07/13/14

The Lore of Tea


4 World-Famous Chinese Green TeasWhoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*

I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**

I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.

Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)

I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.

Tea History Terroirs VarietyLike most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.

Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.

That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea –  offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.

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07/5/14

A Cup of Dragon Well


TempleLegend has it that, in the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong (1711-1799 CE), the grandson of the Emperor Kangxi, went on a holiday to the West Lake district, in the Hangzhou area of Zhejiang province, China. He stopped at the Hu Gong Temple, nestled under the Lion Peak Mountain (Shi Feng Shan). There, he was presented by the monks with a cup of green tea made from the temple’s own tea bushes.

He was so impressed with the tea that, when he became Emperor himself, Qianlong gave these 18 tea bushes special imperial status and the tea became “Gong Cha,” or Imperial tea. Those trees are still living and, according to Wikipedia, “the tea they produce is auctioned annually for more money per gram than gold.”

The green tea he sipped is known as Longjing or Lung Ching – “Dragon Well” in English, named after an eponymous well located in the nearby village, itself with an interesting story to tell.

There are other parts to this legend:

Since the first cup of tea served, he was very impressed with its beautiful appearance, elegant fragrance and mellow taste. The monk who served the tea, brought him to the tea garden, where 18 tea bushes were planted. Being enamored with the work of women picking the tea, Emperor even decided to try it by himself.

When the Emperor was enjoying gathering the tea leaves, urgent news came saying that his mother, the Empress Dowager fell sick and asked for his immediate return to the palace. When the Emperor came to see his sick Queen Mother, the aroma of tea leaves, which he kept in his pocket, attracted her attention. At once, he served the tea to her, and the Queen Mother fell in love with its amazing taste and flavor. After drinking tea for a few days, the Queen Mother was cured. The Emperor was so grateful to the tea that he granted the 18 tea trees under the Lion Peak Mountain the name of the Imperial Tea Tree. Since then, Dragon Well tea became a tribute tea to Chinese emperors.

Tea SommelierGabriella Lombardi, writing in The Tea Sommelier, says it is the “most famous of all Chinese teas.” (I found this wonderful, beautifully illustrated book on sale at Indigo, Eaton Centre, last weekend; a real steal for anyone interested in tea.)

But the tea from that region was known long before Qianlong. It was mentioned by Lu Yu (733-804 CE) in his famous “The Classic of Tea.”

There were other books about tea produced in China after Lu Yu, such as Zhu Quan’s Manual of Tea from the late 14th century CE. Tea drinking in China is itself at least 2,000 years old, and the oldest tea trees are about 1,700 years old.

Another legend says the tea plants are “watered by rain from a local dragon.”

Tibettour.org tells us:

Dragon Well Tea flourishes in the mountainous area where mild climate and plentiful rainfall are plentiful year-round. Around West Lake, Shifeng Peak, Longjing Village, Yunxi Mountain, Hupao and Meijiawu Region offer such prime conditions. The history of planting tea trees is rather long in these areas, as the tea sage Lu Yu mentioned in his Book of Tea. The teas grown in these areas were called Shi, Long, Yun, Hu and Mei respectively in the past. Now, with an increase in production, it is generally classified into Xihu (West Lake) Longjing Tea, Qiantang Longjing Tea and Yuezhou Longjing Tea, among which the Xihu Longjing Tea is the best.

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07/2/14

May and June Breads


June bread
The past month I haven’t done as much baking as usual – just been too busy to do much, plus I was away for a long weekend holiday in Toronto. So June saw a mere two loaves baked. I made a few others in late May, however.

June breadThe two most recent loaves were a poolish-levain combination done in the oven, and a jalapeño-cheese bread done in the machine. The former was a typical bread for me: nicely solid for sandwiches and toast, but the levain added the sourdourgh flavour and a hint of acidity. Both crust and crumb were acceptable.

Nice, simple bread to make. pretty much my fall-back recipe nowadays (although my levain suffered a mishap and I may need to restart one…).

The only problem with this loaf was the shape – slightly lopsided. No big deal, of course, in the eating thereof. I suspect it had rather exuberant oven spring on that side.

Cheese & jalapeno bread bread
June breadThe jalapeño-cheese bread was based on a recipe from my favourite bread machine cookbook, but as I have often found in other of this book’s recipes, the amount of cheese and jalapeño pepper was too little for my taste.

If it has hot peppers, it should taste like it has hot peppers – even the mild ones like the modest jalapeño.

I fried the peppers in a bit of olive oil and some minced onion, first. The cheese was from a shredded cheddar package.

The loaf turned out well physically, with the sort of fluffy crumb one gets in commercial breads, albeit a somewhat thicker crust. It was quite symmetrical (not all of my machine-baked breads have been) and rather tall.

However, both the cheese and the peppers tended to get thoroughly blended into the crumb, so there was no particular taste of either. It was okay for sandwiches and passable for toast. Nothing I’d want to repeat without some significant changes.

