Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ikea Bento : Quick & Cheap Ideas

Yes, I'm still bento-ing! In fits and starts, I've managed to use my bento gear to bring leftovers for lunch, though the fare has been very utilitarian lately. The upcoming holiday and the change to cold weather has cut back on the budget and time available to prepare good bento - there was precious little of either to begin with!

This is a time of year, however, when many people find themselves in a store at some point, whether you support the idea of shopping til you drop or being more realistic. I found myself in an Ikea last week for the first time in a good long while, and found a couple of items in their kitchen storage and prepared foods section that sparked a bento-prep renewal of sorts.

In their freezer section, you can find all sorts of good things, but the Swedish pancakes caught my attention. Roughly $3, if memory serves, and you get 12 generous, eggy, lightly-browned pancakes that are simply heat-and-eat. Add your favorite sweet or savory topping, and you're ready to roll. One would be enough to make a meal for a child, two would satisfy most adults, with the appropriate sides.

All I had to do for the pictured pancake bento/take-along was toss two pancakes in a zip-lock bag and add lingonberry preserves with peanut butter to my bento box and lunch was settled. I'm still feeling a bit under the weather, so I purchased some lentil soup in the cafeteria as something warm to round out my meal.

In the kitchen ware and storage section, Ikea has a lot of different choices for plasticware, but there is a small container with a flip-up lid that spoke to me. It's around $1.50, has a clear bottom and an opaque lid that lifts off, or you can open the half-lid if you're using it to store something in the cupboard. Small, but the perfect size for bento-ing side dishes or when you're running late in the morning and don't have time or the appetite to prepare a lot of food. Rice in one half, a protein in the other, and you're set for a quick, prepared lunch.

Many mornings I'm up before sunrise and it's enough of an effort just to become conscious. Having two of these to mix-and-match and throw together has saved a few of my work days from the hassle of having to buy my lunch at a price I don't like or from hearing my stomach growl at my desk. They're inexpensive as well. There's no rule that says bento boxes have to be $30 kawaii character masterpieces!


Monday, November 28, 2011

Mini Aged Pu-er Tuocha : Teavivre

This was yet another lovely sample of Mini Pu-er Tuocha from Teavivre that I was anxious to try. Anxious instead of excited because I love pu-er tea, but I've never tried the young, tuocha/cake leaf type before and I wasn't sure if it would be the same experience I've enjoyed with my loose-leaf pu-ers of the past.

It was processed in 2007, a cooked (shu) pu-er variety, so it's had a bit of time to get its fermented groove on.

It looks as described, truly a round, compressed shape with the flaked leaves forming a sort of nozzle. Pu-er can be steeped as briefly as you like or even left overnight, there are no real "rules" to enjoying it once you're accustomed to what it can do. So I steeped two mini cakes in two different ways, both beginning with water just at the boil, not super-hot.

The first steep is pictured. Two and a half minutes in my yixing pot, just 8 oz. of water poured over the cake that sits in the bottom. Unlike the brick-style pu-er, there's no need to cut into tuocha to "open" the leaves, they will flake off in the water as pictured below.

One tip with pu-er is that you'll want to pre-rinse by pouring a bit of water over the cake or leaves and then quickly discarding that water before adding in your steeping water. This "activates" the leaves so they'll begin to unfurl to get to the true flavor (and it has to be mentioned that these teas age for years - there's the potential for a bit of dust to be present just from the aging and storage, not a big deal.)

My first steep didn't produce the strong flavor I was expecting. It had the earthiness, the mushroom, wet-ground undertone but it was very subtle and smooth. Personally, I enjoy those trademark flavors more when they're stronger and accompanied by an almost piquant spiciness in the finish. It leaves things feeling a bit flat to not have that strong kick at the end of the sip. It may not be orthodox, but that's how I've enjoyed pu-ers.

