‘Don’t make it too red’ is one of those phrases you’ll sometimes heard passed between tea-drinkers when you’re making up milked tea. We’re guilty of doing exactly that, having more of a tendency to wave a milk jug in the vicinity of a teacup than to pour out from it. But tonight’s tea is red and it’s not remotely our fault.
Tulsi Tranquility features a number of red ingredients from rosehip to red currants, raspberries and strawberries. All it really tastes of are the currants, and it smells of cloves, though the ingredients assure us none feature. Personally, we have doubts. Anyway, it’s a tangy, tart tea that runs deceptively deep red very early on.
We drank it by hunting down a poem, which was mostly achieved tonight by putting rather particular combinations of words into the search engine in an effort to coax out something specific. So while tonight’s poem is thematically unlikely, we’re that pleased that we found it that you’re getting it anyway. Besides, it features the deep red of Canadian autumn. Consider it a tribute to the tea. Well, to the red tea and the fact that nowhere on earth does autumn like Canada.
Falling Leaves and Early Snow
In the years to come they will say,
“They fell like the leaves
In the autumn of nineteen thirty-nine.”
November has come to the forest,
To the meadows where we picked the cyclamen.
The year fades with the white frost
On the brown sedge in the hazy meadows,
Where the deer tracks were black in the morning.
Ice forms in the shadows;
Disheveled maples hang over the water;
Deep gold sunlight glistens on the shrunken stream.
Somnolent trout move through pillars of brown and gold.
The yellow maple leaves eddy above them,
The glittering leaves of the cottonwood,
The olive, velvety alder leaves,
The scarlet dogwood leaves,
Most poignant of all.
In the afternoon thin blades of cloud
Move over the mountains;
The storm clouds follow them;
Fine rain falls without wind.
The forest is filled with wet resonant silence.
When the rain pauses the clouds
Cling to the cliffs and the waterfalls.
In the evening the wind changes;
Snow falls in the sunset.
We stand in the snowy twilight
And watch the moon rise in a breach of cloud.
Between the black pines lie narrow bands of moonlight,
The Christmas cards finally got sent off today. They’ll be late of course – our fault for somehow losing track of where we were in the season, notwithstanding the short days. Also on the docket; the re-taping of the furniture. Why? Because Miss Marschallin has a taste for masticating the sofas, chairs, footstools and anything else masquerading as a scratching post. We don’t care, but apparently other people do. So double-sided tape it is.
‘It will be easy,’ said the woman at the till. ‘Very self explanatory,’ said the woman at the till. We are forced to conclude that the woman at the till has never had the pleasure of battling for upwards of half an hour with the application of double-sided tape to her furniture.
The instructions claimed that you apply it and press it down, and then peel off the protective coating once it’s all nicely flat. Well, we tried. Peeled the tape off the step. Got it beautifully flat. Peeled off the protective coating, and lifted off the tape with it. Reapplied the tape, tried again. Gave up on that strand of tape and chose a fresh one. This nonsense went round and round in a fashion strongly evocative of a closed causal loop. This isn’t unreasonable, since 15 minutes in we were ready to conclude that double-sided tape was at least as science-fiction worthy and ill-advised as time travel.
At some point we peeled off half-a-dozen protective strips successfully and lull ourselves into thinking we’d triumphed. All the while the cat paraded around the room, searching out weaknesses, assessing the chair corners we missed for maximum scratching potential. Honestly, why would any sane cat owner bother?
Needless to say, when we afterwards got around to tea, it was earned. Today it was Buddha’s Blend, which has cropped up in the Advent Calendar before. We said then that it doesn’t taste the way it smells, and we stand by that. It smells light and floral. It tastes of a tanin-heavy green tea. A bit bitter, but we’d left it to steep overlong because we were still recovering from The Battle of The Double-Sided Tape (victory to us but by a narrow margin). It’s a lovely, flavoured green tea, and if you can catch it before it turns sharp, there’s a sweetness to it that is pleasant.
