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Silk Road Teas

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To the inexperienced palate, tea is a complicated business. Or not, depending on your preferences. Up until a few years ago, I was perfectly content with heapfuls of Mariage Freres’ Earl Grey Imperial for an afternoon brew. Sure, I’d drink any tea if you put it in front of me, but if I had to brew it myself? That stout black tin would be the one I’d reach for. I’m a simple girl with simple tastes, after all.

Things changed after I did a piece for Etsy about a two-generation, family-owned artisan tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Over a leisurely tasting of oolong, white and green teas, I discovered the delicate beauty that is Taiping Houkui, from China’s An Hui province, ranked as one of the top ten teas in China and a common choice for diplomatic gifts. Whereas my beloved Mariage Freres earl grey derives most of its character and aroma from bergamot oils, the fragrant nose of a cup of Taiping Houkui is entirely reflective of the quality of the leaf. Good leaf, good flavor. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

“If the flavor is not in the leaf, you’re not going to get it in the subsequent steps of tea processing. You need to start with good quality leaves”, said Ned Hegearty, owner of Silk Road Teas, an established importer of rare artisanal Chinese teas. We met at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco where Ned’s booth stood out among the countless iterations of flavored popcorn and rice crackers. Silk Road Teas has been around for over two decades, which, in this business, is an invaluable asset and a testament to the quality of their relationships with tea artisans and growers in China. The best deals are to be found in local villages close to the site of tea production where small-batch, custom-crafted teas for the local palate are created. In other words, you’ve got to know who to talk to and where to look.

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Between the harvest and packaging of tea, the leaves undergo different degrees of processing depending on the type of tea being produced. Leaves harvested for their Silver Needle white tea for instance are just left to wither and dried out (“fired”, in industry parlance), whereas green teas go through an additional step of shaping, becoming flattened, torn or curled, before being fired in a wok. Oolong teas, which are semi-oxidized (as opposed to black teas which are fully oxidized), are shaped, then fired at higher temperatures than green tea.

“Shaping tea leaves help with the development of their taste and aroma in the cup,” Ned said.

“Shredded leaves give their flavor out immediately while curled and flattened leaves reveal their flavors over a series of steeps. A mix of small and big leaves (which you’d commonly find in tea bags) yield a balance of flavors – you’ll start with flavors from the smaller leaves and gradually discover the flavors of larger leaves with successive steeps.”

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The firing process reduces the moisture in tea leaves to levels ranging between three and nine percent, and makes the leaves more shelf-stable. According to Ned, “You can use this process to ‘nudge’ the flavor in leaves that may be a little less fresh or a little young, to ‘wake them up’ but you have to know what you’re doing as it’s a fine line between coaxing flavors and burning the leaf.”

In the case of Pu-Erh tea, which yields distinctly different flavors depending on whether the tea is ‘cooked’ or uncooked’, the craft of this process comes in deciding how long to let the leaves ferment for before firing and pressing them into ‘cakes’. Fermentation before leaves are fired are considered ‘cooked’ Pu-Erh, yielding teas with a minerality that some have casually described as having a ‘barnyard flavor’. ‘Uncooked’ Pu-Erhs on the other hand, are left to age after firing and shaping, leaving the residual bacteria and moisture in the leaves to continue the fermenting process, albeit at a slower pace.

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With such a dizzying array of Chinese teas to choose from, where is the novice tea enthusiast to start in her appreciation of quality tea?

“Look for a hint of astringency beneath a tea’s dominant sweet note. This creates a tension on the palate that’s a sign of a good Chinese tea”, Ned offered.

“The Chinese government used to regulate tea production and its quality, and there were was a structure of standards that you could refer to. Since the industry opened up to private enterprise, there’s now a bigger spectrum of tea quality, so you’ve really got to know how to evaluate and identify quality tea.”

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As with any exercise involving the cultivation of one’s palate, the initial learning curve is steep and opaque to the beginner. But the key here, as with most gustatory forays, is to keep at it, and taste as big a variety of teas as you can, in order to understand the difference between a really good green tea and a mediocre one, a nuanced, full-bodied oolong and your dull tannic versions found in Chinese restaurants around the country. It doesn’t take much to start at home if you follow their tea-brewing tips, which can be broadly summed up in two principles: paying attention to the quality and temperature of the water used, and adjusting the steeping time according to the leaf.

“For drinking tea you want water that’s about 165-185F, and either filtered or distilled. You want to heat it, not boil it, especially if you’re having green or white tea because boiling temperature water removes their delicate floral notes,” Ned explained.

“Be careful not to steep the leaves for too long as an extended steeping time will eliminate the tea’s nuance. There will be too much flavor in the brew which overwhelms the palate and becomes too ‘simplified’. You want to leave flavors behind for successive steeps. Tea-brewing is about extracting flavors of the leaf a little at the time. It’s about slowing down.”

