18 December 2011

Party Like It's 1773

The first time I heard about the Boston Tea Party, I'm sure I was half asleep next to a hissing radiator in my second grade classroom. Due to my school's proximity to the scene of the crime, it was hammered into the curriculum each year around this season.

Indeed, 90,000 pounds of tea being dumped into Boston Harbor by barely disguised, openly disgusted colonists on December 16, 1773, was a seminal event for American independence. I wasn't quite yet obsessed with tea at that point, though. What finally got me interested in it was recently reading over some newspapers and books from the time (coincidentally, while sitting next to a somewhat quieter, new radiator in my hometown library- my former elementary school. So what if it took 30 years for me to pay attention?)

Tea was taboo in New England in the late 1770s; in order to show solidarity to the burgeoning movement of Down With The King (And Taxes, Too), colonists chose to stop consuming it.

"Do not suffer yourself to sip the accursed, dutied STUFF. For if you do, the devil will immediately enter into you, and you will instantly become a traitor to your country."
- Newport Mercury, Jan. 24, 1774

Apparently, a big part of this anti-tea movement ended up focusing on women. The boy's club could put down their cups for the sake of liberty, no problem. American ladies were a bit harder to convince:

"The women are such slaves to it, that they would rather go without their dinners than without a dish of tea."
- Abbe Claude C. Robin, New Travels Through North America, Boston, 1784

It was also feared that these insatiably thirsty women might badly influence their high-minded mates.

"For the New-England husbands, however they may intimidate British merchants and the British administration, are, in their own houses, too much on the hen-pecked establishment, to be able to carry such a measure against the Sovereign and absolute authority of their fair helpmates."
- Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, June 14, 1770

The hens finally got it together, though. "To their immortal honor," the women of Boston took a solemn oath never to drink another cup (Essex Gazette, December 28, 1773). The patriotic pressure that turned this country off tea led us straight into the waiting arms of coffee- and the often marginalized state we American tea drinkers find ourselves today.

So raise your cup, and wonder: Would I give up tea in the name of freedom from oppression? Hmm. After a sip of this Wuyi oolong from Lock Cha, I'm not so sure.

30 November 2011

You Always Remember Your First

The older you get, the less firsts there are to experience- or so it seems. This is a sad state.

What astounded me on my trip to the home of tea was experiencing so many new things, every single day, that I'd never even imagined I would. I'd dreamed about it, of course, but I also dream about waking up in a pile of money and Steve McQueen bringing me breakfast in bed (and neither of those have happened yet).

I didn't believe that I would ever be pulled into a room that was full of tea leaves quietly oxidizing. I could never have conjured the aroma of this process, both floral and green, complex and comforting as the scent of a beloved person, or even pictured the fading glossiness of the leaves as their moisture almost visibly evaporates.

As happens to me almost daily, I simply wasn't prepared. My initial peek at a little tea processing in an small, sparse room, just that first sniff of freshly picked Tieguanyin- it absolutely knocked me out.

I floated through the subsequent walk through the tea fields, the conversations of the farmers and buyers around me, even the sitting down and tea tasting itself.

I can't ever forget it.

14 November 2011

The Source

I'm still here.

What's kept me away from writing about tea, ironically, is working in it. It's immersed me in a way I never imagined a job could. I've been making, drinking and learning about tea in a way that finally starts to satisfy the long hunger for it.

And then, one week ago, I was in a tea field, at the top of San Lin She, in the middle of Taiwan. It was the culmination of trip to tea farms around there, northern Taiwan, and Fujian, China, and I'm still reeling from it.

Now, sitting at home, watching the sun rise over Brooklyn, I am sipping a cup of High Mountain Oolong from this field; the farmer handed me a bag of the leaves after I drank about 20 cups of it he brewed. All I could do was smile and say thank you (which was my only spoken interaction with all the incredibly talented farmers I met) but it was enough. I shouldn't have been astounded- I've made and shared tea with hundreds of people over this past year- but the act of preparing and drinking tea together is so achingly beautiful, welcoming yet intimate, that it's simply all you need to communicate.

Words almost cheapen it; pictures too, even. Describing or documenting an experience can take you out of it sooner than you're ready. Obviously I'm not quite recovered yet- I think part of me is still running between those serpentine bushes, waiting for the rest to come back. (The producers, though, I'm sure were glad to get rid of the crazy white girl rubbing her nose all over the plants.)

All I can do is make another cup of this tea, and let the unfolding taste and aroma- warm melted butter over sweet, green clover- take me there.

17 January 2011

Waiting for Good Donuts

Some bleary mornings, you just wake up dreaming of donuts.

Especially when a friend writes the night before, telling you she will have bag full of them and asks if you'd like her to drop by for breakfast.

