Warning: strpos() expects parameter 1 to be string, array given in /srv/users/teatrade/apps/tea-trade/public/wp-content/plugins/wp-defender/src/extra/ip-helper.php on line 57

Warning: explode() expects parameter 2 to be string, array given in /srv/users/teatrade/apps/tea-trade/public/wp-content/plugins/wp-defender/src/extra/ip-helper.php on line 59
Robert Fortune Archives - Steep Stories
Skip to toolbar

of the Lazy Literatus

Tag: Robert Fortune

Blending Tea and Fiction

To those that have been following the sporadic attempts to give this blog focus, you’ll know I’ve been experimenting with tea fiction. Sometimes with wondrous results…and other times with startling missteps. Train-wreck or not, I figured an exercise on how these yarns developed was worth exploration.

Up until the “Great Vanishing” of September, I had two more entries planned. The process of how they came to fruition was simple. I would first try a rare tea, I would photograph the finished brew, I would jot down taster notes (like from my review days), then I would weave a story around said notes. I only made it halfway through this process on the last five teas I tried. So, what I’m going to do for you – fair reader(s?) – is show those taster notes, and the fictional blurbs I’d come up with around them.

WARNING: The results are…weird.

Tea #1: Lochan Teas Doke Silver Needle

 

Acquisition: This was one of three samples I received from Mrs. Tea Trade herself, Jackie D. I think she caught wind of my whimpering whenever someone mentioned the Lochan-purveyed, Bihar-located tea estate. She kindly donated this tea and a couple of others for my perusal and odd use.

Taster Notes: The leaves were actually much smaller than I thought they’d be – what with a name like “Silver Needle”. I was expecting plump, down-furred, rolled leaves, but these actually looked like tiny needles. They were comparable to a Risheehat Silver Tip I tried three years ago. There wasn’t much aroma to the leaves, either – spry, somewhat grassy, and mildly lemon-like.

The liquor brewed to a pleasant yellow-green with an aroma of apples and lime.  Taste-wise, they more than lived up to their Yinzhen-ish moniker, delivering on the promised melon notes with added dollops of citrus and muscatel grapes. The finish reminded me of a warm Reisling, minus the alcoholic headache.

Fictional Use: This would’ve been the first tea tried by “the other me” (The Lazy Literatus, made manifest as a fictional character), Zombie Robert Fortune, and Thed the Gnome while at a subterranean train station. Formerly Fortune then gets nervous when he sees a literal Grim Reaper sipping tea from the far corner. Soon after, a literal tea trolley pulls up…that is also an actual trolley.

Tea #2: Lochan Teas Doke “Rolling Thunder” Oolong

 

Acquisition: The second of the three Lochan samples, this was a rare Bihar, India oolong that had me all sorts of excited.

Taster Notes: The visual presentation of the leaves was rife with uniqueness. It looked like an orange pekoe black on first impression but possessed silver-tipped leaves amidst the darker brown ones. The aroma alternated between spice, chocolate and olives. It smelled quite a bit like an oolong I tried from the Phoobsering estate last year.

I gongfu-ed the heck out of this, but didn’t pay attention to brewing times. The liquor alternated between varying shades of amber and bronze throughout the successive infusions. On flavor, it was a surprisingly malty oolong with nutty and fruity notes sprinkled in for good measure. Overall, though, it resembled a more nuanced Nilgiri oolong.

Fictional Use: Once the three companions boarded the tea trolley-that-was-an-actual-trolley, they would’ve been greeted and waited upon a British rabbit in a suit – named Peter. (The security officer of the trolley.) Then their tea needs would’ve been tended to by his spouse, Jackie Rabbit. (Yes, I know, bear with me here.) That is when my alter-ego would’ve encountered another Doke offering – an oolong. All three would’ve found it exquisite, but it would also draw the attention of the Grim Reaper further back in coach.

This would’ve sparked a chase throughout the trolley, with a scared Zombie Robert Fortune attempting to run for his life. Reason being, he thinks the Grim Reaper is after him for escaping “actual death” – given that zombies are considered a clerical error. The three of them are finally cornered by the Reaper, who stops short and looks at “my” teacup, and says…

“Is that Doke?”

Then a gust of wind would’ve knocked the Reaper back, thus allowing him to be restrained by a British sweater.

Tea #3: Taiwanese Sencha

 

Acquisition: I received this lovely sample from the kind couple that own The Jasmine Pearl Tea Merchants. It was a simple blending green tea from Taiwan, done using Japanese techniques.

Taster Notes: I never actually took formal taster notes of this when I tried it. I guess I was just distracted by its awesomeness. In short, it reminded me a lot of Chinese sencha (which I love) and other Formosa greens I’ve sampled. There wasn’t much grassiness to it or much of a vegetal profile. It was slightly fruity and damn strong. One could even boil the heck out of the leaves for a bolder brew.