There are probably lots of meditative poems out there. We think Robert Frost even has one on Christmas Cards. But we’re still traumatised by the tape. Really. It was a bloody battle. The Dachshunds – traitors – fought on the side of the tape. They wanted to eat the tape. So here’s a gem from the anthology I could Pee on This, and other Poems Written By Cats. Miss Marschallin isn’t much for dead animals, but swap them out for a malevolence of tape (that’s definitely the collective noun, by the by) and this writer, too, has had had their share of tape-induced trauma. We have every confidence.
Why are You Screaming?
Why are you screaming?
What did I do wrong?
Why are you crying?
How can I make it right?
Would you like it in a different color? Would you like it in a different size? Would you like it in a different room? I just wanted to show my love
I just wanted to express my thanks I just wanted to put a dead mouse
on your sheets
But now you are screaming
And I don’t know how to make you stop
Talking of teas that take after traybakes, today’s is called Caramel Shortbread. This comes on the heels of yesterday’s Mulled Wine, and achieves a slightly better result. The tea is herbal, and the overwhelming taste is of caramel. For those keeping track at home, nuts, raisins, and sultanas don’t diffuse well in tea. One thing this does do, though is establish very well the biscuity taste that a good caramel shortbread has.
The best caramel shortbread, by the by, doesn’t have a shortbread base. It’s much better with a biscuit base; it crumbles less and balances the sweetness better. The tea tastes of this sort of biscuit. It’s not rich and buttery like a shortbread. We’re experts on this, you understand, since Millionaire’s Shortbread, which was the posh name for this traybake over in Britain, was our traybake of choice. We used to order it from the cafe we frequented in the years before peppermint squares. About this time of year we’d go in and order a slice, and a pot of tea. The tea would arrive in a teapot that defied the laws of physics and distributed the tea anywhere but in the cup, and was accompanied by a pot of hot water. That one had a workable spout.
In light of all that, here’s Andrew Lang on St. Andrews Bay. It’s not the obvious poem of his, or even one we know terribly well. But for an accurate description of a wintry sea, look no further.
St Andrews Bay
Ah, listen through the music, from the shore,
The ‘melancholy long-withdrawing roar’;
Beneath the Minster, and the windy caves,
The wide North Ocean, marshalling his waves
Even so forlorn–in worlds beyond our ken –
May sigh the seas that are not heard of men;
Even so forlorn, prophetic of man’s fate,
Sounded the cold sea-wave disconsolate,
When none but God might hear the boding tone,
As God shall hear the long lament alone,
When all is done, when all the tale is told,
And the gray sea-wave echoes as of old!
This was the burden of the Night,
The saying of the sea,
But lo! the hours have brought the light,
The laughter of the waves, the flight
Of dipping sea-birds, foamy white,
That are so glad to be!
‘Forget!’ the happy creatures cry,
‘Forget Night’s monotone,
With us be glad in sea and sky,
The days are thine, the days that fly,
The days God gives to know him by,
And not the Night alone!’
Yesterday’s tea confused us. Today’s…well, today’s is odd. It’s called Mulled Wine Oolong, and incontrovertibly it tastes of mulled wine. Specifically of mulled wine if you took out the alcohol content. The bizarre thing here is that it tastes not at all of oolong. This is strange less because it’s a tea (though there’s that too) but because oolong is such a pungent sort of tea. You ferment the leaves to make an oolong, so it always has something of a smoky taste. Smoky isn’t quite the right word, but it’s late and the right word for that particular flavour eludes us. The point is, it should be ideally suited for something calling itself Mulled Wine Tea. You’d expect the underlying notes here to be the musk of the oolong. Instead the spices and candied fruit overwhelm it, which says a lot about the strength of the flavouring, because a normal fruit blend won’t undercut an oolong. We drink them all the time; orange oolong, oolong with raspberry, with lemon and citrus.
That’s not to say Mulled Wine Oolong is a bad tea. As we say, it’s an eerily effective rendition of mulled wine. Drink it with a mince pie and enjoy yourself. Just don’t expect it to taste like tea.
