‘Tis the Season

Gosh, it has been two years since I visited here. I bet at least that much for you too dear readers (if there are any left).

I am firmly settled here in Budapest. Since my last writing, my kitchen is complete and I have fed masses and given a few classes. I still have love, and a dog, and my roof is cozier than ever. Today, I was driving, yes I have a car now, from an industrial area to the north of the city back home with snap-together shelves, which I know will be a nightmare for me to assemble. If it says it is a snap, it ain’t. I knew the way home, but I used my WAZE navigation app to see what it saw with the pre-holiday traffic starting its lazy snarl. It took me via the rakpart down and along the Duna (Danube). A wonderful way I would not have chosen. The city opened up and I saw the beautiful bridges, castle, and Parliament. I am grateful to have found myself here; it made me fall in love with Budapest all over again. Many roads can lead home.

It will be three years end of December, since I lost my friend Pierre (here) who decided that he was in too much pain to continue, and now a year-and-a-half since my father died. My father didn’t choose to go, but I know in my heart he knew he was dying. He cleared the decks for my brother and me; he got organized for his departure. He died in the arms of the man he loved, and I am grateful for that.  I wanted to go and be there; I wanted to fix it; I wanted to <insert tim here>. I wanted to do it for Pierre and couldn’t, and there was no time for my father.  I miss them both very much.   I know Pierre would be proud of his youngest daughter who has since published her second novel Ecosystème. It is a good read; she is a powerful and funny writer–buy it if you read French. He loved his grandchildren from his eldest daughter, and secretly liked the way she scolded and fussed over him and his habits. “I wonder if they will forgive me,” he asked me once.

‘Tis the season for celebration, at least that is what we are told while lured to consume more and more as though that will make us happier. Shiny ball syndrome. I always find the season stressful as do many people. I don’t have a lot to stress about these days and for that I am grateful. I could share recipes of cookies, eggnog, hams and all the trimmings, but I am tired, and as I look on my kitchen counter, I see a perfect Ruby Red grapefruit. It is a kiss of light and sunshine as the days grow darker. The sections of citrus sweetness pop, the oils from the skin awaken the taste buds and the brain says YUM! LIFE IS NOT SO BAD! SMELL THE SUNSHINE!

So go out and buy the biggest most expensive grapefruit for yourself and sit in revelation of how a small fruit can make so much difference on a gray day.

I wish you all love and happiness in this season.

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The Autumn of Discontent and Breaking Down (a Turkey)


In a ruin of an apartment, sitting on a rickety folding wooden chair, a laptop perched on two cases of wine, a man writes. He is there to get the feel of a new space. There is graffiti on the walls made by the four children who lived there previously. Hearts with A+K or K+ A inside, smiley faces, Batman logos, jesters, Hello Kitties, and rainbows; he has added a couple more smiley faces. It is a thing of his. He draws them whenever and wherever he can.

The gas convector is warming up the room nicely; still he has a blanket on his shoulders. From a window adorned with a sticker of Winnie the Pooh eating an apple and smiling at a picnic basket,  he looks onto a clean courtyard with a low cinder block wall.  Milne could draw smiles perfectly he thought; Dr. Seuss too. He smiles and thinks Pooh might have preferred a jar of Hunny. We are looking over his shoulder at the screen. He types badly, hunting and pecking and going back to correct mistakes.


“While not officially over, fall is moving on. Thanksgiving has passed. We have had our first days of frost, and 1 degree Celsius temperatures. In the country, we have dug up the beetroot and potatoes, and radishes and put them in the root cellar. The leaves are all but gone; I raked up the last Acacia leaves this morning; they blanketed my courtyard. Baa Baa Black Sheep have you any leaves? Yes sir, yes sir  ten bags from trees. I cannot burn them because I am in the city center; but in Hungary one can still burn leaves and often the smell of my childhood comes back. Ray Bradbury wrote an essay on the smell of burning leaves and lost childhood moments and things children of the future may never know; I thought it was in Zen in the Art of Writing (here) but I cannot find it. It is somewhere, perhaps some one can help me find it? Yes, I am asking for help. I never do that.”

