Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Cosmic Teapot From Afar

For a belated birthday present, I treated myself to one of Petr's lovely teapots.  When I first opened his box from Czech Republic, I was pleasantly taken aback by this teapot's daintiness-  it is perhaps the most delicate stoneware my hands have touched- nothing nothing like the chunky clunky bowls I made in college. The pot performs admirably in the ways I care about- pouring, heat retention, and ergonomics.

Aesthetics and form have a strong sway on my brewing as much as the functional aspects of a teapot. The severe form of a classical shuiping tends to make me more self-conscious and formal about the "gongfu" in my brewing.  But this teapot's relaxed shoulders nudge me to be natural in my session, to let things just happen.  

I posed this teapot with abalone shells as the layered blues of the flowing glaze reminded me of the deep ocean, but now while I'm tapping out this post, the opalescent milky glaze gives me a different head trip.  I'm seeing a helix nebula against the dark cosmos.  I love layered non-deterministic glazes like this because even the potter won't know exactly how the teapot will turn out till they open the kiln.  Hence no two pots can be exactly identical.  Such glaze patterns are unexpectedly more stunning and complex than what a human hand can actually paint.  

(Just an unrelated story only vaguely tied by pottery.)
Long long ago when I first came to California, I had a potter friend who invited me to go beach camping at Bolinas for a massive raku pit firing.  We were joined by a few of his friends. Soon after dinner, one of the other potter's ladyfriend simply peeled off all her clothes including her purple leg warmers and ran to the edge of the water to do an interpretive moon dance. Then her man watching her for a few minutes did the same.  It was by far the most Marin thing I have ever experienced. While I did not regret joining in on the impromptu naked moon dance,  I did regret not having a pot of my own to fire.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

California Canahua Champurrado

The many hardships of life can be softened by something as simple as a mug of thick chewy hot chocolate.  My current favorite preparation is loosely based on the Mexican champurrado which is traditionally made with masa or corn flour of some fashion.  You may also come across it as chocolate atole in some Mexican restaurants- atole being that lovely comforting genre of corn based hot beverages.

In California, we're all about fusion so I make mine with polenta, canahua, almond milk, and coconut sugar.  The dark seed heads in the photo with the white curled tail is canahua- the supergrain from the Andes.  Canahua gets touted as the "Cadillac of grains" and you may recognize it as being similar to quinoa. Canahua apparently is quinoa's superior cousin since it lacks the maligned saponins in the seed coating.

The canahua adds little bits of pop in texture and if you've never had hot chocolate you can chew- you are missing out. Actually I make fermented porridge regularly composed of oatmeal, polenta, canahua, and millet and I add a spoonful of this porridge to jump start champurrado- otherwise it takes too long to cook the grains just for hot chocolate.  Sometimes I will just add a third of a chocolate bar to half a cup of porridge to make a quick and nutritious chocolate grain pudding. Porridge is a versatile food capable of being sweet and savory.  Smoked scallops, bacon, and cheddar cheese on top of porridge with a fried duck egg is my ultimate comfort breakfast. The fermentation refers to the pre-soaking over a day before cooking and is supposed to render the porridge more nutritious.

For those of you who listen to spotify (just like Pandora- free with ads), I spent many an hour to bring you a teacloset music mix to share:

I've not hidden any death metal in these mixes and both are safe to lull you to sleep.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Very Very Old Liu Bao

The best aged teas are time machines letting you taste memories at your throat- memories both joyous and sorrowful. The age of a tea isn't always a direct dial of a time knob but when you get the rare opportunity to partake an old old tea, you happily let the tea carry you to memories which predate your very existence.  Due to Su's incredible generosity, her tea transported me deeper into the past than any tea ever had.

Su procured this liu bao from a man who had held onto this tea from his grandparent's sundry shop which closed during the Japanese occupation. This puts the tea to early 1940s possibly late thirties. Great quantities of liu bao were originally imported to Malaysia for tin miners to drink all day long, brewed grandpa style in giant cauldrons.  Fermented and aged in woven bamboo baskets, not all liu bao turns out to be something amazing pending original source material and the vagaries of storage. However the decades of favorable Malaysian storage have transformed this particular specimen into something wonderful.  

