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Archive for January, 2010

The quiet, masculine, uncluttered artistry of Roberto Murolo.

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Let’s visit the grove…

That’s Junior, the kangaroo. He’s taken to living with his mother and older sibling right between my front fence and the fringe of the grove.

And here’s the inside of the grove now, high summer, one day before Australia Day:

The bamboo is back in full leaf, big new culms have joined pioneers from previous years to make new areas shadier. With reduced light and some lantana surfing, things are clearer underfoot. So it progresses, the phenomenal moso bamboo.

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PUERH TEA. SOME DON’T. I DO.

I like it green and frisky…

I like it ripe and mellow…

I’m talking about compressed tea, puerh, which is my favourite beverage. It’s the broadleaf Yunnan variety of camellia sinensis pressed into various shapes. Here I described a nice aged specimen of the cheap sort meant for the Tibetan market. I also talked a bit about its origins.

Puerh is now gaining popularity in parts of China and Asia where it was previously overlooked. In addition, it has a growing following among westerners. You wouldn’t call it SWPL yet, but it’s something ageable and collectible, so it may only be a matter of time.

One hears of six figure sums being paid for puerh cakes of great age, undisputed provenance and highest quality. Certainly, some tea that was released for sale before the Mainland takeover of HK hit US$25,000 – for a single cake the size of a dinner plate. But a caution: the most recent boom in puerh occurred only some three years back, causing the usual mischief such bubbles inflict.

Through it all, there are millions who just enjoy the stuff. Like many westerners, I have a taste for sheng, the unfermented “green” puerh, which I’m happy to drink without any aging. Aged is even better, of course.

To hasten the mellowing, puerh tea has often been kept in very humid conditions, a process referred to as wet storage. This seems to be less popular with westerners, though it has been very common in places like Hong Kong for a very long time. The famous Menghai factory of Yunnan introduced a fermentation process in the seventies, in order to create a ready-to-drink puerh. Though some dislike this shu or “ripe” puerh, it is now very popular, with many recipes and grades available. Some, myself included, find that ripe puerh ages very well, though it can’t have the complexities that a dry-stored raw cake achieves with time.

My own tastes are for both green and ripe, though I do have some wet-stored cakes, which I enjoy from time to time.

Puerh is also available loose, and that can be handy, though not ideal for aging.

One disappointment was the “silver bud” tea which I bought some years back. This consists of sharp, unopened buds processed and pressed like normal leaf puerh. The cakes had a wonderful peachiness in youth, and there was word that age could do good things for them. A very trusted internet commentator, Geraldo, alerted me that his silver bud cakes had aged very poorly after some five years. He was proven right. The lack of acidity, pectins etc finally reduced my peachy silver bud tea to a thin and bitter brew. (A bit like the excellent Aussie white wines that emerge fresh and drinkable from huge stainless steel vats and go brown and kersosene-like in bottle after a few years.)

Apart from that silver bud experience, I have found that even very cheap puerh can delight when young and deepen its character with age. Kept at reasonably high humidity levels, at a comfortable temp for humans, it’s a far more reliable aging prospect than wine. It can also be drunk far more often than wine: I like green in the day…

…and ripe at night.

***

Green puerh really does require what they call gongfu brewing. That involves, among other things, putting plenty of leaf in the pot or brewing bowl and doing lots of short infusions. Early infusions last for seconds, later infusions for minutes. You’ll get the hang of it. If you’re Anglo of some sort, you’ll need to break the habit of walking away from the brew. Raw puerh is for attentive brewers only.


There’s heaps of advice on the net from pernickety folk who love the ritual of gongfu and the teaware associated with it. I’m a slob, mostly using double sided glassware for brewing and drinking. My only fuss-point is keeping temperature even, which is why I always use double sided wares. Also rather than pour hot water over a large quantity of cold expanded leaf, I’ll do a flash infusion to reheat the leaves, then do a longer infusion for drinking.

***

Why not taste a raw and a ripe sample from the famous Menghai factory? Both these are inexpensive and mass-produced, with a good reputation for aging.

The 7542 raw cake is the best known blend of its kind. It’s a basic sheng that makes no apologies. In a word, it is shrill. Unlike some other raw cakes, it has not been tweaked to appeal readily to the novice or the timid consumer. It’s a cheap standard product intended for aging. There’s no question here of single estate, or wild ancient tree material. Such high-end stuff can be great, when genuine, and I often enjoy unblended tea from individual mountains and so on. But 7542 is a mass-consumption product from an experienced blender with huge resources. Personally, I love it.

The 75 refers to the year the factory came up with the recipe, the 4 indicates an approximate leaf grade, and the 2 indicates Menghai Factory. Probably none of the indicators are accurate and consistent, but puerh lovers get used to talking about their 7542 cakes, and each knows what the other is on about. If another factory comes up with a version of the recipe, they may jumble the numbers or just change the last one. All rather vague, but one sorts it out.

