Got Your ‘Bak

Product review:

Camelbak Forge Vacuum Insulated Travel Mug

Regular readers will know the trouble I’ve had tracking down a decent cuppa in the southern latitudes of Europe. For the serious tea enthusiast, it would be an act of madness to visit any EU country that lies wholly or partly below the 45th parallel without packing a travel kettle and a large caddy of quality leaf. Thus equipped, you can at least ensure that your away days will be bookended with a satisfying brew. 

That still leaves the problem of what to do when you are out and about during the day. I mentioned this to my niece, who spends much of her spare time hiking and biking in the great outdoors, and she suggested, without hesitation, that I should get myself a Camelbak. It’s an Australian brand with a solid reputation amongst the Ray Mears set, and there were plenty of their wares on display at my local branch of Go Outdoors. I plumped for the pricier end of the range, shelling out £30 and change for the model illustrated above. Aside from the excellent build quality, its headline feature is an ingenious spring-loaded seal, enabling the contents to be enjoyed without the need to faff around with a screw-top lid or suck on a teat. I immediately put it to the test with a trip to the Italian Grand Prix where it ended up facing a far sterner challenge than anything I had envisaged.

Hotels near the circuit in Monza were charging outrageously inflated rates, so I booked myself and my young travelling companion, Huw, into a more reasonably-priced establishment just a few hundred yards behind the central station in the heart of nearby Milan.

Uptown

The sprawling capital of Lombardy, we discovered, is a city of two halves, separated by a line running perpendicular to the rail terminus. Out front, broad piazzas, grand apartment buildings and luxury retail outlets; to the rear, grimy flophouses and 24-hour kebab shops. That first walk from the station to the hotel, trundling our cases through a grid of pot-holed, poorly lit streets watched by groups of shifty-eyed men lurking in doorways, seemed to take an uncomfortably long time. Fortunately, we were not the only race-goers staying in that part of town, and there were several others beating a similar path.

Downtown

The next morning I filled my new tea-vessel with robust full-leaf Assam and stowed it in my backpack, intending to leave the contents undisturbed until I had taken my seat at the track. Travel time from hotel to circuit was around 80 minutes, comprising a half-hour train journey, a tightly-packed bus ride and a lengthy march through the extensive lawns and woodlands of the vast Parco di Monza. I estimated that getting past the security scrum and locating our stand was going to take at least another 40 minutes. So, I wondered, was my brew going to pass muster after two hours ‘in the can’?

Red Brigade

That question remained unanswered because – as Huw and I belatedly found out when we reached the cordon of heavily armed Carabinieri at the entry checkpoint – no metal or glass drinks containers of any kind were being allowed into the circuit. Great heaving mounds of confiscated cans and bottles were building up on either side of the barriers, and I can assure you, dear reader, that my expensive new flask was not about to join them. The obvious solution was to double back 50 yards or so and find somewhere to stash it in the woods. Feeling disinclined to share this somewhat undignified plan with the glowering, sweaty-browed officers barring my way, I smiled politely and told them I would take the offending item ‘back to my car’.

My confident assumption that Huw would back me up in this mild deception proved to be tragically wrong.

“We haven’t got a car!” he squeaked in a sort of strangled falsetto. His face was tinged a sickly shade of green, his head pulled so low to his shoulders that his chin was virtually embedded in his chest. The poor, dear boy. I had forgotten how agitated he becomes in the presence of firearms. Even the sight of a potato gun is enough to give him the collywobbles. Not that I was feeling sympathetic right at that moment.

“Yes we have” I hissed urgently, “and I’m going to take this flask back to the car park and leave it in the car!

“We haven’t got a car!” he bleated again, more loudly this time, his gaze mortally transfixed by the carabinieri’s gleaming instruments of death. 

It could have been a sticky moment, but I’m happy to report that we were not summarily dragged away and tossed into a barbed wire holding pen. Thanks to Huw’s bracingly strong Valleys accent, the Italians had not had the faintest idea what he was actually saying.