Fictional Use: This would’ve been the tea The Lazy Literatus was sampling as they all interrogated a restrained Mr. Death. Turns out the Reaper was actually a temp by the name of Solomon Grundey – a character I borrowed from a Devotea story – and that he wasn’t after Zombie Fortune at all…but rather the Doke Oolong that they were all drinking.

It would’ve been also revealed that the “tea trolley” trolley was run by two air elementals – Milly and Mimsy.

Tea #4: Guranse Estate Soun Chandi – Nepalese White Tea (2012 2nd Flush)

 

Acquisition: Also picked up from the folks at Jasmine Pearl. I practically had to beg for this one. I mean, Nepalese white tea?! Who’s ever heard of that? I didn’t pick up just one, but two! Both were exquisite, but this one was really something special.

Taster Notes: The visual presentation wasn’t much to write home about. It looked like a typical orange pekoe with downy-fuzzed leaves strewn into the mix. Nothing about it immediately screamed “white tea”. However, the aroma was leafy and slightly zesty – very similar to Bai Mu Dan.

The liquor brewed to a pale yellow and bombarded the nostrils with a fruit-sweet aroma. The taste – oh my, the taste! There were many things I could compare it to – a Darjeeling white tea from the Arya estate, a 2nd flush black tea from Sikkim – but it was entirely on its own in excellence. The flavor alternated between grape and citrus with a dash of sugar. The finish was tart and sweet.

Fictional Use: After disembarking from the Tea Trolley trolley, The Lazy Literatus, Thed the Gnome, Zombie Robert Fortune, and Grundey the Grim Reaper would’ve made their way to Nice, France. Their goal? A tearoom that caters only to immortals run by a guy named Tim.

Upon entering, Zombie Fortune’s original human color would’ve returned, and Grundey’s skeletal form would’ve grown skin. Tim greets them and explains that this is a refuge for immortals from all walks of life, then proceeds to sit them. The first tea offered would’ve been the rare Nepalese. After the initial sip, though, the tranquility of the establishment would’ve been interrupted by the arrival of the King and Queen of the Faery Folk – Oberon and Titania.

Tea #5: Guranse Estate White Crescent – Nepalese White Tea (2012 2nd Flush)

 

Acquisition: Same story as the other Nepalese white. Great but not perfect.

Taster Note: The leaves for this were rather lovely and looked quite similar to a Silver Needle white – save for their darker appearance. The aroma was also startling in its peppery presentation. I was reminded of a Huang Ya yellow tea on first whiff.

The liquor brewed up rather clear; only a smidge of pale yellow was detectable. The soup’s aroma echoed the dry leaf pepper lean but with a dash of muscatel. Taste-wise, it gave me a vague impression of Yunnan Gold black tea by way of a Darjeeling 1st flush – honey-like, fruit-filled, but with a hint of spice.

Fictional Use: Oberon and Titania would’ve arrived with much pomp and circumstance (and some wanton destruction). Their tea demands would’ve been a riddle: “We want white tea and/or green tea not of the normal East.” The request has Tim wracking his brain, but Grundey the Reaper answers the riddle by handing off the newer Nepalese white (the White Crescent) he was sampling. This appeases Oberon…but not Titania.

That’s when The Lazy Literatus realizes he still has some leaves from his Taiwanese sencha left. He (or rather, I?) passes it on to Grundey to brew up. It pleases Titania to an…almost embarrassingly orgasmic effect. The two faeries sit down and enjoy their teas peacefully. After the commotion dies down, The Lazy Literatus sees that one of the immortal patrons is Guan Yin – sipping from Liddy, the gaiwan he thought he lost.

Tim invites Grundey to stay on as an expert brewer. Thed and Robert Fortune also tell the Literatus that this is where they’ll be parting ways. Tim sadly informs the pajama’d writer that he cannot stay because he is neither magical nor immortal, but offers him a free ley-line teleportation home. After a sad farewell, the Literatus prepares to leave Tim’s ImmortaliTea Room. Not before Tim finally reveals that his name was actually Utnapishtim – the Babylonian Noah, and first immortal. He also offers him some sage advice – to apologize to a certain someone.

The Lazy Literatus finally approaches Guan Yin and says he’s sorry for writing the “adult” story about her and Robert Fortune. She accepts his apology, and tells him that’s all she ever expected of him, and returns the gaiwan. This allows him to successfully ley-line travel home.

Conclusion:

After that particular arc had wrapped up, I’d also planned on relaying the adventure Liddy the Gaiwan would’ve had in nursery rhyme form. The story would’ve dealt with her forced journey into the Land of Leaves and her exploration of aged oolongs. I don’t know what I was smoking when I came up with that idea…seriously…

All said, I still haven’t abandoned tea fiction as a possible outlet. I mean, I still have a yarn about a cat-owned flying tearoom I want to write. But I will humbly acknowledge that I have a long way to go before I display it in the future. There are far better tea fiction stories out there. I can think of two right off the top of my head.

