Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Gardens of the Deadly Sins: More tea pairings

garden of deadly sinsTea pairings are not only about food. They can also be about narcissism, desire, fear, greed, excess.  In that spirit, this week’s post is about deadly sins – and how to pair decadence with a fitting tea.

Every year since 1992,  the International Garden Festival on the grounds of the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire has been the site of startling garden creations by famed landscape architects and designers. The imposing Chateau overlooking the Loire River has a past shrouded in passion, jealousy,  intrigue, and beauty.Diane-de-Poitiers-Chenonceau catherine de mediciIn the 16th century, Catherine de Medici (right) the unloved queen of Henri II, forced the king’s mistress, the elegant Diane de Poitiers (left)  to give up her beloved Chenanceau in exchange for Chaumont after the death of Henri II. 

De Poitiers, 20 years older than Henri and a beautiful, stylish and savvy noblewoman, was part of the inner circle of Henri’s father,  King Francis 1.  Widowed as a young woman and always dressed in stylish black and white, she became the mentor, at the request of King Francis, to the pre-adolescent and painfully shy Prince Henri. Even after Henri’s marriage to Catherine de Medici, Henri continued to be under the spell of dePoitiers. His devotion drove de Medici to increasing heights of  of jealousy and brilliant, tortuous machinations.  After Henri’s death, de Poitiers stayed at Chaumont for a short while, moving to her chateau d’Anet, where she died at 66.  Reputed to be a great beauty who kept her youthful appearance by daily swimming, horseback riding, and milk baths, the secret of her pale skin could have been  another source. In 2009, a lock of her hair kept at her chateau was analyzed by French scientists and published in a British medical journal. It was found to contain 500 times the normal levels of gold and high levels of mercury.  Rumor has it that she drank a daily elixir of gold to maintain her white, youthful skin. Perhaps it was vanity after all that killed her.

vanity, all is vanity! look at your reflection in the golden frame.

vanity, all is vanity! look at your reflection in the golden frame.

This year’s  theme of deadly sins capture today’s self-centered culture, planet-ruining practices and excesses as only can be accomplished in a beautiful setting. Created by an international roster of architects and designers, the gardens are beautiful, banal, innovative, imaginative; often emotionally  stimulating and intellectually preposterous.  In other words, very French, despite the international pedigree.  The sin of pride is captured by  a golden frame enclosing a reflecting pool. See below for the over-the -top description.

Sin of vanityWhat kind of tea would you serve in this homage to narcissism?  White tea of course! Not the stuff you can buy in a “sachet” i.e. teabag, but the  stuff from the Song Dynasty where it was a tribute tea reserved only for the emperor. , Delicate tea buds were plucked in the spring, steamed and stripped of outer leaves, rinsed with spring water,air dried, and then ground into a white powder. It was later whisked in water and this celestial tea was served to the emperor.

Of course, you can only dream about that tea today. Alas, you will have to settle for a pricey Silver Needles (Bai Hau Yin Zhen), which is the unfurled leaf tip that only appears in early Spring. it takes more than 4,500 hand-sorted leaf buds to make a pound of this tea.

Watch out – because the leaves – plucked when young and frisky – means that the tea is probably highly caffeinated. Not the stuff of night time dreams. When you buy white tea, make sure the leaves are downy and light in weight and color. Stay away from anything that is in a sachet or is a ‘blended” with some fruit or whatever. Then take out your favorite and most expensive teapot and serve preferably in a thin delicate cup, preferable ringed in gold. For the full experience, glance in a nearby mirror and admire your visage as you sip.



Food pairings: tea is not coffee

question mark wine labelWould you go to a restaurant that offered wines from only one label? Of course not. But that’s what been going on in fancy and not so fancy restaurants for ages.different teas

glenburn estatesWhile a fancy eatery can make Blue Bottle Coffee a selling point, tea is in another realm. Why don’t restaurants take the time/energy/delight in offering a darjeeling, from, say, Glenburn Estate, which regularly sells out of its first flush crop and produces a delicate, flavorful, floral product? Or a pu-erh from ImperialTeaCourt. imperial tea court logoOr dragonwell from Silk Road Teas? You get the picture.

humboldt fog chevreAnd who sez you have to pair port with cheese? Imagine sipping a spring-like, slightly astringent tie-guan yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) with a California Humboldt Fog chèvre.   Or a delicate Darjeeling with a mushroom risotto.  Or a creamy chocolate chef concoction with a full bodied Assam or deeply flavorful pu-erh.