And especially when the donuts are born at none other than Peter Pan (727 Manhattan Ave., Brooklyn), a bakery in Greenpoint.

Peter Pan is no chi-chi Doughnut Plant, but while I adore its 1960s-Warsaw charm, it's not close enough for me to go often (which is probably a good thing). These donuts are dangerous: sweet, not too dense, and the best you can feel for $1. There are dozens of flavors, but my favorite remains the sour cream glazed.

And as I waited for my delivery, I had time to select the perfect donut-accompanying tea- a bold one, with a lot of body, to stand up to all that sugary delight. Keemun is ideal: A strong Chinese black tea, it brews up a deeply fragrant cup, with intoxicating notes of chocolate and dark berries.

I too often overlook these rich, tobacco-colored little leaves, but I really shouldn't. Keemun is such a full flavored, almost velvety cup of tea, it should be drunk regardless of your donut status.

After a few cups, you almost don't need the donut. Almost.

14 January 2011

That's for Remembrance

Is it really possible I haven't baked or eaten anything sweet since last August? According to this blog, that's the case.

I haven't completely forgotten about desserts, even though it's been pretty quiet in my kitchen, and I have been drinking enough tea to kill a small horse. In fact, when I was gifted with a healthy bunch of rosemary after a dinner party this past weekend, I got straight to work. (After an American Apparel-style photo shoot with it, of course.)

So here are two different takes on rosemary cookies- both delicate in texture but heady with the woodsy, piney essence of the herb. The pine nut version is a bit more involved (and as only Martha Stewart can do- which is where the recipe is originally from- annoyingly calls for a few tablespoons of heavy cream), but it's worth it. It is getting some serious competition from the shortbread this morning, however, with all its rich, crumbly simplicity.

Pine Nut-Rosemary Cookies
Makes: about 3 dozen.

1 generous tablespoon chopped rosemary
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted, plus more for topping
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 egg, at room temperature

1. Heat oven to 325°. Finely chop rosemary in food processor; add pine nuts and pulse until coarsely ground. Stir in 2 cups flour, baking soda, ginger and salt; set aside.

2. Beat together butter and sugar with mixer on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Mix in oil; reduce speed to low and add flour mixture. Add cream; mix until well combined. Mix in egg, then remaining 1/4 cup flour.

3. Shape dough into scant 1-inch balls and place on baking sheets. Flatten each slightly with fingers, and press one pine nut into top. Bake until edges are golden, about 13 minutes. Let cookies cool, on sheets, at least 10 minutes to firm up.

Rosemary Shortbread

In large bowl, stir together 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup finely chopped rosemary and 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt. Using a pastry cutter, cut in 2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer to 10 x 8-inch baking pan, pressing to smooth top. Let sit at room temperature for 2 hours, then heat oven to 375° (350° if using glass pan). Bake until pale golden, 20-30 minutes. Score shortbread into squares while still warm; let cool completely then cut.

After you bake both and decide on your favorite, the true challenge begins: tea pairing. Try a darker oolong (Oriental Beauty or a Wuyi) with either; it cuts through all that butter but still lets the rosemary taste sing.

11 January 2011

The Tea Cure

There are so many reasons not to do something.

But no matter what the something is, the inaction always seems to stem from perfectionism or laziness. The first is a fear of not doing something well; the second is a fear of trying at all. I suspect everyone has both qualities- the more accomplished among us just have managed to mentally or emotionally outmaneuver these tendencies.

Leaving laziness aside (and letting it burrow back to its natural home under the covers), I'll readily admit to the paralysis of perfectionism. The worst part about a desire to excel is that you're left with an increasingly narrow focus and paradoxically, less to perfect.

Sitting here at 6:30 on a Tuesday morning, a few things come to mind that have escaped this often unproductive urge: throwing the javelin at track meets in junior high school (I don't think it ever went more than 35 feet, but I got to hurl a spear through the air), and playing bass in a punk band in college (I never practiced, and in fact, didn't even own an instrument, much to the frustration of my bandmates).

What strikes me now is that these were some of the few activities I've unabashedly enjoyed. You've experienced them at some point- the thing itself absorbs and consumes you; any sense of time beyond the immediate moment ceases to exist.

And it probably means I'm getting old, but making tea has joined the list. It is a decidedly more contemplative activity than those in my past, but it's still one that I've come to enjoy knowing that I don't know it all. I'm not going to make a perfect cup every time, and I never will. The nuances of each brew- and even the unpredictable taste of a slightly over- or under-brewed tea- is what I savor.

Regardless of the cause, inaction can be cured. Start with a tea so incredible (or expensive) that you're almost afraid to brew it, like the Red Fujian above that I brought some home to drink over the holidays. You don't need a lot- a single cup will show how just engaging in the act and letting go of the outcome can inspire.

Repeat as necessary.