Category Archives: food

So I was on a panel

Here’s me signing copies of The Illustrated Wok, an illustrated recipe book from the creators of The Cleaver Quarterly, along with cookbook author Diana Zheng, Chef Johnny Lee, and Cleaver managing editor Lilly Chow.

The awesome team at Now Serving LA were our gracious hosts serving up beef tendon noodles (from Johnny Lee) and intriguing questions.

Every recipe was assigned to a different illustrator. I was given a zongzi recipe handed down to Chef Danielle Chang by her grandmother (I’m thrilled that her grandmother’s recipe, like my grandmother’s, does not use peanuts).

For the book signing, I had an idea to sign my page with a chop, which actually already has my chop printed on it, but not wanting to be so meta I asked people what their favorite food was and “tried” to draw that.

Here are some snippets:

“Burmese food.”
“That’s a tough one for me.”
“OK. How about a salad.”

“Can you draw me a food pyramid?”
“Yes, but I’ll put butter and cheese on the bottom.”
“OK.”
“What else do you like?”
“I love this store.”
So I drew the window of Now Serving LA on the second level of the pyramid, and on the top I put a golden goblet.
“Oh good, that will be for my boba.”

“Anything not tech related.”
“How about spaghetti and meatballs?”

“Pig. Pig. Pig.”
“Unfortunately all animals I draw tend to look like my dog.”
“That’s fine, I’ll recognize it by the nose.”

“Shrimp… It’s OK if it looks like your dog.”

“Anything baked.”

“This is for my mother-in-law. Oh God. You need to give her a whole fish.”

I’m biased but there are many reasons this recipe book is so cool. Besides the recipes from chefs trying to push Chinese food into a more contemporary space. Besides the illustrations of fantastical eggplants and cherubic soup stirrers. Besides giving up the secret for achieving the best Hainan chicken texture. Besides completely avoiding cultural tourism and Chinese weirdness and potentially fetishistic iconography. It’s brilliant.

Here’s the California bear, looking like… you know who.

(panel photo: Diana Zheng)

Tea lab – relative teas

Linda and I are getting ready for another Tea Lab at the Huntington Gardens in November, so we figured we should drink some tea. We never really plan for what we brew at our tastings, we sort of start with lunch and go from there, fitting in the teas we want to offer in the upcoming workshop, getting distracted with ideas for interesting comparisons, and brewing away the day. Today’s tastings started with a little business and ended with a jar of mother-in-law tea, and us being convinced that whatever we drank today was going to be good. Some days are like that.

We started with a fall-picked Mengsung raw pu’er from our friend Xiao Cao. He had given us a sample of his spring-picked Mengsung, which was great, so great that by the time we drank it, it had sold out. Comparing spring to fall picking is a great way to understand the price difference between the two, or why some teas fail to mention the harvest season at all. Don’t even get me started on what summer-picked tea tastes like.

We decided to pass on the fall tea, and try to elbow our way to the front of line for next year’s spring tea.

Our first comparison was between two relatively inexpensive (and brand new) raw pu’ers that use different methods to bring the cost down. The first tea (Bana Tea’s Little Bing Dao) is made from old trees from the region adjacent to Bing Dao. Bing Dao has become a very famous region lately (ie. $$$$), but sunshine and soil tends to bleed so if you’re lucky some tea trees can score the benefits of a particular mountain without having to bear the price tag.

The second tea is Denong’s Mountain Oasis, made from trees on the young side (300 years, LOL) and not from a particular region.

The LBD was more floral, with a taste of rock sugar whereas the Mountain Oasis was rounder, with a smell of chocolate, less high notes. Nothing surprising here, just good stuff. (LBD on the right, MO on the left, below).

Next up, Brother/Sister teas from White2tea. These teas are made from the same source material (Nannuo), the only difference in taste is the person doing the processing. A perfect comparison to show how the taste of tea can be changed by small differences in personality. “The sister brick is material processed with a shorter kill green phase at a lower temperature, where as the brother brick is processed with a higher flame and fried for a longer time.” It’s not clear whether there were any differences in the kneading/rolling stage.