As you drink this through six or more infusions, you’ll get to know in a hurry if you’re meant to drink puerh. It will be bitter, sharp, sweet, spicey, earthy…and possibly something you’ll never want to drink again. Or you may get the point instantly, as I did. Though I’d drunk cheap puerh from Asian markets and in restaurants for decades, I’d paid it little attention. My first encounter with a good raw puerh was a coup de foudre. It’s my drink for life.

Moving on to the other sort…

7572 is a ripe puerh, or shu, the fermented kind that was invented in the seventies for immediate drinking, though it can age well. It’s a more digestible affair, very different from the raw, especially young raw. Mushroomy, puggy, earthy, woody, low in acid, it should also have a certain sweetness. Over time, woodiness and sweetness should come to the foreground.

Some people taste shu – even lovers of raw puerh – and all they discern is mud or “pondiness”. However, I really go for shu, and, though 7572 is a fine benchmark, I also enjoy the coarser leaf grades which give a more rounded taste, and the brisk “cola” styles, such as Menghai’s 7452. (7452 is not to be confused with the raw 7542 raw cake mentioned above!)

I should add that I’m more relaxed in my preparation of ripe puerh, often brewing it western style with less leaf and fewer infusions. I like to confine the fuss and tension to raw puerh, and those few teas which must be given gongfu treatment.

So, that’s puerh! Not for all tastes, but certainly for mine.

I like to buy from these sources: Dragon, YSL, Tuocha and Royal (the last two being slightly less competitive, but nice folk with different stock that may interest.)

Many internet sites for puerh, with varying levels of activity. This is a long established site with good links. A shaving site (!), Badger and Blade, seems to have the most active puerh forums, in its extensive Cafe section. The Sheng of the Day forum is particularly busy. Some of the members have their own blogs, a few being very active and engaged, with lots of commenters. There’s also Tea Chat. Cha Dao is an old and valued tea site with articles from the esteemed Geraldo. Here he writes on the Menghai 7542 and other things.

I really think God was having an on-day when he made the camellia.

Yeah, I know. A bit precious-pie, but...

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A few months back I harvested many bags of fresh spring shoots. Go here and here for preparation of the shoots for freezing or immediate consumption. Remember that blanching and leaching of the fresh shoots is essential, regardless of how plump and tempting they look.

***

Because I live well away from shops and conveniences, dried beans, lentils, peas and the like are a big part of my diet. They are neither a health food nor a punishment food, they are just a food. Over time, I’ve learned to avoid the gas and digestive difficulties that come with these dried seeds.

Firstly, whether or not the beans, pulse etc are soaked, I discard the water from the first few minutes of boiling. Most of the problem chemicals go, most of the flavour stays.

Secondly, no salt, sugar or acid is added till the seeds are tender, as these things tend to harden the proteins or whatever, making them less palatable and digestible. A little charcoal in the cooking water has the reverse effect and is probably desirable.

Lastly, certain spices and herbs make lentils and beans more easy to assimilate. Cumin is a frequent addition, as are turmeric, fennel, carraway and the odd cinnamon quill.

The other day I realised the cupboard was bare, except for some split peas and brown rice.

So, after cooking the split peas as described above, thickened with brown rice, I added bamboo shoots from the freezer. What struck me was how perfectly they had come through the freezing process. Tenderly crunchy and asparagusly delicious. (Shut up WordPress spell corrector!)

It’s hardly a summer thing, but dressed with cheese and olive oil, or Maldon Salt and sesame oil, it goes down. Oh yeah, it goes down.

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A GREAT COURTESY

In discussing a certain French author, there’s a temptation to illustrate with fluffy and sensuous impressionist pieces evoking his era and favourite locations: pictures by Manet and Renoir depicting the delights of late 19th century Paris, the Seine on weekends, and so forth. But see here:

Above are pictures by the academy painter, Meissonier. Still eclipsed by the ongoing fad for impressionism, he was nonetheless one of the great professionals, specialising in war and mess.

Meissonier makes an unlikely and comical appearance as a character in Guy de Maupassant’s Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois; and if anything serves to illustrate Maupassant, it is the grim clarity of this underrated master, who was probably an acquaintance of the writer.

See here:

Napoleon rides through dirty snow from a defeat on French soil: a defeat by Blücher after Moscow and before Waterloo. No impressions here. Meissonier’s definition and balance make a clear statement of pessimism matched by grand persistence.

That picture – not the emperor – is Maupassant. A godless clarity. An alluring desolation. Guy de Maupassant really is unforgivable…

…yet we forgive. Why?

