Friday, August 31, 2007

Entertaining Guests With Tea

When my wife and I have guests at our home, serving tea is a part of our customs and something that requires a bit of thinking ahead. As overzealous hosts we often prepare meals in courses (and always too much). It is usually right before desserts that a mini dilemma would set in: What tea to serve and how?

In our home, desserts are almost always accompanied with tea. I generally am not in the habit of offering my guests any digestif or dessert wines, though should the mood strike I always have a ready supply. Tea is still my – and my wife’s – preference after a hearty meal.

Since we have banished teabags from our home, and since I have gifted – or burdened – myself with many types of loose leaves, the act of serving tea has become a bit more complicated than shoving a box of Twining’s Variety Pack on the table. As such, there are 4 considerations that I think about before deciding the most appropriate action. Do keep in mind the setting is a casual gathering with friends and family, and not a tea tasting session:

Firstly, how many guests are present? If more than 6 people are to be served, then our 32oz teapress gets the job. The tea that goes in it will be something that I keep in quantity. These are decent teas, but they are not among the best I own (may the Gods of Graceful Hosts strike me in anger!). By habit and personal preference, I only brew my best teas in a Yixing clay pot or a gaiwan. With too many guests present, however, I rarely find it worth the hassle to start a gongfu tea process.

If there are 6 or less people, then I would consider bringing out my treasured teas and accoutrements. It all depends on a few other factors.

Secondly, what are we conversing about? This is as important as the first consideration above. If we are in a very engaging conversation, then the large teapress still wins the assignment (exception: if the guests are gongfu tea drinkers – see the 3rd consideration below). However, if we are talking about Britney Spears, Donald Trump’s hair or other mind-degenerating topics, then my fantastic tea and utensils may just get to rescue the day.

Thirdly, to gongfu or not? With guests who are not acclimated with this Chinese tea ritual, I would hint to them of the possibility for a tea tasting. The process tends pull everyone’s attention and topic of conversation towards itself. It is a great way to enjoy tea, but I feel the ritualistic and meditative qualities it projects do not suit all occasions.

To those who know about my little tea obsession already, I would unabashedly offer them the pleasure. The narcissist in me always wants to get the tea set out; especially if the guests admitted to never paying much attention to the tea they drink. But the realist in me checks to make sure that I am not about to impose upon anyone or to unnecessarily shift the overall mood of our gathering.

Lastly, what tea to serve with the desserts? There is no simple answer for me because, as I mentioned above, there are many types to choose from. I believe the desserts being served should play as the main anchor. With heavy tasting desserts such as tiramisu, creme brulée and chocolate cakes, I would gravitate towards a heavier tasting tea (“nong xiang” – highly oxidized, may be roasted) to match like Red Keemun, Lapsang Souchong or highly roasted Wuyi and Tieguanyin oolongs. With fruity desserts such as fruit tarts, key lime pie and Pavlova, I would opt for Darjeelings, lychee red or highly oxidized oolongs such as Oriental Beauty and Taiwanese “hong shui” (red water). I would accompany fresh fruits and the lightest desserts with greener oolong’s (“qing xiang”, low-oxidized and non-roasted) that have sweet, delicate floral and grassy notes. White, green, and Pu’er (raw and cooked) teas are not considered to accompany desserts, as I think they are best by themselves.

There is no formulaic method with which to arrive at a decision, although the four considerations mentioned above are what I generally think about before I serve tea to my guests. Call me anal.

As with foods and drinks, of course, preferences are exclusively personal, and mine is derived from the mental notes I have gathered through pairing things out experimentally. There are no rules, which make the whole process much fun for the hedonists among us. My main objective is to bring about the most enjoyable setting for everyone sitting around our dining table.

[Previously posted at T Ching on August 27, 2007]

Thursday, August 30, 2007

2007 Doke White Tea, Kashanganj, 2nd Flush

Doke Tea Farm

While I enjoy subtler teas occasionally, I often find myself shying away from most white teas because I find them to be too delicate for my taste. So when T Ching featured this Indian white tea as part of its August online tasting, I reserved my opinion until I tasted it.

From Doke Tea in Darjeeling comes this 2nd flush white tea from the Kishanganj district of north eastern Bihar. This was to be my first white tea from the Darjeeling region, and it was a truly pleasant encounter.

The faces of Doke Tea (at least on the internet) have been its proprietor Mr. Rajiv Lochan and his nephew, Ankit Lochan. Before this tea, however, I have never known about Doke's own product line. This is partly because in addition to managing Doke, the uncle-nephew team is also in the wholesale business of other producers' teas through their Lochan Tea Limited enterprise. T Ching has in the past featured selections from the Lochan Tea Limited’s portfolio.

