Saturday, 18 December 2010

Making Zhi Gan Cao

Well, I am being snowed in today so it's a perfect opportunity to mess about at home. It was suggested to me after my Kuki entry yesterday to try my hand at roasting the twigs further, all good fun and the result being a heavily roasted tea!
I thought I would try my hand at roasting another twig that it used in more Oriental medicinal teas than any other hands down, gan cao or liquorice to the rest of us. It is used to tonify the Chinese concept of the spleen (a view which isn't just restricted to the Western spleen organ), moisten the Chinese 'lung' and also detoxifies and harmonises other herbs in formulas. Zhi gan cao is made by dry stir frying it with honey and is said to increase it's spleen and lung tonifying effects plus enhance it's effect on coughing.
The zhi gan cao supplied to me from my herb merchant is an industrially produced version that keeps for a long time, good for my stocks but it doesn't actually resemble real zhi gan cao. So with a dry wok in hand, some honey, liquorice and plenty of spare time I stirred away!
The results were very passable and even by itself quite tasty if not a little chewy. This, however, is a tea blog so I thought I would make some tea with it. My partner is a chronic spleen qi vacuity case borne out of her poor diet and overwork so with my new honey liquorice I prepared a batch of ren shen tang or ginseng decoction.
This tea is prepared in about a litre of water and boiled until about half remains which takes a good hour or so. It's an excellent tonic for those with poor digestion, loose stool and limbs that feel like they are lined with lead.
In this picture you can see the end result, the zhi gan cao on the left with the gan cao on the right. Preparing herbal medicinals is becoming a bit of a lost art nowadays, it's not really taught here in the West at colleges and most practitioners are buying their herbs in convenient granule forms that are easy to take. As well as honey roasting you can also prepare herbs with salt, vinegar, dried earth, baked; the list goes on. Tea bags destroy the enjoyment of the original plant, you don't get to touch, feel or smell it and it's the same with herbs.

Thanks for the suggestion to roast my Kuki! What if I honey roast ...
A fun experiment, in with the wok goes my more twiggy Kuki from Clearsprings, a dollop of honey and out she comes, my invention! Tetsubin at the ready I prepare the tea in one of my pots and I wait a few minutes to steep. The result? rather average if not slightly worst than rather average....
Still, one wouldn't know if one did not try.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Kuki Hojicha (Ippodo Tea)

Not for the first time have I crossed paths with Kuki cha. My first exposure to this almost oxymoronic leafless tea was after hanging out with some macrobiotic friends that drink Kuki regularly as part of their dietary regime. It's none too difficult to obtain this tea in the UK from Clearsprings, a Japanese food brand and I have a bag of the stuff in my tea village (or cupboard if you may). Since I was ordering Matcha from Ippodo in Kyoto I also got myself a bag of this tea. It's cost effective and low in caffeine so it makes an excellent evening tea.

The aroma of this tea dry is anything but subtle, the bag absolutely assaults the nose like a prize boxer with a grudge to bear. Pop! 'ave that! ... ouch. I must be some sort of misguided masochist or something as I keep going back for another whiff. Sickly sweet like a pot of bubbling bramble jam is the only way I can put it.

Unsure of how to actually make Kuki properly, in a pot one presumes, I rebel and decide to brew it in a gaiwan with xiangbei cups. The blackberry jam aroma follows it with a liquorice under current, the caramel soup has lost a lot of the sweetness and holds an easy roasted malt with a nuttiness. The tea doesn't show much endurance beyond it's third infusion.

It's a cheap and simple thrill that is instantly scrummy and warming, just right for the cold winter. Perhaps this is the tea equivalent of a bag of chips smothered with salt and vinegar!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Kimmo-no-mukashi (Ippodo)

I suppose that one of the attractions of being a tea fan is just the sheer variety of teas in the world. You could spend a life time honing your tastes towards just one type of tea, discovering it's complexities year after year. I, however, just enjoy tea. There's nothing better than a nice cup of Earl Grey or an extended session with an old Pu Erh. Whatever your mood there is a tea to match.

I am currently on a challenge to myself right now, to learn more about Matcha. I could be mistaken but I think I drank my first bowl of Matcha in Uji, Japan. Not a bad place to start. The 'tea' street in Uji though is a rather tourist heavy spot and I'm sure the best places are in fact the ones hidden away in the back streets.

One of the best places to start with any sort of tea could well be with the really bad stuff, tea so bad that when you have some of the good stuff the difference knocks your socks off! As previously mentioned I have a rather large bag of the bad stuff in my fridge, it's essentially cooking Matcha. It's bitter, slightly yellow and thin. The next stop was Jing UK's Matcha which was very nice, very smooth and sweet. The first time I whisked it I was amazed just how the 'head' came out, thick and creamy like the head of a pint of stout!