Trackside

The race action that day was a tad predictable but the hordes of cheering, red-shirted Tifosi crowding the stands made for a lively atmosphere. Tea was on sale nowhere, so I had to keep myself topped up with the powdered variety in capsule form. This is rather like using nicotine patches, in that it satisfies a base need without actually giving any pleasure.

After the session, when I returned to the distinctively gnarled tree behind which I had concealed the flask, my only hope was that it would still be there. I had no expectations regarding the contents and was amazed and delighted to find that the liquid within was, after almost eight hours, still of good flavour and palatably warm. It was a far more satisfying result than anything that had happened on the track.

Reunited!

Since then, my Camelbak Forge has seldom strayed far from my side. It regularly accompanies me on dog walks, bus rides and visits to the cinema, and never disappoints. Heartily recommended.

The Big White

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Guest columnist: Pepper

I dreamed about the Big White again last night, covering the world with its fluffy pillows and blankets. I know it wasn’t just a dream because when I checked before breakfast there was still a little piece of it up at the back of the garden where the Master had made a big pile with his shovel, still cold and crunchy. Proof that the whole crazy thing was real.

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New World

It started with a change in the air. I knew something was coming, but wasn’t sure what. The next day there was white dust falling out of the sky and blowing all over the garden. It looked like the stuff the Master puts in his tea, but it just vanished in my mouth when I tried to taste it. The Mistress seemed quite excited about our morning walk, which isn’t always the case. The dust was flying everywhere, gathering in corners, forming into little mounds and ridges that flurried away as soon as they appeared. It felt sharp and gritty when it blew into my eyes, but I only had to blink and the bad feeling went away. In the park I hooked up with Jasper and Pansy for a brief nose-to-tail. The dust had got them a little bit excited, a little bit nervy, just like me. After due consideration we agreed that it probably wasn’t harmful.

Back at the house nothing was quite normal. The Master came home surprisingly early and in a very jolly mood, then the Mistress told him something that made him less jolly and he had to squeeze through a little doorway into the roof with a hot air blower and some old blankets. The white stuff kept on falling for the rest of the day, and it was still coming down when I went for a last pee before lights-out.

It’s nice when things are quiet, but you know how sometimes it can be too quiet? You have to make a noise by scratching at something with your paw to check your ears are still working. That’s how it was when I woke up. No wind. No bottle man. No wheelie-boxes rumbling by. And no one stirring upstairs. I had to ring my bell several times before the Mistress came to let me out. I think we were both a bit surprised when she opened the back door because there was a new wall right outside, as high as my nose. Beyond the wall, the garden was completely covered by smooth mounds of white. They reminded me of the sand hills at the place with the salty water until I tried running over one of them and almost buried myself alive. After breakfast the Mistress stayed in her nightgown for what seemed like a very long time, but it was worth the wait because when we finally set off on my walk the Master came too, which almost never happens.

It’s hard for me to describe how much the world had changed. The most remarkable thing was the smell, or rather, the lack of it. All the usual odours had been scrubbed away, even that oily, burning stench that the wheelie-boxes belch out when they’re rolling. I wondered if this was what it was like at the very beginning of the world, before the first smell was made… Not to say that there were no smells at all. Some of my friends and acquaintances had clearly been out and about, leaving their marks here and there on the white carpet. The unadulterated crispness and purity of their leavings revealed subtleties of character that I had not been aware of before. I noticed, too, that many of the humans were wearing clothes that carried a distinct aroma of old cupboards.

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The white dust was tingly to sit on

All the usual boundaries were gone. Pavement blurred into road blurred into park. Instead of doing the usual circuit we left the park at the far end, onto some roads I wasn’t sure I knew. One of them was quite steep and there were young humans sliding down it on items of kitchenware. It looked like fun and I wanted to join in, but the Master wouldn’t have it. I didn’t have long to mope though, because at the next corner I got my bearings and realised we were on our way to see one of my favourite people.