In addition to being in the tea business, they also manage a charitable organization, The Indus Foundation, which aims to improve the living conditions of the surrounding local districts.

Tasting Notes

2007 Doke "Kashanganj Snow Bud"
White Tea, 2nd Flush, Organic
Output: 50 kilograms per annum
Available for sale at T Ching Store

Dry leaf's appearance: Whole buds. Medium green and silver in color due to being covered in silvery down.

Nose: Refreshing. Of muscatel, passion fruits and exotic spices.

Taste: This Kashanganj white tea delivers a more upfront and assertive nose and taste than any Chinese white teas I have ever tasted. One smell and you can't miss that Darjeeling signature muscatel quality. Slightly grassy. The high notes and the judicious amount of acidity is refreshing and lively, giving oneself an energized feel after drinking it. It is medium to full bodied and smooth. Plenty of astringency and a touch bitter if brewed in a higher temperature water (90' C and above). The aftertaste is lingering and sweet in the back of the throat.

Wet leaf's appearance: Dark green with red streaks that indicates some oxidation was allowed to happen before halted.

Overall impression: This is a fine white tea with the unmistakable Darjeeling characteristics. It is also a white tea that stands well to high temperature brewing (> 90’C), as long as it is given a much shorter steeping time. Based on quality of the white tea sample that I received, I dare say that it is a tea worth pursuing and watching for in the future.

One of the attributes of Darjeeling tea that I find very pleasing is its acidity, which seems to bring liveliness to a tea. It also makes the tea highly compatible with many types of food, especially the rich tasting ones, by providing a juxtaposition of tastes.

4+ stars (vg - ex)

The following excerpt is by Mr. Rajiv Lochan:

On 1st June 1999 Indian Tea Board declared Kishangunj district of north eastern Bihar as a non-traditional tea growing area, though we had started planting tea little earlier in 1998 in Pothia block of this district.

Last month I was called by the Deputy chief minister regarding land and labour policy matters and came to know that Kishangunj was known as “poor man’s Darjeeling” since people who could not afford to go to Darjeeling in olden days could enjoy the beauty of Kanchenjunga from a little distance, that is Kishangunj.

Doke plantation, where these teas are grown is south of Jhapa and Illam districts of Nepal and south west of Darjeeling and snow capped mountains are about 25 kilometers as the crow flies, though the foothills are only 7 kilometers away. On a clear day one can have a panoramic view of Himalayas and if one is lucky evening setting sun lights up Mount Everest to be visible from Doke.

We have found burnt clay pottery broken pieces buried as deep as two feet all over the planting area and a legend says that during the ancient times of Virat kings who had Viratnagar as their capital and Thakurgunj as their river port on the banks of Mahananda river, there was a potters village in this location, which legendary Shrawan Kumar visited along with his blind parents and stayed overnight.

Bihar being the land of Buddha and full of ancient history, it seems history is repeating itself here in Doke and we wish to make full use of it."

Images, with the exception of the tasting session photos, were provided by and used with prior permission from Mr. Ankit Lochan of Doke Tea.

Other excellent reviews at: MarshalN, PalatabiliTEA, Perplexitea, T Ching

Art of Tea Poll

[The below is posted by the request of Mr. Aaron Fisher, Senior Editor of the Art of Tea Magazine. The article solicits for your kind opinion on the use of the Chinese Pinyin vs. the standardized English language when it comes to tea-related nomenclatures. It is a poll. Your opinion, therefore, will have bearing on the future content of the Art of Tea magazine. Mr. Fisher also requests for your help by posting the poll on your blog -- if you are a tea blog administrator -- to widen the polling population. A discussion is currently ensuing at T Ching. Thank you. ~ Phyll]

I am hoping that you can help me think about something:

As Issue 3 of the Art of Tea lands on many of your doorsteps and you begin to read, you might think about whether you would rather learn the Chinese terms for all things tea related, via roman pinyin of course, or develop some kind of standardized English translation.

Personally, I like the Chinese as it makes cross-cultural communication easy, as well as facilitates true understanding of something that was born in a distant, ancient culture. And English definitely has the ability to absorb foreign words, growing as it has adopted words from French and other language’s nouns as they are imported– even from Asia, like “wok” or “wasabi” for example. When I studied the Dao in college, my first teacher gave us several translations of a few of the more important texts, saying that no one translation of anything can bring real equivalence. For that same reason, I studied Sanskrit and Pali in my younger days. In other words, which is clearer: “Cooked”, “Ripe”, “Black”, “Artificially Fermented”, etc. or perhaps is it better to have all of them?