I decided to source some from Kyoto's Ippodo store and forked out for their 'high quality' Kimmo-no-mukashi and 'premium quality' Wakamatsu-no-mukashi teas. The latter being twice the cost of the former. My original idea was to compare them side by side which worked out just fine when comparing the aromas of the powder. I actually prefer the cheaper Kimmo-no-mukashi, it was a little stronger, perhaps a little more pungent and had a heavy overtone of cooked banana with some white chocolate.

I don't think I'll be trying a side by side taste test again though. I am finding it quite difficult to discern the differences between similar Matcha without having the both of them over lapping each other. To my mind both of them tasted more bitter than Jing UK's. They did have plenty of complexity but I am just without the vocabulary to describe what I found. It's worth mentioning that the Kimmo-no-mukashi is a third of the cost (discarding postage) and the Wakamatsu-no-mukashi a little over two thirds of the Jing UK. It's a little like going back to square one with Pu Erh again. All rather frustrating when you can't describe what you feel. Whilst frustrated I am also as high as a kite after drinking both bowls.

Tomorrow morning I'll finish off the last of my Jing UK and see how it goes.

** next morning **

This morning's test consisted of drinking the Jing UK matcha then the Wakamatsu-no-mukashi. I wasn't imagining it, the Jing UK (I wish this tea had a name instead of calling it by the company) was much more sweet pea than banana in the aroma, thicker and smoother with the froth consisting of smaller bubbles and hence firmer. The Wakamatsu-no-mukashi was less pleasant on the palette, slightly sour cream,  but had a longer sweeter after taste. The after taste (what is the Japanese for huigan?) is much more pronounced. Two bowls has left me awfully giddy, let's hope that I don't get the shakes as I have an acupuncture patient in an hour or so.

Hmmm, so I wonder. I preferred the taste and smoothness of the Jing UK but the Wakamatsu-no-mukashi was a more complex experience...

Monday, 6 December 2010

Winter greens..

Should we drink green tea in Winter? I suppose the energetic purists amongst us would say no, it's not the season for it. Winter is dark, cold and is all about root vegetables as opposed to a nice fresh salad. But we live in a land of loft insulation and radiators so why not crank up the heating and enjoy something green? As you can see by my pictures I have something new to drink tea out of and I thought I'd show it off a bit.

Hagi ware (or Blobby-ware™) was something I was quite unsure about when I first saw it whilst perusing various tea blogs (the Sip-Tip was the likely source). I have to admit I thought it looked rather naff. Time went by though and those chaotic blobs started to grow on me but the fact that I didn't really like matcha too much and I associate Hagi with that unusual green frothy brew more so than regular green tea, meant that I didn't bother purchasing a bowl. The prices on various websites for Hagi put me right off too!

I must admit to having a rather large bag of rather awful matcha. Occasionally I would froth some up with my electric whisker gadget and gulp it down with the knowledge that it was good for me as opposed to actually interesting my taste buds. I finally got around to purchasing a chasen whisk and despite my most frantic efforts I couldn't get the damn stuff to froth up with it!

There must be more to this though I pondered so I decided to shell out for some better matcha. Without a clear idea where to actually buy good matcha I went to Jing UK to purchase theirs. **edit** Sure, Jing UK have been accused for marking up their pu erh prices as noted by the blogging stalwart Hobbes, but the tea they sell is always reasonable at the very least and the postage quick. **edit-see comments**

I was genuinely surprised just how much difference there was, this time around the matcha was smooth, it frothed well and had a decent green pea flavour. All of a sudden I'm interested and in my flurry of interest I got myself my new Blobby-ware™ bowl from Japan. The textures of the bowl makes the experience a more tactile affair but I wish it was heavier and gravity left me really grasping it's odd surface. The price of matcha makes repeated bowls an insanely expensive tipple so I don't have much chance to really appreciate the moment, it's a little fleeting.

I would like to delve a little deeper into both matcha and Hagi.. where would you suggest?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Jin De Zhen tea set

I have been slumming it somewhat with my various gaiwans and cups since I started my little tea fetish. As with all hobbies I guess at first glance the prices of the finer things are shocking but after time one's 'price gag reflex' starts to relax and we spend ever increasing amounts. So I have been getting by on some rather average gaiwans that was until today when my Jin De Zhen tea set came to visit.