The Young Mistress squealed with delight when she opened her door and saw that it was me. I ran past her and leapt into the arms of her mate. He’s really cool and knows how to scratch behind my ears exactly right. He wasn’t sure about me to start with, but I won him over with my cuteness rays and now he lets me lick his mouth and everything. Top human. I don’t see nearly enough of him. On the way home the white stuff started falling again, tidying up the bits that had got dirty. It made me feel happy and, in that moment, I though that this clean new world might last forever.

It didn’t, of course, and even that last bit of white stuff up at the back of the garden has gone now, leaving no trace. But I know to the very tips of my whiskers that it was real, and I’m going to keep believing in the hope that one day, when the wind turns and the nights get cold again, the Big White will return.

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A fall of moon dust?

 

Curse of the Medusa

A cautionary tale

Pelagia noctiluca

Pelagia noctiluca, colloquially known as the ‘mauve stinger’

No one had warned me about the jellyfish. Not the Dorling Kindersley regional guide, not the resort brochure, not the holiday rep; none of them had breathed a word about the monstrous blooms of Pelagia noctiluca currently blighting the northern reaches of the Mediterranean. It was, therefore, entirely without trepidation that I plunged into the warm, clear waters off the Côte d’Azure on that fateful morning in late July.

Mrs Tea and I had discovered an unoccupied beach along the rugged patch of coastline at the foothills of the Massif de l’Esterel, midway between St Tropez and Cannes. The sea was a little choppy after the previous night’s storm, but nothing too challenging, and I had set my sights on a rocky outcrop about 150 yards offshore, tragically unaware of the malignant forces lurking beneath the sparkling wavelets and wholly unprepared for the hellish ordeal that lay ahead.

Swimming

What could possibly go wrong?

The little beach looked satisfyingly distant when I clambered triumphantly onto the rock and turned back to wave reassuringly at Mrs Tea. From my new vantage point I could see other beaches, separated by jagged buttresses thrusting out from the rust-red cliffs: to the left, another pebble-filled cove, occupied by a brace of orange canoes and their owners; to the right a much larger and more populous beach with a decent stretch of sand, beach balls, brightly-coloured buckets, families playing. This, I decided, would be my next destination.

I had covered about half the distance when the nightmare began. Without warning, an explosion of searing pain ripped through my left arm, effectively disabling it. There is a scene in the TV series, Kung Fu, where David Carradine lifts a red hot urn filled with burning coals by clamping it between his naked forearms. Flesh sizzles. Acrid smoke plumes from burning skin. That’s pretty much exactly what it felt like. The safe haven of the shore seemed suddenly very far away. Fearfully scanning the bobbing waves I soldiered on, struggling not to swim in circles like a broken wind-up bath toy.

Grasshopper gets burned

Don’t try this at home

Subsequent research has taught me that the venom produced by Pelagia noctiluca ranks quite highly on the standard indices of pain and toxicity – I can attest to this, because that first strike turned out to be a mere aperitif. I had managed only a few strokes before a veritable apocalypse of agony tore into my abdomen. The pain was beyond description. My vision blurred and a montage of harrowing scenes from The Passion of the Christ looped feverishly through my mind. Thrashing desperately, I somehow made it back to dry land without further injury, and when I finally stumbled up onto the sandy beach, twitching and cursing like a chronic Tourettes sufferer, a man standing at the water’s edge tutted and pointed knowingly at the livid, palm-sized weal on the side of my stomach. “La Medusa”, he intoned solemnly.