We’re thinking of mince pies as a companion piece here not a little because we miss them over in Canada. We can’t buy them for love or money this side of the water, whereas we used to be spoiled for selection. We never actually went out of our way to buy them, but they always seemed to be on hand at Christmas receptions or as sweets after supper – maybe a friend passed them round over afternoon tea. We keep meaning to make them, but since we can’t find the mince over here either, and making it up from scratch is an alarming amount of effort, that has so far come to nothing.
We did look, but found no literature on the mince pie. Personally, we blame Oliver Cromwell, who famously declared them – and Christmas – illegal back when he was running England. The country then, like good, absent-minded Englishers, forgot to reinstate both as legal thereafter. So it’s really very daring, the buying and selling of mince pies. This may explain the total lack of them in Canada, what with our track record of historically declining to offend Britain.
Instead, here’s a poem on something called Christmas Plum Cake. We make this a plum pudding, but if anyone has different ideas, do write in. You can get hold of plum pudding in Canada, incidentally. It was a staple of Christmases in Guelph, growing up, where only our grandfather ate it. Here’s hoping you have more appetite for the poem.
Mother’s Little Helper, today’s tea election for day 18, has us confused on several levels. It manages to taste both of nothing and everything at once, to start with. In fact, it tasted so thoroughly of nothing that we went hunting for the ingredients. It’s supposed to feature camomile, hibiscus, valerian, lemongrass and several other soporifics, but the hibiscus is dominating. And it’s mostly dominating the colour of the tea, which is beetroot pink. It doesn’t say, but we suspect cornflowers of featuring too; the little blue flowers are particularly distinctive.
Atypically, not even the camomile comes through with its dusty, dry-hay taste. We brewed it in a mug, which is also atypical for us, so it may be that we misjudged the brewing time on this one. The other point of confusion stems from the kosher declaration on the tea. We understand what makes kosher salt distinctive – but tea? We thought we knew our Levitical law, but we’ve obviously forgotten the pertinent verse. If anyone wants to write in with an explanation, please do.
Tea aside though, we’ve always loved the light-play of winter, if not the cold that comes with it. Scotland used to give us what we called ‘three o’clock light’ – a particular shade as the sun was setting early. But there are other variations too; the waning of it across stained glass as it grows ever more opaque, the gold of it coming up late in the morning and blossoming across the sky. Here’s a poem on a similar theme. And to add to our ever-growing list that things we don’t understand, you’ll find an accented ‘all trade’ at the end of the first stanza. Normally we can talk metrical stresses with the best of them, but this one has us baffled. How do you lengthen the vowel on a short word? Or even on an already long A? We welcome insights.
Gerrard Manly Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
Today has involved, among other things, the internet’s insistence that it couldn’t establish a secure connection to the blog, a singing lesson, and the augmenting of the Christmas Cake. We’re fairly sure the last one went wrong, somewhere between skewering the cake and soaking it in orange juice as per the instructions. Turn upside-down, they read. Add Orange Juice, they said .So we did these things, and righted the cake, because it said to do that too. And then we thought about it, and wondered how, gravity being what it is, a perforated cake was going to absorb orange juice sitting right-side-up and wrapped in clingfilm and tinfoil. The marzipan was on by then too – also as per the instructions – and we’re pretty sure that none of the above sequence is good for marzipan. We’re certain, after a sample of the stuff, that we prefer making it from scratch. It’s nothing against store-bought, but it always tastes sweeter than the home-made stuff. And not quite like almond. On the other hand, we were all saved eyeing marzipan out of obscure kitchen corners into the next millennia, so that was good.
Almonds resurfaced in the tea. It smelled of sweet almonds, which is good, because anything else would send a sane literary critic running the other direction and worrying about cyanide. Just us? It may be entirely possible we’ve read one murder mystery too many. Anyway, it’s a green tea that tastes of roasted almonds a combination that works well. It’s long in the mouth and stands being steeped for long periods of time.
Things being what they are, we ought to have a poem on hand about almonds or Christmas cakes, or something for consistency. In fairness, we did look. The absolute dearth of literate has us convinced that all anyone ever took away from marzipan was a blizzard of icing-sugar. Blizzard being, naturally, the collective noun for amassed icing sugar. Probably any poet whose baked the stuff is still coaxing it out of the crevices of counters and finding residual powder behind the toaster. Good to know we’re in good company on that one.