The set comprised of a gaiwan, jug and six cups with matching fragrance cups at a total cost of about £62. I must say that I was very much drawn towards the use of fragrance cups after seeing them in Hobbes' excellent tea blog. After much searching around the internet I didn't find much to choose from and settled for a non glazed set which Nada had lying about but the naked clay seemed to absorb the aromas. Do I need six cups? no, but as it came as a set I decided to go 'all in'.

Whilst not hugely priced this is a very decent tea set for the money. Perhaps it is all in my mind but I have really enjoyed my first session, the more subtle flavours in the soup were easier to discern, the huigan improved and the smoothness of the cups as they touched my lips gave me an extra dimension to each sip. Today was a good day for drinking tea.

Why didn't I invest earlier?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Our little London trip

It's one of those things, I take my girlfriend to see Camden Town in London, a busy market renown for quirky fashion, in your face food stall sellers and dodgy dudes hawking oregano in little plastic baggies. We spent a good couple of hours mooching around, I was happy to just tag alongside until I caught sight of some teapots.

"Tea!!!" I proclaimed and off I scuttled, probably showing the first real interest in the afternoons browsing. Somewhere near the very northern edge of the stables area of Camden was a little tea shop specialising in matcha and other Japanese green teas. For about three quid or so a drink, we sat down with a matcha and a more fancy genmaicha matcha latte with the usual complimentary sweet tit bits that come with it. The fare was actually kinda ordinary, but this is Camden after all and it provided me with a welcome little tea break away from the usual Camden garb.

Next stop, Vitaorganics in the Soho district, an oasis of good nutritional vegan food and a favourite place of mine to eat when I'm in the area. I just feel better about myself after eating there. Again for three quid or so I ordered a pot of kukicha as the day was dragging on and I felt like avoiding caffeine. Out came a small tetsubin pot of quite tasty kukicha resplendent with nuttiness and sweetness. I had a peep inside the pot for the twigs only to be disappointed with naught. It's not a fancy tea nor complex but it's thick caramel soup kept me entertained whilst I munched away and watched the unusual locals go about their unusual Soho lives.

Sometimes it is not really about the tea you drink but the experience around it that lingers in the memory for the years that pass us by. I think I might have some more matcha and kukicha soon.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Why do I drink tea?

An odd hobby?

It is an odd hobby I suppose, drinking cow pat shaped lumps of tea that can cost more than gold but there is little about my choice of past times that could be considered mainstream.

You begin to notice things in greater detail

I guess the main reason why is that I have the chance to develop an appreaciation for something elusive and fine. By seeking such I also have a chance to reflect inwardly upon myself which is a gift. Lastly, and most unexpectedly, I have met new friends, again a great gift.

Why do you drink tea?

Friday, 3 September 2010

2010 Nannuo (Essence of Tea)

Even the Emperor can wear simple clothes
It's no secret that I have the complete selection of pu erhs from Essence of Tea this year after my visit to Falmouth. I didn't realise that they had picked a Nannuo this year and correspondingly didn't put it on my list until Nada mentioned it.

"No harm in having another cake!"

I poured out some spring water that was a full five litres the day before but was now two thirds gone! Have I really been drinking so much? Like the other cakes from Nada a chunk of leaf was prized off without much of a fight and the individual parts easily spread, "There seems to be a few extra streaks of silver." I noticed. A strong fragrance from the bing emerged.

Forgive my rather naff pictures taken off my iPhone, I tried my best to capture the light yellow colour of the soup. Using very quick steeps the soup was indeed fruity, very melon like, sweet as sugar with a strong presence of green apples. I thought it was a little bit astringent, which again made me think of apples, as my mouth was left a little dry, the huigan was candy sweet too around the sides of my tongue.
Light clear soup
After several infusions it started to settle down and level out with straw and butter, I feared the most that I had finished my journey when up pops the huigan again filling out the back of my mouth. A few more infusions and the job was done.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Tea in the park

Uneven pouring on uneven ground

Today's theme doing the tea blogging rounds is tea outside so it seems and as I have just this minute returned from sitting in the park with some roasted Dong Ding oolong I thought it apt to post a picture or two.

Actually the tea was quite spoilt by the remaining flavour of my flask tainting the water with the faint whiff of  Chinese herbs.

I love my new pot
Still, tea was drunk, food was devoured and an interesting passage on the clinical application of Rhei Radix et Rhizoma (大黄) was read.

Monday, 30 August 2010

1997 Hen Li Chang Bu Lang (Essence of Tea)

A fine brandy?
One of the parting gifts from Nada during our visit a couple of weeks ago was this tea. It's nice to be able to have a chance to drink a pu erh from the late nineties again as I think it's a fascinating age where the tea goes from youth into maturity. I just wish I could of been able to track just how a pu erh reaches this stage year by year, what a education that would be!