Jellyfish wound

One week later

Pelagia noctiluca delivers its venom by firing fusillades of tiny, toxin-filled hypodermic darts at anything that comes into contact with it. They penetrate the skin, continuing to pump out poison for days, even weeks afterwards. But for all its ferocity, this formidable biological weaponry is only effective over a very limited range. A single layer of fabric is generally enough to shield the wearer from harm. I could have protected myself, if only I had been warned. Instead, I spent the rest of that day whimpering pathetically and feeling about as comfortable as Leonardo DiCaprio after the bear attack in The Revenant.

So, to any readers who are visiting the south of France and fancy a swim in the sea, my advice is this: you need to wear a burkini.

burkini

Full face-mask plus rubber gloves and footwear also recommended

Spectre of Doubt

CORRECTION

Earlier versions of this post contained a number of assertions about secret James Bond screen tests featuring a leading British actor. The Tea Caddy has subsequently learned that this information was entirely false and its source wholly unreliable. I have been assured that no such screen tests took place, and that the actor in question was not at any point required to play out a scene in which he demanded that Q “pimp his ride like a bitch”. Sorry for any confusion. If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that I should stick to what I know and leave the celebrity gossip to the experts.

A Winter Warmer

It’s no secret that I detest the lazy habit of calling any old bit of dried plant matter ‘tea’, so I ought to be writing a letter of complaint to the makers of Cotswold Fruits Blend Loose Leaf Tea, currently on sale as a ‘Best of British’ item in M&S food stores. It contains zero percent tea, and is loose leaf only in the sense that muesli is also ‘loose leaf’. Had I read the label more carefully the tin would not have ended up in my basket, but I only had my driving glasses with me at the time.

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A fortuitous confluence of flavours

After realising my mistake I was all set to put the stuff out for bird feed when it occurred to me that I should at least try blending it with some actual tea. The results were unexpectedly delightful, and I wholeheartedly recommend adding a spoonful to your favourite leaf for a light but satisfying winter drink that stimulates the taste buds while warming the cockles.

Don’t Try This At Home

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It should probably have come as no surprise to learn that some readers took my words at face value when I suggested that a power tool was required to drag the full potential flavour out of round teabags (previous entry). My sympathies go out to the family of Mr G Fradd from Whitstable and to the anonymous reader who obliterated his great-grandmother’s antique Spode teapot with a Bosch PSB 750, but my legal team has assured me that I cannot be held liable for any losses incurred. The plain fact is there’s only one guaranteed way to avoid being disappointed by round bags: don’t use them. (And that’s my final word on the subject.)

The Curse of Adequacy

Isambard BrunelIsambard Kingdom Brunel didn’t do ‘adequate’. The celebrated builder of gorge-spanning bridges, nation-spanning railways and ocean-spanning ships valued excellence over expediency in all things, and thus would have been squarely disappointed, as I was, by Marks & Spencer’s official response to my letter regarding the proven inefficacy of round tea bags (see previous entry).

Here’s the inelegant nub of it, as penned by an M&S office functionary who I won’t embarrass by naming here:

“The tea leafs [sic] contained in the Luxury Gold teabags are smaller than that within the loose tea products, as such they wouldn’t benefit from being in the larger pyramid bags.”

In other words, the round bags are adequate. They could be better, but they’ll do, rather like compressed mp3 music files that are mere shadows of the original recordings but perform well enough when played through cheap ear-buds whilst jogging past some roadworks.

CIRCLE OF STRIFE
The good news is that, unlike an mp3 file, the round bag is a lossless format. All the flavour of the tea is there, it just can’t get out. Try cutting one open and brewing a loose leaf cuppa and a bagged cuppa side by side: all else being equal, you’ll almost certainly detect a difference in the flavour – unless you’re using the tea to wash down mouthfuls of pickled onions and anchovies.

DecantedIt should come as no surprise to learn that removing the tea from the bag is the best way to release the flavour, but then you’re stuck with all the mess and inconvenience that you were trying to avoid in the first place. The logical solution is to decant the contents into a more spacious bag, for example, the handy t-sac produced and distributed by an innovative Hanover-based company. Plenty of brewing room in there.

