Wednesday, March 23, 2005

To a tea

I have always been a tea drinker. I never got into coffee (aside from a year in France, which like a first job or a first boyfriend was such a disaster that I now feel it "didn't count" and I generally choose to forget it ever happened) and I don't drink alcohol, but I've always been a fan of all manners of tea.

When I lived in Japan, I fell in love with green tea--because it was the first time in my life I had ever tasted quality green tea. I first tried Genmai cha in Iwate prefecture in 1987; it is a green tea with popped rice kernels which absorb the bitterness of the tea. It is still one of my favorite teas and the taste transports me, instantly, back to Japan.

When I travelled and later worked in South Korea, I fell in love with barley tea, or mugi cha as it is called in Japan, and I still prefer cold mugi cha to American sweet tea in the summer.

Incidentally, "sweet tea" in the Southern US is what we call "iced tea" in Canada; "iced tea" down here refers to unsweetened ice tea, which I had never heard of before moving here. But then, true Southern sweet tea here has approximately the same sugar levels as maple syrup. To order "tea" here, one must ask for "hot tea." When we first moved to Texas, I repeatedly made the mistake of trying to order "tea," and was met with blank stares of incomprehension (stares that were usually reserved for the occasions I forgot myself and spoke with *two* syllable words). Given that Americans don't seem to even drink tea all that much--as evidenced by the fact that when my husband orders "hot tea" with cream, it is often helpfully served with a slice of lemon already placed inside the cup--I find it bizarre that they have felt a need to develop a proprietary language of tea.

I have no patience for proprietary language. I despise Starbucks, and avoid it like the plague, but on the rare occasion I find myself inside their cursed establishment, I refuse to speak their silly marketroid-speak and order, in plain English, a "small," "medium," or "large." Often the staff don't understand me. English was perfectly functional before Starbucks decided to reinvent it, and while I have happily studied and acquired some proficiency in "real" languages, I don't consider "Starbuckian" to be one.

I'm not quite old enough to be a curmedgeon, but I'm working on it. The antioxidants in the tea must be keeping me young despite myself.

I also have a passing knowledge of herbalism, and look forward in the new aparment to unpacking (into the pantry! a real live pantry!) jars of lavender, chamomile, mint, clover blossoms--and medicinal nasties like senna pod and valerian. In fact, since those boxes were never unpacked at this address (too sick to bother), I'm excited to *discover* which herbs I still have.

I find the current commodification/yuppification/gentrification of tea to be a bit of an annoyance. Does tea need to be upscale? Does everything have to be super-packaged and super-marketed? It's like the gentrification of crafts--which a blog I was reading this week (and I forget which one! Pipe up if you are reading this so I can give due credit) pointed out was originally about thrift, and is now about mass consumerism. I drink tea because I *like* it--so the many johnny-come-lately, tea-poseurs are a bother. On the other hand, tea has beneficial properties, and isn't downright bad for you like coffee is (regardless of what studies bought and paid for by the Coffee Marketing Board might have to say), so if the trendiness of tea helps wean people off coffee, I suppose I can't complain.

Our last aparment in Vancouver was around the corner from the eponymousT, a tea specialty shop that was just a pleasure to visit. They always had free samples, the staff was knowledgeable, friendly and helpful in a down-to-earth way (i.e., in a Vancouver-way, not an I'm-on-cocaine/TGIFriday's way), and the teas were of spectacular quality. They sell their own blends and will custom-make teas to order--thinking right now about Old Blue Eyes I can aaaalmost smell it, aaaaaaalmost taste it. When we got married, our teeny-tiny wedding didn't warrant a custom tea (nor could we afford it--we were dirt poor and I was sick and expected to die, so the wedding was a very low-key affair), but we went in and talked to the staff about the cake we were serving (my favourite - the vegan carob-walnut cake from The Naam), and they helped us choose a tea that would complement the cake. We decided on the Golden Assam, a veritable champagne of black tea, and I kept some aside for special occasions for years afterwards. (Writing about The Naam's carob walnut cake, on top of T, has now made me completely homesick for Vancouver. The fact that it is raining outside right now probably contributes.) One day, we stopped in for tea, and it turned out that The Food Network was there, and we filmed an ID spot for them: "We're in Vancouver, British Columbia and you're watching the Food Network." Got our tea for free too. Neither of us expected to be on television, and we walked out of the house looking like hell--and since them, various people have mentioned seeing the spot. Ah well.