This is especially true for big leaf teas such as oolong, where the first steep delivers the aroma of the leaf and the second steep reveals its taste. “Oolong leaves are bigger and therefore take time to open up,” Ned said.

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After running a mostly-wholesale business since they started, Silk Road Teas is starting to venture into the retail, direct-to-consumer market as a way to diversify their business and customer base. In addition to their extensive catalog of loose-leaf teas, the company now offers a line of eight teas packaged in individual satchets for quick and easy brewing. Given their experience in sourcing carefully crafted Chinese teas, one would imagine that this isn’t a bad place to start the journey of tea appreciation.

A Tea For All Moods:

Looking to swap your morning joe for a cup of tea but not sure where to start? Here’s a brief guide to the main types of tea found in the market, their characteristics and suggested varietals.

White Tea: Floral, delicate notes, subtle flavors. Use hot, not boiling water and don’t steep for too long. Suitable for drinking any time of the day. Try: Silver Needle (Yin Zhen) or White Peony (Bai Mu Dan).

Green Tea: My personal favorite for a mid-day pick-me-up. Slightly more full-bodied than white teas but less pungent than oolong or black teas. Grassy, creamy finish. Try: Dragon Well (Lung Ching), Green Monkey King (Taiping Houkui) or get a Green Tea Sampler to start you off.

Oolong Tea: Great for all-day drinking, and for noticing how the flavors develop with each steep. Some oolongs are complex and smoky, reflective of the firing process. I love this varietal with a meal of strong flavors as it clears the palate between bites. Try: Plum Blossom Fragrance (Mi Lan Xiang), Iron Goddess (Tieguanyin) or WuYi Yan Cha.

Black Tea: The sort of tea I’d consume at breakfast. Strongly aromatic and full-bodied, it makes a decent substitute for espresso. Best of all, you can keep refreshing the leaves all day and discover different nuances of flavor. Try: Golden Needle (Gin Zhen), Yunnan Black or Wu Yi Black Oolong.

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El - I’m a huge tea fan aso I love this article. Great photos and good to know about Silk Road.

Laurente Clavio - Everyone should be extra carefull when looking for the silk road as the cops are watching it like a Hawk. I found a pretty good site with heaps of tips to hide yourself and ghuide with the url and everything http://silkroaddrugs.org/

Polenta + Roasted Persimmons

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In my previous post I mentioned my eye-opening experience with Community Grains’ Floriani Red Flint Corn Polenta and, well, here it is. Waxing poetic about any edible item has its risks, but this particular cornmeal, each kernel milled whole and never sifted, thereby retaining every ounce of flavor and nutrition, is worth every bit of the superfluous accolades I’m about to throw its way. You see, many years ago when I was in the pre-amateur home cook stage, I decided to tackle the mammoth task of making Marcella (bless her soul) Hazan’s osso bucco with polenta. It was really just an excuse to put my newly-purchased Staub cocotte to use, and, for a cooking vessel, it performed exceedingly well (of course). The polenta, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well at my inexperienced hands. M and our dinner guest gamely (and kindly) polished off every bit of it, but one spoonful was more than enough for me. I swore off the ingredient for many years until that fateful lunch at Oliveto, where I knew I had to sample something new from the Community Grains product line. One bite of this polenta, and the lunch turned momentous, of the eye-opening, palate singing, Facebook-update-raving variety, because I had just discovered that, contrary to expectations, polenta could actually be delicious, in all its rustic, creamy, earthy, nutty, heirloom-corn worthy glory. I even flirted with the idea of growing this corn varietal in our backyard, but why go to that trouble when you can order a bag (or two) of the stuff? Eat it simply, with a fried egg and some chili oil, or use it as a bed for a hearty winter stew. Regardless, it’s going to be <insert appropriate superlative here>.

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Shikha @ Shikha la mode - I never thought of doing persimmons and polenta as a combination – it sounds very interesting. I have a lot of both this week so looks like a weekday dinner is happening!

Brian @ A Thought For Food - I do adore polenta… and grits… and all of those rustic, hearty dishes. We don’t see persimmons much here in the Northeast, but I am going to keep my eyes out for them!

El - Absolutely exquisite recipe. Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Maria @ Foodpix photography - It looks great! Can’t wait to try it Thanks for sharing

Carolyn Jung - Beautiful rendition of polenta! The roasted persimmons are an inspired touch. Will have to try that combo next winter when they come back in season.