The brother’s tea was darker (in color and taste) and slightly thicker, rounder (which surprised me, this difference, though I don’t know why), with a hint of honey. The sister’s was sweeter, brighter and just a little rougher around the edges. Fiesty sis.

Last time I was in Yunnan I didn’t get to do the killing green, but the guys let me put some sweat equity into the rolling.

Next we headed into the world of old pu’er, old as in from the 80s and 90s but also old enough to not know exactly what we were drinking.

This bag is from the 90s, and is sort of called half ripe half raw. Say what? I guess there are a few ways pu’er becomes this halfling. It’s possible back then the tea was only partially fermented, sort of. It’s also possible back then things were willy nilly and teas sort of mixed in with each other. Most likely, for this bag, it’s a raw tea that was stored in HK until the early 2000s, which means it was “wet stored,” a term nobody likes to say anymore, preferring the euphemism of “traditional stored” or “half ripe half raw,” or even “great for dimsum.” (Forget the fact the bag says a totally different tea).

This tea was actually really good, much more interesting than this “traditionally stored tea” from the 80s from Ying Kee, which was bland and watery in taste, super thin in viscosity. Makes it a no brainer which tea to keep around.

Finally we got to the mother-in-law tea! Lots of people tell me their parents have an old stash of tea and wonder whether it’s worth any money. Some of these people even show me photos of the tea, in the cabinet next to old mushrooms and dried jujubes, expecting me to give my opinion on the spot. They never want to actually taste the tea, they’re just waiting for the Chinese Tea Roadshow to come to their town.

But this mother-in-law tea was crazy good. It wasn’t earthy at all, tasted like wheat/rice soup, had a very sweet aftertaste, a rich grandmothery warming sensation you only get from old teas, and gan! Who knows what it was (possibly a Yunnan/Guangdong blend, based on other teas she had), but for sure we’re going to take it out of that glass jar and drink it… and drink it and drink it and drink it.

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Acid reflux that is good for you

For those interested, 1001 Plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be hosting a Tea Lab focusing on pu’er tea at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, September 9, 2017 at 9:00AM. We will talk about why pu’er is so unique, and why pu’er made from old trees has a lot of gan, the sweet, sometimes cooling sensation that is experienced in the mouth and throat (yup, like acid reflux) after an initial bitterness, and if you can’t taste the gan you shouldn’t be paying the money that is charged for old tree pu’er.

First, a head’s up. The brilliant Cleaver Quarterly will be publishing an essay I wrote on gan in the very near future so I won’t get into it now. It explains everything. Stay tuned!

As with any kind of tasting, one of the best ways to highlight a certain flavor/effect is to drink it side by side with something that lacks that flavor/effect. So in preparation for our Tea Lab we compared a tea with gan to a tea with no gan.

The crazy thing about gan is that if you drink some tea with a lot of gan, it will infect all the teas you drink afterwards. Best thing is to drink the no-gan first and then wait and see if anything happens. And wait and wait and wait.

After a few minutes of waiting you can probably assume there isn’t going to be a delayed reaction so it’s safe to try the second tea.

The no-gan tea was a 2004 terrace-grown raw tea (with a lot of tips rather than leaves) that had a lot of things going for it taste-wise: it was round, thick (being 13 years old), had a good dried jujube taste, almost like a strong white tea. But without the gan it became more like raisin-juice, which just shows that drinking pu’er is more about flavor and sensation put together, rather than flavor alone.

The tea with gan was a 2017 Mengseng made by our friend Xiao Cao. Here he is in his tea room in Yunnan with a tea table from Laos that took ten people to move.

The 2004 no-gan is the tea on the bottom (on the left in the second photo). The color of the leaves is lighter, due to all the tips, but the color of the brewed tea is darker because of its age.

Next we revisited one of my favorite teas, Young Jade from Denong, which I tasted in 2012 when it had just come out. It’s a blend made from old trees grown in three crazy famous regions – Jing Mai, Xi Gui, and Lao Ban Zhang, picked before the spring rain.

