16 December 2012

Pu-erhFore Art Thou

Today is the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. I've blathered on about it in the past, so no need to get into all that now- there is more current tea news to report.

There it was, in a New Yorker issue from few weeks back, in black and white: an offhand reference to pu-erh. No addition of the words "tea" or even "drinking," and no further explanation. This is A Big Deal.

Yes, it was italicized, which all good copy editors know indicates a foreign word not in the dictionary or popular lexicon. But still, it was there, and quite casually at that. I almost shouted with delight as I read it walking up the subway stairs- but then an old man coming the other way let loose a gentle river of vomit right as he passed me, which evened things out a bit.

I was wearing boots, though, so it failed to dampen my spirits too much. And perhaps celebration of just the word in print is premature- it may yet take as long as it took me to appreciate pu-erh (well over 10 years), but people will slowly figure out how delicious it is. It's inevitable.

25 November 2012

Oh Gyokuro

One of the my favorite things about my life in the past few years is that marathon tea-drinking sessions are a regular occurrence- and they are often preceded with a casual invitation along the lines of "Hey, want to come over and taste the first-prize-winning gyokuro from Kyushu? I have some killer sencha, too- I think it won third prize."

Let's just say it does make this whole aging thing seem more worthwhile. Sure, five years ago I could have sprinted across nine lanes of oncoming traffic without feeling like someone just shot a poison arrow into my right knee- but I was drinking tea alone, for the most part, and with much of what ends up here only playing out silently in my mind.

Now I often get to enjoy tea with people who are as equally obsessed with it, but the frequency doesn't lessen the impact.

It's like gyokuro itself: this is the tea that started it all (be bored by the long, maudlin tale here), but this is also the tea that stops me in my tracks. Still. This particular one was a single variety (saemidori) and the flavor was stunning, in the concentrated, endless burst of sweetness it offered. Combined with a rich, cream-like viscosity and utter lack of astringency, it absolutely blew me away. And it didn't dissipate throughout my palate or over time; it just sat there, quiet, still and strong as a pine tree growing next to a rock.

And while we're on the subject of time, something else occurred to me during the gyokuro session. My friend who was brewing it- and fastidiously shaking the last drops from the pot into our cups- remarked that I was so patient. I was sitting there practically holding my breath in anticipation of the first sip, but patient is a word (rightfully) rarely tossed my way.

My response was instant: "But this is so worth waiting for."

More on the sencha soon. I'm still recovering.

18 November 2012

Brewing Tea by the Roadside

A friend who I met years ago over Japanese tea (at Ito En) now has his own company, Tea Wing, sourcing some incredible senchas and gyokuro from a farm in Yame, in Fukuoka Prefecture. The matcha from here is lovely, too, especially when enjoyed outside after a leaf-viewing walk through Prospect Park.

The tea ceremony itself was informal, which, as a self-taught rather than formally-trained drinker, I enjoyed- when it comes to any tea, actually, I favor accessibility over obfuscation. I had matcha prepared in both traditional styles: usucha or thin (grassy and sweet), and koicha or thick (intensely vegetal, with a texture of melted iced cream). The tea was characteristically both soothing and invigorating, especially after the long walk and about 45 minutes of sleep the night before.

This matcha is also described as having notes of chocolate, moss and meadowgrass; I can't imagine a better diet to dream of.

Brewing tea by the roadside
fragrance rising from the pot
a marvelous refined pleasure
a flavor found nowhere else.
The soft shrilling of the pine wind
moving through the northern fields
billowing steam from the brazier
dispersing into the western clouds.
- Baisao, Brewing Tea at Saiun-ji in Kitano (1675-1763)

29 October 2012

Tea by Storm

I'm not very patient- or so everyone who's ever known me has said. I disagree, though. I think I'm just the right amount of patient. But sitting here, waiting for the biggest hurricane since the dawn of time to hit, is testing my limits.

Taking Shiruxiang (石乳香)- a Wuyi oolong from Lock Cha- through a dozen steepings has been helping. I don't like to pick favorites with tea, but Wuyis are actually my most beloved oolongs because they are the first kind I experienced (and I remember exactly where I was, and how beautifully different it tasted than anything I'd ever had). The name of this one roughly translates to "rock fragrance," and it does have a smooth, mineral-earthy flavor that goes on and on (kind of like this storm). It's as close as I can get to licking a rock on a misty mountain in Fujian right now, and that's not such a bad place to be.