Well, the first loaf has been eaten and the c-j bread is down to its last slice or two, so it’s time to start a new loaf. I began a poolish this morning with a mix of unbleached white and red fife flours. We’ll see what else I add tomorrow. Basil? Garlic? Hmmm…

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05/10/14

Failure and Redemption


Sourdough #1The past month has seen the rise, fall and rise again of my bread making efforts.

Mid-month, in April, I was having some success making sourdough breads and was looking at trying some experiments with herbs and other ingredients. Maybe look at other specialty breads, too.

But late in the month I tried a cheese bread in the machine – my first cheese bread, using a recipe in the 300 Best Bread Machine Recipes book. It was a failure that cost me a confidence and set me to lying awake at night wondering what I did wrong.

But then I came back with good loaves – in fact, very good – both in a mixed-sourdough and a handmade cheese bread.

I feel redeemed. Confidence was restored.

Sourdough #1Mid-April I made a sourdough from the levain in my fridge, and no additional yeast or poolish. Entirely unbleached white flour. I decided this time to add more salt than I usually do – almost the amount most recipes call for. The result was a slow rise during the day, but it rose to a reasonable height for the boule. Tall enough for sandwiches.

Crust was crisp, the crumb was a bit dense but not overly so; more like a commercial light rye (and the taste is similar to a rye because of the sour levain). But it cooked throughout to a nice consistency with just the right amount of chewiness.

There was noticeable aeration, especially at the top, although no really large holes. Makes me wonder if I should have flipped the dough over an hour or so before baking; help the aeration on the other side.

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05/6/14

Still hot and getting hotter


Blair's After Death SauceIt’s hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since I last updated my web page on hot sauces, and about 15 since I first wrote it.

My, how times flies. So many years, so many hot sauces since then.

I’ve been a hot sauce aficionado for much longer than that, though. Most of my life, and all my adult life. But only in the last two decades has there really been a significant choice available in product. I can remember when Tabasco was it; the only hot sauce ever found anywhere. Now there are stores that specialize in nothing but. And the choice of hot peppers is tremendously expanded, too, from the barely-warm jalapeno to the brutally hot bhut jolokia.

The little bottle above left – Blair’s After Death Sauce – is one I opened this past weekend. Hot, scorchingly hot, but tasty, too. I’ve always liked Blair’s sauces. This mix is much hotter than the original Death Sauce, but below his Sudden Death. I went through a bottle of the latter, late last year, but didn’t like it as much as the After Death or his “cooler” sauces. Sudden Death was not as tasty, but hotter and that makes it difficult to get just the right amount, since so little is needed.

Personally, I want flavour as well as heat. After Death has both heat and flavour, without quite tipping over to the inedibly hot level – assuming you’re sparing with it. Which I seldom am, of course. But likely next time I find a selection (we found the latest bunch in Orillia), I’ll move down a notch to a slightly cooler sauce, in exchange for the added flavour.

It’ll still be ten times hotter than most of my readers can bear. But keep in mind: hot sauces work by tricking you: they’re not really hot (as in temperature) no matter what your tongue tells you. You think your mouth is burning, but it really isn’t. And your body quickly adapts to the sensation:

…your nervous system isn’t going to just let you suffer with your mouth on fire. So it also launches a whole series of actions to help us deal with the pain. It releases endorphins — the morphine-like compounds that give you a natural high. And it makes the nerves on our tongue more tolerant to pain.
In other words, spicy peppers may hurt at first, but then they have an analgesic effect…
When (hot sauce) hits your tongue, capsaicin activates sensory neurons in a very specific way. They bind and open up a receptor on the nerve’s surface, called TRPV1.
This receptor also gets activated by high temperatures — anything above 109 degrees Fahrenheit. So your brain thinks the nerve is touching something hot when the hot sauce hits the receptor.
A similar mechanism happens with mints and cough drops that give your tongue a cooling, icy sensation. Cold temperatures are sensed by a receptor closely related to TRPV1 (called TRPM8).
And guess what molecule also activates this receptor? The menthol in peppermint and spearmint. So minty gums trick your mind into thinking you’re eating something cold.

It’s called an endorphin rush:

Despite the incredibly intense burning — which persists for about 20 minutes — Barrus says the 40-minute period of bliss that follows is worth the pain.

“There’s a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness,” he said. “My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good.” Released in response to stress and pain, endorphins are brain chemicals that reduce the perception of pain.

Long-distance runners know the feeling, albeit without the initial pain.

Life without hot sauce – meals without at least a dab – is dull. Boring. Mundane. Hot sauce doesn’t have to be so hot it makes you weep (although that’s okay, too…), just hot enough to make your eyes widen and the endorphins to kick in.

Sampling the latest bottle got me thinking about hot sauces again (it seems as I age, my tolerance for heat is increasing – what I now consider mild I used to think of as hot….). And what has transpired since I first wrote about them; how the market has grown and gone mainstream. And to bemoan the lack of a good local selection of hot sauces (not a single local grocery store carries the Tabasco habanero, which is light years hotter and tastier than the standard Tabasco, much less anything exquisite like Blair’s sauces…).