If all that sounds like a bit of a faff, you might want to opt for a less invasive approach. I have found that agitating the hot water with extreme vigour during the brewing process can yield significantly improved results, as shown below.

And there you have it. The proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear, no thanks to M&S.

BREW OF THE WEEK – Darjeeling Badmantam First Flush
IMG_2084Early summer is the perfect time of year to enjoy a new season first flush Darjeeling, and the 2015 offering from the Badamtam Estate does not disappoint, delighting the taste buds with its delicate yet robust bouquet and flavour. To enjoy this tea at its best, add the hot water just before it gets to the boil, remove the leaves after steeping and enjoy the deliciously scented liquor just as it comes, no milk or sugar required. It’s also an excellent choice if you fancy some home-made iced tea. Double the amount of leaf that you would normally use, pour the brewed tea into a jug filled with ice cubes (adding a few wedges of orange or lemon if required), and drink within 24 hours for best results.

Moon Glampers

The Sunday Times TV critic, AA Gill, doesn’t mince his words when something on the box displeases him. I don’t always agree with his elitist, clenched-buttock judgements, but his recent, surgically-precise evisceration of Sue Perkins (Nov 16) was right on the money. The profoundly unremarkable Ms. Perkins has somehow become a ubiquitous part of the British television landscape, popping up on endless Z-List panel shows and hosting factual programmes on a bewildering variety of subjects about which she has neither insight nor specialist knowledge.

PERKINS - UNREMARKABLE

PERKINS – UNREMARKABLE

When watching her ply her trade, I am reminded of the nightmare world envisioned by noted American author and humanist, Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) in his short story, Harrison Bergeron. It’s the near future and equality legislation has gone mad, especially in the TV industry. No one can be seen to be better than anyone else and any hint of excess talent or ability is ruthlessly stamped out by the office of the Handicapper General (a post occupied by the shotgun-wielding Diana Moon Glampers): the overly-nimble are hobbled with bags of lead shot, the quick-witted fitted with headphones that deliver deafening blasts of noise at random intervals, and the physically beautiful dressed down and uglied-up. Perkins, transplanted into this fictional scenario, would require none of these handicaps.

VONNEGUT - PEERLESS

VONNEGUT – PEERLESS

It’s unclear, in Vonnegut’s brief narrative, whether or not food and drink come under the remit of the Handicapper General, but I fear that Mrs Moon Glampers (or someone very much like her) has been at work in the tea departments of Britain’s major supermarkets. Why else would they be peddling premium teas in ridiculous little round bags that render the flavour virtually indistinguishable from that of their low-grade budget offerings?

This is not a new issue. I have been campaigning against the scourge of the round tea-bag for more than a decade now and, at last, the tide is turning. In July this year the British Advertising Standards Agency definitively ruled that bigger bags really do make a better brew. In light of this landmark decision I feel that it’s time for a fresh blast of the trumpet in the form of an open letter to Steve Rowe, executive director for food at one of Britain’s most respected retailers, Marks & Spencer.

ROWE - UP THE CREEK

ROWE – UP THE CREEK

Dear Mr Rowe,

This letter concerns M&S Luxury Gold tea and your company policy with regard to tea bags. 

In its loose form Luxury Gold is, nonpareil, the best blended black tea on the British high street. I often recommend it to tea-drinking friends, acquaintances and workmates – who are invariably delighted by its rich and distinctive flavour. I remain, however, perpetually disappointed by the bagged variety because of the pathetically diminutive round bags in which it is currently incarcerated.

Any tea-taster worth his salt knows that tea leaves need space for the hot water to circulate around them during the brewing process, and yet you insist on imprisoning your flagship blend in cramped circular quarters 35% smaller than the generous rectangular bags used for your Infusions range and almost 50% less roomy than the handsome pyramid bags chosen to grace your delicious new single estate Assam. Why is Luxury Gold so poorly served? The little round bag might be adequate for the casual tea drinker who likes to leave it soaking in milk at the bottom of the cup while the kettle boils, but for those who appreciate a properly prepared brew, it’s just not good enough.