Community Grains: Giving Whole Wheat A New Name

This post is long overdue. The year turned out to be a marvellous whirlwind with lots of work, and, in the middle of it all, we jumped, head first, into house-hunting and bought a house. Yup, an actual house with a back and front yard. Given that this was something we were merely considering at the start of 2013, the purchase and subsequent remodel left us both shell-shocked, elated, and also, a little more aware of the limits of our home improvement skills. Before life swept me up in its chaos however, I carved out some time in late-Spring to chat with the folks at Community Grains, and spent an afternoon at Front Porch Farm, one of their partner farms in Healdsburg. Their stories follow, accompanied by images from the farm.

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Community Grains was a project born out of curiosity in 2010 that very quickly took on a life of its own. Bob Klein, founder and chief gourmand at Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant took an active interest in grains and their flours, and sought to answer the question: Can grains be more exciting? Can they taste good? “No” was not an acceptable answer, so the quest for flavor took him down the rabbit hole of heirloom varieties, milling processes and, now through Community Grains, an effort to bring more transparency to the production and processing of grains: the variety, where it was grown and how it was milled.

“It became mission-esque”, said Bob, of his whole grain journey to date. “I wanted to understand grains in a whole new way and to work more closely with grain farmers. To do this, we needed new infrastructure to obtain the information necessary for understanding the full potential of whole wheat grains according to each baker’s need. For commercial bakers, they’d be keen to know about each flour’s protein composition and gluten strength. For home cooks, it would be to understand how different flours work and their flavor profiles. It’s endless.”

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Robert Russell - The article should be submitted for publication in some suitable periodical. Very informative, and, of course, well photographed.

What To Read This Weekend: The Disturbing Side Effects of Franken Berry Cereal — 10 Weekend Reads from The Kitchn | Free Recipes - […] Community Grains! I want to go to there. And also bake with that. – Emma […]

El - Welcome back. Congrats on your house and on this lovely article!

Polenta + Roasted Persimmons | Beyond [the Plate] - […] my previous post I mentioned my eye-opening experience with Community Grains’ Floriani Red Flint Corn Polenta […]

Edible Excursions: Tastes of Temescal

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Sarah Henry, our Edible Excursions guide for the day.

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Lively colors at Juhu Beach Club, a new venture by former Top Chef contestant and Chef Preeti Mistry.

The city of Oakland has been, for a while now, my preferred destination for a ‘night out’ with friends. Perhaps it’s got to do with the fact that some of my favorite people live (or have lived) there, but I know that the smaller crowds, ease of parking and competitively-priced restaurants (compared with a night out in San Francisco) more than compensate for its distance from where we live in Silicon Valley. I’ve pretty much spent the past two years making frequent, 50-minute drives up to “the East Bay”, and though tedious, each trip has always proven worthwhile, both for the people and for the culinary delights that await. While San Francisco is a stalwart in the mainstream food world, Oakland’s been hard at work birthing its own food culture, one that’s as varied, independent and exciting as anything you can find in its more famous neighbor. And it’s starting to show, with the city’s culinary scene making the New York Times’ list of the Top 45 Places To Go in 2012. View full post »

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mariavlong - I my goodness to everything, but specially to those pink walls and those doughnuts.

Danielle - Pink is the new black!

J.S. @ Sun Diego Eats - a) Kouign Amman is amazing! Its great on it own and I like it even better as a vehicle for an ice cream sandwich…
b) No idea banchan had that rep! I probably enjoyed a lot of preservative-laced artificially colored banchan thinking I was eating healthy (ish) vegetables/seafood.

Coco - Beautiful post and pictures as usual, Danielle! This makes me nostalgic for the kouginettes at Larnicol — they are butter bombs in the best way. I’ll have to get up to the East Bay to try out our Californian version!

Rachel @ foodrefuge - This is a beautiful post. Makes me want to book a flight out there right now!

Kiran @ KiranTarun.com - Omg. Those doughnuts. I need :)

El - Looks like a fun place to visit. Thanks for all of the tips!

Mysore, India

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This post is going to be a little different from the others. I’m taking you to another part of my life, one where food isn’t always a priority.

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Joy @ OSS - This is just beautiful. I feel so inspired.

tracy - I’ve been so curious about your trip! Sounds absolutely amazing/life-changing. I hope that one day I’ll have the opportunity to do something like this.

Your photos are STUNNING.

Alicia Ng - Great read.

Eva Howe - Here, here! I love the pictures. I completely agree with you about the passage of time here. We have been here almost three weeks and although we have settled in, I don’t feel like I have really gotten a good sense of things in the way I thought I would have. I also completely agree with you about it always turning out ok and letting go. My motto has just been, “I give up” and “It will turn out alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, it isn’t the end.”

Eva Howe - Here, here! I love the pictures. I completely agree with you about the passage of time here. We have been here almost three weeks and although we have settled in, I don’t feel like I have really gotten a good sense of things in the way I thought I would have. I also completely agree with you about it always turning out ok and letting go. My motto has just been, “I give up” and “It will turn out alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, it isn’t the end.”