So I gave it another go with the same amount of water and a longer steep, approximately 10 minutes. It brewed up a dark, rich, deeper brown than what's pictured. It was still a bit smoother than what I'm accustomed to, but this second cup was much more robust and it accompanied me throughout my evening. This time I picked up notes of wood along with the wet-leaf/earth, and a spice so subtle I wonder if it's just my own imagination. All in all, a very drinkable cup.

I don't know if this will have me ignoring my preferred loose-leaf shu pu-er for my everday indulgences, but it's definitely got potential. The marvelous thing about pu-er is that my remaining two mini-cakes, if stored well, may be even more marvelous in a year or two as they continue to age.

If pu-er isn't something you've yet ventured into, this would be a good place to start. These tuocha cakes tend to be inexpensive (Teavivre's starts at $3.20 for 1.75 oz), very easy to store and steep, and "young" enough that you aren't overwhelmed with the complexities of the trademark flavors right off the bat if you're not yet a committed pu-er fanatic.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pink Christmas : American Tea Room

This generous sample from American Tea Room arrived just in time to steep for an evening in after cutting the family Christmas tree at the local farm. Gloves and hats put away, tree trunk trimmed and setting in water, turkey decorations being exchanged for fresh greens and reds - it was time for something warm and different. Pink Christmas seemed to be just the ticket.

Pink isn't the first color that springs to mind when you think of the holidays, or an herbal tisane for that matter. Christmas usually conjures up memories of lips puckered at heavy spice and mugs of heavy brown cider or teas flavored with cinnamon and chai-like ingredients . But upon opening the package, it became clear this one was different. Berries, star anise, citrus, bits of what appeared to be green mint (or dried peony?), and something that gives a strong scent of vanilla (the linden petals described on the package, perhaps?). They appeared to be more like the ingredients for a pomander than a beverage - almost too pretty to put in water and boil it down.

Since it didn't involve any tea leaves, there wasn't the worry of whether it would oversteep. The directions called for 200F at five minutes, and I think I probably could have let it go even further to get an even more robust flavor, but I wanted to be true to instructions.

Just letting it steep gave the room a nice refreshing vanilla-berry twist, but would that translate in the cup?

As you can see, the final result is a deep pink liqueur worthy of your clear drinkware. Garnished with a skewer of lime or cherries perhaps? The sky's the limit for how you could dress it up. (I'll include some ideas at the end of the post).

The sip?

A very subdued red berry/tart pomegranate and citrus beginning that finishes with the smoothness of apple and vanilla. There isn't a heavy spice to it at all, which is exactly why I enjoyed it. There's just 'enough' for it to be noticed, but it doesn't linger and take over the cup. Warm, tart red berry and vanilla. Sweet enough, but not overdone. Lovely.

As I continued working on my initial two cups, it occured to me that this would be a great steep to add into a few holiday recipes or to steep in double-strength and add a bit of seltzer to serve as a cocktail when company arrives.

Ideas I will be trying (posts and pics planned if I pencil in the time as the holidays get closer):

- Using a super-strong tablespoon or two of steeped Pink Christmas to stir into milk or cream when making a custard or a flan; the berry and citrus kick would make it twice as unique and festive

- Using several cups in lieu of regular water for a bread dough, the berry/savory contrast could be interesting

- Pink Christmas punch - a double-strength pot or a single-serving brewed 'gaiwan-style' and added to regular seltzer water or Ginger Ale with a skewer of cloved orange or lime

All in all - a quality blend, not your typical holiday spicey-spice drink. Worth trying if you like berry, citrus, and vanilla flavors or looking for a change from the norm!


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Le Palais des Thés: Thé du Hammam

This is the second of two generous samples I received for review from Le Palais des Thés. They've recently unveiled their U.S.-focused online boutique, and Thé du Hammam is one of their most popular of the blended 'Creations,' so there's certainly something to like.

I'm not a particular fan of green teas blended with sweet and heady aromatics, but they offer Thé du Hammam in a black tea version which I look forward to ordering and trying for comparison - so my thoughts should be taken in that context.

Standard teapot preparation with water just-under-boiling for three minutes.