Back then it was a little tricky to brew, it easily went bitter if you used too much or brewed it longer than 5 seconds. I had given some of that tea to a friend who promptly brewed it incorrectly and told me he thought the tea wasn’t very good. So much for that friend. Now five years old the tea has a super sweet gan on top of the last remnants of its floral flavors. Five years is roughly the time the date and plum flavor start emerging so there’s a lot going on in this tea. I think because it’s a blend all the sensations happen at different times, or even on different levels of your mouth. There’s a slight puckery taste at the sides of your mouth, and a sweet, vaporous sensation that floats above your tongue like a cloud. My suspicion is that it’s the Jingmai doing that, levitating, since the next tea we tasted was the 2017 Jing Mai (Meng Ben area) also from Denong, so smooth and floral and crisp we stopped drinking tea altogether and switched to water. Those few grams of leaves next to the gaiwan is all we have (for now) of this tea, and when that last little bit is gone that paper towel will be worth rolling up and smoking.

Updated December, 2017 with link to the essay on gan.

Tea lab and snorting catechins

tealab

For those interested, 1001plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be hosting a Tea Lab at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, November 5, 2015 at 9:00AM. We will be doing side by side tastings of several factors that can affect how a tea tastes.

Tea tasting is comparative, like running in a marathon. In a race, no matter how small or large the field, you can only win against the other people who have entered, much like how a tea can only be compared to what else is at the table. It’s fairly common to do a tea tasting comparing different types of teas or different price points, but what about brewing the same tea under different circumstances? Beyond the obvious ones like using a porcelain gaiwan versus a Yixing pot, or varying the temperature or type of water used to brew. What about the harvest season? How about if we introduce some vibration to the water molecules? Or compare the same tea which has been stored on different continents?

In preparation for our upcoming Tea Lab at the Huntington Gardens, we thought we would brew a few comparisons. But first, because we knew one of the tests would be a tea brewed with tap water, and we’d also have to drink a tea harvested in the summer, we treated ourselves to some *@@&#^#!! jasmine tea.

That’s right. Haters are going to hate. I hate jasmine tea also, but I mean the stuff that’s known around the world as “jasmine tea” – bitter and smelling like Jean Nate. Those tea leaves have never seen a jasmine flower in their life, their jasmine scent has been sprayed on, much like the machine that coats dog kibble with flavors.

jasminetea

jasminetea2

The real stuff is made by spreading fresh leaves on the ground in a thin layer and covering the leaves with jasmine flowers. The flowers only bloom for one night so in the morning the flowers must be picked out. (BTW – that pretty jasmine tea at the store which still has flower petals mixed in with the tea? The flowers are not adding any flavor to the tea, but they are adding weight. It’s the equivalent of the deli guy resting his thumb on the scale when he sells you bologna but tells you it’s prime rib. Not to knock bologna, but still.)

This process is repeated many many times until the tea has absorbed the scent. The jasmine we drank was made with small tea buds, whose fuzzy hairs absorbed more smell. Probably too small to roll into the usual pearl shape, which is good, since I have a bad connotation with that visual.

jasmine

jasmine-brewed

Sure it tasted flowery but in a subtle way, like you’ve already walked past the house with the flowers blooming in the front yard. There was no astringency at all, no resemblance to drinking something at a Chinese restaurant, and actually it didn’t taste like tea either, more like a precious juice.

