February 25, 2013

Tea and Terroir

Newly opened in Soho.
Photo courtesy of Palais des Thes
Not too long ago, I attended a fascinating tasting at the newly opened U.S. flagship of the French tea company Palais des Thés.  The Prince Street shop opened hot on the heels of the brand’s first foray into the U.S. on the Upper West Side. Leading the tasting was company founder François-Xavier Delmas, who, it turns out, is a treasure trove of knowledge on all things tea from cultivating to tasting.

Tea brewing is an exacting art, Delmas explained, so it’s important to follow brewing directions to the letter, or number, in this case. Filtered water is best, and when a tea calls for a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it won’t cut it to heat water to 110 degrees and then cool it. Water shouldn’t be reheated, either, since boiling depletes the water’s oxygen, which is not restored upon cooling or reheating. The bitterness sometimes detectable in tea is not a negative, we learned, as long as it is balanced with acidity.
Aurelie Bessiere, who with her husband Cy heads the company's
U.S. expansion, left, and Delmas.

Delmas suggests using an electric kettle with temperature settings, noting that in some tea-drinking countries, it’s an art to be able to detect hot water temperature by different sized bubbles forming on the water’s surface. I love the descriptions born of this pre-electric-kettle method because they’re the kind you won’t forget:“shrimp eyes” and “fish eyes” are two such descriptors.

We learned that color does not necessarily indicate quality, as there are beautiful “white” teas (a delicate mix of immature buds and leaves, steamed lightly and unfermented) that are nearly colorless, and that smell is more important than taste when judging tea. Tea tasters swish and slurp tea much as wine tasters do, as the tea liquor must be aerated in order for the full spectrum of its tastes to register on the palate. Delmas also suggests that tea drinkers lean forward slightly when drinking tea, as bitterness is detected at the back of the tongue. Once again, as I noted in this tea-related post, the parallels between tea and wine are striking.

Darjeeling and Bao Zhong grand crus
Photo by Alex Kotlik Photography
Among the 200 or so different varieties Palais des Thés offers are 15 grand crus teas, which are grown in small batches on single estates and distinguished by their extraordinary quality, balance and harmony. We tasted two grand crus: Darjeeling Puttabong “Muscatel,” a limited edition second flush (“flush” refers to which harvest of the new season the leaves hail from) of a rich copper color that was astringent then fruity and woody on the palate, and a first flush 1999 Bao Zhong “antique” tea from Taiwan.

Delmas noted that more recently, the idea of single cépages, or varietals, has taken hold. He is especially interested in understanding which prized tea characteristics are attributable to terroir (the unique characteristics of the soil in which the tea bushes are cultivated) and which from cépage. Happily, tea exchanges are underway between tea research centers in Indian, China and Japan. In one, Delmas notes, “Japan is trying to produce ‘Japanese teas’ in China.” Other exchanges involve experimenting with different cultivars and propagation by cutting, seed exchanges and comparing disease fighting and organic growing methods.

Tea cuisine: tea leaves and katsuobushi (shaved dried skipjack).
Photo courtesy of Palais des Thes
You can get an even more detailed education in tea by reading Delmas’s charming and informative book Chercheur de Thé: Discovering Tea, a collection of the first year’s worth of his blog posts. Thanks to this book, I now know how my beautiful tea canister covered in Japanese cherry wood was made, about the turbulent movement to create a separate state in Darjeeling, the ongoing belief in yeti in Nepal (some of them are quite short, less than a meter tall!) and unusual dishes such as the one above from Asahina, Shizuoka Prefecture, made with wet tea leaves, katsuobushi (shaved dried and fermented skipjack) and soy sauce. Delmas, a sympathetic and open-hearted traveler, pronounces it “absolutely delicious.”

Palais des Thés
156 Prince Street (between W. Broadway and Thompson St.)
New York, NY 10012

194 Columbus Ave. (between 68th and 69th Sts.)
New York, NY 10023

February 15, 2013

Roger Shimomura, Artist, Collector

American Guardian, 2007
Earlier this week, I attended the opening of Japanese American artist Roger Shimomura's exhibit at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute's new digs at 8 Washington Mews, a part of New York University.

The Seattle-born Sansei (third-generation Japanese American), who's spending this year as artist-in-residence at A/P/A,  has made a name for himself as a painter, printmaker and theater artist. His visual work speaks the language of pop art, comic books, Japanese wood-block prints and manga, but their bright, shiny surfaces upend expectations by delivering sly doses of subversive commentary on race and exclusion.