It's a well balanced and vigorous cup, the flavor of the china green comes through after the floral and super-sweet date front notes, but finishes as perfume and maybe a bit of citrus, but the perfume is what strikes me. This doesn't quite appeal to me as the green tea already has a natural sweet/sour component to it. However, this is entirely in keeping with the Turkish recipe it's described as being based upon, so again, take my thoughts in that context.

I imagine they had someone like me in mind when they offered the alternate version in a black tea, taking out the green dates and introducing rhubarb. The Keemun they're using to blend it with would stand up well with the floral notes and be a nice smoky contrast to the sweetness of the rhubarb.

All in all, a well-crafted blend, but not a tea that I would reach for sooner than the zen-like Thé des Moines which I reviewed last week. I'm eager to see what the Keemun version is like.

And that's not the last of my adventures with Le Palais - I purchased their China, Taiwan, and Vietnamese sampler coffret which arrived this weekend. With the holiday week upon us, I look forward to diving into some serious cupping.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

One of the Oldest Black Teas : Bai Lin Gong Fu from TeaVivre

I am truly enjoying this Bai Lin Gong Fu - a Fujian black tea, one of the oldest produced in the region, as offered by TeaVivre. Many may recognize Gong Fu as a steeping method, but in a larger sense, it simply refers to something done skillfully, which is a nod to the attention paid to the processing.

The dry leaf is black, blended with some golden tips, which might explain its smoothness. Very strong notes of dark chocolate and caramel, but not sickeningly-sweet. Some spice in the secondary notes. Not very astringent.

You could serve this to a non-tea-afficionado and they might have trouble recognizing it as a black tea. It's a pure-leaf tea, but it tastes as if I just finished a bite of dark chocolate and followed it with a sip of a very, very mild keemun. The chocolate note is so prevalent, there are some who might also detect wine notes. I prefer to pretend I'm drinking chocolate.

According to Teavivre, it's also relatively low in caffeine as compared to coffee, so it would make an attractive evening tea as winter settles in. Comforting, a hint of warm spice, relaxing chocolate lingering on the palate. There's not much else to wish for as the snow begins to fly! I will be adding Bai Lin Gong Fu to my wish list for my next purchase.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ITFA October Shipment : T.T.E.S. #18 Ruby Black - Taiwan

Just when I thought I knew what to expect from most teas, this sampler of Taiwanese beauties from the ITFA Global Tea Taster's club arrives and my palate is thrown back to square one. This tea in particular has me nostalgic for the days when I was working in France and sampling different regional wines from time to time. It's simply tea leaves steeped in hot water, but the flavor has me tricked into thinking I'm drinking a mulled glass of spicy Cote du Rhone. Yes - it's that interesting!

Ruby Black, a.k.a. Sun Moon Lake Tea, also goes by it's technical moniker of Experimental Tea #18. Sort of like the naming of a hybrid apple or grape when a new taste is desired or a cutting made to improve hardiness, teas are also grown and tested against certain flavor characteristics. Ruby Black is a cultivar of the Assam variety of camelia sinesis. The Japanese are said to have brought the particular plant to Taiwan in the 1920's.

So what's an innocent little Assam doing in a place like Sun Moon Lake, Nantou, Taiwan?

Marvelous things, my friend.

First, notice how long these leaves are and how they appear to be hand-rolled or twisted.

Second, you might notice how there's a bit of a fruit aroma to the dry leaf. Not a citrus type of fruit. Grape, berry, and red fruits. "Wood fruits" as the French would say - the type of red and blue berries you'd find growing in a forest.

Being a black tea, it ideally steeps for about three minutes.

Taste: spice, "wood fruit," and a definite underpinning of the flavors you get in a typical Assam. A bit of malt. In some sips I even perceived a note of what I might characterize as tobacco or leather, though I've never smoked a cigar in my life.

If you're looking for a "manly" tea to serve to a mixed crowd of people, this would be a good choice. The wine snobs will find something to enjoy in it, and it's sweet "enough" without venturing into being a true fruit tea - the flavors are just implied rather than being overpowering. We're talking about a pure leaf black tea, after all.