On to our taste tests:

– Organic Wild Peony (ming qian) White tea from Fuding brewed with Crystal Geyser versus Los Angeles tap water.
This comparison is the crowd pleaser. You’re pretty certain one of these will taste better, but it’s plenty surprising how salty and gritty that tap water can be.

whitetea

– 2011 Treasures of the Five Mountains raw Pu’er. Stored in Hong Kong, vs. stored in Los Angeles. The larger puck is HK, the smaller is LA. There’s a pretty noticeable difference in color.

la_5mountians

hk_5mountians

This is one of those tastings where it gets personal. Sure the HK stored tea seems more aged, is generally darker in appearance and has more plum flavor. But the LA one is more floral, more complex, in a way, with hints of different flavors, probably due to the fact that Five Mountains is a blend. Aging a tea will flatten the differences out and since the LA tea is “younger” there are more differences to taste.

hk-la1

hk-la

We over-brewed these teas for fun to see what that would do, and the HK one showed it’s age. It was definitely less astringent, and more mellow than it’s twin other. Another great example of how a tea is brewed is just as important to how or where it’s stored, and since most of us don’t have a choice on where our tea is stored…

We ended the day with some magical white powder called catechin. This is the phenol or flavonoid that is responsible for gan, that sweet or minty taste you get after drinking Pu’er teas with high mineral content (and eating bitter melon, ginseng, and a few other foods. More on gan coming very soon). What a better way to experience gan than to lick it off a wet finger?

catechin

The sensation was purer than when you get it through tea, more direct, no tea flavors diluting the experience, and the sweetness lasted a good fifteen minutes or so, especially noticeable when we drank some water. That water, good old plain water, tasted incredibly sweet I wanted to floss my teeth with it.

catechin-wrapper

mo-smello-tea

You can’t pick your neighbors like you can’t pick your family

This being Los Angeles, a home is not a home without a fireplace. I’ve been told that a working fireplace bumps up a home’s value more than a working garage. That’s great because we have neither. Our house is over 100 years old and has a firebox that’s out of code (made for little people who wore the clothes that can fit inside our little closets) and topped with old sandy mortar and bricks which any small wind, pale fire, or decent earthquake could bring down… on top of our neighbor’s driveway, and their cars, and their tenant’s cars, and their tenant’s whatever’s cars.

When we first bought the house the guys from Boston Brick and Stone (of all places) told us that to rebuild the entire chimney to code would require use of the neighbor’s driveway for 2-3 weeks. Ha! We don’t need a stinking fireplace, we said.

Since then, the owner-lady next door has called David a bitch for asking her to remove a dirty mattress she leaned against our house, her ex-gang-banger son has gotten out of jail and moved in, occasionally launching into vile and manic threats interspersed with Trump-fueled immigrant bashing, Spanish love song crooning (he’s not half bad), and the magic car alarm that goes off like a timer. My favorite incident was the night he screamed at another neighbor who just happened to be walking by to call the police because he saw some sketchy people go by. This reminded me of my favorite childhood book called The Monster at the End of this Book, starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover.

The_Monster_at_the_End_of_This_Book_Starring_Lovable,_Furry_Old_Grover

Basically, Grover is terrified to learn that there’s a monster at the end of the book and tries to keep the reader from turning the pages. Turns out… you can probably guess.

The idea of that slight wind, pale fire or decent earthquake bringing down the bricks was weighing on us, so recently we decided to take the easy way out: remove the top part of the chimney (being mindful of the house value, ahem), keep the old firebox, and install an Eco-Smart fire, since we are certainly both Eco and Smart. The chimney guys said they still needed permission for two full days of scaffolding in the neighbor’s driveway. We sighed. We fretted. We considered moving to Topanga.

Finally I asked a man next door who turns out to be the current husband of the owner-lady for permission and he said, “No problem, feel free to knock on the door and let us know which days you need the driveway. Any time.”

I almost shit my pants in surprise. I couldn’t believe it. In fact, I didn’t. The first day we needed access to cut some trees they forgot to move the cars. I don’t know how the gardener got around the situation but he managed.