Infused by the Sun, yang within yin.
The dry leaf crumbled effortlessly into my larger gaiwan, it's so nice to not have to hack away with a hammer and chisel to get at the leaf (cough.. cough.. Xiaguan..). The dark honey amber soup was re-soundly in the realm of wood without being too earthy. I decided to brew using shorter steeps after my experiences at the Essence of Tea as I do have a tendency to go over the top, this also causes me to zero out passing distractions so I can fully concentrate on the tea. If there is one thing my life needs it is some tranquility, drinking tea at home gives me my only chance to truly slow down and concentrate inwardly.

Several steeps in the numbness on my lips goes up several notches and the session becomes more interesting all of a sudden with a fascinating expression of cha qi. I spend the next while focussing my attention on just how this feels and being quite tea drunk my mind wonders on the topic of kettles and water.

So far I have experimented a bit on using different waters from tap to filter to bottle and how to boil it. As I write this I am using a relatively cheap tetsubin on an induction heater that bleeps and whistles more than R2D2! I have always had an eye on an old tetsubin like the one pictured above and recently I have also taken a shine to a copper kettle from Postcard Teas but the truth is that spending a long distance flight amount of money on a kettle seems to be a little bit extravagant an expense at the moment. I suppose a more sensible first step would be to spend a tenth of that money on a less collectable item to give me an idea on the effects of a copper kettle.

The volume of my little tetsubin is small and I rarely have need to re-boil the water. I suppose if I were to have a larger kettle then I will be forced to bring the water to temperature again and again, would that have a negative effect on the taste of the water? One supposes it does but in reality I am without much actual insight.

Visiting Nada

Holiday makers on the busy High Street pass a tea oasis
Finally given a whole four day break in my busy cricket schedule myself and my partner head down the long road to Cornwall and pitch up our tent in a rather wet and windy farmers field a few miles from the town of Falmouth, home of Nada and his newly opened tea shop Essence of Tea. Nada's teas are no doubt well known to many of you, every year he makes the trip to Yunnan and sources out very promising pu erh and then sells it on without hiking up the price (there is a lesson to be learnt there tea sellers!) giving the western audience a terrific source of good tea. Pitching our tent so close to Falmouth was no coincidence and as soon as our breakfast was in our bellies we headed off to find the shop. After a couple of loops around the block, being given a bum steer by Google Maps we came across this most wonderful of tea shops. Nada's wife was sitting by the table, happily brewing tea for one of the locals and within a few minutes we were nattering away sipping to our hearts content.
Many fine teas to choose from
Over the next couple of days I lost count of how much tea had been drunk, the flow was constant and fine. Such a shop is a brave adventure considering the UK high street folk but one by one people who came in to mooch around were politely encouraged to spend time around the table and be given a true tea experience, how lucky they are!

Essence of Tea on the outside may be a delightful shop but the real essence is not of the tea but that of the couple that run it. We left after a couple of days feeling like we were leaving old friends quite touched by their warmth and promising to make the journey again to spend time sipping tea in their company. Thanks guys!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Master Xu's Rou Gui

Nutty and sweet in aroma, a thoroughly enjoyable tea..

.. short and sweet, there's something about yancha I can't really grasp!

Monday, 2 August 2010

Behold the Beast of Bulang!!

What seems like an age ago and was only a year or so I received a shipment of sample Pu Erhs from The Essence of Tea owner, DC. The one stand out tea of that shipment was his 2009 Bulang, it was extremely bitter and challenging to drink. Unfortunately I was too late to grab myself a full bing as they had all been sold and my sample soon dwindled to nowt.

The beast returns though, in it's 2010 guise and this time I managed to snag myself a bing. Would it be as potent as last years? Well, with my parcel arriving in double time from DC, I launched myself upon it. Brewing 4.6 grams of leaf in a 100ml gaiwan I set about brewing this mighty tea once more. I consciously kept the steeping time shorter than 15 seconds and took my first sip.

Almost swearing, the soup was swallowed. This tea is an unadulterated assault of bitter lemon rind upon the palette! I cowered somewhat and reduced my second steep to just 10 seconds in an attempt to bring the beast upon some control. What followed was several rounds of myself locking horns with a formidable foe, again and again we clashed leaving me bewildering tea drunk and strongly moved by the chaqi. The huigan was most curious and quite unique, it felt like it wanted to express itself but was somehow shrouded.