The combos are endless. Point is to think tea as well as wine. If you need guidance,  ask for the tea sommelier. Really, they exist and if they aren’t at your local posh fork, they should be. Soon.

Or, as tea sommelier, chef and cookbook author Cynthia Gold says, think of pairings as matching or contrasting food with tea. Pair light appetizers with slightly astringent green tea. Or a steak or Culinary tea by Cynthia Goldheavier entree with a full-bodied tea.  Or contrast flavors with teas.

So instead of settling for a pot of meh leaves, stretch your taste buds and your geographic/sensory idea of what food pairings are all about. And if the idea of tea – even if it’s mind-bending in complexity and taste bud awakeners – doesn’t rock your need for an alcoholic buzz, there’s always delicious mar-tea-nis or rum and Earl Grey. Or a killer punch with the secret ingredient – you guessed it.

For more on tea/food pairings, check out tea sommelier Cynthia’s Gold’s groundbreaking book.

The return of the lilac tea room

lilacs in BorgesIn case you have been wondering if the LTR has  been relegated to the compost heap of all good blogs with good intentions, flashes of brilliance, spells of boredom, and the undeniable  pressure  of consistency, consider its demise premature.  Which is a roundabout way of saying that after too many crises, spates of boredom and just when the time seemed right to begin again,  a quite surreal series of hacking events, we are back.

In this increasingly incomprehensible world, tea remains sane, lovely, complex and endlessly fascinating. Which may be why it popularity continues to grow. Take the recent World Tea Expo where experienced tea purveyors rubbed booths with a plethora of new kids on the block. And by that, we do mean kids.  (In future posts, we’ll go more in depth of who they are.)

Maybe it was World’s Tea Expo’s new home in relatively buclolic Long Beach compared to the dread Las Vegas. In the past, World Tea Expo was held at the mammoth Vegas Convention Center minutes away from the smoke-filled, Musak blaring, plastic aired halls of the temples to greed. Really, holding a tea convention in Vegas was like building casinos in Big Sur. Talk About dissonance!World_Tea_Expo_2014-Banner

Long Beach, while geographically close to Los Angeles, is light years away – it combines a  small-town vibe – a free tram roams downtown- with a world class aquarium, architecturally  cool symphony hall, streets made as much for ambling as for driving – and  the quirky and mothy berthed Queen Mary. With air you can actually breath instead of see, it’s a good choice for a Tea and Healthy Beverage Convention.

Trends? LTR predicts that Darjeeling, black teas, Assams and teas from India will become increasingly popular.  Also, “teas” from plants other than Camilla Sinensis  will gain a footing. Think honeybush from South Africa, roasted barley from Montana (!) or mamaki  from Hawaii. All of these teas are caffeine-free, which makes them a fine after-dinner sip for the caffeine-adverse. More on these teas in later posts.

mamaki tea

For now, welcome back LTR readers! Tell your friends. Even your enemies.RoBarr Roasted Barley

On the road: A visit to Silk Road Teas


silkroad tea logoIf French Laundry were a tea warehouse, it would be Silk Road Teas. Located In a semi-industrial area in the wilds of San Rafael,  the modest Silk Road Tea sign belies the treasures within.  You enter into a serene reception area with wood shelves holding fine  teapots on one side and a wall-sized map of China that appears to include every province, small town, and body of water on the other side.  This is not a vanity map (more on this below).