“I raked the leaves from the courtyard today while listening to a Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. I don’t really know all that much about this kind of music. It was heartrendingly beautiful, sadness and joy and soaring voices. I finished the leaf raking to a cry to the Savior. At least it sounded like that; German isn’t one of my languages. As I finished, the season’s first flakes of snow fell.  They are now gone. It was cliche, but…”

“It is a good day for mulled wine and a rich beef stew, maybe a soup from the bones of the 14 kilo turkey we had yesterday. I made the stuffing and carved the bird. Next year my kitchen will be ready and preparing for feeding the masses will be easier. I don’t think my life could be better right now in the balance of things. I have everything I need, and am putting down things I think I want, but don’t really need. I have a roof, love, a dog, several projects percolating relating to music and food. They move slowly but I am fine with that. 慢慢来‘ (man man lai) is a favorite expression of mine. Loosely translated it means slowly slowly it will come. It bears the suggestion that time is the answer. Time will either reveal all, or at least your next step. There is no hurry, take it easy, no need to worry, let’s take this step by step. I am building my adult middle aged life.  And yet, I am taken over by a feeling of sadness.”

“We are coming up on the one year anniversary of my friend Pierre Vanier’s senseless death, a suicide. You can read about him here. I found myself wondering if he was listening to music when he walked into the Danube, a Requiem perhaps, smiling as the cold waters took away his feelings and pain, as he slowly succumbed to the dark swift current. Was there a moment of regret and panic–that moment when some one jumps off a bridge and as their hands leave the railings they think, oh no, this was a bad idea? I don’t think he suffered from a moment of panic. He was in too much pain; there was too much alcohol, too many antidepressants and narcotics in his bloodstream. I miss his smile and laughter. But  like the leaves on the ground, it is time to let him go. I am thankful for the short time we had together.”

Breaking Down (the Turkey)

  1. Roast your turkey as you see fit. I don’t stuff the cavities, I find it messes with the cooking time and all that. Carve it; I may have to do a carving entry with a link to a video one of these days (any interest? leave me a comment). Be generous leaving some meat on the bones. Pluck out the oysters and give yourself a treat. I call it the Chef’s Tax.
  2. Break down the bones and carcass into big chunks and simmer slowly with a garniture aromatique (carrot, celery, onion). I add leeks with their greens too. An entire head of unpeeled garlic or two never hurts either. This should all happen in a large stockpot, with cold water to start just covering all the ingredients. Cook until the bones are clean of meat; a few hours at least. Skim the frothy impurities (scum) that floats tot he top as it cooks. Let it cool. Remove bones and pick apart the meat with your hands. Reheat for soup. Give the bones to a big hungry dog; no lectures please.
  3. The next day, once you get towards the bottom of the soup, and it has thickened from reducing, add heavy cream, sauteed mushrooms, grated cheese, sherry, and gobs of fresh parsley. Cook pasta separately, mix it together and bake for 30 minutes for a lovely Tetrazzini. Optionally, you can broil it for the last 5 minutes with freshly grated cheeses.  There really is no standard recipe.

At first I thought Tetrazzini was an Italian dish or pasta, but I found this instead (here).  You can hear her here. She must have eaten a lot of Tetrazzini.


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Eat a Peach! or Egyél Egy Barackot!

I am astounded by the bounty here in Hungary. It is as though the earth, the farmers and orchard keepers have a little secret. None of it is GMO. They kicked out Monsanto. Well, that is what they say; I have not researched it thoroughly. There is even a Hungarian Melon Cartel, I shit you not (more on that later).

The local supermarket chain COOP in town is selling perfect peaches at 45 cents a pound. FORTY-FIVE CENTS A POUND; I KNOW RIGHT? I tried one and it was pretty perfect. I have an advantage in that I do not have to shop for peaches or apricots at the market. I have four peach trees to choose from, and the boughs are laden. I am just outside of the city in a village called Érd. It is famous for its peaches–world famous. The Érd Barack (barack is pronounced baratsk; the sound is similar to the “o” in often.) I could write endless blogs on Hungarian language, but I am afraid I would get lost, as many a sane soul has.

We have made compotes, ice cream, twenty-seven jars of jam, grilled them with savory spices. Jarring is next, and when I need a break from all that, I just walk into the garden shirtless, pick a peach and have it explode juice everywhere. My grandfather used to say the only way to really eat a mango was in the bath tub. Ditto on these peaches. I will spare you images of me eating peaches in the bath tub. You are welcome.

I am in peach heaven.