This particular offering is produced by the YuanShiang tea farm, headed by Xu Du Jin Wan in Nantou county. (Again, the link to the farm's site is through a translation browser, the original site is in Chinese). There aren't many black teas produced in Taiwan due to the popularity of Oolongs, but this varietal is definitely a jewel in the crown. Wan has produced black teas for 30 years and has an impressive list of offerings on the farm's site that are worth checking out.

I do plan on adding this tea to my short list of cupboard "must-haves." It's just too interesting and at the same time so familiar to not enjoy it more often.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

ITFA October Shipment - Goe Tea's Super-Fermented Oolong from Taiwan

I can't describe how excited I was to receive October's Global Tea Taster's shipment from the International Tea Farms Alliance this past weekend. This quarter's featured growing region is Taiwan, with several unique Oolong offerings and a tea that's called a Ruby Black, described as an Assam plant varietal. The Oolongs arrived just in time to help me nurse a sore throat and put my new rustic gaiwan through it's inaugural paces.

Immediately I opened the Goe Tea "super-fermented" oolong. My experiences with oolong up to this point have been with light-to-medium oxidized varieties such as Tie Guan Yin, so I was expecting (in my naivete) that a higher degree of fermentation would mean perhaps a flavor that approached black tea. For oolongs, a high degree of fermentation is typically described as something between 40-80%, so there's a lot of leeway or room for interpretation.

There's a bit more information and better quality pictures of this tea on Goe Tea farm's blog. (Note, I've linked to a translated version of the site from its original Chinese text. You may have better success viewing it in your preferred translation browser). Per the information supplied in the shipment, the word Goe refers to the "ancient" and farmer Alfredo De Lim balances an emphasis on traditional and local with the accessibility of the modern web, as one of the first to offer his tea direct to consumers through the Goe web site. Though it's important to note that there is not an English site at this time.

The occasion called for a gong-fu steeping method. Oolongs typically involve more of the senses, being large-leaf, textured, brothy, and floral. Gongfu simply means using a larger amount of dry leaf in a smaller amount of water at shorter steeps and steeping in succession. You tend to be able to pick up more of the nuance of the tea, good or bad, with each respective steep as the leaves begin to open further. It was the perfect method for coping with the seasonal "crud" and I felt better after my tea session was done.

My first steep was around 45 seconds to 1 minute and WOWSA. I was surprised. It had a sencha-like quality that I wasn't prepared for. In a good way. I enjoy senchas, but my palate was preparing for something more astringent and floral. Instead there was a buttery, vegetal sip with floral topnotes. Fresh and intriguing. Completely turned my expectation on its ear. Very savory.

The second steep was for 2 minutes. This time the vegetal-buttery flavor took a backseat and the floral came through. It was slightly more astringent, but still smooth, with a brothy texture that was just what my ailing throat needed.

In the cup, it's a dark, bright yellow. The picture I took doesn't really do the color much justice, you'll find better example on Goe's blog page linked above.

Very complex for an oolong. Its character changed with each successive steep in a way that I hadn't noticed in previous oolong varieties. If you prefer oolongs for their floral quality, you may want to try a regular steeping method or do a quick rinse of the leaves to get to that level "first." But if you like variety and nuance, you definitely want to try this gong-fu style and appreciate the initial savory notes.

As you can see, the leaves are nice and whole and I probably had a few more steep's worth that I could have drawn out from this heaping tablespoon, but rest and recoupment called me away from my tea session. The picture above was taken after just the second steep.

A lovely and surprising offering from ITFA - it's contributed greatly to my palate education and I hope that Goe Tea may soon offer a web store for it's English-speaking customers.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Yun Nan Dian Hong Golden Tip : Teavivre

I have steeped mugs and mugs of this Yun Nan Dian Hong Golden Tip black tea from Teavivre and I'm still enamoured by the smooth, slightly-citrusy, refreshing taste. I'm new to the world of golden tips, so you have to take some of the enthusiam with a grain of salt, but imagine a well-rounded black tea that wasn't super-astringent - a "drinking" tea as opposed to a "sipping" tea.

