mitigate somewhat Shakespeare's condemnation of the aged to a life sans taste, sans everything.

In addition to the possibility that humans can train themselves to be able to taste more and more, even though biology suggests they should taste and smell less and less, we have some realistic-sounding studies about the zealously overhyped resveratol. In spite of the near-hysterical claims one sees in conjunction with this stuff found in red wines and other natural substances, there may be some modestly solid science behind the claim that resveratol may slow down the aging process and possibly the loss of acuity in the senses, as well. In Big Red Diary, a blog about, well, wine and other red things, I found an article entitled, "Resveratol Again." The writer quotes Chemistry and Industry Magazine, which I have no access to, but I can give you a taste of it here.

“Resveratol in wine has been hailed as the elixir of youth and cure for many ailments. It occurs in the seeds and skins of grapes and has reputed anti-tumor, antioxidant and antimicrobial action. It has even allowed for a longer life.
Resveratol prolongs the lifespan of flies, mice and yeast, similar to the effects of a starvation diet, and is believed to work by promoting sirtuin, a protein that helps to repair chromosomes. This wonder polyphenol is more prominent in red wines and especially Pinot Noir.
Many effects were reported from lab studies where the chemical was applied in unnaturally high doses, and you would have to consume buckets of red Burgundy to get the same dose. But not to worry, since Sirtis, a company founded by Harvard University scientist David Sinclair, has begun testing mimics of resveratol. One of these mimics is called SRT1720 and was reported last month to protect mice on fatty diets from getting obese and to enhance their endurance on treadmills. It was lauded as the cure for ‚couch potatoes’. But such mimics are potentially suitable as drugs since they activate sirtuin 1 (SIRT1) at lower doses than resveratol.
SRT1720 tricks the body into thinking food is scarce and has to burn fat to survive. Sirtris believes resveratol mimics could potentially treat diseases such as diabetes, inflammation, cancer and heart disease. According to ceo Christoph Wesphal: ‚The body of clinical data supporting the role of SIRT1 activation as a viable mechanism for treating a broad range of diseases of metabolism and aging is growing’. The company has obviously attracted the right attention; Sirtris was acquired by GlaxoSmithKline during the summer.
Blueberries and pomegranates are good natural sources of resveratol, and it is sold in supplements derived from Japanese knotweed, though some doubt whether this source contains much active ingredient. But functional foods and drinks are another possibility. A Texan university plans to genetically modify yeast to produce the wonder compound so that beer drinkers can similarly imbibe this tonic in their favourite tipple”.

Right. So in mice and fleas and whatnot, massive doses of resveratol, or the application of artificial SIRT1720, can treat diseases of metabolism, and aging, and growing. Good news for us. Maybe. As with all these sorts of studies, one never knows whether today's science turns out to be tomorrow's old wives' tales.

and in conclusion

Tea masters don't become sensitized to the nuances of various aromas overnight. Neither do perfume makers nor workers at the Philadelphia Water Department. We can train our noses and tongues, and thus to some degree overcome the natural deterioration of our senses. Not only that, but there are some advances taking place in the world of pharmacology and undoubtedly natural food advocacy, which might turn out to allow us to taste our Darjeelings and our Dan Cong oolongs well into our 120s, without mistaking them for lighter fluid.

My advice: Drink the best stuff you can, while you are still young enough to smell and taste it. Train yourself by giving focused attention-- this is a function of the mind, not merely how many sensory cells you have operating. Pay attention to advances in the science that may help you live longer, and healthier, and keeping your faculties intact until you and this earth do part. You may not end up being a tea master, but that's not the point: You'll live fuller, more abundantly, and longer by engaging your senses and by taking advantage of the opportunities our brilliant scientists are affording us.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

REPOST: A Surprise of Crocuses and the Alchemy of Tea

{ A Surprise of Crocuses }  
THIS BLOG POST has been one of my more popular, for whatever mystical reason, so I thought I'd bring it back up to the front for the day. Do crocuses come in groups called "surprises"? I don't believe so, but they should be.

. . .

When I was, oh, 10 or 11, Dad had a secret. During early Autumn sometime, he made my sister and me PROMISE not to tell Mom what we were up to. Like spies or ninjas, we went to the backyard with a TOP-SECRET bag, and we dug little holes, into which we put what I now know are called, corms. We had no idea what these were, and Dad wouldn't tell us. Winter came. Christmas with its usual abundance of toys, fun, exhaustion, energy. New Year came and went. Snow was still on the ground. Valentine's Day. Every day, now, Dad would (secretly) ask us to look in the backyard to see . . . what? We didn't know, the little holes we dug having been long forgotten.

Then one morning in early Spring, all over the still-snowy yard were an abundance of crocuses, purple and yellow and blue bundles of flowers, scattered everywhere. This was the surprise for Mom that we had waited for all Winter long. A delight of crocuses, and snowdrops, and who knows what else we had planted as a way of being welcomed by Spring and of saying, "I Love You," to Mom. I imagine she still remembers that wonderful Spring to this day.

and now to the tea

Ah, yes, you've been waiting for me to write about tea again, not about flowers. Well, I had a surprise waiting for me this month. I had made an order from Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange, who provide decent-quality tea without much ado. They were the source of my first true tea education, and I am forever grateful. Kevin handles the orders over there, and he's always helpful in locating something special hidden among the bins for me to try out.