Happy Summer Days to All

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Pierre’s Lentils (Swansong)

On 27 December 2014 at 05:45, I left Budapest for Nimes to ring in the New Year with family, especially to see my son for the first time in eight months. I have never not seen him for that long, and I hope that we never are apart for that long again–never again if I can help it.

I have lucky stars, guardian angels, benefactors, and come from gentle birth. These words are insufficient, they are mere descriptors. I am blessed and I am grateful for all of these people and what they give to me. On 28 December 2014, I lost one. He had been struggling with depression his whole life. He lived on medication; a lot of medications. I have never seen anyone take so many medications.

He invited me to stay with him in his apartment, and he asked for nothing in return, except some company and help exploring the “dark web.” He was fascinated by technology and new things. He was French, and so we shared a common language. He too had fallen in love with Hungary many years before, and had decided to retire here a few years ago. For the last five months we became unlikely room mates.  When I arrived at his apartment, a large lovely loft-like place with twelve foot high ceilings in the XIII district, he showed me my room and gave me a set of keys. You are at home, he said. No strings attached.

I show my love though food and music; I cook for people; I try to help. I have a desperate need to be loved and affirmed; it is a two-edged blade and my Achilles’ heel. Pierre’s diet was awful. It consisted of two almás rétes, a type of Hungarian apple strudel, in the morning and a precooked chicken leg in the evening, all eaten cold. He would buy enough for three or four days, and often it would go unfinished. He was a big man, not fat, but 6’5″ and 230 pounds, so it wasn’t enough. But cooking for one sucks, and he took no joy in it. I began to forage in his cabinets, see what the knife and pots and pans situation looked like, and set to work. I cleaned the cabinets, threw out old packages of rice, and bags of flour with bugs in them. I bought jars to store things. I saved what I could. He had many spices he had brought with him from France which he put in that cabinet and forgot. There were five bottles of generic curry powder, four of cumin, some turmeric, various of the usual dried out herbs…basil, tarragon, thyme, rosemary. Paprika, cinnamon, and dried chili flakes that were so old they were yellow; I threw away the chili flakes. There was an unopened bag of green lentils. They still looked okay, so we started there. I did some shopping and cooked.  He enjoyed them, and they became a staple for us. I expanded the repertoire and made small dishes for the two of us; we shared meals and we shared time. We even bought a smoothie machine and made green blends of healthy fruits and vegetables. He wanted to hear about my exploits in the city, my music, friends, women, living vicariously through me. I wanted to know about his life and his career as a professor at a university and his family. He was a cultured, kind, decent human being and his demons were fierce. We became close. He told me of his daughters whom he loved very much. He was so proud of them. His youngest has a novel coming out in January of 2015. He had two grandsons from the oldest. He taught himself to play the piano, starting with the Goldberg Variations (impossible for me to even imagine), and while he could not play them well, he said, he mapped his way, note by note through the Aria and few of the Variations until he could get through them without stopping. He always had a small smile when we talked about the music. I think he was secretly pleased at how horrified a piano teacher would have been at his technique. He had abandoned the piano; I never heard him play. He was a very good looking man, Un Belle Homme.

He never left the apartment unless he had to — post office, psychiatrist, pharmacy, basic needs. He came to one of my concerts over the summer, before I had moved in. I didn’t know then how tough that was for him. When I knew I would be away for a day or three, I made enough food for him to eat. He even started cooking the lentil dish, and learned how to make a decent rice pilaf.  He was usually asleep by seven because the anti-anxiety and sleep medications were so strong they knocked him out into a zombie-like state. He dressed in black, always in black. In the summer he wore brown sandals. He sat on his couch and smoked Camels’s all day staring into the middle distance. Our project upon my return from France was to clean up his book shelves. It is a wall, about 14 feet long floor to ceiling. The books were doubled on the shelf, and he lamented the death of the library. “A library is dead when you double up the books,” he said.

He went into a deep depression before Christmas. I was worried; we all were. The small network of friends were on guard. We were three; I was part of the circle because I was living there. His daughters called regularly. He had attempted suicide a year before. I wouldn’t have gone to France but for my son, and I had booked the tickets two months before. Pierre and I said said good-bye on 26 December 2014 at 16:43. I had made enough food for a week, and he promised he would eat it all. I asked him to promise to call me, to not do anything stupid. He told me he would. I told him I loved him. I hugged him and locked the door to the apartment. I called him from the airport on the 27th and promised I would call for the New Year. I received a message on 28 December 2014 at 21:52 that he was dead. He had loaded up a backpack with rocks and walked into the Danube at 05:30 that morning.