Su has excellent taste in tea and many of her teas share the "jiang xiang" quality prized by collectors. Jiang xiang denotes the incense-like medicinal fragrance which itself can be quite varied. I've smelled and tasted a range of jiang xiang from more woody resiny juniper notes to more vegetal herbal notes through her teas.   Some of her puerh display a more prominent incense scent but present less so in taste but this liu bao had a more elusive jiang xiang fragrance but surprisingly prominent jiang xiang taste.   I brewed Su's liu bao for twenty infusions-  the quiet strength of the brews reminded me overwhelmingly of my dear maternal grandmother- so much so that tears fell away from my eyes. 

Before we deconstruct this tea any further,  I share with you my most treasured grandma story from this very era.  The 1940s was an unspeakably tragic time for my grandparents' generation and the entire nation of Korea.  But there is one happy family tale from these turbulent times which I cherish most because my mother(hence yours truly) would never have existed without the resourcefulness of my grandmother.

During the height of the Second World War,  Japanese soldiers dragged away my grandfather to a holding prison along with other unfortunate men in town as their names were chosen as the first wave to be sent to work the dreaded Sakhalin coal mines.  The working conditions in the mines were such that those men would have held no hope for return as countless simply perished after being brutally worked to exhaustion.  The unmarried able men were drafted into the army and the married family men such as my grandfather were reserved for forced labor but neither group enjoyed favorable odds.   Facing such a dire fate for her husband and the survival of her family, my grandmother sprung to action. 

My grandmother first hired a carpenter to fashion an exquisite cedar box.  She filled the box with emerald green mosses and laid on top the freshest fish of a kind prized by the Japanese.  Apparently it was a fish at the time exceedingly difficult to keep fresh.  She presented this box to the wife of the Japanese head of their prefecture and tearfully pleaded her case.  As a mother of four young children with the youngest still being weaned, my grandmother beseeched her to save them from destitution and undue hardship they would face without their father.  The wife must have been moved as my grandfather was spared from the mines. The Japanese head of the prefecture did not have the power to remove my grandfather's name entirely from the labor list, but he did have the power to assign men to their final destination and so my grandfather was instead allowed to work the stone quarry a few miles outside of town.  He and my grandmother went on to have have four more children, the eighth and final child being my mother.  (Actually seven years after this incident before my mother had yet the chance to be born, the North Koreans would drag away my grandfather again for forced labor but that is another story for another tea. I shudder thinking how many times I came close to non-existence but we are all side effects in an incredibly long chain of consequences. )

I have tried only one other liu bao before this occasion- a blind sample sent to me by Wilson. I had never tasted any other heicha and had mistook it for being a light shu.  So to taste such a venerable old liu bao without having hardly tasted liu baos at all- I have no reference points except for aged sheng.  I really did not know what to expect except a calming qi conveyed with a medicinal sweetness.  Starting the third and fourth brew, the tea presented the elegant long lasting smoothness with herbal incense overtones- the delicacy of the sweet aftertaste is lovely.   However, I was most intrigued by the later brews after the eleventh brew.  These lighter brews held a beguiling complex flavor akin to well water- the sides of my tongue and insides of my cheek swelled up in anticipation.  Hmm- that sounded a bit racier than intended.  The closest description I could find of such aged liu bao is of "rain water taste" on teachat.  When a tea captivates your mind and mouth taking you to the twentieth brew wanting more- well that's a great tea. 

Liu bao is currently undervalued in relation to puerh of the same age but of course good aged liu bao on-line is no means cheap- just relatively affordable compared to an outrageously priced aged puerh.  (Tea Disciple does this topic more justice) I went into a frenzy trying to buy some aged liu bao on the internet after this session but stopped myself at checkout. After tasting this aged liu bao, I'm probably setting myself up for disappointment to buy off the internet.   I've put myself in a curious tea buying limbo not only because of incredible tea gifts such as this one but because the care in which someone sent me tea has taken on greater meaning. When I drink aged puerha that I just bought off the internet (even after intense nights of agonizing and weeks of working hard to reward myself)- even good teas don't entirely satisfy because it's just one more beeng I've gotten for myself.  Perhaps this is a temporary reprieve but I've appeared to have come naturally to the end of my puerh collecting phase.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lifting Shu with Sheng

Last Sunday to soothe a stomach ache, I chose the shu route and ended up brewing four different shus.  I also wanted to try some unloved shus in yixing before I finally give them up for adoption.  I was a tad hopeful as some wet stored aged sheng do perform better in yixing. But, but brewing shus you don't care for in a yixing pot really does not make it any better. White Tuo- I'm gonna find you a new loving home.