Still, whatever your thoughts are, I would greatly appreciate hearing them as the English scholarship of tea-related books, translations and articles progresses forward I think this will be an important issue.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

L.A. Tap Water As Good As Bottled Water

Harken and rejoice, tea lovers in Los Angeles! Our tap water seems to have outdone itself. It was judged to be as good as bottled water.

As good as Aquafina? : )

"L.A. tap water came out on top in a 2006 blind tasting, beating water from New York and Seattle, among others. One judge called L.A.'s water 'exceptional. Like a bottled water.'"

Read the full commentary by Tom Standage here on the detriment to the environment caused by the bottled water industry.

Ms. Ntsiki Biyela, Winemaker

Once in a while I come across wine articles that transcend mere hedonism and clichéd enthusiasm for certain wineries or wine-growing regions. In this case, the article goes into the realm of racism, sexism, stereotype and the inexhaustible spirit and talent of one Zulu woman who struggles with those barriers as she became the first black female winemaker in South Africa.

Deservingly so, this excellent article by Robyn Dixon of the Times was published yesterday on the front page of L.A. Times (the very main page, not the first page of its Food Section).

"Biyela smelled, as instructed, but there had never been any blackberries or cigar boxes in the Zulu village where she grew up, fetching water from the river and firewood from the forest every day. The liquid smelled alien.

Then it was time to taste. Bitter! Disgusting! Was she going to dedicate her life to making this undrinkable brew?"

Read the inspiring story of
Ms. Ntsiki Biyela here.

Photo: Stellekaya Winery

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Part V: After the Pasadena Pu'er Event

This is an entry long overdue. Many things happened after the June 16th Pasadena Pu'er event until Mr. Chen Chi-Tong left Los Angeles on June 20th. I had a great time with the entire Wu Shing team (Mr. Liang, his wife, Chen Zhi-Tong, and Aaron Fisher), Guang, Mary and Bob Heiss (authors of the upcoming The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide), and the LA Tea Group. I'll summarize this post with short narratives and some photographs that I snapped during the time.

^ The morning after the Event and a long dinner party, we dimsummed in Chinatown. Mary and Robert Heiss joined us. After the dimsum brunch, we visited the famous Huntington Library in San Marino for some Afternoon Tea. I had a most pleasant and eye-opening conversation about olive oils with the Heisses. They are the quintessential experts in everything olive (and other gourmet foods too). What true gourmands they are! (The Heisses are the proprietors of Cooks Shop Here, a culinary shop in Northampton, Massachusetts).

^ After a sumptuous late dinner at a Greek fusion restaurant, Danica, Helen, Chen Zhi-Tong and I went to Danica's home for some tea (Mr. Liang and his wife retired to their hotel room). The tea session stretched until 4am in the morning! We brewed the stash that Chen Zhi-Tong brought along from Taiwan: 1930's sheng, 1950's sheng, 1960's sheng, and many recent vintages of his own Chen Guang He Tang Yiwu Chawang (2002 - 2007). Chen was most generous for leaving behind his Yiwu Chawang teas for the LA Tea Group.

^ After that late night / early morning tea party, we headed home for a few hours of sleep. Then, we drove to the beautiful Santa Barbara County wine country. There are basically 2 wine trails that we could choose from: Foxen and Santa Ynez. We trailed the latter by car, stopping at wineries along the way. The picture above is from our visit to the Zaca Mesa winery, where we sampled the wines in a very spacious tasting room.

^ We also visited the Fess Parker Winery (featured in the Sideways movie). After a flight of wine in the tasting room, Chen and I relaxed in the patio where he offered me a stub of his Montecristo No. 5 Cuban cigar. We had a nice conversation in broken English (him) and broken Chinese (me) about tea, wine, the Pasadena Event and future potential event in the United States. He was impressed by the people he met in Pasadena and by the great turnout. While Chen and I conversed, the others sat or napped in the field of green grass next to the vines. All in all, it was a very relaxing day with a perfect weather to boot.

^ Fast forward to Wednesday, June 20th. On Chen's last day before he left for Taipei, a few of us members of the LA Tea Group took him to a Californian BBQ ribs restaurant (Mr. Cecil's CA Ribs on Pico Boulevard) for one of the best and authentic Americano red-meat dishes. Will and I brought 4 bottles of excellent red zinfandel to down the meat and fat with. Though we managed to finish a lot of perfectly bbq-ed ribs, corn bread and hush puppies, the six of us were prudent enough to only consume 3 bottles of zin (most of us drove separately that day). Then at 11pm we said our goodbye's with Mr. Chen before I drove him to the LAX airport.

To be continued - Part VI: Tasting the 2007 5th International Pu'er Appreciation Memorial cake...