In back of the reception area are bins and bins of tea. Tea in large unopened cartons with neat labels. Tea wrapped and vacuumed packed. Bins of Oolongs from green to black; bins of green tea carefully wrapped; bins of yellow and white tea.  And the fresh, heady aroma of good tea that is soothing and energizing at the same the warehouse, silk road teas

Okay, LTR has a near-obsession with Silk Road Teas. But who wouldn’t?  How many tea companies do you know that 1) quietly go about the business of getting the best tea from often obscure and oft quirky tea farmers with great products, 2) keep their focus on fine teas from specific areas of China, and 3) do not sell blended papaya/blueberry/mint/black tea, or any other blends, no matter where the market clock is pointed. Moreover, they have great customer service.

ccof_organicOwned by Catherine and Ned Heagerty, Ned spends an inordinate amount of time trekking through China (hence the map), to remote villages and farms with his translator/guide to revisit and discover the limited high-to-amazing quality teas that are the signature of his company.  He has been doing this for years. “Every year we try and meet someone new; but it’s 80% the same people,” he said. After tasting and purchasing , the tea is shepherded every step of way – including repacked and soft vacuum sealed for its trip to the San Rafael warehouse. Think small vineyards and limited edition vintages with extreme quality control. You get the idea. Heagerty take an additional quality control step: Teas are randomly selected and sent to an independent lab to test for purity.  (Not surprisingly, all random samples pass with flying colors.)

IMG_1160 (1)Drunken-Concubine-O-TKY-55 But the proof of the tea is in the tasting and we sampled some top-this-teas. We began with Zui Gui (drunken concubine right), a low-oxidized tieguanyin oolong, Solidly furled with a rich green color,  the first steep was, as  described the tea notes,  “about aroma.” Understatement! It smelled clear, clean and complex, like a perfume with hidden promise. In this case, you could drink – and taste -the perfume. From the notes:  “The second steep, the leaves begin to give up their treasured tastes…”  Some teas you just drink; others sneak up on you; this one was both tantalizing and satisfying.

Next sip was a rare Phoenix Bird oolong .

IMG_1157 (1)“Gardenia Fragrance,” is an extraordinary single origin oolong by a skilled artisan. The generational owned farm produces a limited supply rarely exported.“This tea grower works as a village school teacher; his wife works in a bank,” relates Ned. When the harvest starts, the school closes down and the work begins. It may not be academic, but it embodies a different education Located in the mystical WuDong Mountain in Guangdong Province,the tea farm is part of an area known as Phoenix Mountains which has been producing oolongs for over 900 years. Many of the teas from this region are rare, prized, and never exported.

A new tea to the Silk Road collection, this tea demands attention. Sip it without savoring and you miss out; pay attention and you detect floral notes of gardenia and tropical flowers combined with the natural minerality of oolongs. Think of drinking the aroma of gardenia with the sense of mountains, sun, and the coolness of a cave.  It is wonderful.

high_green_mountain_thumb Coming down from this peak, we sampled a tea called simply “High Mountain Green.” It should have be labeled simply Green. Grassy, fresh, springily aromatic and greatly appealing. this is a wake-up  tea as well as an afternoon eye opener. No surprise: this tea comes from a small family owned farm. You can almost hear a whisper: “No napping on this tea!”

When you drink teas from Silk Road, you sip history -and perhaps a sadly bygone era of doing business. “It’s very traditional,” says Ned. “Sometimes we negotiate for 6-7 hours.”

Until this way of life goes the way of conglomorates and big business, you, the consumer, can benefit. FYI, Silk Road orders come in a stand-alone easy-to-open sealed foil packet that keeps the tea fresh, although you will probably go through a bag before that’s even a possibiity.You can also buy Silk Road in “sachets,” aka teabags. They come in six types, including a decaf green.  They are as unlike teabags as the company it comes from.

Oh yes, Silk Road teas can be found in restaurants  from the iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley, famed Slanted Door at the Embarcadero, Absinthe in hot Hayes Valley, the Michelin starred,James Beard anointed State Bird Provision to the well-reviewed and aptly named Outerlands in SF’s Sunset district skirting Ocean Beach.

Order Silk Road Teas and taste for yourself.

Horrible, disgusting tea: Happy Halloween

ravenForget lovely, mind bending, sensory-enhancing tea or trendy  black/orange pseudo-spooky tea drinks. Let’s get down to some really gross tea tales.

