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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06/21/14

Fifty Years Ago


In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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05/18/14

Song arrangements for CPLUG


CPLUG songbookI have arranged several songs for our local ukulele group (CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group) over the recent months, and put them online for our members and for any other ukulele aficionados. The most recent was prepared for our May 21 get-together. Links are below.

Some of these are my own arrangements based mostly on my reading of the original song sheets or the music itself, others are based on those of other modern groups or players (albeit generally changed or updated by me).

I search online for variations of songs – other arrangements – so I can make sure the one I put together is both playable by the group, and sounds right (to my tin ear).

The songs offer a mix of old and modern material – modern I suppose being relative, because none of the songs I’ve arranged are post-2000 (yet). Mea culpa, but they are those of my own preference and my taste in pop music tends to thin out post-1990. If anyone in the group wants modern recent songs, he or she is going to have to work with me to help make it work.

Not that there aren’t good musicians and songwriters today, just that the majority of stuff I hear on the radio is derivative pap that fits into formula-istic, computerized play lists. What passes for R&B today is especially dreary. Nothing like the great, powerful music that R&B was in the 60s and 70s. And to me the “new country” is equally sleep-inducing: repetitive and vapid. Trucks, booze, girls in tight jeans… rinse and repeat…

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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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05/3/14

More reasons to read


Brain and readingOn the Inside Higher Ed website, Joshua Kim recently asked the question,

When do you find the time and energy to read books?

That surprised me. What energy does reading take? It’s not like running, or swimming or playing sports.

Sitting down in a comfortable chair, cat on the lap, cup of tea at hand, and a small stack of books within easy reach. Some energy to set yourself up for an hour to two’s reading, but hardly any expended to do the actual reading. Well, maybe a little to move the facial muscles into a smile at the sheer satisfaction one gets from such activity.

And at night; tucked in, dog and cats on the bed snuggled up, cup of Ovaltine on the bedside table, small stack of books within easy reach – a quiet hour or so reading before lights out. Winding down from the day gently. No energy wasted at all.*

Putting a book into each bookstand kept on the counter when we have lunch together, on the weekends. Both of us enjoying a peaceful midday break, reading while we eat. No energy at all.

Taking out a paperback to read on the subway or bus during your commute; reading it in the doctor’s office waiting room; sitting on the front porch in the summer evening sun with a glass of wine and a book: effortless.

Reading is not simply something you learn at school, then neglect for the rest of your life – like algebra or Latin. It’s a skill that you use daily, and to use it well, you have to keep sharp and exercised, like a muscle. As a Northwestern University study found, there’s a difference in being a good and a poor reader:

What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them — but there’s a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their order and meaning in your memory, so that you can understand phrases, sentences, paragraphs and extended texts.

I would argue that reading more heightens those comprehension skills, just like exercise improves coordination and muscle quality.

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04/26/14

Just Six Songs?


The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB’;s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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