Some of The Devotea’s stories can be found on his blog HERE.

There’re also the fictional interviews put forth by The Purrfect Cup HERE.

In the meantime, I have some sci-fi to get back to. Un-tea-related. (-Ish?)

 

Everybody Hwang Cha Tonight – Gamnong Style

Previously on Steep Stories: Our fearless (or rather, fearful) protagonist was whisked away to an underground, dwarven tearoom in Darjeeling – one that was overrun with dancing snake-people. The crisis was averted by a well-placed Hindi movie musical number…oh, and splendid tea was had in the interim. Afterwards, the pajama’d thirtysomething, a gnome, and an undead botanist hastened their escape. And, now, the continuation…

“Well, this is awkward,” I said with feigned levity while sipping my green tea.

“You have a penchant for snark,” the once-living Robert Fortune grumbled.

The deceased-but-animated Scottish botanist had every reason to be ill-tempered. We were stuck in a rather large bird cage, guarded from all corners by birds. Worse, they were armed with what appeared to be glowing spears. I had no desire to discover what the “glowy-part” could do. On the bright side, though, the tea they served was good. Sipping it gave me time to think why all of the birds spoke Korean.

The only occupants of the cage were me, Zombie Fortune, and a rather disheveled, multi-tailed, yellow fox. Thed – our gnomish compatriot – was nowhere to be found. How we came to be caged by birds was the subject of debate. One moment we were escaping under Darjeeling – the next, we were greeted by pitch blackness, then…birds happened. When Fortune and I awoke, we were caged and served tea.

The bird-guard (?) that had handed us tea said only one word, “Teuksun.”

I assumed he meant the tea. The leaves were small by Chinese green tea standards, curlier than Japanese greens, and possessed a very different aroma than any green tea I’d come across. There was a sweetness and a smokiness to them that was strangely tantalizing. A bit of nuttiness also showed up in the after-whiff.

The liquor was a very light green with a yellowish tinge, very similar in appearance to a Chinese green. However, the scent was nut-sweet, almost like sencha by way of green rooibos. A lingering vegetal underpinning was also present. That same vegetal feeling showed up on first sip but transitioned to a bouquet of sweetened grass, chestnuts and autumn air. While excellent, a second steep turned out better.

“This is interesting tea,” I said, trying to distract from my predicament. “Hints of vanilla and caramel with a vegetal underpinning.”

“It’s Korean tea,” Fortune stated flatly. “Of course it’s unique. “

“How do you know?” I asked.

“’Teuksun’ sounds like a Korean word,” Fortune answered, staring at nothing.

“I wonder what it means,” I said.

“It roughly translates to, ‘You’re annoying.’” Fortune offered with a half-smile.

“You’re an ass,” I said with a glare.

“Arse, lad,” the Scotsman corrected.

The disheveled, five-tailed fox to our left pushed his tea tray toward us.

“Here,” he said. “This one’s called ‘Gamnong’.”

“You’re not going to drink it?” I asked – greedy hands at the ready.

“I’ve been drinking it for the last six months,” the yellow fox said.

The leaves for this looked just like the Teuksun – vibrant, forest-green, curly leaves. What was different was…well…everything else. The scent was less smoky and sweeter. There wasn’t as nutty a presence, either. Instead, it was just very pleasant to the nostrils. Not too strong; not too soft.

On the flavor front, the darker liquor that resulted imparted a way different profile than the Teuksun. The sweetness was doubled, and there wasn’t as strong of a vegetal note either. Grassy, yes. (It was green tea, after all.)

“Kinda silky and sweet,” I said with a swallow. “Comparable to some good spring Long Jings I’ve tried.”

“Agreed,” Fortune said perkily, awaking from his funk. “A sweet, white winy note.”

“You said this was ‘Gamnong’?” I asked. “As in, the rich part of Seoul, South Korea?”

The fox sighed. “No, that’s Gangnam. Common misconception, actually.”

Ah, I thought to myself. It sounded absurdly close to “Gangnam” – a place I had only become aware of thanks to a song. A catchy song, at that. “Gangnam Style” by Psy – the first Korean crossover hit of its kind. I had a feeling the fox knew of that as well, hence the misconception.

“I’m surprised you speak English,” Fortune said between happy sips.

“I’m surprised you’re both human,” the fox chortled.

“He is,” Fortune said, pointing a thumb at me. “I’m not…well…anymore.”

“Undead,” the fox pondered. “That’s rough.”