It has a brightness to it, and a delicate body. I've enjoyed it prepared in the morning as my workday tea, and I prepared it gong-fu style over the weekend as I battled a cold. It isn't intended to be a tea that will hold up over multiple steepings, but in every incarnation I've tried, it's been delicious and I plan on joining others of the TeaTerati in ordering more when I have the chance.

And then there's the artistry of the dry leaf itself - the yellows and browns that are all from the same kind of tea leaf, just processed a bit differently. The long needle-like leaves fit into the infuser like New Year's Eve confetti.

You wouldn't necessarily expect a gold-colored leaf to brew up as dark as this, but that's another unexpected surprise of this tea.

For perhaps the first time, I can't think of one category of tea drinker that this kind of tea wouldn't appeal to. It's got something for everyone, even those who prefer green leaf. It's both smooth and rich, bright and delicate. If you prefer smokier flavors or really heavy citrus, then perhaps this won't be your next pick, but then you'd be missing out on something! I suggest you take a peek at the other reviews on Steepster to discover - it takes on different flavors for different people.

The only thing I would say is that I don't think re-steeping it the traditional 3-minutes multiple times will offer the same results. Gong-fu style, yes, I got several nice citrusy-ranging-to-malty steeps, but they're very short steeps. I've enjoyed it just as well steeping it once in a 16 oz. teapot to keep in a stainless steel vacuum mug and it's just as delicious throughout the morning.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tea 'En Direct' : Le Palais now has U.S. online store

Those of you who truly know your tea have known about Le Palais des Thés for many years and that their tea offerings and commitment to better sourcing have made them one of the top names for quality tea in France as well as other countries around the world since their start in 1987.

Some of you may have already ordered directly from Paris, and others may have already scooped up your own favorite blend at one of the U.S. boutiques where they've been sold here-and-there in the past. Personally, I've enjoyed reading and hearing about their efforts to educate the tea-drinking public about the different varieties and have been envious of their tea sessions posted and discussed by the French TeaTerati for the past several years. (They even have an 'aroma specialist' in their employ!)

I'm pleased to let my readers know that you can now order your favorite Le Palais des Thés variety directly from their new U.S. web site. No need to keep checking Orbitz for that off-season airfare discount to grab your favorite (but a visit to any of their 5 locations in Paris would be worth the trip alone!)

If you haven't yet discovered Le Palais des Thés - this is a great chance to branch out a bit from your tea routine. They don't offer an enormous catalog of tea blends (called 'creations') or singular teas (grands crus) compared to some U.S. large-scale vendors, but that's because what they do offer is crafted so well, there's not a demand for eight different kinds of strawberry blended tea (ahem...just for example.)

And beyond their staple blends and pure teas, they have specially-selected tasting sample gift sets. You simply pick which region or genre you or your giftee is interested in exploring, and you have 12 different impeccably-sourced teas packaged not in pouches, but in tin tubes (which makes storage a breeze!)

I'm particularly intrigued by their China, Vietnam, and Taiwan set, and have it ordered to share with my family and guests hopefully in time for Thanksgiving in a week or so. You can literally tour the tea world in one evening with these tasting sets.

Francois-Xavier Delmas is one of the founders and the chief of operations who sources the tea each season. He's been keeping a blog in English for the past year, which is an interesting read if only to see what a day-in-the-life is like for the people who meet the tea producers around the world. His articles are organized by country.

If you're up to the challenge, try a Google search of Monsieur Delmas and Le Palais to see what's been written about the tea in French. The company was founded as a type of cooperative effort between a group of passionés, tea lovers, with Delmas at the helm. They organize tea tastings, tea education, as well as operating boutiques and online offerings in 26 different countries.