The other neat thing to do with a Wuyi is to save the rinse- the quick, few-seconds infusion of boiling hot water that you initially pour over the leaves to wake them up a bit. Instead of discarding this liquid, as you may be used to doing with oolongs or pu-erhs, save it to sip after the tea is done. Here, you can taste where the tea came from; the flavors I found in this one were minerally, with a bright but pleasant metallic note.

Of course, you will need something to eat between infusions. I also will blame this storm for the worst chocolate chip cookies I've yet to make- it must be the lowest-ever recorded barometric pressure, right? I'm not even going to show them. They're edible, but barely. Make these ones instead, a brown butter version from Food & Wine that I discovered a few weeks back and never should have turned away from.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes: about 3 dozen

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups chopped bittersweet chocolate

1. In medium saucepan, cook the butter over moderate heat until it is browned and nutty-smelling, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature.

2. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt and baking soda. In large bowl, beat brown butter with both sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla. At low speed, beat in the dry ingredients, scraping down the bowl as needed. Mix in the chopped chocolate. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

3. Heat oven to 375°. Spoon small mounds of dough onto baking sheets. Bake about 12 minutes, until the cookies are just firm and golden brown on the bottom. Transfer sheet to a rack until cookies cool.

While we're in the midst of this hurricane confessional: I've also been told many times I focus too much on the past. That one is probably a bit more accurate. But when the wind is starting to bludgeon the walls so much that I can feel them shudder, I don't think that's such a bad quality. Sometimes it's necessary to put the present moment aside and think about something else.

I just found these photos from a tasting day over two years ago, right when I started actually working in tea. I've been thinking about that whole thing a lot lately, and not just because I'm trapped inside for the next week while the world dissolves into a wet pile of entropy outside. Tea is such a part of everyday life now that I can't delineate the two.

I wouldn't change a thing.

21 October 2012

The Far Moon

"Sleep on horseback,
The far moon in a continuing dream,
Steam of roasting tea."

-Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

05 September 2012

Other Mornings

"When tea is consumed for a long time, it causes one to gain strength."

-Shen Nong, Classic of Food

24 August 2012

Tea on the Beach

Phoenix Honey, while dipping my feet into the Atlantic: one of the best parts of August.

16 August 2012

First Up

Sometimes, tea is just tea. I don't mean to diminish its existence or enjoyment, but instead of laboring over its relationship to my conjured childhood memories that are interesting to approximately three other people, it's good to simply drink it. And tell you to do the same.

This Darjeeling First Flush is from the Thurbo Estate, and you can find it from the lovely Camellia Sinensis- along with a slew of other Darjeelings. First Flush has such a clear floral note over its characteristic subtle spiciness; it's become one of my favorite ways to open the day.

"Tea is nought but this: 
first you heat the water, then you make the tea. 
Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know."

-Sen Rikyu

09 August 2012

The Beauty of Sencha

This year, I've been sitting down to drink with an old tea friend, from back in my compulsive-shopping Ito En days. He's arguably more into Japanese greens than I am (and not arguably far more knowledgeable about them). He also has a tea company of his own now- from what I've tasted, it's some lovely stuff- but one of my favorite things about drinking tea together is how approachable he makes it. (And the fact that he will wait patiently as I ogle his endless photos of tea fields and those gorgeous emerald leaves.)

I've been following his latest journey to the farm in Yame and throughout Japan this summer, and the photos make me want to go there even more.

Sencha is like an another old friend to me. It and gyokuro are the teas that opened my senses, allowing me to actually taste tea. The groundwork for the obsession had been laid years earlier (more on that soon), but it was these particular leaves that lit the match.

04 August 2012

Bailin Gongfu, Again, Part II

I just can't seem to stop drinking Bailin Gongfu. I'm usually able to be magnanimous with tea (much more so than with people), but I've been brewing this one every day lately. Recently, it was the only tea I drank the entire day.

That may not sound extreme, but usually I'm all over the place- black, green, pu-erh, oolong often all have been made, tasted and enjoyed by midafternoon.

So when I had a rare moment last weekend, on a gorgeous summer morning, to sit with one of my sisters- who unfortunately I only get to see once or twice a year now- we of course had some Bailin on the porch while the rest of the house was quiet.

The whole weekend was lovely, but I think that was my favorite part.