The botanist shrugged. “I’ve had time to adapt to it. I’m Robert Fortune, this living lad is The Lazy Literatus.”

“I have a name!” I snapped.

“No one cares,” Fortune returned.

“I’m Hwang,” the fox said. “The English sort call me Yellow. For obvious reasons.”

“Any idea where we are?” I asked

“A pocket realm known only to magically-imbued birds,” Hwang explained. “Awaiting judgment.”

“For?” Fortune pressed.

“Me? Thieving. You? No clue.”

“There was a gnome named Thed with us…” I began.

“He’s being sentenced right now,” the yellow fox added gravely. “By the Sparrow Prince himself.”

“Sparrow Prince?” I repeated. “Seriously?”

“Yes, what’s odd about that?” Hwang asked in return.

“Oh, nothing.” I chose to leave the South Park reference alone.

“Wait…did you say, Sparrow Prince?!” Fortune demanded.

“Indeed I did,” Hwang rolled his eyes. “So glad you’re paying attention.”

“Damn,” Fortune seethed. “They’re gonna kill him! We have to get out of here.”

“What do you know?” I queried.

“I know that Thed is dead if we don’t rescue him.”

Why?” I yelled.

“Because the Sparrow Prince is convinced that Thed sold actual sparrow tongues to humans in Korea two thousand years ago,” Fortune said through a heaving sigh.

“That’s stupid,” I said with eyes narrowed.

“Sparrows are stupid,” Hwang interjected.

Fortune continued, “Korean green tea is also known as jaksul-cha, which translates to ‘sparrow’s tongue’. Thed was one of the first magical creatures to bring tea leaves to the land that is now known as Korea.”

Hwang went wide-eyed, “He’s that gnome?! The one that was in hiding from Guan Yin?”

The undead Scotsman nodded. “The very same. He was part of Queen Suro’s caravan that brought tea seeds from India to ancient Korea. He was in hiding from the bodhisattva.”

“He’s famous among the fox-folk,” Hwang said with glazed eyes. “One of the greatest thieves and tricksters to ever ride the ley-lines.”

“He never intended to be,” Fortune countered.

“I didn’t either,” the fox winked.

“So…” I clapped my hands. “How do we get out of here?”

“Leave that to me,” Hwang said as he clanked his cup against the cage bars. “Guard! More hot water!”

One of the birdmen mumbled a curse in Korean, but sauntered off to fetch a kettle. When he returned, Hwang grinned with eyes closed. He, then, removed some dark-colored leaves from behind one of his tails. Appearance-wise, it looked like any typical black tea one would find on the market. The pieces resembled a BOP – dark brown, small, and with some curly pieces thrown in. Their aroma was straight nuts. No, not as in crazy, but actual nuts – almonds, I’d reckon. Only a few oolongs have had that type of scent. Before I could ask, he explained.

“This is what I was caught for – stealing tea leaves from a Korean bird merchant. How could I not? They were called Hwang Cha’. It had my name on it, literally. I was framed, I tell ya.” He detailed his claim to “innocence” further as he brewed up the leaves.

The leaves gave the water a yellow gold color – like the namesake suggested – with a pleasantly sweet and roastly aroma.

“Is this really the time for –“ Robert Fortune began.

“Just you wait,” the fox said, pouring the liquor into our cups.

On taste, there was an initial creaminess that transitioned to the expected nutty mouthfeel, and all the while there was this sweet underpinning to the palate. In character, it was a lot like another oxidized “yellow tea” I tried from the Goomtee estate in Darjeeling, yet much more refined. It is as complex as all the other Korean teas I’ve tried. A bit on the pricey side…but you honestly do get what you pay for.

Hwang motioned us to come nearer to him. “Now, blow the steam at the guards,” he whispered. “I could’ve escaped this way at any time…but never had a reason ’til now.”

Fortune and I shrugged at each other but did as we were told. We each went to a corner of the cage, faced our cups to one of the spear-birds, and blew as hard as we could. A funny thing happened…and I do – literally – mean funny. When the tea steam came in contact with the guards, each one sniffed, shook their heads, and promptly collapsed into a feathered heap.

The fourth guard noticed his fallen comrades and seemed poised to signal for reinforcements. Hwang was faster, however, leaping clear across the cage – blowing steam right before he landed. The bird fainted in mid-caw!.

“I’m surprised they didn’t hear us plotting,” I said.

“They’re Korean,” Fortune reminded. “And birds are idiots.”

“And so am I,” I deprecated.

“No argument here,” Hwang stifled a chuckle.

We dashed as best we could to the only source of light in the oddly-tunneled, avian catacomb. Upon reaching the illuminated opening, we were greeted by a grand amphitheater. All the seats were packed with flocks of birds, gulls, jays, and every other assortment of feathered beasty. At the center of the “stage” was a diminutive man in a pointed, green hat. To either side of him, a bird yeoman, and confronting him were a sparrow with a crown and sword and a heinous looking beak of a bird in robes.