So amidst my order, he had sent me something called Imperial Gold Oolong. Not a terribly expensive tea--in fact, quite affordable. (Which is why I love Chicago Coffee and Tea Exchange. On my limited budget, I can afford to get enough tea to last a few weeks rather than a few days.)

Imperial Gold Oolong is the surprise crocus in my story. I didn't expect it to be anything special, but it was, quite. Highly fragrant, the aroma wafts from the carafe as I let it rest before drinking. The leaves are typical rolled bundles, which open up into perhaps 1/3-inch-long leaves.

This tea's source is unnamed, and neither is its plucking date listed on the website. Honestly, in Chicago--a coffee-drinking city if ever there was one--there's really not much of a tea culture, so fastidiously sourcing an oolong would be meaningless information for pretty much their entire clientele. Who are in there for the coffee, anyway.

I prepare the tea in gongfu style-- lots of leaf, high temperature, short steeping times. I place my preheated Yixing pot into a wide bowl of steaming, then boiling, water. This helps keep the temperature high as I steep. In gongfu style, you don't allow a long steep to mix all the flavors together. You break up the drinking experience into chapters, in a manner of speaking, which lets you catch the drink at different points in its development. First, the introduction. Then, the characters introduced, the plot is introduced. The storyline comes to its conclusion, and then there is a nice epilogue as the tea can be resteeped as many times as your patience and interest allow, until the tea is a mere wisp of aroma on the clear water.

The first steeping of this tea is particularly aromatic, bright, complex, floral and fruity at once, with a bit of wildness hiding behind the more conventional flavors. If a forest walk smelled like this, it would draw you down an unfamiliar path to an unknown destination.

{ Tea is part science, part magic }  
The second steeping is even better. I oversteeped it only slightly, so it has a somewhat sharp--but not bitter--edge to it at first. But the fragrance is so bright, I wish I could share it with you right now. As the tea sits in the pot for a few minutes, it oxidizes slightly; and the deep gold, transparent liquor mellows a bit, with that almost tartness dissipating. HINT FOR TEA DRINKERS: If, like myself, you've ever oversteeped that delicious oolong of yours, just let it sit for a few minutes. The heat + biomaterials will engage in some alchemy while it "rests" and you wait, causing the flavors to deepen and mellow. Try it sometime, rather than dumping the tea and starting over.

SO . . . I have no idea where this tea comes from--though, if I bothered to pick up the phone and call Kevin, I'm sure he'd be able to tell me something more about it. But the beauty of this is the surprise element. Don't know where it's from. Don't know when it was picked. Don't know anything other than that it's a joy, made doubly so because it's affordable.

Thanks, Kevin, for including this in the package you sent. My UPS guy always wondered why my coffee packages from Coffee and Tea Exchange would arrive without a coffee aroma, and he never had any time for me to make him a cup to show him what he's missing. Too bad for him, but great for me.

note on coffee and tea exchange

Coffee and Tea Exchange is great for decent-quality and even high-quality tea on a budget. They take good care of their clients, and I've found them to be a wonderful resource in learning what the heck a Darjeeling is, or introducing me to something called Hairy Crab oolong, and so on. Go to their Website when you need a package of tea to get you through the mornings, but you just don't feel like writing an essay about everything you have in your cupboard.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I'm in Heaven: Darjeeling Tea Boutique, Longview 1st Flush 2013

I'm in Heaven
And my heart beats
So that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find
The happiness I seek
When we're out together
Dancing cheek to cheek

When was the last time you were in the forest, walking along a pathway you've not trodden in, oh, just years, and the delight of seeing that particular curve in the path, or coming upon that expected clearing filled with bluebells makes you wonder how you could ever have waited so long to come back? Well, I just stumbled upon a panorama I've woefully been missing without knowing it.

My friends at Darjeeling Tea Boutique sent me a package today, and I just happened to have enough time in my schedule to open it up and make a cup. As my irregular readers know, I was in business making tea reviews with a friendly regularity for a bit over a year, and then I stumbled when I found every cup I had to drink required an accompanying essay. With a clever twist, or an amusing anecdote, or something so it wasn't just some guy saying, "Oh, well, this tea from x is plummy, with notes of pretension, and an underlying insouciance I find vaguely similar to motorboats and Chopin nocturnes, if you know what I mean, and I think you do." 

So feeling refreshed from a long hiatus, I can say, I am delighted that I have a decent Darjeeling in my clutches again. It's been a long time-- so long, it's a bit embarrassing, to tell the truth.  And by decent, I mean this particular cup is so fragrant, so vibrant, I wonder how I've been living on such gruel for so long.