He left letters for his friends and daughters and a last will and testament. He had been planning this for a while. Maybe he had never stopped planning. His daughters and I will meet for the first time in January to dispose of his things. It is not how I wanted to meet them. I wanted them to come to Budapest and see a happy, well-fed Pierre, who was looking forward to things, showing off his new recipes, walking with his grandsons on Margit Island chasing dragonflies.

I always thought I was in control. I believed that I could fix anything — anything through force of will and if need be tenacity, and love. Turns out I cannot. My mind spins out of control, asking impossible to answer questions: What if I hadn’t gone to France? Why didn’t I see it coming? What if? What if? What if? I know it isn’t reasonable and that he suffered from a terrible and crippling disease, at least now he is free; it wasn’t something I could have prevented, but I will think about it.
Pierre’s Lentils (serves 3-4)
500 grams lentils
2 whole chicken legs (separate thighs and drumsticks)
100 grams smoked bacon (cut into large pinky sized pieces)
2 medium onions sliced thinly
4-5 Tablespoons generic curry powder
3 Tablespoons cumin powder
2 Tablespoons turmeric
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
3 Tablespoons neutral oil (sunflower is fine)
Pepper to taste
Salt to taste AFTER the lentils are cooked
Enough water to cover the lentils

Sauté the bacon until it has rendered the fat a little. I like to keep it a little chewy as opposed to completely crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside. Add 1 Tbs. oil and color the chicken parts. Remove them as well. Add the remaining oil and sweat the onions gently until they are transparent, about ten minutes. Do NOT let them color. Add all the spices and cook for another five minutes stirring constantly so they do not burn. It is very important to cook the spices so they release their oils. Add the lentils and bacon and stir all together. Use enough water to just cover the lentils. Lay the the chicken pieces on top an cover the pan. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for thirty-five to forty minutes until the lentils are cooked through but still al dente. Salt and pepper to taste.

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Péngyǒu, Chaiyǒu and Tea People 3/3

My goodness, it has taken a long time to come out of this slumber. I wouldn’t call it a funk, because while there have been dark days, for the most part life is good. It is because of friends. Old and new friends.

I left China in May of 2013. Projects abandoned and new ones begun. I did not have the heart to live there full time. It is too far and I was very lonely. The only city I would have wanted to live in, Beijing, is just too polluted.  One of my last images of Beijing is that of an expat mother taking her toddler out to play in the warm June sun. He was wearing a respirator, a painter’s respirator. I was shocked and angry because this child believes that in order to go out and play he must don protective gear. I can imagine the conversation in a few years.

“Johnny, don’t  forget your lunch, and is your cell phone charged, and your respirator.”
“YES MOM!!! I KNOW…sheesh, and thanks for making the world suck.”

What have we done to this planet and how can we justify anything if a child cannot go out and play?

I have an old friend who had been bugging me for years to come to Hungary. His grandfather had built a beautiful villa on the Lake Balaton, the Hungarian Sea. I was in a funk, and called him asking if the offer was still good. He laughed and said always. I booked a flight and we converged at Liszt Ference Airport on 30 May 2013.  My cargo upon departure: five pounds of prime Longjing green tea.

I checked out and stayed off  the grid for two months. The only person I told where I was going was my son. If some one dies I will appear I said, otherwise my only contact to the outside world was him. It was a healing and refreshing time.  Checking out is a great healer. We were met by Laszlo, now one of my dearest friends, and whisked away to the Lake Balaton and the Villa Ilus, named after Gustav’s grandmother. I became the AIR (Artist in Residence) and set up shop music stand and all to work on my music. The villa is full of art and energy and love. There is a pizza oven, and the lake is a mere ten minute walk away. There are no motorboats on the lake (almost no motorboats). More on that and Hungarian food and the loopholes of Hungarian politics to come.