Rather sheepishly I took the bing and set it into storage, I was soundly defeated. This tea fascinates me, it is several magnitudes more potent than anything else I have tried. I can only imagine how time will warp it's characteristics and ultimately tame the beast. I am really looking forward locking horns once again in a few months time.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Postcard Teas and the 100 year old Shui Xian

How nice it is to be able to blog again but why the absence? The truth is that I have been just too busy to sit down and enjoy my tea for months now. My life has become a non stop rollercoaster ride of work and study which has been exhausting and there is little light at the end of the tunnel. My medical studies have really come along and I feel like I am finally getting somewhere. Today though is a day of rest, I have fought off illness and long days to have this solitary day sitting at home, giving me the chance to just relax and drink some fine tea.

On my way to clinic in London's Harley Street I had a chance to pop by a place I had only ever visited on Sundays (when the doors are closed). Postcard Teas sits just off Oxford Street a couple of minutes walk from the Apple store. The shop feels more like an art gallery than a retail outlet with it's well thought out displays. There are many fine quality wares with equally fine quality prices too, not for the faint hearted.

The owner is a very approachable chap and we had a good natter about tea, the weather in China this year and touched bases on people we both knew from the tea world.

My time was short so I had to leave but I left feeling rather content and ready for my clinical challenges that waited for me. I also walked off with a couple of samples generously donated to me, 'You might as well just have these for free as you will like them and want more!'.

Both samples were from Wuyi Shan and today's tipple is a Shui Xian from 100 year old trees. I am an admitted numpty when it comes to yan cha, but I do remember having a chat with a good tea chum about these teas and he recommended that I gave Postcard Teas' yan cha a go. Instead of making notes as I drunk I decided to just sit back and enjoy myself. I wasn't let down by this tea either, it is most agreeable! It had all the usual yan cha goodness but the huigan really stood out as did the endurance of the leaf. This tea kept me captivated for a good hour (which is a long time for someone with the attention span of a small child!).

It's good to be back.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

France 1 England 0

Not a football score I may add.

Here I am in the picturesque town of Biarritz as part of my work (a hard life it isn't). I had a couple of hours to spend looking around so I dropped by a café for a drink and some nibbles. Along came the menu and to my surprise I found this.

Ok, it wasn't the finest pu erh, in fact I wasn't really sure that it was pu erh at all really. It wasn't dark enough for a shu but certainly not green like sheng. The taste was pretty unspectacular but it kept me amused enough through my hangover. I didn't take a picture of the tea bag but it was a nice cotton affair instead of the more common, and rather pointless, plastic perforated bag that I regularly see in France.

Come on England, get your act together and be more serious about tea!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Xiaguan FT Exquisite Elegance 2008 (YS)

The spring has arrived and my hay fever mercifully isn't too bad today, so it's back to the blog I go.

I've been waiting a while for a new tea and upon my door came two examples of Xiaguan raw pu erhs, the first I'll tackle today. Certainly 'Exquisite Elegance' is a grand name but can the tea come up with the goods?

I haven't drunk much Xiaguan in the past but from what I have read the compression is tight and this tea doesn't do anything to disprove that myth. The majority of the sample came out of the foil bag in one large chunk! I wimped out of trying to prize a five gram lump and stuck to brewing up the loose leaf left over which came in handsomely to 5.1 grams.

Fitting with the volcanic activity that has brought the skies to a halt over the last week I am brewing this tea with Volvic water that filters through volcanic soil. The pot's aroma has tobacco, legume and dark winter berries coming up from the noticeably small leaf. The soup itself comes across not as potent as the aroma might of suggested but has a slight sweetness to it that grabs the sides of the tongue and builds up.

You know, it's just so nice to concentrate on tea again. My life has been a hubbub of activity recently and doesn't seem like it's going to slow down. It's my fault really with work, fatherhood, my degree and a diploma in Chinese herbal medicine too for good measure. Tea gives me a chance to slow down though and focus on a single aspect for just a moment though. What a joyous and useful hobby drinking tea is in modern life.

The second infusion hasn't changed much, no bitterness and a smooth quality, it coats the tongue nicely, a little bit numbing. The huigan builds slowly and I notice myself rolling my tongue around in the mouth a lot, God knows what I look like to any passers by my window. Along comes the third infusion, more bitter now but still lacking a bit of oomph, oh dear. It seems like like this tea just doesn't have enough in it to captivate my senses and the brief break from the outside world starts to fade in tandem.

On with the study and the pot becomes a side show.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Ten minutes later....

Well, as soon as I had posted my last entry there was a knock at the door and my two month wait for the Xiaguan was over. Now that's timing!

Guess I will blog again on my return from work...