Day 1.
I wake up early to see five cars in their driveway, including one that is usually always parked on the street, and I think about putting on my heart rate monitor to stay calm. I try not to take it personally, take a deep breath, and try to be grateful for the small things, like, I just got my new night guard from my dentist. Sometimes a certain behavior is not necessarily a declaration of war.
bingbing-wrongbed

Just before the agreed upon time they come out in their cute P.J.’s, and slowly the cars move out, into the street.

chimney-guys2

chimney-guys

The chimney is half taken down (and it’s an easy job, just a slight tap with what looks like a toy hammer and the brick comes loose) when who should come by but our neighbor’s neighbor, who we call the hoarder. Because he is one. He’s got his little wheelbarrow filled with our bricks and he’s carting them back to his safe little place next to his house. Last year he got rid of all his crap and told us “No more! What was I thinking?”

hoarderhouse

Day 2.

chimney-hole

Things are going well so I decide to make some lemon bars for the neighbor. I know they like lemons. How do I know? Apparently they used to take them from the tree in the back yard when the previous owners lived here. That’s before the previous owners put up a fence in the back. Last summer our bamboo sent a shoot underneath this fence and up into their yard. The owner-lady hacked it down and sent it flying back at us like a spear.

lemonbars

They’re not as pretty as they could be, but hey, I’m building bridges, not walls.

I pack the lemon bars up and bang on the door. And get thoroughly rejected. REJECTED! She says, without even opening the screen, that she doesn’t want anything. Nothing.

This being Tuesday there’s no place a lemon bar feels more at home than dog agility class, and there’s something very funny about Lemon Bars in Cars.

lemonbars-incars

dog-agility

Next project: the fireplace itself. Stay tuned. The tile guy says, “Heath tiles suck.”

fireplace

Thank GOD for In n’ Out

san_simeon2

Every weird family wedding is weird in its own way. We attended one last weekend up in San Simeon, and apparently we were not the only ones starving by the end of the night. So we took a few people, including the daughter of a baroness in stunning baroness jewelry who I later found out chose to ignore some “go with moderation” advice from Dennis Hopper, and two nephews of the bride, who deserved their animal style fries by being champions earlier at escorting the bride for her entrance. She had to descend a spiral staircase with her bum knee and tight dress, and with each incremental turn of the staircase the train of her dress twisted and crawled more and more underfoot.

This In n’ Out had a fantastic person manning the grilling station. I’ll admit it was the best double double I’ve ever had, and I was ready for a second one when I was done. But I restrained myself. It may be true that In n’ Outs don’t have freezers, but this one had an arctic themed dining area that could’ve easily stored the patties. And no napkins! So stingy with the napkins. The nephews removed their ties and untucked their white shirts, revealing the bar code stitched to their rented outfits. The shirts stayed white for the duration, proving that only when you care about the clothes will the sauce dribble.

We returned to our warm and dimly lit hotel room around 3 in the morning, which led us the following day to take the easiest route to dinner, the Mexican place not twenty feet from our hotel, with a nice garden and view of the ocean and bad reviews on Yelp.

Turns out our host with awesome pomaded hair was just the beginning. Here, in the middle of nowhere was a place offering New Mexican fare: flat enchiladas, sopapillas, menudo with posole, and a spicy salsa with tons of cilantro. Next to us were two ladies with a mishmash of kids, including a set of twins and a dwarf with no lower legs. One of these twins did not like something (he was maybe 8) and one lady asked the waitress to take it off their bill. When the waitress hesitated, the lady said she didn’t like her taco either. The bill arrived and the two ladies went over each item discussing whether the dish had been worth the amount they were being charged. After deciding they had been over-charged, they agreed not to leave a tip and very slowly started to count their cash, the children watching over their shoulder.

This made me nervous enough to really want dessert, as I watched them leave the table, and the waitress picked up the folder and carried it, loose coins and all, to the register.

Next came the part of the evening where some guy starts to pontificate, and it’s always the guy with the bluetooth still in his ear, and the camera still around his neck. Our man was going on and on in Chinese, about Costco, mostly, and about how important it was to understand what he was saying, and then repeating himself because his friends were not getting it. I really wanted to go over and tell him next time to order the menudo.

stevie_face

The following morning at the free hotel breakfast he was still at it, enjoying the hard-boiled eggs, weird bagels with Down’s syndrome, and orange juice. His friends said that they still didn’t get it, and he said, it was because it had been so late when he was explaining it last night, that they’d get it, eventually, because it was so important.

san_simeon

Pu’er tea harvest season taste test

For those interested, 1001plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be presenting a focused tea tasting on Pu’er at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 9:00AM.