We went into Budapest to visit, and upon arrival, crossing the Danube – or Duna, my entire body relaxed and exhaled. It had been almost five years since that happened. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Some say it is the Paris of Middle Europe, but it has a charm all its own. At night it is spectacular. I was adopted by a family, childhood friends of Gustav’s moved into their home, a glorious place in the hills of Buda where fruit trees were laden with perfect cherries, sour cherries, apricots, apples, figs, and walnuts. My bedroom had French doors and opened onto a terrace where I could sit and watch the pink setting sun set monuments and Parliament ablaze. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed European capital cities. I started to go to open mics and gigs. My guide was Laszlo’s daughter Mimma; she opened up the city and people to me.  It is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received; thank you Mimma. It is largely because of her and musician friends that I find myself in Budapest today, a year and a half later. I did go back to New York for some months and Florida to escape the Polar Vortex, and then I hightailed it back as soon as I could in May of 2014.

Péngyǒu is friend in Chinese. Chaiyǒu is a play on words; it means tea friend. There are people who get together only to drink tea and talk of tea and life. I have never met a bad tea person. If some one loves tea they are good people; it is a generalization, but it follows. I introduced people to the great green tea and because of that was guided to my newest tea friends, and life friends…the owners of the 1000tea on Vaci Utca 65, Gabor and Anasuya. I spend endless hours there working and playing and drinking tea. If you pop in say hello. We can share a pot of Puer or Oolong, or some Longjing.

I feel at home again and alive in my own skin. Forgive the monologue. Future posts will be…well…whatever they will be.

From Budapest with love.

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China, Cars and Driver Stereotypes (a not-so-gentle rant)

An interesting quote by a long-time expat in Beijing from some years ago: “The Chinese Highway Code is extensive and if you read it, and if it were followed, it would put the Chinese driver at an extremely high level. Unfortunately I have to say that I believe that the majority of Chinese drivers haven’t even seen this set of rules, let alone follow them! Chinese drivers are extremely aggressive in their driving style and care little (i.e. not at all, if they even realize they are there!) for those people and vehicles around them and generally completely ignore the rules of the road. Until the Chinese authorities introduce a Traffic Department as part of the police force, and start to clamp down on drivers breaking the rules by hitting them where it hurts (in the pocket), then I only see the situation deteriorating as the level as traffic increases.”


It is funny to think that 95% of all drivers in China have had their driver’s license fewer than five years.  Beijing adds about 1,500 new cars a day, and it is not the largest city in China.  We take driving for granted in the U.S. because we are an automobile culture, and have been since after WWII. Chances are when your parents were pregnant with you they had a car, and their parents them; depending on how old you are, maybe even one more generation beyond that.

When I was in Beijing in January I was driving – or being driven; foreigners cannot drive unless they pass a test which according to my sister-in-law is very difficult – I passed a line of maybe 150 identical cars with five passengers in each. The procession was odd, so I asked what was happening.  It is a local driving school, I was told. Everyone is learning to drive and they are practicing on the relatively empty outskirts of the northeastern part of the city. This was just one company on a Tuesday, in the afternoon.  The cars crawled at fifteen or twenty miles per hour following each other; the drivers’ faces tense as they copied the driver in front of them. Regular drivers swerving into the opposite lane of oncoming traffic to get around this interminable line only made the new drivers more nervous.  They do this practicing several times and then are ready to pass a driving test. It was a comedy, and terrifying too. Truth be told, the swerving into oncoming traffic did not make me feel much better.  Our driver, J’s usual, has a picture of a Ferrari on his mobile phone. He craves speed and sharp corners. He honks incessantly and veers into oncoming traffic taking cat whisker width chances. He does pass in the emergency lane. He is a professional driver. That recklessness is what happens to all drivers after they pass their test and become suddenly overconfident. It is why insurance for young drivers is so high and why rental car companies do not rent to those under twenty-five. This is no video game; there is no re-apparate. The number of traffic deaths has soared in China.* ++

The highway safety here is getting better. Back in the old days, as quoted from the expat above, the usual passing lane was the emergency median on the right. The government became much stricter after a massive car pile-up happened and the ambulances and fire trucks could not get to the accident.  People died as a result.  Traffic police can no longer issue tickets, as they are too susceptible to bribes. The answer: put cameras everywhere. Take pictures of everything. At the end of the year you are sent a bill with all your infractions detailed, points deducted, and monies owed courtesy of the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Public Security; Department of Traffic Safety.  You had better pay your bill; and people do. My brother remarked yesterday that the system is working because on our six hour drive no one passed in the emergency lanes, and people obeyed the speed limit.  I guess there is something to be said for a big brother.  It is not that the Chinese drivers are bad drivers, they just haven’t the experience.