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05/4/14

Random grumblings for a Sunday afternoon


Star WarsWhy can’t I buy Yorkshire Gold tea in town? I can buy Barry’s tea, from Ireland, and Morse’s tea packaged in Nova Scotia locally. As well as other brands. Surely someone can bring in Yorkshire Gold… and yes, I’ve gone to every grocery store in town and asked for it. Even Sobeys – where I had been told it was available – the staff there had no idea what it was. Never heard of it, I was told.

Barry’s tea is nice: a bit on the robust side, which we like, but the tea bags could use a tiny bit more to give it that oomph. Available at Metro.

Tetley has two new teas on the shelf: Bold and Pure Ceylon.The Bold doesn’t taste to me any different from their regular tea. But I like the Ceylon, albeit it’s not as full-bodied as I would prefer. Still, it has a nice flavour and may replace my regular Tetley. Available at Freshco.

What happened to Tazo Tea? I used to really like their full-leaf Awake tea, an English breakfast tea, and often ordered it at Starbucks. But the last two times I’ve bought a box for home consumption (one bought at a grocery store, the other from Starbucks), I’ve been greatly disappointed. The first time because the tea turned out not to be full-leaf (the box label was unclear…). The second because the full-leaf bags contained only a small portion of what they used to contain. The result in both cases is a weak, watery, insipid tea. No more Tazo for me, in future.

I prefer whole-leaf teas and tea bags because they seem fuller and richer than the broken leaf and leaf dust you get in the standard grocery-store tea bag. But they’re not the common product: most brands don’t offer full leaf. Most are called  “orange pekoe”  but are really broken orange pekoe – a low-level grading.

Lately we’ve taken to drinking Typhoo Tea. Even the decaf is pretty good. PG Tips, another Brit tea, is fair, not really much different from Tetley. Have to ask Susan to bring back some other teas from England when she goes across the pond this summer.

I bought a box of Choice organic English breakfast tea at Costco last week. Ho hum. Like the Tazo Awake, the bags or their contents are too damned small to make a decent, strong cuppa. Takes to bags for my large cup. Another one to avoid in future.

Costco (at least the Barrie store) has a limited and rather unexciting choice of teas (not to mention it seems to have dropped the green cerignola olives – the best olives they’ve ever stocked – and their superb vidalia onion salad dressing in favour of mediocre product . Which means we are on the verge of giving up on Costco entirely (well, maybe if they keep those large bottles of marinated artichokes, we’ll hang on, albeit grimly…).

Too many products we get to know and love that get dropped. Happens at local grocery stores, too.

Used to really like Costco, and made a trip there every three or four months. Now my respect has plummeted and the few times we do go there, we buy very little compared to the past. Even their selection of DVDs is flaccid, and their selection of books is sheer crap. But they do have good shirts and clothes. Still… why can’t they keep a single brand of olives in stock?

A few weeks ago, we were down in Brampton and visited an Asian food market. Great place, full of wonderful produce, fish, sauces… I ended up buying a bag full of green teas (and a hot sauce). One of those boxes was a Korean green tea, which I have not yet tried, but I have never sampled Korean tea, so I’m looking forward to it. As soon as I finish my current supply of Lung Ching (Dragonwell) green tea, I’ll open it.

Dragonwell is my current favourite Chinese green tea. The current box is from Golden Sail, but it’s only fair quality. There seems to be a faux market in Dragonwell teas, with some low-quality products being passed off as the real thing. I can’t tell which is authentic, but I can tell which tea tastes good; which has a full, rich body. Frankly, that’s all that really matters to me.

I enjoy some Japanese green teas, but not a steady diet of them. Sencha is my favourite, and matcha when it can be had, but I’m iffy about the roasted brown rice and barley in some other varieties.

In my experience, most of the green teas in the Asian markets are only fair quality; some are actually mediocre. It’s a guessing game, but because the prices are usually modest, it’s not a big investment. I buy several and hope for the best. Regardless, I usually use them all. The boxes don’t really give you a lot more than vague promises of quality, but now and then you get a treasure.

We used to buy a lot of tea and sauces at Soon Lee’s, in Scarborough (along with many great hot sauces), but since they moved, we don’t have a good substitute Asian market (although we did find a good one on Kingston Road last year). In Brampton, we went with a Chinese woman who translated the labels so i could pick products by description, rather than just guessing (which is why I ended up with a bottle of Uncle Chen’s “chilliciously hot” extra hot sauce when I would have otherwise overlooked it).

You can get a nice, organic green tea called Uncle Lee’s, from both Metro and WalMart. It’s almost as robust as Ten Ren green tea, but not quite. Ten Ren you’ll have to get out of town – we buy ours in Chinatown at a tea shop on Dundas Street West. To my palate, Ten Ten makes the very best green tea. I have tried a few of their black and herbal teas, too.

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