Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Dog Days of Summer Moment

It's hot out there. Really hot. It has made me a bit more of a morning person lately because it feels so refreshing to throw open the windows and the back door and let the cool morning air drift in.

As the sun rises into the clear, blue sky, the temperature rises with it. It makes it more challenging to figure out what to cook for dinner or even what to have for lunch, because it's just too hot to cook.

These are just the kind of days that make Iced Tea a must. In the early afternoon, I'll take a  bit of a break and sit in the shade with good, old Eddie dog - me sipping on some iced tea, him soaking in the sun.

Edward Dog Days of Summer

I had always thought the Dog Days of Summer were an observation of how dogs will just lounge around in the hottest days of the summer with no intention of doing anything else as the mercury rises (I can relate to that!). Apparently, what it's actually referring to is the time of year when Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the sun. In this part of the world, this happens around July 3 - August 11. Either way, it's the time of year when we're looking for ways to cool down.

Growing up, my mom always had this enormous glass, screw top jar that she'd fill with water and a million tea bags and set out on the back patio to steep in the sun. "Sun tea" is what we called it. We'd drink it all day. These days, I tend to do something similar, though I'll use whatever loose leaf tea I'm craving that day. It's a waiting game. These teas need plenty of time to steep in that sun-warmed water. Today, however, I'm enjoying The des Sources from Palais des Thes, which doesn't require the hours of patience that I've honed in past summers. Chinese green tea, mint, and a hint of bergamot, I am refreshed by this Moroccan inspired blend. 30 minutes in room temperature water is all that is required by these Iced Tea Bags. Brilliant.

So here Ed and I sit, he in the sun, I in the shade with iced tea in hand. No matter how you slice it, these are indeed the Dog Days of Summer, and today I wouldn't want to share them with any other dog (or any other tea, for that matter).

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Monday Mystery Moment with Flavia de Luce

There is a special place in my heart for all things British. Part of it is that a good chunk of my heritage is British. Among my ancestors are Featherstones and Paxtons with some Scottish Cunninghams for additional flair. I love the droll humor of British romantic comedies (Love Actually or Bridget Jones' Diary are some faves), as well as their productions of all things Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice , anyone?) There's a dry humor and willingness to be downright silly that I enjoy, because so often one is not quite sure if they intended to be silly or clever or if they're just being ironic.
Family motto: "Over, fork over!"
Yes, really.
And so it should be no surprise to anyone that while the English take their tea very seriously, there are those who have to infuse their humor into that arena as well, with delightful results. TeaPigs is a British company who love their tea and loves their fun and have made it their mission to combine the two. Even their name, "Teapigs" came about from a brainstorming session where someone made the remark that they're pigs about their tea (meaning they can't get enough and just want more and more). The name stuck. And their love of fun certainly makes an impression. Teapigs Darjeeling Earl Grey   has an image of a little grey dachsund on the package, but don't let their love of fun be mistaken for lack of standards. In this case, they've taken something that is a common and well-loved classic (Earl Grey) and elevated it. Using Darjeeling as the base tea, there's something special and surprising that takes place in your cup. It's the flavor of the Earl Grey that we know and love, but it's a little bit more. Each element of the tea is raised to a new level. Tea with a twist.



Which is what I like about British mystery novels as well. They are often good, old fashioned, comfortable mysteries with a twist.

July happens to be one of those months during the year where every second feels like it is scheduled. There is no down time. There is no stopping. It is go-go-go. And so, in those moments when I finally force myself to go and eat some lunch I tend to reach for something comfortable and familiar, where I can allow someone else to have to do all the thinking and surmising. One of my go-to's is the  Flavia de Luce Novel Mystery series by Alan Bradley. It's your typical mystery series set in a quaint English village, with the usual police inspector playing his part, but the amateur sleuth here is not the usual fare. It's 11-year-old Flavia de Luce. Youngest of 3 sisters, her mother is believed to have died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was still a baby. The girls live with their ever-grieving and stamp-collecting father in their mother's slowly deteriorating mansion, Buckshaw. Not only is Flavia 11-years old, she is also a chemistry genius who spends hours on end experimenting in her late uncle Tar's private chemistry lab where no one bothers her. Her scarily brilliant mind is evened out by her precocious antics, which are often carried out astride Gladys, her faithful bicycle. Book 1, in the series,The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, has been read so many times, its spine is showing its popularity.