Given the inexperience of the drivers and the very powerful cars here makes me more forgiving of the idiocy one faces every day, but it means one has to be more vigilant too.  One only hopes that not too many people will die from traffic fatalities as the inexperienced drivers mature and can pass on some of that experience to the next generation. The problem is that as a control freak passenger there is nothing I can do wear my seatbelt and hope for the best.

I lost two very close friends when I was young to drunk driving. They were drunk and they were driving; driving fast and without seatbelts. I was made fun of because I wore a seatbelt in High School. I make passengers in the back seat wear seatbelts when I drive. Hey, you don’t like it? WALK!

Please buckle up…and hey! Let’s be careful out there (Old TV show reference)

Oh, if you want to see some of the silly questions for foreigners who want to drive in China, follow the link below…some of the questions are priceless http://www.shekouonline.com/drivingtest.html

On a separate note: I do believe that China missed the boat in the car modernization game; they could have mandated an electric car system here, and the world would have followed. With the the largest auto market in the world and growing exponentially, BMW, Mercedes, etc. would have jumped at the opportunities to sell whatever the mandate.  Even if the government started with buses and way stations for battery swapping as they built the highway infrastructures, the transition would have been easier. Oh well, I am not surprised at the short-term profit seeking. It is what we are as a species, no?

* http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080604194701.htm

++ http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-01/07/content_11808453.htm

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Cooking the tea and the smell of grass 2/3

If the leaves must be picked by virgins for purity, then it is fitting that the tea is cooked (or prepared) for consumption by old men working, drinking and smoking all through the night.  It is the ever present and inevitable Yin and Yang. Dirty, often toothless men crafting perfection wrought from the hands of virgin tea pickers. There is an open discussion as to whether tea is cooked or roasted, like coffee. Either definition works. You can tell a great tea cooker by his hands. They are blistered and calloused from moving the leaves in a circular pressing and shifting motion in a hot iron cauldron. As they cook through the night smoking, they fall asleep and their hands stop a fraction of a second too long. They jerk awake and curse, not even stopping to look. Long ago when I cooked in France, and a cook would cut himself, the chef would say, “C’est le métier qui rentre.”He meant that the soul of the profession was entering into you as you bled or got burned for it. I have yet to see a woman cooking tea, but I am sure they do. The entire village and the environs smell of a light citrus spring as tea is cooked. It is intoxicating. It smells fresh, positive and the aroma penetrates the body and leaves hope in the heart. If you have never smelled it, then the only comparison I can give to the headiness is that of a freshly mown lawn or field.

As China hurtles into modernization and becoming the dominant power on the planet, its old ways are dying. Tea is no exception; I can only speak of the green tea here; the commoditization has happened. Up until recently, maybe fifteen years ago, this little village did not have good access to outside markets and the side businesses of tea, restaurants, marketing peasant cooking, packaging, hotels, and guest houses. There were no fancy resorts much less the hyper expensive Amanfayun, which is now nestled in the tea valley. The Aman resorts are probably the most exclusive resorts in the world. There was no road or tunnel through the mountain. It was hard to get here, and almost no one had cars. Rural isolation ruled.

Green tea is cooked three times. The initial cooking is done to remove excess moisture, the second to set or press the flavors, and the third to finish the tea leaves and give them the proper aspect. The farmers did everything by hand and sold the product to middlemen who reaped most of the profits. With roads and tunnels, an affluent class now exists; it is all about the money. So, the farmers have started to take shortcuts to maximize tea output and profits. Now, all farmers do a first cook by machine. You can hear a hum thump – hum thump thump – hum thump – hum thump thump as the delicate bright green tea leaves are put through the first of the cooks with metal-tined combs and a damper heating, moving and fluffing. Some still do the final two cooks by hand, certainly the majority does the third, but many do not. You get about 25% more if you use machines; that is a lot of money. Even I, a tea newbie, can tell the difference. Because the Longjing name is so prized, some farmers even import tea from other areas nearby that cannot take the Longjing appellation and call it that just to make more money.