Using tea terms, this is SFTGFOPI Clonal AV2, First Flush 2013, Longview Tea Estate. Or "Longview Queen," for short. 

Longview Estate, in Darjeeling, India, is at a lower elevation than many other tea estates, though some parts of the estate climb pretty high, allowing for that prized "highgrown tea" appellation. I can't tell you at what altitude this Longview Queen tea is grown, but it seems the tea has gotten enough sun and at such an elevation that this presents like a quite nice Darj., with the brightness and complexity you are looking for.

In contradistinction to many tea connoisseurs (and I'm merely an appreciator, so pardon my clumsy attempt to speak of things above my station), I don't hold much to making tea The English Way when it comes to a good Darjeeling. I go with my own modified gongfu method, which is Chinese for "Careful preparation: lots of leaf, short steep times, as many steepings as you can get." I find that even non-Chinese teas do well with this method.

{ I wish I had a dog's nose }
I'm on my third steeping, using my gaiwan set, which is a Chinese lidded cup. When you drink a cup of tea, first start by smelling the leaves when they're dry. Just open up the tin or container and take a good whiff. Pay attention to what you are smelling. Remember, your mouth only has five different tastes it can identify, but the nose can identify tens of thousands of nuances. Sadly, we're from a species that only has a very limited sense of smell, but we must do the best with what we have. Have a look at the leaves. Are they whole? Are they curly, tightly balled, long, short, broken, whole, no stem, lots of stem?

My second step is to get my lidded up hot with boiling water, pour off the water, and pour in a large amount of leaf-- perhaps two to three tablespoons' worth. I cover the cup with the lid, and I shake the leaves gently-- I don't want to bruise the gin, as it were. Open the lid lightly, and allow the aroma of the leaves, which are now beginning to wake up after a long sleep, to catch you. Is it different from what you smelled a few moment before, when the tea was dry and cool? Does it smell like flowers, or like spices, or like fruit, or like something else you can't quite put your finger on? Have a quick look. Are the tea leaves opening up a bit? Ideally, they will end up looking like, well, leaves fresh off a tree, not like powder or dust.

After this, I pour the hot water over the leaves, from as great a height as I can without splashing everywhere, especially on myself. Hot temperature plus pressure equals flavor and aroma. Quickly cover the tea with the lid and wait for less time than you'd think-- 30 seconds or so, not much more. 

{ This dog looks like
the Dowager Countess Violet
from Downton Abbey, no? }
NOTE FOR DARJEELING NEWBIES: Don't let your tea oversteep. Darjeeling is the Dowager Countess of tea. It's temperamental and likely to give you a biting, sharp reply if you don't treat her with the deference she deserves. Unlike a typical Twining's or whatever you may be used to, you can't just pop the tea in the water and let it sit for 5 minutes or so, or whenever you feel like pulling out the teabag. No, no, no, and again I say, No. Just-under-boiling water and short steeps. Say it again: "short steeps." If you let it go long, you'll walk away thinking, "I guess I don't like Darjeeling tea," when you probably just did it wrong. A good way would be to steep perhaps 2.30 or 3.00 minutes max. But if you do this in the Chinese gongfu method, with lots of leaf and short steeps, we're talking 20-second steepings at maximum for the first couple times. Darjeelings don't stand up to multiple steepings as well as oolongs or puerhs do, but you should get a good three or four steepings out of them, maybe even up to six if you have something good going.

Again, listen to the tea. Are its leaves starting to "wake up" and unfurl? What color are they now? This Darjeeling Tea Boutique tea, SFTGFGOP1 Clonal AV2 First Flush, Longview Estate tea is a multi-hued leaf with visual variations between forest green to a ruddy rust brown, with a predominantly reddish hue. Plenty of leaf, quite a few broken leaves, a few that are whole from stem to stern. And fragrant! If someone could turn this into a perfume and give it to my wife, well, I'd get even less tea writing done than I do.

{ Gongfu does not mean karate.
It means making tea the smart way. }
With gongfu, slowly increase the number of seconds you steep the tea on each pour. Start with 30, move up to 40 or 45, and start to judge how much you will need to increase to get more out of the leaf from that point on. You can steep up to several minutes toward the end, trying to get the last bit of flavor and aroma from these wonderful leaves. You have to experiment, play around with the leaves yourself, to see what they will do for you. Pay attention to the aroma by swirling the tea in your mouth and using your nose over the cup. Notice how the tea's chi is affecting you-- chi being the mystical Chinese concept of energy, or power; but from my worldview, it's probably the felicitous combination of caffeine with a number of relaxants, heat, and the time it takes to slow down and enjoy something.

Over time, you'll forget what the tea tastes like. I did. Even though I've had thousands of cups of Darjeeling, it's been a dry spell for far too long, and now I'm reveling in the unexpected-but-familiar experience that a good Darjeeling will allow you.

One of these days, I shall travel to Darjeeling to experience these teas at the estates themselves. Until then, I'll settle for breathing a bit of Darjeeling right here in Illinois.

Thank you, Darjeeling Tea Boutique, for the lovely flight of tea!