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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

February: Lapsang souchong

For February, I have been drinking the fabulously decadent Lapsang souchong tea.

Lapsang souchong tea is a black tea, grown in the Fuijian region of China. It is sometimes known as 'smoked tea' which rather gives the game away because it is the smoking of the leaves over pinewood that gives the tea it's distinctive flavour and aroma. It really is like drinking a bonfire!

The tea is made from the older, larger leaves of the tea plant, which is where the word 'souchong' comes in. Tea made from the younger tips is generally known as pekoe. Tradition has it that the usual way of drying the leaves was interrupted by the Emporer's armies passing through the region during the Qing era, and so to speed up the drying process and meet demand, locals spread out the leaves to dry over pine fires. Today the tea is becomming increasingly expensive as the region is a small one and demand is growing.

Lapsang souchong is a bit like Marmite - you either love it or hate it! Winston Churchill loved it, and so do I.

It's not that common to see in smaller supermarkets, but there are some online suppliers and a couple of well known brands who offer the tea loose and in bags:

  • Twinings have both a Smoky Lapsang and a traditional Lapsang souchong in packs of 50 bags
  • Waitrose do a very reasonable box of 50 bags for around £1.90, as well as loose leaf
  • Whittard of Chelsea offer loose leaf Lapsang souchong, and also for those not over keen on the smokey sensation, they have a blend called Russian Caravan which has just a hint if camp fires.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

2017 a year of tea

This is not a new year resolution. Just wanted to make that clear, because I don't subscribe to that self-defeating nonsense. This is something I've been thinking about for a while, and having a full 12 month period to carry out my research seems a good way of structuring it.

What research, I hear you ask. Tea.

I am a black tea purist (though I do like a drop of milk) and I find fruit 'tea' is a lot like drinking hot water with twigs in. But throughout 2017 I intend to try a new tea each month, and write a little post about it with some information for anyone else who might be interested. Having said that, I'm cheating a bit with my January tea because it's my favourite: Assam.

Assam tea is grown in the Assam region of India.
From: http://www.peasantautonomy.org/assam-overview.html

The tea comes from a single specific species, Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The first tea plantation was established in Assam in 1837, and traditionally Assam has been the second largest tea producing region, with southern China being the largest. The region is heavily forested, and home to rhinoceros among other wildlife. Unlike other tea bushes, Assam is generally grown in lowland regions. It is these conditions that make the area a prolific producer of tea - the collective estates produce 680,400,000 kg of tea annually.

Assam tea has a strong flavour, often described as 'malty'. It is commonly used in blends known as Breakfast Tea, particularly in Irish Tea. 

Early imports of Assam tea were mainly through the British East India Company. At that time, China tea was seen as the 'ideal' and Chinese plants and methods of cultivation were brought into Assam. This proved largely unsuccessful and eventually a hybrid of Chinese and Assam plants was established as the variant used today. The plant has larger leaves then its Chinese counterparts. Harvesting is usually done twice each year: the first harvest is in March, and the second to harvest the tips of the new shoots which give a sweeter and full-bodied tea is carried out later in the year.   

Currently I'm drinking Marks & Spencer Assam Tea (though I would say it's cheaper if you visit the store than if you shop online with that link), as Assam can be hard to find in other supermarkets. 
  • Waitrose offer both standard Assam in boxes of 50 and 100 bags as well as loose leaf, and Golden Tippy in packs of 15 pyramid bags. 
  • Twinings offer Assam including a 'nutty chocolate' blend.
  • Whittard of Chelsea have a range of second flush or 'Tippy' products.   
  • Imperial Teas have a range of interesting Assam teas from a number of gardens (plantations). I haven't tried any yet, mainly because they use a courier delivery service and items must be signed for. I'm sure postal delivery would be adequate, but anyway....
  • Boston Tea Party offer one of my favourite Assam teas. If you want to buy your own stock, then the Canton Tea Co. is the place to go.
As this is the first of my Tea posts, just a note on how to brew black tea. If you are going to use a teapot, small is beautiful. A bigger pot just encourages you to leave the tea steeping for longer than it should, so a pot for one or two cups is ideal. Leave your big family-sized teapot for the PG Tips and Yorkshires of the world.

Make sure you warm the pot with hot water first. Hot water from the tap is fine, but leave it for a few minutes so that the pot is hot to the touch on the outside. Empty the pot just before your kettle boils and then pop your tea in.

Use water that has literally just boiled, but is not actually boiling. I've seen people state that 95 degrees C is the ideal temperature, but I'm not going to stand there with a thermometer! If you put your tea in a warmed pot and then put the teapot lid on, as soon as the kettle has boiled take the lid off and pour the water from the kettle directly on to the tea. Stir, particularly if using tea bags. Wrap the teapot in a tea towel folded double, or pop a tea cosy on, and leave for 3-4 minutes. The trick really is not to over-brew otherwise the flavour becomes bitter.