There is only one man, the Hat Man, because he always wears a hat, on my brother’s street, who does it all by hand, all three cooks. His tea is by far the best. He has won competitions ever since he was young. In some circles in Shanghai, his tea costs 180 Yuan a cup; that is about thirty U.S. dollars for two grams. A tea master will get four maybe five soaks in the cup. We buy our tea from him exclusively, and my brother has spent hours at his side watching and learning; he still cannot replicate the motion or feel the tea. It will take years. I really like the Hat man. He is simple, friendly, shrewd, intelligent, and prone to drinking too much. And, he cannot play pool very well, but loves to gamble; my kind of guy. I play for him for tea, and cash, but always buy a lot of tea from him.

Here are a couple of video links to the Hat Man, another neighbor whom I like, and the dreaded machine cooking:


After the tea is cooked it is sorted into sizes and quality. The early high elevation teas are the most expensive. I am drinking tea that is about $350 USD a pound. It is an unbelievable cup of tea.

Special thank you to my impromptu editor. You should check out her blog: http://mouseintokyo.wordpress.com/ You will be the better for it.

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When are you free to pick some tea with me? 1/3

It is tea season in the village, and all around Hangzhou. Hangzhou is Mecca for green tea.  This is where the famous Dragon Well Longjing Tea comes from. All of winter is forgotten and spring has burst forth.  The first leaves picked before the Qingming (pronounced Chingming) or Tomb Sweeping Holiday is the most prized.  These are the smallest and most tender leaves; this tea can fetch up to $1,000 per pound.  This is the time when farmers make all their money.

Wide brimmed bamboo woven hats dot the countryside as women gather to pick the tea. They sing tea songs, and I sit mesmerized listening to soft atonal murmurs in the spring breeze. The tunes are broken up by staccato and high pitched screaming. It sounds like they want to kill each other, but laughter follows. It is unsettling.  The Chinese are loud in almost all communication, but never to Westerners. The best pickers are supposed to be young virgins. I think it is because it gives the idea of purity to the tea. Maybe they are purer and less distracted, but if you ask me, I believe it is more about exploiting women, and that they are more coordinated.  None of the women on the mountain here look too young, so maybe the culture is changing with mandatory schooling. I hope so.  The age of sexual consent in China is marriage…period. Hymen checks are still done in the country side.  After you are married a lot of messing around happens.  It is accepted on all sides.  Welcome to the Chinese mind.

Tea picking is hard work. Not so much backbreaking like hoeing or weeding, but fastidious, careful and focused. Only the new green leaves are plucked, they shoot out from little branches, a bright green. Tea leaves grow in a sort of trident when they are young.  You have to nip the budding tea leaves, much like pinching the growing bits of the tomato plant in between branches to ensure the sap goes to the fruit.  A really good tea picker can pick two kilos a day.  That is a really good tea picker.  I worked for an hour and a half and got about four ounces.  The Ai laughed at my progress.  The secret is to have your hands palms facing up with the thumb and index tips touching. If you can imagine a reclining OK sign, you will have it.  They work with both hands and the plucking motion has a twist to it so that the little tea leaf bud comes whole with the three leaves intact. They strip a branch and move onto the next. When their hands are full, it is delicately placed into a wicker basket attached to their waist. It looks effortless.  The idea is to have as little wasted motion as possible.  The bodies hardly move but the hands are a flurry of activity.  They seem to see the leaves that want to be picked.  I look at an area and see lots of the bright green shoots, move over to the spot, and they all seem to have disappeared.  It is frustrating, like trying to see what is in a fractal image. “No God damned it; I cannot see the cheetah running after the gazelle. All I see are purple and green dots.”  I am told it takes time.  Well, there is always tomorrow and the next day, until they decide it is no longer profitable to pick tea. Since my brother does not sell his tea, we pick all through the season, until the rains come in early May.

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Bamboo You!

Apparently I have been rather morbid lately in my posts: mutilation, vomiting, airing my laundry etc. This is an attempt to rectify the situation. I write, edit little, and put it out there.  Deal with it :-)

Just down the road from my little village is the famous bamboo garden path or park. It is a vast hiking trail up the dragon’s spine and around to various places in the mountains. This whole area is a preserved National Historic Site. It is called the Yunqi Bamboo Path. The bamboo there grows 120 feet high. A famous Emperor “Qianlong (Chien-Lung)”came to pray twice. He loved this part of China. I do too. See picture below of the map, or go to Google maps and enter “Bamboo-lined Path at Yunqi Xihu,” or go to “30°11’40 N 120°5’17 E”. Yunqi literally means “The roosting of the clouds.”