If yixing is not going to improve a shu, well- we will have to resort to more direct means.  I'm a big fan of sheng/shu blends like the Dayi 7452 and the uber-cheap Dehong that TeaDB James had fun with.  But if you've got lots of shu which didn't get pressed with some token sheng, you can still do your own blending either in the teapot or even in the cup.  In the above photo, you will spot one lonely cup of sheng. Actually blog photos can be quite misleading- there's two more supporting teapots and many cups besides this tidy fish plate to get four brews going simultaneously. (Also that yixing gaiwan ended up being a fake yixing but it's a decent gaiwan so I won't start a fight.)

I sometimes keep a sheng brew around to lighten up a shu.   Ever since I get my kicks blending hongcha and oolong for my own Russian Caravan I've been more keen to experiment.  For me, it's more about enjoying the process rather than unlocking some magic combo.  Mostly, a smidgeon of sheng dynamism will make your shu a little lighter and tastier.    Just as you won't use the best oolong for Russian Caravan,  you can employ so-so shengs into good use.

The sheng pictured above is a Changtai 2006 65th Anniversary Beeng- a pretty decent beeng deserving of being brewed on it's own and no means a beeng which should be relegated to just shu lifting duty. I tend to use whatever sheng I brewed up earlier instead of overthinking the sheng selection as the sheng tends to get drowned out by shu.  I've tried mixing the tea leaves but you don't have as much control or flexibility to see how a shu will improve and to determine a working proportion.  Also you don't have to have a separate pot for the control brew without the sheng.  
Sometimes one can down more tea than intended and in some cases you don't know the potency of a tea until it's much too late.  I ended up loading on so much caffeine that running was the only viable way not to pop out of the roof.  There's reliable research that caffeine in-take(here and here) an hour before workout is beneficial and leads to decreased muscle fatigue.  The caffeine helped noticeably enough that I'm going to schedule running sessions after tea and drink to my hearts content without worrying about over doing it.

One of my favorite runs is on the Berkeley Marina where you have ready views to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Early in the year we get green grasses and a profusion of invasive oxalis blooming yellow. But for most of the year, the grass is golden.

When one runs with the bay wind,  you can taste the momentary freedom from one's sorrows and burdens. Sometimes when tea does not carry you to the clouds, you have to carry the tea.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Happy belated Valentines dear reader. I hope that you enjoyed a few sparks mandated by such a holiday. If not, take solace that joyous moments of love tend to happen at un-appointed hours and such love need not be limited between mere romantic partners. I have a great many secret and not so secret loves and to love I've found to be altogether a fine human endeavor.

Of the more healthier and wholesome loves in the light side of my heart lives pears right next to hongchas and blue cheese.  Today while fruit shopping, I happily came upon a luscious pile of late late harvest Comice.  Out of the dozen pear varieties one often gets in California,  my heart literally races when I see Taylor's Gold- a variety so finicky to grow that you scarcely find this russeted brown beauty in the markets. Taylor's Gold's floral aromatics are utterly intoxicating and anyone whose had the pleasure of a ripe and juicy specimen are prone to senseless gushing. However there are some stoics like my husband who are strangely immune or even against such sensuous fruit and will go running back to their Bartletts and Boscs.  When you can't get a hold of this most magical variety,  your next best option is Doyenne du Comice which unsurprisingly gave mutation to Taylor's Gold.  

In deconstructing my love of pears,  I tried to brew up sheng today which matches closest to a Comice. The best Comice can exude a heady wine-like fragrance of complex fermentation. Peter Blackburne-Maze writes that the Doyenne du Comice is "most deliciously flavored and juicy to the point of indecency".   Such sensuality belongs more in the realm of oolongs than old man puerh but I try.

The 2006 Changtai 65th anniversary is all sugar and juice but no underlying complexity - more like a simple Anjou.  The 2004 Changtai Ancient teapot is more complex but tad too aged to conjure up ripe white flesh. It was a vain exercise then to connect two disparate loves.

I had meant to brew up the 1930's liu bao all week but was thwarted by a series of unfortunate events. First two of my tastebuds became simultaneously enflamed,  then my husband and I got stomach flu, and now it's allergies kicking up in high gear in the unseasonably warm weather.  I've been awaiting ideal conditions but I may just have to go for it.