Yiwu_harvest_tasting2

There’s been a backlash recently about the fuss and puffery used to describe flavor profiles, so in going “totally layman,” I’m going to stick with these three phrases: Great, pretty OK, and no good.

Tasting, of course is a relative thing. Given several teas/coffee/wines to choose from, the goal is to look for characteristics that stand out from the others: least acidic, most creamy, etc. but it only makes sense compared to what else is at the table. In addition, flavors are subjective, so it’s best to focus on characteristics that don’t rely on flavors. In terms of Pu’er, the look of the brewed leaves, bitterness on the finish, the presence of gan (a returning sweetness in the mouth), viscosity of the tea, and how it feels in the mouth and throat are indicators of quality whether or not the tea has dried-plum or orchid flavors.

It’s common knowledge that harvest season greatly affects the quality of tea, but I have not found anyone who has actually done a harvest season taste test. It’s quite a feat to get real Pu’er from Yi Wu in the first place, so we were super happy to get three pucks of 2015 raw Pu’er from San He Chun, picked from old trees in the spring, summer, and fall.

Yiwu_harvest_tasting

The color difference is interesting. From left to right is spring, summer, and fall. Since these teas are all from 2015, the spring is actually the oldest, and yet the lightest in color.

Tasting the three teas initially blind, it was obvious which one was spring. It was clean, complex, and very thick. Out of the remaining two, one of them was like drinking a brick, bitter, dull, and funky smelling. This turned out to be summer. Summer is the time of the monsoon, and when it’s raining, trees are focused on growing (trunk, branches), and the minerals absorbed by the roots go toward that end. During the rainy season the tree is not interested in producing leaves, and those that are produced are weak in mineral content (flavor).

The third one, fall, was OK. There is no better word. It was slightly bitter, had a little flavor, but didn’t make me want to dump the cup out.

After this first brewing we had some plain water, and since this is Yi Wu Pu’er from old trees, there was a lot of gan, resulting in sweet, fabulous water, and honestly I’m not sure whether the gan came from all three teas or just the spring. (Next tasting!)

Then we brewed the teas a second time, for a lot longer than we should have, just to draw out some (if any) of the bad qualities. I tasted fall first, and it tasted better, pretty OK. Then I tasted the spring. If the fall was somehow elevated for the second brewing the spring was equally lifted if not more. The second it hit my mouth I could tell the difference in viscosity, and then came the various flavors. Viscosity = mineral content.

Finally I tried the summer again, and, instead of just tasting slightly over-brewed, like the others, the long brew created a bitter fur bomb that stuck in the front of my mouth and on my tongue, like eating an unripe persimmon, or that thin papery skin that surrounds a walnut. A perfect example of unwanted astringency in tea, however.

Like the age of the trees and the terroir, harvest season has a considerable effect of the price of Pu’er. Generally, the price of the fall picking is 2/3 of the cost of spring, and summer is half, but considering those fakers out there, it’s potentially an easy thing for vendors to sell a fall or summer Pu’er for spring prices.

pups

There’s some “hint of wet dog on the nose” for the Scotch drinkers.

You are what you smell

missing-teeth

Last year the porcelain bridge I’ve worn in my mouth since high school gave out, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dentist lately, preparing for some new teeth. As it turns out, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with my dentist.

teeth_impression

He’s the guy that got us into roasting our own coffee beans, so in return we told him about Sean Thackrey wines. Now his new obsession is a gadget called the Coravin, which allows you to “access” a bottle of wine without removing the cork. A needle is inserted into the bottle (“cork strike”) and argon gas is pumped in and the wine comes out. When you pull the needle out, the cork reseals itself, and since argon is an inert gas, the wine will not be oxidized.

coravin_demo

All this is theory, so Coravin’s founder, Greg Lambrecht, who’s more like a cool inventor than a sales person, invited a group of wine professionals plus my dentist, who invited me (we’re “fans” I suppose) to a blind tasting (plus a steak lunch at Morton’s). Classy!