Some of the answer lies in that for which he is most often and justly praised. Style. Maupassant’s style goes far beyond the clarity already mentioned. He treats his readers as royal guests, and in this he stands supreme: consciousness of the other, the reader.

No misanthrope was ever so compulsively courteous.

***

Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris, Sundays of a Paris Bourgeois, fell to hand (or, I should say, to mouse) at a time when I was reading distractedly and without relish. It was short, episodic, and broken by illustrations, something that usually appeals. Though I’ve read and re-read much of Maupassant over the years, this one was new to me.

Maupassant encountered Flaubert through family ties, and it was Flaubert who encouraged him to write never elaborately, but always laboriously; to seek out the right phrase, to put it in the perfect spot within its sentence, to relate sentence to paragraph so that the reader digests all with gusto and ease. The point is always made, the character or place is sketched unforgettably…yet the labour is for the writer, never for the reader.

And Maupassant surpassed his teacher, as we see in the case of Les Dimanches.

A loose series of sketches, the book describes the late-life aspirations of a narrow, unmarried Paris bureaucrat, M. Patissot, his attempts to widen his horizons after the age of fifty. It’s funny, sharpish, and full of those situations that we all recognise from our own attempts to “break out” and “widen horizons” and so on. So typically of Maupassant, while pretending to be about very little, it burrows to our secret, embarrassing cores.

Patissot’s purchase of outdoor equipment has a particularly contemporary feel. Even today, in Paris it’s a hideously complicated and expensive affair. The customer of a single business may be obliged to walk to a different street for each different item, and to pay up to five times the price of a good internet outlet. The French are the biggest suckers for the famous présentation franςaise.

The account of the protagonist’s first weekend outing with his new equipment is full of a gentle mockery that, in Maupassant’s earlier and happier period, stayed within bounds. A fall, a broken wine bottle and wet lunch, getting lost, a chance romantic hookup that comes to nothing…little happens, yet how we feel for this man! And for ourselves?

To this day, a Paris bureaucrat is a creature of fear and habit. Yet the book, while taking the protagonist from one mild failure to another, does not end with him scampering back to his office and old ways. Maupassant does not betray his character. While M. Patissot’s romantic fumblings, his excruciating encounters with Zola and Meissonier, his miserable efforts at fishing etc all come to nothing, he shows a surprising curiosity and capacity for friendship.

At the very end, he meets yet another chance acquaintance – a skeptic at at a radical feminist symposium! – and drifts off for a drink and a chat.

The worst of this book, like the worst of Maupassant, are the vulgar and “suggestive” episodes, the useless dross that excited Victorian readers and earned Maupassant his “reputation” in the Anglosphere. God knows what the purpose of that was. Sales? The French are bad at that sort of thing, and none worse than Maupassant, a normand, orthodox and conservative to the bone. The sleaze was such a bad fit, and got worse as his mental health declined and syphilis set in.

But the famous and boring immoralité is not today’s subject.

Les Dimanches is a great book because we start by disliking Patissot as a bluffing mediocrity, as we hate our own bluff and mediocrity. We finish by enjoying his wholesome aspirations to know more and do more, however futile; we admire his obtuse curiosity, and belated discovery of his fellow man, if only on weekends. Unlike many reading types, and unlike me, Patissot is a startlingly tolerant fellow. We wish him many more silly and adventurous Sundays.

***

Because of his background and insight into petty livelihoods, one might imagine Maupassant as an inadequate bookish type who, like Patissot with his fishing, ventured into short fiction, only with luck.

Nope.

Guy de Maupassant was able to use his early impoverished experiences to shape his stories of muddlers and mediocrities. The man himself was dynamic with, obviously, a stupendous capacity for work. He was also a competitive athlete, and, if you peer behind the 19th century face-hair, a heartthrob. Frenetic sex cost him his life and sanity, yet, as with Liszt, the sex usually came to him.

He did venture into long fiction: one of his novels, Bel Ami, was a blockbuster and another, Une Vie, one of the great novels of the century. Maupassant the non-novelist is a myth, perhaps caused by the great popularity of his shorter pieces. The mindless repetition of the myth is entirely mysterious, since Bel Ami and Une Vie are known and available everywhere.

But  he was not one of his own mediocre characters. Syphilis aside, Maupassant’s tragedy was maybe spiritual. Pascalian. Misère de l’homme sans dieu, and so on. But let that rest. It’s another subject.

Examine just the first paragraph of Les Dimanches. It fairly shimmers on the page, inviting you in. It is simple, funny, masterful. Four lines, and so much is achieved…for the reader. All is for the reader, something that should not be rare, but is very rare.

I haven’t found this particular book online in English, but I haven’t looked hard. Plenty of English translations of Guy’s tales here for free online reading.

***

To write as he did, Maupassant must have loved us a little bit. God is in that style, somewhere.

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