Greed, Gold, and Tea at the Garden Festival

golden leaves fallen from dead tree

golden leaves fallen from dead tree

If you ever lusted for the Midas touch as your stocks plummet,  gaze at these golden oak leaves on the barren pathway (left) that have fall from the branches of the dead gilded oak tree (below). Inspired by Ovid’s cautionary tale in “Metamorphosis,”  “LE TOUCHER D’OR” garden of greed is part of the 2014 International Garden Festival at chateau Chaumont sur-Loire that sadly closes next month. So much to learn about deadly sins! (This year’s theme; last weeks’s post was an homage to vanity.) IMG_1723 The  jeune fille in the clear poncho is pointing out  the dead gold tree in the rain – luckily Midas’ touch is no more or she would have become a statue too.

Remember King Midas? According to myth, Dionysus, the god of wine, discovered his cherished mentor, the satyr Silensus, missing. In one version, townsfolk found a drunk and mumbling Silensus and brought him to the king. In another, Silensus passed out in the King’s rose garden.  In both versions, Midas recognized the old drunk and treated him kindly. When Dionysus heard that Silenus was alive and well, he hurried to fetch his beloved old satyr and asked Midas what he could do for him.

“Turn everything I touch to gold,” Midas reputedly said. When Dionysus cautioned him to think about his request, Midas, the lover of everything gold, scoffed at his caution. So Midas touched a plant: it turned to gold.golden hand turns eggs gold He touched food: gold. He touched a rose: gold. He touched water: gold. Soon, Midas was starving to death in wealth. Then, his beautiful daughter came running to greet her father. Too late to stop her, she became a gold statue.

Panicked and starving, the king prayed and begged Dionysus to reverse his Midas touch.

Bartolomeo Manfredi, "King Midas Bathing at the source of the Pactolus. 17th century

Bartolomeo Manfredi, “King Midas Bathing at the source of the Pactolus.” 17th century

Dionysus relented and told him to bathe in the Pactolus river. Afterward,everything he touched would revert back to its original form. (The river Pactolus in Turkey, is renown for its gold deposits and golden sands.)

What to drink while contemplating the dead gilded tree of greed and avarice?  Mariage Freres, the famed French tea chain, is offering  Perles D’Or for a mere 180Euros. Here is their description:

mariage frereMARIAGE FRÈRES has sculpted these pearls from a costly green tea and then gently covered them, one by one, in fine gold, transforming them into shimmering gems and luminous drops-they do not just gleam, they glow.

 Steeped in a glass teacup, the pearls delicately infuse the liquor. The tea dances with gold, a mandarin brew with golden highlights, while the palate is treated to dazzling notes of young growth and jasmine.

Glass, however seems a rather plebeian vessel to drink such nectar.

The chicken cup. (European Pressphoto Agency)

The chicken cup. (European Pressphoto Agency)

Why not try for your version of the cup chosen by 51 year old China billionaire and art collector Liu Yiqian. This past April, Mr. Liu successfully bid $36 million (that’s US dollars, folks), on a rare 500 year old Qing dynasty “chicken” tea cup at Sotheby’s. There are only 17 in existence, only 4 in private hands.

Mr. Liu drinks from his rare $36 million cup. (Sotheby's)

Mr. Liu drinks from his rare $36 million cup. (Sotheby’s)

Instead of whisking it away to his mega million dollar Long Museum in Shanghai, Mr. Liu decided to use the rare 3.1 inch cup first. As told by the  Wall Street Journal: “A Sotheby’s staffer poured me some tea. I saw the [chicken cup] and excitedly poured some of that tea into the cup and drank a little. Emperor Qianlong has used it, now I’ve used it. I just wanted to see how it felt.”

Then there’s the 2013 Dubai caper, as reported by the Khaleej Times (see photo right): Seems that certain Dubai coffee shops were offering  $62 dollar cups of bogus, inferior tea infused with “22K gold.”  Gold+Tea in Dubai“These cafes do not mix gold with tea, but claim it in order to attract customers, and if they really do so, they cannot afford to mix except a small percentage, which is not something remarkable, which will not help rejuvenate human body,” Khalid Mohammed Sherif Al Awadhi, director of the food control department at Dubai Municipality, was quoted in Arabian

But lest you think that gold is only for greed, consider the curious tale of green tea, gold, and prostate cancer.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine combined ECGC  or epigallocatechin gallate (the famed antioxidant ECGC found in tea) with radioactive nanoparticles of gold to target tumors in the prostrate gland. When the combo was injected, tumors shrunk 80% over a course of treatment, according to an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Medicine. The usual treatment is chemotherapy, where healthy – as well as cancerous – area are destroyed as the chemo cocktail passes through the body. The EGCG/gold cocktail was much more effective: Not only did it target cancer cells, resulting in 80% of tumors shrinking, but only one or two injections were needed, as contrasted to numerous chemo treatments.

Killing cancer with golden tea? What would Dionysus have said?




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.