Thanks to Watermark, I've just learned that Adagio Teas is offering goodies for mentioning them in a blog post. Well, I am happy to say in all honesty that I haven't tried their tea, but I thank them both for their offer of tea to try, and also for inspiring me to write a long-rambly post about tea. Watermark writes "They hooked me with their unique website and their savvy respect for blogs." I'll give them credit for that--I've spent the last month looking at Virginia political websites that are crimes against graphic design and web protocols, if not humanity itself, and the Adagio site is clean, esthetically pleasing, and easy to navigate. (Come to think of it, a tea pot would do a better job in the legislature than a lot of our delegates, too.) From a design/user-interface perspective, I appreciate the reviews built into the site as well. In addition to about every kind of tea you could think of (Black Tea, Flavored Black Tea, Oolong Tea, White Tea, Green Tea, Herbal Tea, Rooibos Tea, and Decaf Tea), they have an attractive selection of teaware as well. If you'd like to give them a try, the information is all here. It looks like they have been directly soliciting bloggers as well--it is nice to see bloggers taken seriously, in an appropriate way. Functionally, Adagio is rewarding bloggers for a positive Google bomb--the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as a brilliant idea. I'll report back on if I do indeed receive anything from them and what I think. Hats off to innovative marketing that rewards both parties.

Teaware brings me to my next question, for any habitual tea drinkers still reading at this point: what kind of "equipment" do you use? We have an electric kettle that detaches from its base, that we bought in Canada. The kettle is old enough that it has been bashed around a bit, and we're looking to replace it soon. I'd prefer something that isn't plastic--stainless steel inside would be fine, glass would be even better. Any suggestions?

For tea paraphenalia, we just bought the husband a Bodum travel mug with a built-in French Press. The concept is *great*--but the design is a bit of a problem. Unless he heats the cup thoroughly first, it doesn't seal tightly. So, having just bemoned the trendification of tea, I now have to confess we are on the hunt for a new french press travel mug, and we'd love recommendations.

Back to Japan. When I worked in Osaka, I used to take the train in to work, and have breakfast at 8:00 a.m. every morning at a restaurant that catered to salaryman called "Bisque Doll." I had a choice between the "A set" and the "B set", which included coffee or black tea, a minature green salad with ginger dressing, a piece of fua-fua toast about two inches thick that reduced in actuality to approx 1 tsp of flour and a square foot of air, a hard-boiled or soft-boiled egg, and a businessman magazine with a soft-core porn centerfold that managed even with complex orgy shots never to show a single strand of public hair. Ah, Japan. I think that was the first time I had ever seen a french press. The breakfast tray included a timer to indicate when it was time to press down the plunger.

The husband approaches tea the same way he approaches computers: with a great appreciation for hardware. So, he is also looking for a good way to keep tea *warm* in the house. He doesn't like tea cozies, and we both agree that the chintzy-fondue-set-inspired tea racks with tea lights underneath little bit too silly and unsubstantial for us--not to mention we drink enough tea that we'd go broke buying the candlest. We've used a cheap coffee maker to keep tea warm before, but loose tea is still a problem. We worked for a Taiwanese company in Vancouver that had a "tea machine" for making tea for guests, that would steep tea and keep it warm. I assumed that if anyone made such a gadget it would be Zojirushi, but I haven't been able to locate anything similar.

These days, I am drinking a lot of oolong tea, on the recommendation of my acupuncturist (the fabulous John Kang of Richmond, who works very hard to keep me running smoothly, despite my body's worst efforts to not get better); the husband is alternating between a mate-based chai, and white tea. I suppose that makes us so relatively esoteric that Red State pundits haven't even got around to hating us yet. We'll just have to wait our turns.