coravin_tasting

We were early, so I got to chat with Greg about the company who produces his argon canisters (same company that provides Starbucks with helium. Go whippets!) and what he’s working on next: screw top wine bottles and champagne. He explained that when you force a gas and a liquid out the same hole you get flat champagne. But he’s very close to figuring out a solution. For those wines that use plastic corks he told me the secret was to always place the needle in the same hole (HA!), store the bottle standing up and it will keep for a month (argon is denser than air), or use *** to seal the hole in the cork. He actually made me promise not to divulge what *** was.

coravin_bottles

The tasting consisted of 5 glasses of white and 5 glasses of red (of the same wine). Some of the glasses were filled with bottles that were accessed exactly a year ago, and the others were filled with bottles opened that day. We were told not to look at our neighbor’s notes and not to speak. Some thirty people handling ten wine glasses each is actually a loud affair. Then there was a little bit of hubbub regarding how, exactly, we were all supposed to share the spitting buckets. This was soon addressed, and we got to tasting.

Both of the wines that were served were natural, which meant some variation from bottle to bottle was to be expected. Though last year’s wine may taste a little different, the point is that it’s not something anyone would be embarrassed to serve. The Coravin works incredibly well.

Apparently the percentage of people that can taste the difference is 5%, and apparently I fall within that 5%. I’ve got “Smell-o-vision.” I picked the whites correctly and got all the reds except for one. Bastard! I suppose I’ve had a lot of practice. I live with a dog that can vapor wake and I’ve spent a lot of hours tasting tea. Wine is harder than tea. Your palette gets very tired. I did spit most of the wine out, but I felt I had to drink a little from each glass. By the time I got to the reds, I was ready for lunch. Lunch was a three-course affair with some rare wines thrown in for fun, but it wasn’t lunchtime yet.

I went around the room smelling things. I smelled the leatherette sleeve for the wine bottle that comes with the system. It’s supposed to keep you safe if the bottle you are accessing is one of the 1-in-50,000 bottles that break when the needle goes in. I smelled the paper doowahs that went around the base of each glass to assign it a number. I smelled someone’s bad breath, which my dentist later confirmed was the sign of “perio.” I smelled the soap from the bathroom on the ladies that walked by. This was way too much fun for an event that was free.

I asked Greg how one was supposed to get the wine from a very old bottle, and he gave a demonstration of how to get at the bottle sideways while keeping the sediment untouched. He added that when the bottle gets low, like around 5 ounces, you should do yourself a favor and just pull the cork out and drink the damn thing. Now that’s some no-nonsense advice.

stevie-yellow-flowers

MO-smell-toy

coravin_table

A visit to Sean Thackrey

MO-sky

Famous people are not necessarily interesting people if you’ve only got a few minutes to chit chat, like really, wouldn’t most people, famous or not, just say, “is the chicken BBQ done yet?” or “do you think there’s onions in the guac?”

But we’ve got a short list, a very short list, of those we’d like to have those few minutes with, and Sean Thackrey is at the top, though technically David’s met him a long time ago. He used to work at the bookstore ST frequented, and ST has kindly remembered this fact over the years.

thackrey_fifi

The drive to Bolinas on Highway 1 was a winding northern California classic, part fog, part sunshine, sheer cliffs overlooking a slightly angry ocean. We made a brief stop in Sausalito, which we made very brief, after designating it the Lake Como of the Bay Area, if you can judge a town merely by their galleries and penchant for regattas.

Our instructions for arriving at ST’s “barn.”
Park, let the dogs out, knock on the door.
The dogs were so happy to be face to face with the quintessential San Francisco guy: ST in his denim shirt and black turtleneck, work slacks and his marvelous Peter O’Toole look. San Francisco people from his generation (Alice Waters, etc.) are pretty much in a league of their own. Plus he’s missing more teeth than me, only his gaps are more uniformly distributed and wine-tinted. The dogs checked out a couple of his crushing tanks and his historical-plated pick-up truck, and got started munching on his weeds.

