Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Glass Teapot Lineup

I've been meaning for numerous months to find my friends a starter teapot.  Only one of these is giftworthy. Can you guess just by looking at the lineup?

The leaf pot on the left is awkward since you have to secure the lid while pouring and is bit of a dribbler. I'll probably put it to use as a madeira decanter. The cauldron shaped pot on the right is a new fangled kind of gaiwan, but it has glass filter inside with cut slits. It's pretty but the cut glass slits make me nervous. It's unlikely glass shards would splinter off the edge but I just feel paranoid.  I'll probably use the bottom as a chawan.

The pot in the middle is the training bra of glass teapots- it's perfectly serviceable and is a great way to get started with delicate pots. If you successfully manage not to crack it in the first few weeks, you can move up to something fancier. If you only have one teapot to start, I find glass is a good way to go because you can see exactly what's happening inside. You can brew almost any kind of tea although it doesn't retain heat well and does not impart anything so puerhs won't perform their best in the way they can with yixing. Nonetheless I've had many a good sheng session with glass.

I have yet another 4th candidate from Red Lantern which is yet to arrive which hopefully will be my official gift teapot.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Sketcher

I saw this young artist sketching away last Friday on BART. His napping subject also must have been young and beautiful once before he became this tired and rather serious faced old man. More than a few of us are approaching the hump of middle age if not already rounding it out. Not all of us are weighted with a world weariness although I am uncharitably suspicious if someone has the appearance of having led too comfortable a mental existence.

I felt lucky to feel a certain purity and joy to the sketcher's efforts. Who knows what life holds for him.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Office Teapot as Decanter

After I saw Gero's post on office matcha, I got inspired to perk up the work afternoon with some quality madeira. I brought in two different madeiras from the Rare Wine Company- the dry sercial and a sweet malmsey. Normally you decant them for a day or two.  In a flash, I saw my glass teapot was perfectly suited for this task.  Madeira in the afternoon is delightfully civilized.

(A most special guest may be visiting the tea closet tomorrow.  I really should go and start scrubbing the house down for such a distinguished personage...)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Grocery Bulk Puerh

Out of curiosity I looked in the bulk tea section of Rainbow- a gourmet vegetarian grocery store in San Francisco. Yes- there is such a thing as a vegetarian grocery store and I embarrassed myself thoroughly a decade ago asking for the bacon section. I now go there to get chocolate and coffee for which they have a pretty good selection.

You can see that their puerh options are way expensive. $69/lb for sticky rice tuocha and $49/lb for camel's breath! That's way more than the 2012 Golden Needle White Lotus (~$37). I have a friend who works in their produce department. Perhaps I should mention something to him instead of putting it so publicly. But it's their suppliers Silk Road/Two Hills who have perpetrated the original up-charge.

I also checked our neighborhood Berkeley Bowl and they have one loose puerh for $17.99. I snagged $0.18 worth to brew tonight just for kicks. I can just see some of the hard core mavens just shaking their heads wondering why I stoop so low when teas friends have taken pains to send me such fine teas to educate my palate.

Since I go to Berkeley Bowl weekly, I have laid eyes on these tea dispensers more than 780 times. It would be a shame if it turned out to be pretty good tea and I was too much a snob to even try it. So is it good tea?

It tastes like loose shu alright- tad bit pondy but not offensive. I cannot will myself to drink too much.  I don't mind paying $0.18 to confirm the grocery store shu is nothing I'm missing. But  I sadly pay with heartburn to boot- often the real price for cheap shu.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dandelion Chocolates

Living in the bountiful East Bay gives me few reasons to be in SF, but I found myself curiously crossing the bay on three occasions this week.  Yesterday was my husband's art opening where I was conducting a chocolate tasting in the back rooms as well as a puerh introduction without brewing. I met a Russian who loves shu through his Moldovan roommate but I save this story for another time.  It's been a full week as my husband's awesome 52 foot commission was finally unveiled.   (Now I can finally start hinting to husband about a new tea cabinet...)

Today I was privy to a leprechaun party thrown by Pinky McDougal in the Mission which gave me cause to finally check out Dandelion Chocolate- a cafe/bakery in a bean-to-bar chocolate mini-factory. I had started the day with a filled-to-order cream donut and since I went to bed yesterday without dessert, I continued on with two more desserts to warm up before the party. You never know what the dessert situation is at a party.

At Dandelion, they serve up a fresh fruit smoothie of the white pulp surrounding the cacao bean. It's refreshing and slightly sour- very much like the juice of the cashew apple. My husband felt it was unremarkable if it weren't for the fact that it was from a cacao. I prefer white sapote or soursop but it's fun to try it at least once.

They also serve one of the best flourless chocolate cakes in the Americas.  They wouldn't sell me an entire cake so I had to bring a measly four slices to the party. I may flash mob them with my girl friends next week and buy up all their cake.  Mouawahaaha. I have many evil plans in my note book.

You can see the sacks of beans, the winnower and the roaster in the back ground.  It's an all very romantic cafe where you can hold hands, enjoy delicious cacao products while watching chocolate being made. 