“Oh my God, he’s real,” I said, in reference to the South Park-like Sparrow Prince.

“Of course, he is,” Hwang responded. “Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Nevermind.” I had no time to explain a cartoon to a talking fox.

The Sparrow Prince was orating fiercely, outlining the charges against Thed in perfectly cadenced Korean. The robed buzzard-pelican-thing nodded at the accusations listed. I thought I heard the word “cannibalism” mentioned in conjunction with “jaksul”.

“So, what’s the plan?” Hwang asked.

“Leave this to me,” Robert Fortune said, clearing his throat. “My fellow avian citizens!”

The interruption was met with alarmed squawks and siren calls. Fortune did his darnedest to academically explain the linguistic misunderstanding made by the Sparrow Prince and his ilk. The lecture was welcomed with deaf ears and deafening screeches. Hwang was right; birds were idiots.

“He’s dying out there,” I cringed. “Well…more than usual.”

Hwang nodded in agreement. “Zombies are horrible at speeches. Soul of the voice is the first thing to go with undying. “

“I guess I’ll have to give it a g-“

“No!” the yellow fox waved me back. “As a human, you’d be mauled on sight. I’ve got this.”

“But ho-“

“Just watch,” Hwang interrupted again, donning sunglasses.

“Oh no,” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said back, bearing a toothy grin.

The multi-tailed fox leapt into the air and landed right in front of the Sparrow Prince. The bird squawked something akin to gibberish. Hwang – in turn – held up a hand to the sparrow’s beak and said one thing. One thing that I had hoped he wouldn’t say.

“Oppan Gamnong Style!” the fox shouted. Electrosynth music blared to accompany his battle-cry.

Hwang had actually done it – took a well-known pop song (and Internet meme) and turned it into a tea pun. If I hadn’t been so embarrassed by it, I would’ve teared up at the ingenuity. The little trickster-fox trotted his way around the amphitheater, and the birds frenzied with him – enraptured by the retardedly addictive song. Fortune and I grabbed the chained gnome while the birds were distracted.

“Yet another adventure that ends in song, eh?” Thed commented dryly.

“Shut up,” Fortune said with exasperation. The poor zombie had been out of sorts this entire debacle. I guess being caged did that to the undead. Who knew?

As we made our way out of the bird tribunal, I looked back at the commotion. I briefly made eye contact with the fox – various chirping flyers swarmed around him. He smiled and winked before his form was enveloped by the fog of feathers.

I hesitated…then left.

Sacrifice by tea…and dance, was my final thought before leaving the “birdemic” behind.

Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Hankook Tea for providing the samples for this write-up. To purchase their wares, go HERE.

A Dwarven Dance in Darjeeling

A month had passed since I came to the startling realization that I wasn’t going to review tea anymore. Days had passed when I realized I didn’t have a job anymore. Mere hours had crept by before I remembered that I wasn’t wearing any pants. Of course, I was still in bed when I pondered all of this.

Why I even had my alarm set was a force of habit – not out of any obligation. Last night was the first where I completely forgot to set it. A sure sign that I had given up on any semblance of a pattern. Unemployed, unmotivated, all I wanted to do was sleep. But something perched on my chest wasn’t going to let me…

“I said, ‘Ahem!’,” a squeaky voice chimed again.

I first thought the annoying, high-pitched hollering was my “smart” phone ringer. When I finally opened my eyes, I found…her. An off-white, slightly-worn, Chinese lidded teacup with a face, and she was staring angrily at me. I didn’t know gaiwans could get angry, nor that they possessed a face.

“For the last time…” she started again with a miniature huff.

“I’m up! I’m up!” I said quickly. “What’s so damn urgent?”

“It’s been a month,” the gaiwan answered flatly.

“Since what?”

“Since you promised to go to Darjeeling,” she stated.

“I made no such promise, Liddy,” I said, cradling her in one hand while making my way to the kitchen.

That was her name – Liddy. I received her for a little over three weeks. She was given to me by an undead Scottish botanist for magical teleportation. The fact that I could say that with a straight face proved either: (a) I needed to get out more. Or (b) I got out too much.

“That doesn’t matter now,” she shook her head…er…lid…whatever. “You’re needed.”

“For?”

“No time to explain!”

And with that, the little, lidded cup glowed white. Before I knew it, the glow encapsulated my tired, thirtysomething, pajama-clad form. (Why did this always happen while I was in pajamas?!) In a flash, we were both no longer in my kitchen. Instead, what greeted us was a large room that resembled a cross between Bag End from The Lord of the Rings and a mole cave.