It's not the least expensive tea available, but it's not overpriced for the quality. Definitely worth checking out! The only caveat I would offer is that there are still aspects of their U.S. website where the translation appears to still be a work-in-progress, but I had no issues placing an order this week. It's a good sign that they're being careful and translating as-they-go!

And now they've landed officially in the U.S. Welcome Aboard!

Here's a peek at my personal favorite: Thé des Moines - Tea of the Monks

It's described as being based on a Tibetan recipe, hence the name and the reference to Buddhist monastic life. The Tibetans have long had a tradition of enjoying strong black teas (pu-ehr often flavored with warmed yak butter, a regional nutritional staple). But this tea is a departure from the strong, and I can almost imagine that it was blended as it was to suit the 'zen' motif of the monk's lives. Black tea blended with green tea and a slight hint of vanilla - it takes the middle road rather than the extremes of being too strong or too weak to be enjoyed. Storage conditions and availability may have also played a small role in how the tea oxidized to be a mixture. Nothing wasted, every green or black leaf is precious.

Le Palais offers the tea in the standard pouch or tin, but Thé des Moines is also offered in a traditional clay container, which is how the monks would have stored the tea. It's a special price to order it in the clay pot, and one wonders what the monks would have charged to share their tea with visitors, but it's an authentic experience.

Tasting notes:

How do you say...nice? It's smoother than you would expect if you were judging it from the dry leaf alone. It toes the line between a medium-astringency black and a lightly-oxidized green. The green leaf almost approaches an oolong in appearance and taste, which gives it a floral note in aroma and as an aftertaste. The vanilla flavoring is subtle and non-chemical, and helps to round things out. In the cup, it steeps into a nice medium-dark brown, favoring the black leaf.

Steeping time:

I had my best steeps around 3 minutes. You don't want to overdo the temperature or time on this one because it is a mixture of green and there's a balance to be maintained. Just slightly under boiling, about three minutes.

Other thoughts:

The only thing that would make this tea absolutely heavenly and perfect would be the inclusion of whole vanilla bean for that creamy edge, but there's nothing at all lacking in this tea as a unique and soothing choice for your evening cup.

Laissez le bontemps buvez!


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Japanese Tea Ceremony Somewhat De-Mystified

(Cross-posted with InSteep blog)

There's more to being a guest at a Japanese tea ceremony than simply showing up. I learned this humble lesson several weeks ago while attending a demonstration benefitting a local Magonote group who help elderly Japanese in my local area. It's a semi-annual evening at my local tea shoppe with a limited enrollment and typically is difficult to get into, but I was lucky to be able to reserve a spot for the Fall event.

The instructors follow the Urasenke school of Chado (the way of tea). I had not known before that evening that Urasenke roughly translates as "the back-field son." When Sen no Rikyu retired from the "business" of instructing Chado, the honor eventually passed to his grandsons, who each inherited a third of the family's estate and essentially founded the three different 'schools' or 'techniques' for the ceremony. Sen being the family name, the three different schools are named after the brother who founded them, Urasenke being the brother who inherited the back plot of the family estate.


The lesson begins before one enters the traditional tea room. Everyone, regardless of class or social rank, enters through the same low door. This means bowing or crouching down, even if you're the Emperor. It was explained as being a way to bring humility and harmony to the occasion; a reinforcement of the idea that everyone is equal as they gather together.

More surprisingly, I was told that the host (or the tea preparer) isn't usually there to greet the guests as they arrive, but rather they have prepared a small display of seasonal flowers or a scroll with a particular meaning for the guests to reflect upon for several minutes as they gather. The theme is nearly always in harmony with the given season. For my event, the hosts had prepared a text and a lithograph of Japanese ducks to look at, in keeping with fall that has settled in around us.

Contrast this with the Western emphasis on greeting each guest promptly at the door and ushering them to the sitting room. Most of us expect to be waited upon or otherwise welcomed and then instructed where to go or what to do, but the tea ceremony guests is already conscious of where they're expected to gather, and they do so patiently. While it is a social gathering, it seems to be one focused on the meditation of sharing the same space and experience, and less about an occasion to catch up on the latest news.