In Hawaii, I saw cacao beans at the farmer's markets- only a dollar each. But the pulp had dried too much on the ones I bought.  I thought I would ferment, dry and roast them but it was mighty humid and I was much too indolent for such laborious activity.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Water Taste Experiments - Hario Buono vs Paico

After wistfully reading Petr's lovely series on Heating Water on Charcoal, I vow to get an outside setup going.  But for this fine spring day, I have to make do with what I have. Today I'm trying to see if there is a difference between gas stove boiled water vs. electrically heated water. It's a battle of the goosenecks in my house today.  

You may be surprised to see the much maligned electric Hario Buono on the left after my repeated tirades of it producing burnt plastic water. I finally figured out how to get rid of this deal breaking toxic taste. After a few minutes of persistent wiggling, I was finally able to pop off the toxic smelling plastic cap which prevents water from dripping into the heating element. Ironically water was condensing on the cap dripping into pot which ruined the water.  I had tried multiple times previously to pop it off but I was afraid to damage the heating element and I wasn't sure how it was attached so I didn't exert enough pressure.

I looked through all my drawers to see if could fashion a stainless steel version of this top cap even bending a silver spoon and a cookie cutter.  After being so easily defeated, I repeatedly poured hot water and baking soda on the cap until the smell was no longer noticeable.   My husband who came home just now offered to make me a new metal cap but since I had already spent two hours willing the toxic residue out if it, I declined.  I am happy to report this teapot is now back in service just in time to replace the rusting Kamjove which I had bought to replace this Hario Buono.

To make sure the Hario Buono was acceptable, I sipped just plain hot water in various cups as well as "brew" the water in teapots. While I could not taste any stainless steel residue in the various ceramic cups, there is a particularly drying quality to the hot water which lessens as it cools down. I also drank the water in stainless steel cups and you could definitely taste the iron and metals. The more water you sip, the more you become attuned and the sweeter the water tasted. Even with my unreliable palate, I could taste ever minute differences between each of the cups of the same water.

The other shiny bell shaped stovetop kettle is a Paico which arrived two hours ago hot from Kowloon to expand this experiment.  I do detect a subtle difference between stovetop and electric heated water but since the two kettles are different despite them being stainless steel, I cannot definitively attribute the taste difference to either mode. The stovetop water has a less drying taste- more refreshing but not as refreshing as the stone pot.

A few days ago in a fit of late night bleary eyed impulse, I ordered this bell shaped stainless steel Paico stovetop kettle. When I showed the ebay listing to my husband the next morning, he rolled his eyes and promptly dinged me on two counts- aesthetics and function. He said it had the wrong kind of flourish and he could already see that the handle and top would be too hot to touch. He was right of course.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Stainless Steel Safety of a Rusty Kamjove

Drats. Even after less than a month of use, I noticed these rust spots inside my new Kamjove teapot at work. Cheap Chinese stainless steel strikes again. Probably not enough nickel. This teapot is most likely the lowest grade 200 series stainless  steel. I'm resigned to such low quality steel by now as the cookware market is flooded with 'em.  I haplessly thought my blood cells need extra iron from the rust but the sad reality is that the body cannot use such inorganic forms of iron. Overusing a tetsubin is probably a road to kidney and gall stones.

Many people assume quality stainless steel is completely inert.  Even high quality food grade stainless steel (18/10 and 18/8) still leaches out trace amounts of iron, chromium, manganese and nickel- all "supposedly" in safe amounts.   But the hexvalent form of chromium in stainless steel is not the form that the human body uses. Double drats. You could go for a glass kettle if you want to keep your water pure but most likely your water traveled some distance in steel pipes if you use tap water.

Modern life is so full of uncontrollable chemical complexities. I spend a lot of time trying to avoid synthetic estrogens in plastic but in reality if you eat out a lot like me, you have to accept you have little control of what happens to your food before it reaches your gullet. Most restaurants store foods commonly in plastic tubs.  Suppliers to restaurants also package foods in plastic. The taint of plastic is nigh impossible to avoid in the modern food chain.

I bought this cheap Kamjove in full knowledge of the risks.  I'll keep using this teapot. It's definitely safer than a Roman leaded pewter pitcher and to be preferred over a kettle with plastic parts.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jamaica Tea

It's not Rastaman tea so you need not play any Bob Marley tunes in your head unless of course you want to. "Jamaica" pronounced ha-ma-ee-ca refers to a refreshing iced beverage made from the hibiscus flower and you can find it in most Mexican cantinas. I also drank gallons of it in Egypt and Jordan where they call it karkadé and often offer it as a welcoming beverage at hotels while you wait to be checked in. The best versions were whirred in a blender and had an impressive foam head.

You can cold brew the flower sepals overnight for a fruitier taste or brew it hot which brings out the cinnamon notes. It's my bedtime tea tonight along with a dollop of acacia honey. A beloved friend brought me this Hugarian honey from his travels and I can totally see him being taken away by the aesthetics of this jar - the honey is ever so light and demure.