There were many tables and chairs – some carved with wood, others straight from stone – with many worn occupants. None of them were human. The majority of them were snakes, and they were singing and dancing – if such creatures could do that. And they were, with reckless abandon. The most prominent feature of the place? It reeked of years-old cheese.

“This…is not Darjeeling,” I observed with… obviousness.

“Technically, you’re under Darjeeling,” said a gruff voice behind me.

I turned to face – and stare down at – a brown-bearded dwarf dressed in merchant attire. He looked like every quintessential dwarf I’d ever seen in fantasy movies or brandished on book covers. If anything, though, he appeared more haggard than his fictional counterparts. And smellier. Even his dapper attire was dusty – at best.

“Welcome to The Smiling Subterranean,” the dwarf baritoned proudly. “The only underground tearoom in (or rather, under) Darjeeling.”

“It reeks in here,” Liddy said with a sneer.

The dwarf merely laughed nervously. “C-can I get you anything?”

“Darjeeling first flush,” I said – a little too excitedly. “Er…if you have some.”

“Of course!” the dwarf clapped his hands. “We have several to choose from. We also offer flights of three, if you can’t decide.”

Given my propensity for indecision-making, I said, “I’ll go with the latter.”

“Excellent choice!”

Before the dwarf could walk away in a scurry, I grabbed his shoulder.

“Hey, you wouldn’t, by any chance, know where I can find a zombie and a gnome, would you?” I winced at the ridiculousness of my question.

“Oh? Those two? Yes, they’re in the far left corner,” the dwarf said cheerfully. “They – like the rest of us – have been here for quite some time. I apologize for the odor. Many of us haven’t bathed in weeks.”

“That’s alright,” I reassured him. Frankly, I didn’t know dwarves did bathe.

I made my way to the back of the “tearoom”, all the while inhaling through my mouth. As I passed the many different tables, I made brief eye contact with the other denizens of this cavernous tasting room. Some looked like mole-men. Others were dwarves, gnomes, pygmies and gremlins of varying color. All of them wore wan or tired expressions – save for the snakes. The serpentine citizens cheerily sipped there beverages, all the while singing. Some outright danced in their chairs. Their song seemed familiar.

The two patrons I was looking for were, indeed, where the dwarf indicated. Thed – the ill-tempered Greek gnome – looked disheveled, his once-green hat was now a shade of light brown. Formerly Robert Fortune, the slightly-blue-skinned undead botanist – to the gnome’s right – looked even more zombified than usual. His dapper dinner jacket seemed drab.

“Took you long enough,” the gnome grumbled.

“Indeed,” Fortune agreed. “Was a month really necessary?”

“I never said I was going,” I defended.

“You gave us the impression you were,” the once-botanist countered.

“By the time I determined I wanted to, I thought you would’ve been long gone,” I explained.

“No,” Thed returned with a growl. “We’ve been here the whole time!

“Here, as in, Darjeeling?”

“Here, as in, under Darjeeling!” Formerly Fortune corrected me.

“What’s stopping you from leaving?” I questioned.

“Them,” Thed pointed in the direction of the snake-people.

“Nagas?” I wondered.

“No, worse,” said the gnome. “Nags.”

“The imbecilic cousins of Nagas,” Fortune explained.

“Aaaaah,” I said with mock-understanding. “That’s why this place stinks.”

“We’ve been here for a month,” Thed sighed.

“On top of that,” Fortune began through gritted teeth. “They keep singing the same. Bloody. Song. Over and over again!”

“Nonstop,” came the forced-cheery voice of a dwarf behind us.

He had several Ceylon-style pouring cups on a wooden tray. Each had green-ish leaves to the side. I could smell the spice and muscatel from my seat.

The dwarf set everything up as neatly as he could with slightly-shaky hands. “From left to right: The first is a clonal from the Rohini estate, the second is dubbed ‘Classic’ from Giddapahar, and the third is a ‘tippy’ offering from Barnesbeg. My name is Cisnarf. Ask for me if you need anything.” He looked at my other two compatriots. “Are you two…”

“We’re fine, thanks,” Thed replied curtly.

“I could re-steep your leaves, or…”

“I said we’re fine!” Thed banged the table.

The dwarf appeared taken aback by the emphatic display.

“Apologies,” Fortune spoke up. “We’re a little wound up.”

Cisnarf nodded. “Trust me, we all are.”

He scurried off again toward the kitchen doors. I got a glimpse of five other dwarves in the back. All looked equally worn out. A month of tea imprisonment would do that do a man…or…um…non-man. Whatever.

I dipped into the Rohini offering first. The Rohini tea estate was actually one of the first to kick off Darjeeling’s first flush all the way back in late-February. It was considered a low-altitude estate – a designation usually met with derision among connoisseurs. I couldn’t really see why.