Where to start? With a country that minces pies, not words, of course, i.e. Great Britain. “It tastes like cabbage water,” food and drink journalist Martin Isark told the London Mail about Asda teabags, a  supermarket brand tea.   Isark, who also runs the website can i eat it, has tested almost 10,000 products.

Then there was the poor woman who treated her 85 year-old mother-in-law for afternoon tea at London’s Hendon Hall.  “The tea was 2 tea bags in a large pot, not leaf tea as advertised,” she wrote on Trip Advisor. “The tray came with 2 (stale and complete with crusts) finger sandwiches per person, a short bread biscuit each,a mini cup cake each and a scone each. Left hungry, depressed and embarrassed plus we were overcharged by £12 according to their own price list. ”

creepy tea

cup of tea my dear Teatime at the Tophams Hotel in Belgravia was the target for another Trip Advisor sipper: “The receptionist showed us to an empty dining room, where a waitress looked surprised at having customers.  We were given a tea menu, which had a poor selection of Twinings tea bags, and I then had to wait 15 minutes while one of the receptionists ran to the shop to buy a box of the tea.”

horror-picture-tea-7Tats, tea and pâtisserie was the raison d’etre at (left) Horror Picture Tea (really) on the tony Rue St. Honore.  Now fermé, in its day patrons could soothe their physical and existential pain with tea and fine sweets while contemplating a visit to the tattoo parlour in the cellar.

“The Worst Teas We’ve Ever Tasted” was a focus of the wine/tea experts at Tearroir, which usually enthuses about fine tea finds. “Living in Asia to pursue tea as a serious passion, and as a business can be both a blessing and a curse,”posts David Wilson who lives in Taiwan. ” What we rarely talk about is the dark side of this pleasure.”  moldAfter tasting “a light-roasted Spring harvest Alishan Jin Xuan Oolong… a very famous high-altitude tea producing region in Taiwan,” Wilson spots white speckling that is, you guessed it, mold. Next up was a “spring harvested, light-roasted jade oolong. Noticing that leaves varied in color, a sign of uneven fermentation and roasting, Wilson then “spotted something mixed in with the leaf. A human hair. Lightly roasted.”

bugs in teaAnother surprise awaited a steepster participant : “I had received a few tea samples, writes Butiki Teas  2 years ago,  “and decided to do some taste testing. I measured out the leaves and brewed up the tea. As I was sipping the tea, I emptied the rest of the packet out to examine the tea leaves. There was a lovely group of dead bugs.”

Losing her teeth along with suffering severe bone problems was the fate of a 47 year woman who drank “astronomical amounts” of concentrated tea for 20 years,  according to a New England Journal study reported by the Huffington Post.

too much flourideThe woman drank at 10-12 cups of tea brewed from 100 tea bags daily.  “Her bone density was very high, seven times denser than normal,” said her physician, Dr. Sudhaker Rao, “It was like steel.”Dr. Rao discovered the culprit was fluoride levels that were four time normal.  “There have been about three to four cases reported in the US associated with ingesting tea, especially large amounts of it,” he notes.  “Most of us can excrete fluoride extremely well, but if you drink too much, it can be a problem.” After going tea free, the toothless patient recovered.

thirst begonesUnless you brew your own, beware. This from Fox News last year: At a McDonald’s in Simpsonville, North Carolina, a tea spitmother ordered two sweet teas for herself and daughter. Returning the tea because it wasn’t sweet enough, they tasted the new tea, found it still not sweet enough and decided to add sugar at home. When they took the lids off, they discovered “white phlegm” floating on top. A surveillance tape caught 19-year-old Marvin Washington Jr. putting his face down to the teas before filling them up. (Washington was charged with unlawful/malicious tampering with food. He was released from jail on $5,000 bond.)

Finally, from the book, Black Cats & April Fools – Origins of Old Wives Tales and Superstitions, author Harry Oliver cautions that it’s bad luck for two people to pour from the same pot or to stir tea counterclockwise, and that bubbles on the tea’s surface can mean kisses or money for the sipper.

Happy Halloween!