Once the guests have gathered in their places in the room, the host usually has a helper who presents a tray of sweets that are intended to be nibbled before the tea is consumed. The host begins preparing the water, which is likely to be boiling over a fire of hot coals or, as was the case this particular night, a hot plate for safety reasons.

If you're a frequent tea ceremony guest, you likely have brought a small decorated purse-type bag with you containing a traditional folding fan (sensu) to combat the temperature in the room, a large pick (youji) that serves as a knife and fork for the sweets (wagashi), a supply of fiber paper (kaishi) to lay the sweet upon, and a special cloth (dashibukusa) to handle the tea bowl you'll be served. It is possible that if you attend a number of authentic tea ceremonies, you'll be served matcha in your host's most prized bowls. I was told that the demontrators had attended ceremonies where they were served from pieces dating as far back as the 1700's. As a guest, you want to respect your host's teaware and protect the piece as much as possible.

There is also a funny give-and-take of politeness between guests and their neighbors. When the host offers the sweets, the first guest places the plate between themselves and their neighbor and then asks to be forgiven for eating first, but nonetheless takes the first nibbles as the guest to their left patiently waits their turn. We were served a small pancake-like pastry filled with red bean (or adzuki) paste. It was delicious and sweet, the exact intention. Beginning with sweet and ending with the somewhat bitter matcha re-emphasizes the concept of harmony between extremes.

The same pecking order occurs when the tea is prepared and offered. The guests are generally served one at a time, with the guest on the right going first. They accept the bowl with their right hand, turn it gently around in their palm until the front motif of the bowl is facing the host, and then take 3-5 sips. One last loud sip signals that the matcha serving is finished, and the bowl is placed back on the mat and admired one last time before returning to the host.
Casual ceremonies may last between 45 minutes to 1 hour and can find the guests and hosts switching roles during the course of the evening.


Ceremonial grade matcha is much sweeter than the typical restaurant grade that you might encounter in your local tea shoppe as served in lattés or mixed into different pastries. It is something everyone should try at least once! The color was an opaque, turquoise-like emerald green, and I regret that I didn't get pictures taken, but there was the privacy of my fellow participants to consider.

For those not familiar with matcha, it is simply the green tea leaf that is ground into a fine powder and whisked into boiling water rather than steeped like traditional tea. You're consuming the entire leaf, and it's for that reason that you can expect some vegetal bitterness in the cup, but at the same time it is a refreshing taste when properly prepared.

MORE TO COME : In the next installment, I'll go into more detail about tools and techniques from the tea preparer's point of view.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Unique Fall Tea Series : Earl Grey Citrus from Boston Tea Co.

Earl Grey is a traditional "anytime" tea, but I'm recommending it in my fall series because I personally gravitate toward the heartiness of a really good, astringent, malty Earl Grey when the weather begins to chill. It's a comfort flavor in my repertoire and I confess that I have a particular weakness for a good Earl Grey Creme as a dessert tea. Perhaps it's the idea of it being a British staple that brings out the inner Jane Austen in me - who can tell?

So I was excited to try Earl Grey Citrus from Boston Tea Company after seeing it described as "updated with a hint of citrus." Old meets new? Bergamot oil traditionally lends Earl Grey its citrusy flavor, but Boston's version also adds other types of citrus into the mix and blends it with what seems to be a nice medium-variety Assam.

But what's unique about Boston's blend is that they've thrown in whole cornflower buds (stem and all!) alongside the aromatic citrus peel. It's not just the typical blue petals thrown in for appearances - in this blend I actually taste the difference it makes to the cup. I would go so far as to say it makes the tea three-dimensional.

I steeped two teaspoons in my Stumpy pot to make two large cups, about three minutes at boiling. The liqueur is the typical dark and vibrant brown you'd expect from an Assam.