Instead, here’s a poem about the new year. Precipitate, possibly, but then, Advent is our liturgical new year, so it’s not entirely without relevance.
Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
As if in proof to yesterday’s declaration that it’s not spices in tea, really, we swear on a bible, that we take objection to, today’s selection was called Gingerbread. Straight and to the point. It’s a robins packed chock full of ginger, and it smells and tastes like gingerbread in a cup. So much so that we investigated the ingredients for traces of molasses. We found none. Low on caffeine and richly flavoured, it’s a perfect evening tea. This is how you do spiced teas properly.
In other news, it’s Advent III, the Sunday when the rose vestments come out and we relax whatever Advent discipline we have going. We always think that if ever there was a day we could let the blog slip, it’s this one. But we enjoy the blog, and Gaudete Sunday happens to be our favourite. Even if we still haven’t sung Hills of the North Rejoice this season.
In perpetual embodiment of jubilation though, are the Dachshunds of Dawlish. We owe them a poem, not least because Miss Marschallin has had two this season to their none. But also, no one does unbridled joy like a Dachshund leaping around your knees. We don’t even have to do anything for it. If we look vaguely in the direction of the kitchen from three o’clock onwards, they leap in jocund fashion at the prospect of food. If you go into the kitchen any time after half three, they run in giddy circles. Open the gate to the family room and they race to see who can crush the sofa cushions fastest. It’s like being perpetually bombarded with optimism, and it’s contagious. So here’s a poem to the Dachshunds, with love and affection. We really are sorry we insisted on bathing them earlier today.
Lost and Found
Man has lost his gods. If he loses his dignity,
it’s all over.
I said that.
What did I mean?
First, that the belief
in divinity has almost
I meant mutual
self-respect, the sense
that we have some right
to be here and that
there is value in it.
(Values are where
the gods went
when they died.)
My dog Susie doesn’t seem
to have any values, but she does
have Pat and me, gods
she gets to play with and bark at.
The Dachshunds have many values, if you’re curious. Fabulous Orange Ball is high on the list. It’s narrowly outranked by Food. Sun is crucial, and warm. We’re sort of in disgrace until the warm weather comes. But they bark anyway, because apparently part of being perpetually optimistic about the universe involves making a joyful noise unto the Lord at every possible occasion.
On which note, we’ll end with Hills of the North, just so someone sings it this year. The important thing to note here is that there are two sets of lyrics, and ours are right. Well, we think so. The people who sing the other ones probably disagree. Both are quite good in their own way though.
There’s nothing quite like waking up to a cat being pointedly ill on the bedspread. This after we had deported her the previous evening from the master bedroom, where she was improving upon someone’s good, grey coat.
It was like this. We were sitting down to tea, when a summons came up the stairs with the terrifying words, ‘You must see what the cat is doing. She isn’t moving.’ It’s not as if, come Advent and Christmas we harbour a perpetual fear that the Marschallin-Cat will asphyxiate, choke, strangle or otherwise do away with herself by means of tinsel, poinsettia, or Christmas bauble, so these were well chosen words. Allowing for the fact that we do, in fact, anticipate all and any of these things at a given holiday moment. Left to our own devices there would be no ornaments within striking distance of the Magnificent Paws, and no lights. We’ve won a victory against the poinsettias, and tinsel is, happily, not a Canadian fixture.
Anyway, off we went, only to find Miss Marschallin was very much moving. Flip-flopping, in fact, side-to-side. Stretching luxuriantly across the grey wool coat, exposing her underbelly to anyone who happened to be passing. Miss Marschallin never exposes her underbelly to passers-by. We only get to stroke it on extra-special occasions when she’s half-asleep with unbridled contentment. Anyway, the owner of the grey coat got within a foot of that particularly vulnerable spot, put a hand out, and thought better of it. They further declined to go to bed via the other side of the bed, which was vacant, because really, why adjust one’s life to a cat.