The round bag’s cheerleaders have always dismissed as unproven any suggestion that its reduced dimensions impede the brewing process (in rather the same way that tobacco companies used to dismiss the link between cigarettes and lung cancer). Not any more. When the ASA threw out Tata Global Beverages’ complaint about a PG Tips advertisement denigrating round bags earlier this year, they officially endorsed the overwhelming body of evidence proving that larger bags have ‘better brewing efficiency’.

In the face of these unequivocal findings it seems reasonable to assume that Marks & Spencer, with its traditional emphasis on quality, is presently taking steps to eliminate the inferior, flavour-sapping round bag from its entire range of teas, including Luxury Gold, with all due despatch. Can you confirm that this is the case?

Yours sincerely,

Etc.

I shall report in these pages on how (and if) Mr Rowe responds. In the meantime, any readers wishing to add their voices to mine can reach Mr Rowe at the following address:

Steve Rowe
Executive Director, Food
Marks and Spencer Group plc
Waterside House
35 North Wharf Road
London  W2 1NW

California Dreaming

World Tea Expo 2014 - Long Beach, California

World Tea Expo 2014 – Long Beach, California

The World Tea Expo, held annually in the US at the end of May, can be a very dilute affair. It’s partnered with its idiot twin, the Healthy Beverage Expo, and cleaves to the lazy American habit of referring to any potable hot liquid that isn’t cocoa, coffee or soup as ‘tea’. Cruising the stands on exhibition days can feel rather like finding yourself at a Doctor Who convention where 85% of the stuff on show is from Blake’s 7 or Red Dwarf – and everyone else is fine with that!

When the organisers, F+W Media, announced that a ritzy new awards ceremony would headline this year’s event there was widespread muttering amongst tea purists, many of whom feared that its scope would be frivolously broad, or that commercial interests would turn the judging panel into the Tea equivalent of FIFA.

Best Beverage In A Supporting Role

Best Beverage In A Supporting Role

Instead, I’m happy to report that the inaugural World Tea Awards, although far from perfect, exceeded expectations by a sizeable margin. Tea scholars were celebrated, good practice rewarded and there was a surprise winner in one of the coveted New Product categories, where Nuwati Herbals, a Native American themed purveyor of natural health remedies, took the Open Class gong for its ‘Tea Pee’ Prostate Support Tea. This diuretic concoction has received literally gushing reviews in the alternative health press and, being of a certain age, I experienced a momentary flurry of personal interest in its efficacy. Disappointingly, the Nuwati web site is short on empirical data and long on self-congratulation. It turns out that Tea Pee, in addition to containing a long list of exotic ingredients like kava kava, maca maca and parsley, has its own tragic back-story of personal loss to tell, and while this might have impressed the WTA judges it had quite the opposite effect on me.

Brain Food

Brain Food

The simple truth is, you don’t need to add anything to tea for it to be effective against almost any medical or psychological condition. Barely a month passes without the announcement of some newly discovered health benefit, the latest headline-grabber coming from the University of Basel where researchers have established that green tea measurably improves cognitive function and working memory. For those who, like myself, prefer the richness and complexity of black and oolong teas, the good news is that you can ingest the green tea in extracted form and still get all the benefits. I’ve been taking three 500mg capsules every day for a week now, and in that time haven’t once mislaid my wallet, keys or umbrella, which is evidence enough that the benefits are real.

I’ll leave the last word on the World Tea Awards to my young Welsh friend, Huw. When the finalists were being announced, he tutted derisively at a German nominee called Butterflies In The Tummy, which was described as ‘a mélange of exotic fruit paired with subtle vanilla’…

“That’s not tea”, he opined in his inimitable Valleys accent. “That’s pudding, that is!”