MO_lick

We asked ST whether he commuted to the city over Highway 1 when he worked there (he was an art dealer before he become a wine-maker). ST said yes, winding roads can lead to motion sickness, but how could he complain about his commute, since it was the centerpiece of other people’s vacations.

ST told us he now had a feral fox which he was feeding regularly, some mixture of duck fat, egg and dog food, confirming Stevie’s frantic suspicion that this whole damn place smelled like fox.

stevie_alarm

We got onto the topic of the Siberian experiment that bred foxes for tameness, in which the foxes got cuter after just a few generations, and ST said that was just blatantly impossible, and if it were possible, then it was purely heart attack material, that is, to have anything bred to be cuter than a fox.

heart-attack-cuteness

When we went inside the barn Stevie got to lick ST’s pans and even chew on a discarded cherry pit, while MO vapor waked the fox food. DUCK FAT is her middle name afterall.

In the kitchen hung the shrine to Aquila:

sean_thackrey_aquila_shrine

When ST explained that the things at the bottom were Belgian glove molds, we hit on the idea of soldering two of them together to create menorahs for Belgian Jews, a niche market for sure, but certainly one which would buy our product.

belgian_jew_menorah

The other 2/3 of the bottom floor of his barn held wine barrels, which we are thinking might be around 30,000 bottles of wine give or take a few thousand. On the shelf were bags of Vole repellant, but I’m not sure how many ounces of repellent works for one vole.

The assistant Tim came and pulled some wine of out of barrel to see if it was good enough to start bottling. We took our leave and told ST we were off to Marin Sun to get some burgers. We told him that we heard the tasting room at Marin Sun wasn’t working out, and asked why that was. ST said they were a good customer, and sell quite a bit of his wine, but they don’t have a dedicated person to actually stand there and talk (i.e. understand) his wine. In other words, he said, Marin Sun is a butcher that also cooks, they buy his wine but they are not a tasting room. Get it?

stevie_snooze

Thank god foxes don’t live long enough to develop cholesterol issues.

Tuo Cha gone awry

1996_menghai

If you’ve ever visited a tea factory it will come as no surprise that there can be a lot of variation between bags, or batches of tea. In fact, if a tea farmer serves you tea, and you want to buy some of it, it’s best if you buy from that bag of tea they are holding in their hands. Don’t let them scurry it away into the back, and don’t believe them when they say, “there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Since tea is an organic product, there’s always the chance that over time it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. For Pu’er (and especially raw Pu’er), since it’s stored and aged, there’s years of opportunity for something to go wrong. In addition, Pu’er is sun-dried, which doesn’t quite halt all the oxidation, so over the years it’s still alive, slowly changing and reacting to its environment.

Recently we were able to compare a Menghai 1996 Tuo Cha that someone described as “something wrong, slightly moldy, or else my palette has gone completely off its rocker” with its respectable batch mate.

It was almost too easy. The compression of the “bad” tea was very loose. It crumbled when we went to break it apart. The odor was fine (no mold), and the wet leaves smelled slightly weaker than our sample, but the color of the rinse tells us this tuo cha ran with the wrong crowd.

1996_tuo-cha_compare

The amber color that should be there for a raw Pu’er from 1996 was more of a watered down yellow. It was very clear, which is good, but the color was that of a younger tea. But even younger teas have some kind of flavor, and this tea had no flavor, just a sharp, bitter aftertaste. I am not throwing around the word “bitter” carelessly. I was actually surprised to taste real bitterness in the tea, as opposed to astringency, or a puckering sensation, or other subtle tastes similar to bitter but more complex. Bitter is actually an uncommon taste to have on its own. Sometimes it’s paired with sourness (grapefruit pith) or sweetness (licorice root) but pure bitterness for bitter’s sake is something very special indeed.

1996_tuo-cha_compare_cups

I doubt that the tea was improperly stored, or that anything could have been done to the tea over the years to save it. Sometimes you just lose one.

lostpaw