As for the taste? It's not going to blow you away with the strength of the citrus - which makes this one unique. A true surprise, given the amount of citrus pieces in the dry leaf. My mouth is puckering from the astringency of the Assam blend rather than from the Bergamot. There's nothing that tastes chemical or overdone. The Assam isn't as brisk or bright as other blends I've tried, but it works well with the other ingredients.

If you happen to like a very strong citrus "punch" in your Earl Grey, you may not like this blend. If you're looking to try something more subtle or if you're not a fan of the particular flavor notes of Bergamot, this should be on your list, as you might appreciate the way it leans more toward mid-range notes and orange.

Pairs with: just about anything - but if you're looking for an authentic Earl Grey experience, try it with an almond or citrus-flavored scone and some clotted cream. If you don't happen to live in Devonshire or a locale where clotted cream is in plentiful supply, you could try blending a teaspoon of your favorite sweetener into sour cream to get the same flavor and texture.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Unique Fall Tea Series : Lupicia Sweet Autumn Rooibos

I don't often find myself at a loss for words when describing teas, but this inconspicuous Lupicia teabag sample threw me for a loop. It was completely unexpected! And while it doesn't have a flavor that many people would typically crave, Sweet Autumn Rooibos deserves to be the first in my Fall Unique Tea series because it has more than one "twist" and has earned my respect as a Rooibos blend that actually works.

Sweet potato isn't the first thing that pops into mind when you ponder flavors to add to a tea. It tends to be savory and gets soft and thread-like when heated. Yet if you step back for one moment and think of tea and flavor, the combination makes perfect sense! What is sweet potato casserole at harvest time, if not maple syrup and starchy goodness?

Lupicia Fresh Tea's recent tea-of-the-month puts this fall harvest flavor profile front and center with a robust rooibus flavored with chestnut, pumpkin, and Japanese sweet potato pieces. The Japanese varieties are different from the type we enjoy in North America, more solid and colored a bit differently than the dark orange we would normally expect. I did my best to capture the ingredients in the picture below.

The dry leaf smells a bit like raw carrot or carrot cake as the pumpkin pieces and sweet potato mix with the caramel sweetness of the Rooibos. Lupicia describes the Rooibos as being flavored with chestnut, and while I agree that I detect it, it's not very strong. Just enough to give you the impression of walking past a street vendor warming up a fresh batch on the streetcorner of a Holiday market in Europe. (Have I mentioned I've been craving craft-roasted chestnuts now that the weather's turning?)

But the ingredients aren't the only surprise with Sweet Autumn. I'm not joking when I tell you that the mouthfeel of this tisane once it's steeped is nearly identical to apple juice, and though there's no apple or apple spices anywhere near the teabag, it's enough to trick your palate into thinking you're at an orchard.

Even the liqueur is slightly different from a typical Rooibos - a deep fall orange instead of an amber red.

The taste?

You'll enjoy it if you like sweet and slightly cakey/biscuity flavors or if you're looking for an alternative to the fruit and spice-laden seasonal teas. I don't always blog about Lupicia's monthly tea samples, but this particular blend was a revelation. I will be purchasing more of this tea to hopefully serve with Thanksgiving dinner.

If you're looking to branch out from the usual fall standards - this Rooibos blend is one to try!


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

French Halloween - A Bento Club Swap

You want these cookies. They may look like ordinary sugar cookies to the untrained eye, but these cookies were carefully packaged and thoughtfully designed to survive a trip from France to my doorstep as part of a Halloween-themed Bento club round-robin swap. You want these cookies because they are light, buttery, delicious and would go well with your cup of Wuyi Rock Oolong tea - but these are mine!

They were accompanied by a stylish black handbag with orange Halloween ribbon accesory, a scented candle, and a French language edition of one of the books in the True Blood series. I haven't yet seen the TV show, but the books are always better!! The first commenter to spoil the ending gets a rap on the noggin with a rubber spider!

I don't know if I'll get an opportunity to participate in another bento club swap, but this made my Halloween week truly special. Mille mercis encore une fois!