A few minutes of tea and sanity, and it's back to work. Something for me to look forward to: the next novel in the series has just come out, and I can't wait to learn more secrets about Harriet, Flavia's long-lost mother.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Reflective Moment on Puerh

The first time I was introduced to Puerh Tea was in Minneapolis, at the Hotel Ivy. I had just barely started blogging and so I was feeling a little adventurous in wanting to explore new teas. I had never even heard of Puerh, but whatever it was they served me that day, I found it dark and rich and mysterious. Looking back at my blog post, I see that it was Harney and Sons Puerh. Thank you, dear, departed John Harney, for the introduction.
My first taste of Puerh at the Hotel Ivy
May 2009
Despite the unsuccessful savories I had that day (one of the very few poor reviews I've ever given, and perhaps I was trying too hard to be a "foodie" (*sigh*)), this tea captured my attention. And yet, while I've had a cup here and there, I haven't spent much focused attention. Until now.

But let's take a step back. Puerh. An intimidating (and frankly unsavory) name as pronounced in the English language. "Pooh-air." Some people prefer to pronounce it "Pooh-urr," as though the absence of "air" from the "pooh" makes it more elegant. It's simply an unfortunate name. Once we get past that, however, we can begin to enjoy the unique and addictive nature of this beautiful beast. Interesting side note: Puerh is not actually grown or produced in the Yunnan town of Puerh. Though, this town was the official beginning of the Tea Horse Route, which was the starting point of the long journey Puerh tea made on the way to Tibet in the days of yore. Also of note, Puerh comes exclusively from the Yunnan province of China.

According to The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss, there are 2 types of Puerh: raw and cooked. Cooked Puerh is a relatively recent invention from the 1970's where demand necessity was the mother of invention. In order to get the tea to market more quickly, a new method was invented. Raw Puerh, however, is a longer process, which involves levels of controlled moisture to trigger a bacterial fermentation process, which gives it the unique flavor profile. Puerh was and is most often compressed into molded cakes of various shapes and sizes. Like some fine wines, Puerhs (if properly stored) improve with age. If aged over 10 years, the price tends to get serious. 30+ year-old Puerhs can fetch hundreds of dollars per cake or brick.

Another interesting side note. Much of Puerh tea comes from tea trees (not bushes) that are 20-30 feet tall and over 100 years old. In fact, there are trees that locals claim to be between 500 and 1000 years old! Villagers must climb these tall mammoths to carefully harvest the broad leaves.

This year, I snapped a photo of this over-sized mushroom-shaped Puerh (which apparently is sometimes called "Camel's Breath") at one of the TeaSource locations (also in the Minneapolis region, believe it or not). I've never known where to post this photo until now. You're welcome.


Here's the thing. Despite what any experts say, Puerhs are a little bit complicated and intimidating. Loose leaf Puerh is designated into 11 quality grades, and that's before even factoring in age, which adds additional complexity as well.  Where does one begin?

Where indeed? Among my current collection of teas I have 5 different Puerhs. So I decided to set up a little tea tasting for myself to see what I'd recommend on how to get a decent introduction to this type of tea.


Starting with the upper right, lightest to darkest -

Tea Setter Wild Grown Puerh - While incredibly earthy, this Puerh is pleasantly lighter than many Puerhs, even after being steeped for more than a minute. In both color and flavor, this one is a very good introduction to the genre that will not intimidate you. (I classify this: Step 2)

California Tea and Coffee Brewery Vanilla Mint Puerh - The ultimate gateway tea to true Puerh addiction. Purists might disagree with my inclusion of a Puerh blend, but when one comes across such an inviting blend that is so harmoniously balanced, AND it can introduce an entirely new genre to a palate, I say "bring it!" I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm not a fan of vanilla in tea, and yet, the subtle vanilla and mint mellows the unfamiliar fermented tea flavor that is an acquired taste for many. If you're intimidated by Puerh, begin your journey here. (I classify this: Step 1)

TeaVivre Fengqing Raw Puerh Tuocha 2006 - This Puerh packs a punch and is the most robust of this tasting. I don't know how else to say it, but you can "taste the raw!" It's edgy, it's not shy, it's powerful. And then there is this sweet finish that makes me think of honey. This 8-year-old is a force to be reckoned with and is worth the reckoning. (I classify this: Step 5)

TeaVivre Fengqing Zhuan Cha Raw Puerh 2006 - I found this one very interesting. It had a "green" quality to it, though it retained its fermented strains, and then there was this licorice finish. I would place it 3rd in line on a beginner's journey through Puerh. (I classify this: Step 3)

TeaVivre Fengqing Wild Tree Yesheng Raw Puerh 2013 - While this one also had a green, almost broccoli quality to its taste, it was the second most robust. Take no prisoners, pay attention to me, yes sir, may I have another sir, kind of charisma about it. (I classify this: Step 4)

I found it interesting that although the brewing of each tea created a rainbow of shades, the color of the liquid didn't necessarily correspond to the robustness of the flavor.

Is this the end-all, be-all of Puerh designations or journeys? Absolutely not! I explored this genre based on what I had on hand. There is an entire universe of options out there. But I will say, without hesitation, that if you don't know where to begin, any one of these will provide a positive introduction to the true, wild, beautiful nature of Puerh.