What can we say? They haven’t lived with cats long. Miss Marschallin’s predecessor was only with us eleven years and loved a good tummy rub. Chalk and cheese, these two felines. All the while, there was the Marschallin-cat beautifying that grey coat with her lovely ginger fur. There is nothing not improved by ginger fur. Also, this way the coat’s owner could now do a credible impression of some fur-clad ’40s movie star. Heddy Lamar, Garbo, maybe. We don’t know.
Neither of them was budging, so in the end there was nothing for it but to swoop Miss Marschallin up into her very particular hold and transport her elsewhere. You could practically hear the indignation radiating from her. And really, we don’t blame her. To be taken away from a comfy place to sleep for no better reason than the fact of one’s being portable and the sleeping place of choice being someone else’s property…well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Which, we’re tolerably sure, is how we came to be the loving recipient of this morning’s pointed gift. It’s not as if there were wooden floors going spare, or anything. Here’s a poem for you by way of apology to Her Nibs, Filed-Marschallin, Empress and Queen of Dawlish. We first found it in the Opies’ Oxford Book of Children’s Verse. Perusing it as an adult, it’s one of the rarities that isn’t supremely dogmatic and moralistic. But also, whoever wrote it, unlike that coat owner, spoke Cat.
The Mysterious Cat
I saw a proud, mysterious cat,
I saw a proud, mysterious cat
Too proud to catch a mouse or rat—
Mew, mew, mew.
But catnip she would eat, and purr,
But catnip she would eat, and purr.
And goldfish she did much prefer—
Mew, mew, mew.
I saw a cat—’twas but a dream,
I saw a cat—’twas but a dream
Who scorned the slave that brought her cream—
Mew, mew, mew.
Unless the slave were dressed in style,
Unless the slave were dressed in style
And knelt before her all the while—
Mew, mew, mew.
Did you ever hear of a thing like that?
Did you ever hear of a thing like that?
Did you ever hear of a thing like that?
Oh, what a proud mysterious cat.
Oh, what a proud mysterious cat.
Oh, what a proud mysterious cat.
Mew . . . mew . . . mew.
Supposedly it’s a chant for a pantomime. If it is, it makes an abnormal amount of sense for panto material. But not unlike the cat, we wound up disdaining our tea this evening. It’s not that we require anyone to be kneeling beside us while we drink it, stylish or otherwise. It’s that tonight’s tea was undrinkable. It goes by the prosaic name of Ginger Turmeric Tonic, and while undoubtably it’s supposed to be wholesome, it tastes appalling.
Someone – we’re unclear who – had the clever idea to pair the ginger and turmeric with green tea, which goes about as well as you’d expect. The green tea, left to steep, goes bitter. The ginger, meanwhile, has it’s usual sharpness. And But none of this matters because all one can taste over the lot of it is the numeric. And all that while the tea smells shockingly of anise. We stuck it out about a half-a-dozen mouthfuls before calling it a bad job, so can’t really comment on steeping grade, or anything like that. And we’ll freely own that our using numeric six ways from Sunday to make a curry probably doesn’t help.
We don’t think that’s the root problem though, because we’ve quite happily partaken of teas flavoured with cloves, cardamom, and any number of spices that swisher between sweet and savoury in our cooking. We’ve even known them to translate well to tea. This is not one of them. No doubt it’s a rigorously wholesome thing. Good for colds. But for our money, we’re much happier sticking to hot lemon and honey. Maybe a lemsip. Possibly even the odd dose of ginger. The calendar can keep the turmeric.
We can tell Christmas is hurtling ever closer by the fact that today’s broadcast of The Hallelujah Chorus was followed immediately afterwards by I Know that My Redeemer Liveth, thus tipping the musical hand, had we not already caught on, that this was The Messiah in full. We resisted the urge to protest at the radio that it had just trespassed into Easter and that technically you can no more say ‘Hallelujah’ in Advent than you can in Lent, the liturgical year being ever symmetrical. Instead we made tea and enjoyed the music.
The tea was Chocolate Orange, which does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a black tea with essence of orange (don’t ask; we’re afraid to) and chocolate. It’s a good combination, or at any rate, we’re less likely to grouse about it than we are about other chocolate-and-tea blends. Though the strength of this one comes largely from extracting the tea infuser after the first cup. While the orange is flavourful, the chocolate and tannins conspire to drown it. It could very quickly become the kind of tea to take paint off a car if left to steep unchecked.