I'm not going to comment much on adding milk or sugar except to say it's completely up to you. Just remember honey and stevia have their own taste that will have to compete with the tea.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Winter Solstice

(or the end of one year and the start of the next)

I'm sitting here as the sun disappears on the shortest day of the year, with a red cinnamon candle burning. Red for love, happiness, warmth, generosity. I am not sad that this year is over, though it hasn't been my worst by a long chalk. I had hoped to be a leaseholder by now, but that looks likely to happen next month so I can wait a little longer.

Unusually, I took a few extra days off work this week to give myself a longer soul holiday this year. Normally I work right up to when my employer closes for Christmas, and I would have no objection to working on Christmas day (or any other day) as long as I was compensated in some way. But this year I need to use up the leave I had been saving in order to get my kitchen re-done. I intend to use these days as soul yoga time. It's a phrase my friend Ciel came up with years ago, meaning doing things that are gentle stretches for your mind and mental health. Sometimes it can include physical activities, if your mental health responds well to them. Today I decided to go for a walk, instead of staying home all day with only the garden birds for company.

I started by taking one of our town buses to the end of its route, where I'd never been before. It was an interesting ride, and easy to know where to get off as it was a large supermarket. Then I looked at the road signs and picked a direction that would lead to somewhere I was familiar with.

I have osteoarthritis, and depending on the weather I can walk about 3 miles on a really good day before I get some pain or discomfort. Today was not a really good day, but an OK day, and my spidey senses got me onto a familiar bus route after about a mile which then gave me the confidence to take the rest of the distance one bus stop at a time. I managed about 2 miles before getting back on a bus, and I'm happy with that.

Back home, my de-stash continues; I had some dusky pink aran yarn that has now been turned into a jacket for a 2-3 year old and I finished a matching beret this afternoon. Then I started a cowl with some alpaca mix yarn which will be for a friend when we have lunch next week, and I'll try and get a pair of fairisle gloves done for the other friend who will be joining us. There is a lot of half-used 4-ply yarn left over from socks and fairisle seems a logical thing to use it all on.

And then I have a secret project that I want to work on in 2017. It involves knitting rather small things and leaving them anonymously as gifts in public places. I have been inspired by a church group who last week hung up hundreds of knitted angels around their town which were free for anyone who wanted to take one.

I think we can all give a little more next year.

Enjoy the rest of the Solstice everyone!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

How long should it take to purchase a property?

Certainly not as long as it is taking me to purchase the flat I live in from my landlord.

We started this process at the end of May, and I have already had to serve notice on the landlord for missing a legal timed deadline for one portion of the transaction process. My landlord is a social landlord, and I'm buying under the Right to Buy scheme - mainly because of the threat by the Conservative government to make workers pay full market rent on social housing properties. Commercial rents here are more than twice what I currently pay, and on the property I live in would take approximately half my income each month if that were to happen. A mortgage, with the RTB discount, is roughly the same as my current rent. The choice is clear.

What is not clear is why it took my landlord almost 14 weeks to provide me with a valuation of the property, and why it has taken since the end of May for them to finally confirm this week that there is no asbestos in the loft space (I have an upstairs flat). It has so far taken them 3 weeks to put together the transfer documents to send to my solicitor (and even she has started calling this a 'saga'!), and they still have not sent them.

The landlord also refuses to tell me whether a wall I want to remove is a load-bearing wall in advance of the completion of sale. It wont make any difference to me buying the flat, but my solicitor advised me to try and get the confirmation in advance of completion. Now that they have confirmed there is no asbestos, I can get my own builder to check, but it makes me very wary of how long they will take when I'm a leasholder to give permission for the building work to be done. My builder says I should allow 3 weeks for the building and then to fit a new kitchen, and I've saved a couple of weeks holiday from work this year to cover that period, but our holiday year runs from April to March and at this rate the work wont get done before next summer. I could do with a few days away right now, but daren't use any more holiday just in case the sale is suddenly completed and we can get going with the building work.

Why do we make these things so difficult in this country? I work in customer service and if I had delayed something in the way the landlord has, I'd have lost my job by now.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Nutcracker suite

Last weekend I spent about 20 minutes watching a squirrel in my garden. He (or she, impossible to tell unless you're close enough to get bitten) was helping himself to the hazel nuts on my tree. There are lots, and I don't really mind, I was just a little surprised to actually catch him doing it.

Today I decided to see if any nuts were ripe enough for me. A few are, but now I have a new problem ....



I don't have a nut cracker!

While I was in the garden, I thought I'd take a few pictures of the flowerbed, to show how the colours change from spring through to autumn - which we now seem to be in.







Saturday, 20 August 2016

Will the September TDCJ inmate strike change anything?

Some people may say that I shouldn't be blogging about this. Some may say that it could put hubby at risk of intimidation or retaliation by the prison guards or administration. So let me start by saying two things very clearly:

1. Hubby has no intention of taking part in the planned inmate strike on 9 September 2016, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have an opinion on it or discuss it.

2. Intimidation and retaliation are just other words for bullying, and if there is one thing I detest more than people touching things that don't belong to them, it's bullies. They only have power if you let them, and by not talking about something like this, you give them power.