The leaves for this were large and beautiful, and the rolling style differed from some of her high-altitude cousins. There was some of the spice smell to the dry leaves, but most of the aroma was surprisingly fruity – not just grapy.

Brewed up, they yielded a pale yellow liquor with a sweet, fruity aroma. Such was also true with the taste. While the front was a bit harsh, the remaining mouthfeel was candied apples, grapes and a tickle of citrus.

“This tastes like a Darjeeling oolong rather than an OP,” I said aloud.

“OP?” Thed cocked an eyebrow. “Old Person?”

The zom-botanist literally facepalmed. “He means orange pekoe.”

“Those leaves aren’t orange,” the gnome responded.

“I’m not going to explain it to you again,” Fortune said with dejection.

I ignored them and turned my attention to the Giddapahar Classic.

Oh, Giddapahar. It’s been too long, I thought.

This was the first estate that convinced me that Darjeelings could be perfect with their second flush “Musk”. I also tried a bit of their China Classic and loved it with almost equal fervor. The dry leaves for the Classic were unlike any first flush I’d encountered – a strong, earthy and malty aroma wafted from the sample. The leaves were also uncharacteristically darker, looking more like an early Fall picking.

The liquor the leaves produced, though, was on par with other first flushes – yellow-to-amber – and the aroma was muscatel as all heck. Taste-wise, the forefront was a little vegetal, but it rose swiftly to spice-‘n-grape excellence. I couldn’t help but sigh with palate-related praise. The aftertaste finished on a nutty note, but that wasn’t unwelcome. Notes of white wine grapes lingered long after the sip.

I actually poured a second infusion and didn’t specify a brewing time or temp. What I got was an even better drink than the first!

“All chocolate, strawberries and bliss,” I exclaimed ‘gasmically.

“Are you quite done?” Thed asked with a hint of bite to his voice.

“Hold on.”

The Barnesbeg Tippy was the greenest of the three I encountered. The leaves were almost completely green save for a smattering of beige pieces in the mix – the “tippy” ones that were the drink’s namesake. As for scent, this felt like spring. The aroma was zesty, leafy, fresh and…well…young. As flushy as first flush can get. (Wait, that sounded wrong.)

The liquor brewed to a pale, almost “white tea” yellow. There was no other way to describe the aroma other than “creamy”. Very peculiar. On first sip, the first thing I detected was…vanilla? What the heck?! When did a Darjeeling ever have a vanilla?! How bizarre! The rest of the flavor sensation alternated between Long Jing-ish winy and greenery. This weird taste turntable continued well into the finish.

“Tastes like…vanilla?” I gave a puzzled look.

“That is peculiar,” Formerly Fortune pondered, sipping his own cup of tea.

“What are you two drinking?” I asked.

The botanist answered hastily, “This wonderful China Supreme from the Sungma estate.”

Thed mumbled something that sounded like, “Rushersher”.

“What?” I asked, cupping my ear.

“Risheehat!” the gnome yelled.

“And…how was it?”

The gnome started to sob.

Fortune interjected. “On our first day here, he said it reminded him of his childhood.”

“Is that a good thing?” I wondered.

“Oh yes, very,” Fortune nodded.

The gruff gnome cleared his throat and whiped his nose. “Can we get out of here now?”

“I just got here!” I blubbered, mid-sip.

“A month late!” Thed snapped back.

“Gentlemen, stop!” Fortune bellowed.

We did. Neither of us was used to hearing a zombie with mutton-chops shout.

“Thank you,” he breathed a sigh of relief. “Now then, Thed is right. We need to leave. I, for one, require a bath. A long one. Just because I am dead, doesn’t mean I want to smell like death.”

“What he said,” Thed agreed. “Except the whole ‘dead’ part.”

I finished the last of my Barnesbeg, gingerly set the cup down, and stood up.

“I… think I know a way,” I said reluctantly. “Get Cisnarf over here.”

The dwarf appeared before anyone could summon him. “You called?”

“Wow,” I said. “Er…yeah…does this place have a sound system of any sort?”

“An old one that runs on elemental aether, but it can tie into most frequencies,” Cisnarf offered.

“Can it tap into a smart phone?”

“As opposed to an unintelligent one?” Cisnarf asked – confused.

I groaned. “I mean, a computer. Can you link it to a computer?”

“Human ones? Oh, that’s easy!”

“Perfect,” I said with relief. “Prep your…uh…system. I’ll take care of the rest.” I motioned to the gnome and zombie. You two, follow my lead.”

While I was tasting the three first  flush Darjeelings, it had occurred to me what song the Nags were repeating over and over. It was “Kaho Naa Pyaar Na Hai” from the Indian movie of the same name.

If these snake-folk were anything like their less sentient kin, then all one had to do was charm them with a new song. Preferably from a better Bollywood movie; one that sounded like an ending. I had just the one.  All we needed was a dance to go along with it.