It is a magic place. I have been here since December 1st 2012, so it has changed from late autumn to winter, and now as I publish this to a bright green spring with shoots everywhere. Enjoy the slide show below.  I will add more pictures to the slideshow as I continue to explore this paradise.  On nice days, I go there with my guitar and play to the imaginary bamboo muses, hoping for inspiration. The latest walk was in a snow storm. I was the only person walking up to the small temple at the top of one of the mountains. Dogs are not allowed into the park and no matter what I did to dissuade Pong and Wong they followed anyway. I guess they figured the silly foreign human who feeds them might need help. I arrived at the gate, and the lady said no me NO DOGS! I smiled and said in English: these are not my dogs. I tried in Chinese and came up with No Dog Me. This was funny to others later. She was not amused. I smiled paid my 8 RMB ($1.30) to go for a walk. She tried to shoo the dogs away, but they walked around a wall and joined me further up the path. I would not have made it without them. The place was basically deserted and a heavy wet snow was falling. It was magic. I have been a little down lately and the company of Pong, Wong, and nature was to be the antidote. It is a long walk to the temple and with the added snow I knew it would be hard work. The dogs were thrilled to keep me company and always ran ahead and looked back urging me on. “Come on little two legs…you can do it.” They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. That may be true, but you still have to walk the rest of the way. This was a journey of ten thousand steps, literally. I had a jar of green tea to fortify me. I wished I had had a peanut butter sandwich. I almost turned back about three-quarters of the way up, but I found a bamboo staff by the side of the stairs. I took it as a sign and I would not have made it up and back without it. Thank you Universe.  I was alone at the temple; I lit incense and a few candles. I sat for a while and accepted the beauty and my current situation. A wandering minstrel my father calls me.  By the time I got to the bottom of the mountain, the snow had turned to rain and a large group of pilgrims were chanting and burning incense. I felt cleansed and purified in the incense and song. I was also very hungry.

Of the 1575 known bamboo species worldwide, 110 species are recorded to have edible shoots. Edible meaning a satisfactory to delicious taste, because even though some bamboo shoots are classified as edible, they must be carefully prepared and boiled before consuming!

Bamboo shoots may contain significant, potentially very toxic, amounts of cyanogenic glycosides. Various reports even place bamboo shoots amongst the most potentially toxic plant materials, exceeding apricot, bitter almond stones and considerably exceeding that of cassava.

However, the cyanogenic glycoside in bamboo is in fact taxiphyllin. Taxiphyllin is unusual amongst other similar compounds in the sense that it degrades readily in boiling water. Thus boiling bamboo shoots or cooking bamboo shoots should remove any problem.

– See more at: http://www.guaduabamboo.com/edible-bamboo-shoots.html#sthash.zZVIkdVs.dpuf Read more: Edible Bamboo Shoots and Species

You can dry bamboo shoots, and like mushrooms reconstitute them in warm water. Fresh ones are better. There are two types of eating bamboo here called winter bamboo and spring bamboo. Spring is long and thin, and the winter squat and more pyramidal. A mix of the two is a treat. I am sure the variety changes so I cannot be more specific. I like them done very simply sliced thinly, parboiled then sautéed with ginger, and a little garlic in a very hot wok. Finish with a little sesame oil.

You can also take the big bamboo shoots that are about a foot and a half tall, and five to seven inches in diameter, and peel them and cut them into large chunks. They are a great flavoring in a long-simmered lamb stew.

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Hong Kong Chewy

I have spent five days in Hong Kong. It has been an extravaganza of food. There is much to do here and a lot to see, but food and shopping are the two main activities, unless you count horse racing and gambling. I hate shopping, so eating was the focus.

Hong Kong food varies: from the best street food I have ever eaten, to a three star Michelin Chinese restaurant.  We sampled it all.  Overwhelmed by the prospect of writing about all the food, I decided instead to photograph every dish we ate. Yes, every dish. I gained five pounds in five days. Second breakfasts, third lunches, double dinner.  Special mention to Tim’s Kitchen, and Chuen Kee Seafood in Sai Kung Harbor…and of course Lung King Heen. I am in awe.

We were only three; let the orgiastic feast for your eyes begin…it is a long slideshow. At some point I will try to put a brief caption for each photo.

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