Bettina - The photos are superb! Thanks for sharing.

Susy - Great post! And for not really focusing on photos you got some amazing shots.

Danielle - Thank you ladies, you’re all too kind.

Tracy – I’m sure a trip like this will happen for you, it’s only a matter of time. And I have a feeling you will love India immensely!

Shanna - Stunning, stunning photos, Danielle. I resonate with what you wrote about food consumption in America and how common it is for all of us to eat and consume SO MUCH. We are also finding we need less than we thought we did.

Denise - Stunning photos and words as always. I am so happy to finally have a chance to hear a little about India since we have not had a moment to catch up.

Danielle Tsi - Oh Eva I can’t wait to hear all about the experience for you guys. It all goes by so quickly doesn’t it? Yes, India does require one to do a lot of “giving up”, even when you think you’ve already done all you can! Enjoy the rest of your trip and I will see you very soon!

Savannah - What a beautiful photo essay! I came over from your other blog and I’ve really enjoyed seeing your Mysore experience through your eyes. Thank you for sharing. I also found your comments about teaching modalities really refreshing. I, too, believe there should be space for all and that the variety should be celebrated. Well said.
I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while now and have just started a yoga blog of my own. I’ve linked to you in the sidebar, if that’s okay. :)

Danielle - @Shanna: Unconscious consumption, that’s the problem! It’s truly a first world problem to find it refreshing to eat less.

@Denise: I know! It’s about time we stopped talking about meeting and actually did…

@Savannah: Thank you and welcome.

Averie @ Averie Cooks - About 8 years ago, I was *this close* to going to Mysore to deepen my yoga practice and just explore and take it all in but I found out I was pregnant and never made the pilgrimage. Now my daughter is 6 and one day I’d love to take her and go together. Everyone I’ve ever known who’s gone to India comes back changed, with eyes more open; and this post is beautiful. Thank you for the gorgeous photos & message!

Dana Shultz - LOVE.

Danielle - @Averie: Your story sounds familiar. I met a lot of folks who had been planning their trip for years before their life and responsibilities allowed them to make the trip. I’m sure it will happen for you one day. Nice to meet a fellow Ashtangi ;)

Liz B - What a lovely post! I also practice Ashtanga yoga, and am looking forward to a trip to Mysore one day xx

Carousel: Too Much Reading Material?! NEVER! | FFBlogs - [...] went to India for six weeks to study yoga. Her photos and stories are beautiful and [...]

Alex Godfrey - Beautiful. Thanks for this. Oh, those lovely dosas!

Candice Aiken - What a beautiful post! xx

Priscilla Bolanos-CillaKilla - How amazing! what an awesome experience!

City Femme - I miss India..its colors, spirituality. The sense of time is indeed different there!

Weekly Five #7 • SophieOliveira - [...] Este post do blog Beyond the Plate é awesome. A escritora fala-nos da sua viagem de 6 semanas à Índia para praticar Yoga. Tenho de admitir que eu quero mesmo muito fazer algo do género um dia. Mais numa onde de retiro espiritual pela experiência em si. [...]

Russ L T - I have a great affection for India and all things Indian, never yet visited the country but I was lucky enough to share food and experiences with the large Indian community whilst I lived in Bahrain.

My wife and I picked up many cooking tips as a result 25 years later our main taste is in Asian foods.

Fantastic photos here

Many thanks

Danielle - Thank you! Indian hospitality is quite something, both within and without India. I haven’t quite mastered Indian cooking yet, still figuring out the many different types of dahl and cooking methods!

Brian @ A Thought For Food - It’s been a while since I’ve stopped by, but I just thought I’d check things out and I am so happy I did because this post is just stunning. Thank you for taking us on this journey.

Steph - I traveled to India for about a month and a half and I had a similar feeling about being in a washing machine. It was beautiful, dirty, fascinating and loud. I couldn’t have prepared for the culture shock, but once I settled in, it was an amazing adventure. The people are royally kind there and I’m grateful for the experience. Thanks for sharing!

El - Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing the incredible photos.

sisilia - Good pictures and details… great job…

Here is a link to blog that reviews food hotspots in Mysore:

http://whimsytummy.blogspot.in

Hope this helps.

Sherry Nash - Hi Everyone, I came from New York, Currently living in India. How much inspired from Indian people I can’t share here with two or three sentence because this is my first visit in India. I have been Mysore while in my vacation trip, that was great seemed. I never forgot destination of Mysore. Thanks for remembering me once again!!

Joan Bluey - That was a lovely read

Links We Love » Love & Adventure - […] Beautiful photos of India […]

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