 The A/P/A exhibit focuses on Shimomura's screen prints and lithographs, along with selections he's made from his collection of pop and kitsch Americana. The two parts of his life, his work and collecting (everything from mutant peanut shells to wind-up toys, Disney memorabilia and folk art) have informed and shaped each other, Shimomura says.

Kansas Samurai, 2004.
 In Kansas Samurai, Shimomura depicts himself as a samurai warrior, defiant in the face of rejection by mainstream culture, represented Dick Tracy, Popeye, Donald Duck and Pluto, whose backs are turned to him.

The artist admitting to his addiction to e-Bay,
the digital era's gift to collectors.

"My life can be measured by what I was collecting," he told the gathered crowd, noting that he amassed his first collection, of soda bottle caps, by making frequent trips to the neighborhood grocery store on his handmade scooter. "We'd buy drink flavors that we would never normally think of drinking just to get the different caps," he explained, which he and his friends affixed to their jackets like badges.

In graduate school at Syracuse, Shimomura began collecting advertising displays of food items, and still relishes the memory one of his biggest coups, a 7-foot-tall cardboard ice cream cone that was the envy of his art school classmates.

Enter the Rice Cooker, 1994.

For the exhibit, Shimomura included his copy of a movie poster for the 1959 film noir, The Crimson Kimono, which depicts James Shigeta kissing Victoria Shaw underneath the headline, "YES, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!" Also on display are a giant plastic Donald Duck, a Chinese ceramic Minnie and Mickey mouse, and a Superman trophy.

Geta salt and pepper shakers; note holes in front for shaking.
Shimomura spent several of his early childhood years in the Minidoka, Idaho U.S. government prison camp during World War II, and the camps and their barbed wire are recurring motifs in his work. Included in the exhibit is a pair of Shimomura's over 50 salt-and-pepper shaker sets in the form of geta, the traditional Japanese wooden clogs that prison camp inmates fashioned out of found wood to keep their feet above the muck during trips to the communal lavatories and showers. In American Guardian, a guard in a Japanese prison camp, machine gun between his knees, observes a small-boy version of the artist himself riding a tricycle.

Another source of inspiration were the 56 years' worth of diaries kept by his grandmother, who arrived in America as a picture bride and worked for decades as a midwife. Shimomura had parts of her diaries translated and then incorporated into scripts for performance art pieces he staged during his long tenure as art professor at the University of Kansas. He included one of those diaries in the exhibit, part of a trove of personal papers that is being collected by the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.

When an audience member asked whether incorporating racist images and monikers in his work undermines attempts to enlighten the public about their offensiveness, he replied, "To make it go away, you have to make it appear first...in some ways I am bringing things up that are painful in order to make them go away."

Prints of Pop (& War)
Curated by Roger Shimomura
A/P/A Institute at NYU, Gallery
8 Washington Mews
New York, NY 10003
(212) 992-9635
Through May 9, 2013

February 5, 2013

Talkin' Cocktails: The Waysider

Alt-Julep: The Waysider

As promised, I'm introducing you to this refreshing cocktail, which I came across at the charming and laid-back Louisville restaurant Decca. It's on East Market Street, in a neighborhood that in recent years has seen the arrival of a clutch of restaurants, art galleries, and antique shops, including the Mayan place across the street that my savvy barkeep Krista says is also very good.

The drink pays tribute to the Wayside Christian Mission, formerly housed on the site. Bourbon-based cocktails are a dime of dozen, but the trick is to find those that are balanced and not too sweet. The Waysider's combination of bourbon, lime juice, simple syrup, ginger beer and mint give it a bracing herbal and slightly musky flavor.

Decca uses Old Fitzgerald 100 proof "Bottled in Bond"bourbon because, explains Krista, "The spicier, high-proof whiskey is a nice complement to the ginger beer and helps balance out some of the sweetness of the drink." She says Old Forester Signature, another hundred-proofer, would make an acceptable substitute. (If you're interested in the history and complicated modern ownership status of Louisville distilleries, here's an interesting post.) I found Fever Tree ginger beer at my neighborhood Fairway.

The ice doesn't have to be crushed, but Krista recommends"definitely a smaller, more meltable ice cube like hotel ice (or as we call it in bartender circles, 'cheater ice'). This," she explains, "is for the refreshment factor. You want your ice to melt a little and dilute the drink just a touch."

Here's to the refreshment factor!

The Waysider

In a highball glass, stir together, without crushing mint leaves:

1 sprig mint, leaves only
1 oz. lime juice
1/2 oz. simple syrup (2:1 ratio of sugar to water)
2 oz. bourbon

Fill glass with crushed ice or smallish cubes

Top with Fever Tree ginger beer, about 1 ounce (give bottle a shake before opening)