The Messiah on the other hand, was top-heavy, that is, biased towards the soprano, a fact which delighted us. Modern editors being what they are, no two editions can agree on who sings what when, and often include appendices. Thus we have previously sung How Beautiful are the Feet as a chorus, and it’s a good chorus too, if overlooked. We mention it only inasmuch as the all-hands-round approach is itself highly interpretive; the vocal colour a soprano brings to And the Glory of the Lord Shone all Around Them is brighter and lighter than it is in the hands of an alto, or even a tenor. Not necessarily better, but certainly different. And this was a bright, light Messiah. More like sleigh bells, say, than trumpets, and a lovely accompaniment to tea. Perfect, as it were, for rapidly-approaching Christmas.
It turns out we’re hard-pressed to find good poetry on music. It’s a tricky subject, and since describing it well is a bit like trying to catch moonlight, we’re not sure we blame the poets of the age for the omission. Instead, here’s Thomas Hardy on dancing. Taught the fiddle as a young boy, you can practically here the triplets in this piece.
The Night of the Dance
The cold moon hangs to the sky by its horn,
And centres its gaze on me;
The stars, like eyes in reverie,
Their westering as for a while forborne,
Quiz downward curiously.
Old Robert draws the backbrand in,
The green logs steam and spit;
The half-awakened sparrows flit
From the riddled thatch; and owls begin
To whoo from the gable-slit.
Yes; far and nigh things seem to know
Sweet scenes are impending here;
That all is prepared; that the hour is near
For welcomes, fellowships, and flow
Of sally, song, and cheer;
That spigots are pulled and viols strung;
That soon will arise the sound
Of measures trod to tunes renowned;
That She will return in Love’s low tongue
My vows as we wheel around.
For more on Hardy and music, try his Fiddler of the Reels. It’s the kind of short read that will lose you an afternoon, and the descriptions of music are radiant. Just don’t, whatever you do, read it for the characters. Never read Hardy for the characters. That way madness lies.
More pink tea today. This one is called Sleigh Ride, and the ingredients run the gamut from cooked rice and almonds to hibiscus. But when not conjuring irritating Christmassy earworms for us, all it really tastes of is the hibiscus. No surprise, since hibiscus is one of those herbal flavours that rapidly overwhelms everything. And while there’s probably a balance with any tea when it comes to steeping and strength, this one is particularly elusive. Four minutes in and the first cup was hot water, seven and it was only hibiscus.
It’s a flavour we associate with Latvia, probably because our academic daughter had a habit of gifting us hibiscus tea from her home village whenever she returned to town after the holidays. That’s primarily how we know hibiscus tea. It tastes warm and of friendship and is excellent for colds.
Sleigh Ride though, the name of the tea, is a bit different. We’ve already alluded to the music it triggers – there was a year when our younger brother was addicted to that particular carol and we heard nothing else for a month. But sleigh rides were also a staple of our holidays. Late spring, British Columbia trips skiing. The days were longer, but only by a little, and one evening out of the fortnight we’d put our names down for a sleigh ride. There were horses, and hot apple cider afterwards, but the best part was the miles and miles of client, snowy landscape. A difficult thing to do justice to in description. But here’s a poem that comes close to success.
A Winter Eden
A winter garden in an alder swamp,
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree.
It lifts existence on a plane of snow
One level higher than the earth below,
One level nearer heaven overhead,
And last year’s berries shining scarlet red.
It lifts a gaunt luxuriating beast
Where he can stretch and hold his highest feat
On some wild apple tree’s young tender bark,
What well may prove the year’s high girdle mark.
So near to paradise all pairing ends:
Here loveless birds now flock as winter friends,
Content with bud-inspecting. They presume
To say which buds are leaf and which are bloom.
A feather-hammer gives a double knock.
This Eden day is done at two o’clock.
An hour of winter day might seem too short
To make it worth life’s while to wake and sport.