I get the entire dried flower in the bulk bins at the grocery store.  They endearingly look like little flames.  And from time to time I like to drink karkadé when contemplating David Robert lithographs of Petra and Thebes recollecting my dusty adventures in the baksheesh belt.  Due to the natural antiseptic properties of hibiscus, one never had to worry about drinking karkadé even in the most suspicious conditions.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Teapot for Life

I was watching "Queen of Versaille" yesterday- a strangely absorbing documentary about a billionaire couple trying to build the largest private residence in America.  Despite their somewhat disgusting levels of overblown materialism, I couldn't help feeling that none of us are innocent. All of us have too much of one thing or another.

Behold the dreadful Wedgwood teapot that fills me with consumerist regret. Hektor asked me to reveal this pot a few posts back.  Five years ago, I wanted the minimalist unadorned basalt Wedgwood teapot with a rectangular handle but somehow ended up with this fussy matron of a teapot replete with a neo-classic cherub, toga toting goddesses and a smoke-filled greek sacrifice.  I cringe when I look at it but can't quite bring myself to sell it back on ebay out of sheer laziness. I have brewed tea in it once five years ago and have a dim memory of it being altogether an inconvenient experience.

My china cabinet is filled with such useless space eaters- even worse, more than half of the teapots are chipped or cracked and I can't bear to throw them out. I decided a solution to simplify my life would be to find an unbreakable teapot- with such a teapot I can hit a burglar over the head in a pinch and still brew tea the very next morning. Most importantly- if there ever was the "Big One" and my house was flattened, I would still most likely be able to brew delicious tea in this unbreakable teapot if I could only shovel it out from the earthquake debris.

Unbreakable probably means stainless steel. I'm aware stainless steel brewing is not optimum for delicate teas. But I'm tired of being broken hearted every time the inevitable happens with ceramic and glass teapots. My aesthetic choices for stainless are quite limited.  There's the dumpy but sturdy German Frielings.

There's an even dumpier but overpriced Italian Ufficio Tecnico Alessi Teapot.

None of them even remotely captures my heart and the thought of having to use them for the rest of my life fills me with sighs.  I may have to retreat on this lifetime teapot concept...

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Five Enemies of Tea Enjoyment

1. Bad tea
2. Bad water
3. Bad brewing
4. Illness dulling the senses
5. Bad feeling - which could arise from Enemies 1-4 and/or can come from sources external to tea.

Some days a girl can't win and can simultaneously suffer all five enemies of tea enjoyment. I laid down   a white flag tonight and am nursing a hot toddy. I'll just start fresh tomorrow.

I've been contemplating the course of my life wondering what will happen to me in another seven years. Undoubtedly my sheng will be barely aged and dry still. But I have no idea for the rest.

 In Hawaii, I saw these two very different men plying the same trade at two different farmer's markets. The coconut samurai on the left also sold biodegradable crocs on the side at the Pahoa market.  The rather joyless ex-marine on the right was rather carelessly hacking coconut tops at the Hilo Farmer's market. Can any prediction be made about either men?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Long Brewed Aged Oolong

Last Friday I brewed up one of Ira's aged oolongs when it dawned on me that in another dimension- long lost friends were expecting me to materialize for lunch. What to do? For the first time in my tea drinking life, I decided to throw in everything- already brewed tea, leaves and more hot water into a thermos to take it all with me. I cringed a little mistreating this small batch farmer's roasted oolong but I didn't want to leave my tea behind- tag team with my husband was not possible as he already had a mug of coffee in hand.

While walking to the subway, I allowed myself a few sips expecting a lesser brew. I was pleasantly surprised the thermos oolong tasted more flavorful and softer in the mouth than a more carefully brewed sit-down session. This thermos brew left a pleasing caramel sweetness on my tongue. Did the vigorous swishing from my walk extract more nuance out of the leaf?

For every set of tea leaves, there exists an exact optimum process to bring out the best flavor. From water composition, brew temperature, brew time, water to tea ratio- tea has too many parameters you can mess up. I am a proud wrongfu master, sloshing, splashing and even completely forgetting about my brew from time to time. But the moment I had first sipped the delightful tea from the thermos, I had a hazy glimmer that I had miraculously brought out the best in this tea purely by accident.

So in deconstructing what could have gone right, I see infusing more water for a longer time of about 6 minutes was better for at least this aged oolong. However after the 30 minute train ride, I checked again on the brew- it had turned too bitter and the golden window was past. I was glad to have the oolong accompany me into the city.
My favorite food writer Harold McGee sheds some light here- he writes about water being a flavor enhancer and how dilution can bring out brighter and more sparkly flavors.   I'm not one to use a refractometer on my tea but I think a scale might be worth an investment to attain more readily a golden ratio.

I've been soldiering on these last days of winter in a sad state- I've been wholly negligent with all my obligations hiding under a fuzzy blanket. Most days I go to work and I constantly think of how I can get back under my fuzzy blanket. I should just make a hat out of my dear blanket so I can have a measure of relief every where I go.