OK, now that's out of the way, lets get to the subject at hand: the proposed inmate strike on 9 September. This is a follow-up, and in some cases, ongoing action, from the April strikes that took place in at least 5 TDCJ prisons and several others across America. The reasons for the protest and action are many - when you have around 2 million people affected directly by something, you are unlikely to get a single number one issue. But Texas is unusual in that it does not pay its inmates any money at all for the work that they are obliged to do (don't turn up for your work detail in TDCJ, you'll catch a case and further punishment which can include being placed in Ad Seg, loss of other 'priviledges' such as the already limited recreation time, etc).

Now I do get the argument put forward by many in Texas that inmates get a number of things 'for free' while in prison that they would have to pay for in the freeworld. These include food, a roof over their head, a bed, clothes, running water (from the walls if not from a tap, and you probably wouldn't want to drink it anyway given the levels of arsenic in some areas). I also get that these are people who have been found guilty or plead guilty (two things that do not necessarily mean a person IS guilty by the way) and are in prison as punishment. But just as TDCJ is fast becoming the dumping ground for mentally ill individuals, the Texas public and lawmakers have a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with prisons and inmates (and their families).

First, there is absolutely no such thing as a free anything in Texas (or anywhere else). Just because the inmate does not pay directly in cash for the food, bed, roof, clothes, etc, doesn't make it free. Either the family pay by sending money that is then used to cover some of the medical costs or communication costs or food and other items from the commissary, or EVERYONE ELSE in Texas who pays taxes is paying for it all. And for many, that includes the inmate right up to the day they find themselves in jail.

In a state so adverse to paying personal income tax or any other kind of tax, doesn't it strike you as odd that very few Texans question the amount of their tax that contributes to the monster machine that is TDCJ with it's more than 100 prisons and around 140,000 inmates?

If TDCJ paid a dollar an hour - dammit, even a dollar a day - to inmates who worked, then the $100 annual medical charge (inmates who are indigent are not denied medical attention - I wont call it 'care') would be a little easier to swallow, because it would indeed be coming from the inmate's own funds. But given that inmates do not get paid, it is not the inmate who then pays for the medical charge: it's the friends and family of the inmate who are already paying through their taxes, and are then being told that they will pay TWICE through the money they send the inmate.

It's not just the money, or lack of, that is an issue in Texas. The convoluted and downright deliberate lack of will to assign many inmates any credit or 'good time' if they do behave themselves, is clogging up the system. It is causing (along with the dysfunctional BPP system) inmates to remain in prison long after they make that mind shift from reprobate to remorseful and wanting to give something back to society. The inability of the system to see beyond a crime to the inmate, to measure that inmate against them self rather than against an outdated perception of what an inmate should be, or to see prison as an undesirable millstone around the neck of a community has lead to certain parties within TDCJ and the TX legislature working tirelessly to keep as many inmates in prison as possible just to keep the prison machine going as it is.

Given the size of TDCJ, one possible reason for not paying inmates to work could be that there simply would not be enough 'jobs' to go round. It almost certainly suits some sections of the administration that so many TDCJ inmates are excused work because of 'medical' reasons - when these individuals could easily take part in computer-based occupations (no, not the Internet or unrestricted email), building and repairs, modern farming (rather than the plantation slavery that has men weeding fields on their knees with their hands in the TX summer) and any number of other things that would.... oh, I remember, we don't want the prison population to fall too low do we, otherwise some good ol' boys might have to be let go. Better to keep those inmates in prison until they are too old or sick to contribute as much as they would like to society, so that if by some miracle they do get paroled, it will only be a matter of time before they roll back through the picket gate again.

So will the planned strike change anything?
 In short, no I don't think it will - beyond making life even more uncomfortable for any inmates not only involved, but also just in the same prisons as the action-takers. I understand the need to feel in control of ones destiny and to rise up against tyranny, but I really don't think this kind of action will achieve that.

What might go some way to achieving it is for the friends and families of the inmates to stop taking this laying down. Stop taking on the shame of your inmate's crime - let the inmate carry that, and walk in liberation with your head up to that polling booth and vote out the people who are standing in the way of change. Stand for local government yourself, then state government. TALK about this with people, don't let the bullies think they can do what they like and get away with it. Educate yourself, learn the law and use it, start blogs, newspapers, radio shows, join the TIFA, become active. Don't do your inmate's time for them, use the time to make the situation fairer for all now and all who come after. It can be done, you only have to look outside of the US to see that penal systems do not have to be run along the same lines as gulags.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Waspgate update

After last week's wasp post, I thought you, dear reader, would like to know how the 'Take Back The Garden' movement was doing.

I'm sorry to say that I did indeed resort to chemical genocide in this instance. It would have been lovely to just wait for some passing hungry badger or honey buzzard to snack on my colony of stripey invaders, but as I'm not in a rural location I'd still be waiting for that to happen some years down the line. So action was took, and 2 cans of spray foam later plus disturbing at least part of the nest, I think I have got rid of the infestation. Wont know for sure until tomorrow morning when I attempt to dig the final patch of soil, but there were no wasps flying around the final entrance hole just now.

The nests themselves are a thing of beauty though. If you've never seen inside a wasp nest (and why would you!) here's the top half of a chamber: