Monthly Archives: December 2009

Just My Cup of Tea

Tea Bushes in Japan

Remember saying you wouldn’t trade something for all the tea in China? Well as it turns out, there is quite a lot of tea in China—more than a million metric tons in 2006, as a matter of fact. As impressive as that is, China now jockeys for first place with India, which sometimes pulls into the lead, but even when behind, is close to the same quantity of tea. So with the world consumption of tea just a little over 3 million metric tons per year, these two countries are clearly the biggest players—though they are by no means the only players. However, of all the countries producing tea today, China has the longest history.

Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as tea, actually originated in China. Legends place its first use somewhere around 2700 B.C.—but interestingly, the legends are so mundane that scholars think it likely they relate closely to the truth. The story goes that an early Chinese emperor instituted the practice of boiling drinking water to make it safe. Wherever he traveled in his realm, his servants would boil all the water that he and his entourage would need. At one point, in some small village, leaves blew into the boiling water, et voilà, tea was born. (An alternative version of the legend has this same health-conscious emperor intentionally adding different leaves to his boiling water, to see which ones might have medicinal properties.) Continue reading


Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language, Travel

Café Brûlot

The French word brûlot originally meant “fire ship.” Back in the days when all ships were made of wood, it was a reasonably common military tactic to fill an old ship with combustible materials, set it alight, and, when it was really roaring, send it out among the ships of one’s enemies, hoping that they would catch fire, which they often did. While brûlot can still refer to a fire ship, it came in time to refer to another combustible material in flames, this time brandy.

It is the flaming brandy definition of brûlot, of course, that gives us café brûlot, that sensational showstopper of New Orleans origin, where flaming brandy is the big attention-getter. There are a number of tales regarding the invention of this theatrical beverage, including one story that involves the pirate Jean Lafitte. However, somewhat more reasonably perhaps, the venerable restaurant Antoine’s, founded in 1840 and the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, lays claim to the invention. Whichever tale is true, the drink was being served at Antoine’s by the 1890s. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Language, Recipes, Travel

Coffee: The Magic Bean

Coffee Plant

Coffee beans may not offer the fairytale magic of producing giant beanstalks, but they do produce the very real and often necessary magic of waking us up, getting us going, clarifying our thoughts, helping us work, talk, cope, and get things done.

The coffee plant is a member of the madder family of plants. Rubiaceae in Latin, the madder family includes among its more than 6,500 species of tropical herbs, shrubs, and trees such fragrant delights as the gardenia and such medical wonders as quinine. But the member of the family nearest to many of our hearts is the one that produces those magic “beans.” The coffee shrub is an evergreen. In the wild, it grows to heights of 26 to 33 feet. It produces bunches of white flowers that smell much like jasmine, and each flower in time produces a fruit. The fruit, when ripe, is called a cherry, and its fleshy pulp contains two seeds. These seeds are what we know as coffee beans. Continue reading


Filed under culinary history, Food, Geography, History, Language

Truffes au Chocolat

Today, people call just about any piece of chocolate with a ganache filling “truffle.” It has gotten to the point where the term is so common in this context, some people are surprised to learn that the word “truffle” actually originally applied to something other than chocolate.

Truffles—real truffles—are wonderful fungi that grow on tree roots. They are a bit lumpy, looking rather like something that was intended to be spherical but got slightly battered. However, they are beautiful to those who fancy them. I adore the earthy flavor and fragrance of truffles.

Chocolate truffles began to become popular in the early 1900s. They were called “chocolate truffles” because they looked like real truffles (black truffles, that is; there are also white truffles, but that’s not what these imitate). The original chocolate truffles (which are still commonly made in Europe) did not have a chocolate coating, and they were not perfectly round. They were, like real truffles, a bit lumpy, and they were dusted with cocoa powder, to keep them from sticking together, as well as to suggest the dry dirt that might cling to a real truffle. They were meant to amuse the eye, as well as the palate. Because they are not coated, they are quite delicate—which is probably why folks started coating them. They’re easier to package and ship. But that doesn’t mean they’re better. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under culinary history, Food, History, Language, Recipes