I was no choreographer, and my two left feet were evidence of my lack of rhythm. But there was a “meta”- Bollywood movie called Bride & Prejudice that gave some sound advice for European-ish appreciators of Indian musicals. One simply had to pretend they were screwing in a lightbulb and petting a dog at exactly the same time. I had no idea if this would work on snake-men, but it was worth a shot.

After removing my Android phone from my pajama pocket, I cued up my playlist. From the kitchen door, Cisnarf gave me a thumbs up. I tapped the Bluetooth setting, and prayed to Vishnu that it had a tenuous connection to…magic(?). There was a loud thumb throughout the cave-like tearoom. A connection was made.

I hit play.

Yeh Fizayein” from the movie Main Hoon Na resounded through The Smiling Subterranean. The Nags froze in mid-song-‘n-dance and took notice of the tune. There was a bit of commotional hissing between the varied factions, but – in no time at all – all succumbed to the scaly sway of the beat.

“Time to dance, gentlemen,” I said. “Toward the exit.”

Off our motley trio went toward the front door of the tearoom. All the Nags fell into step behind us – all Pied Piper-like. I stopped at the large, wooden door, opened it and continued to “dance” beside it. The gnome and botanist went to the other side and copied my motions. Truth be told, they kept better rhythm than I.

When the last Nag had left, I pushed the door shut behind them. I signaled Cisnarf to cut the signal. There was some emphatic hissing from the other side of the entrance, followed by some hasty knocking. Eventually, that died down. Silence met the cavern.

The tired tea-folk within stood up and cheered. Robert Fortune bowed; I nodded to the mini-crowd awkwardly. Thed hid behind us.

Cisnarf came up to us and shook each of our hands. “How can I ever repay you?!”

“Do you have a backdoor?” Thed asked brusquely.

“Through the kitchen.”

“Splendid,” the gnome finished. “See ya.”

As we went to make our hasty egress, I felt around in my pockets. Something felt off; I couldn’t put my finger on what. It didn’t occur to me until we were well away from The Smiling Subterranean. I cursed openly and colorfully.

“What’s with you?” Thed asked.

“The gaiwan,” I said shakily. “Liddy…”

“What about her? How is she?” Fortune grilled.

My face was pale. “She’s gone.”

 

Epilogue

Trailing behind the dejected group of Nags, a Chinese woman in purple robes held the off-white gaiwan to her face.

“Oh great, it’s you,” Liddy spat with disgust.

“Come now, that’s no way to treat your maker,” the woman said with a purr.

“Whatever you’re planning, Guan Yin, you won’t get away with it,” the gaiwan growled.

The bodhisattva practically cackled, “I love it when cups turn to clichés!”

Her laughter echoed throughout the tunnels, chilling even the snake-folk.

Acknowledgments:

Special thanks to Happy Earth Tea for providing the Darjeeling samples for this write-up. It was much appreciated. To check out their shop, go HERE.

A Tiger in the Taiga

It was, for the most part, a normal Sunday night. That is, if you consider coming home with a full body-ache normal. My work week had taxed me (both mentally and physically) yet again. Not something I ever wanted to be routine…but such is life. Typically, after a long night’s work, I came home, poured a pint of ale, vegged in front of the computer then slept.

I was about to do just that until I got a text from friends to meet them at a bar. The pint of Cascadia Dark Ale I was nursing was put back in the fridge. After two pints with said friends and a nice walk back home, I remembered the CDA still refrigerating. I was never one to exceed two pints (er…often?), but I didn’t want to let it go to waste. So, I nursed it lovingly. Again!

And felt a wee bit on the inebriated side.

Somewhere in the partial mental haze, I got the notion that the dog needed a walk. My brother was out of town, and I’d been tasked with feeding and entertaining the pup. Well…”pup” is probably the wrong word. He was a two-year-old, 140-pound Saint Bernard who thought he was a pup – fittingly named Abacus. I let him out of his “kennel” – in reality, a bedroom – and leashed him up for a dogwalk. Or rather, a dog-stumble.

It really says something when the dog walks in a straighter line than his walker. Such was the case this night. In all honesty, he was extremely well-behaved. Midnight walks were becoming our little routine, and I enjoyed the distraction. Something was different about this night, though. Well, beyond the beer buzz.

As we turned down one particular, dimly-lit street, I caught whiff of a familiar smell. Tendrils of campfire, burnt leaves, and awesomeness crept its way to my nostrils. Naturally, even in my befuddled state, I sought out the source of the smoky smell. Somehow, I even managed to tweet about it. (Still not sure how that happened.)

We continued down the dark street for what seemed like a few minutes. Abacus let out a couple of warning barks. I tried to reassure him, but I – too – felt something ominous. Of course, that may have been just gas. The further we ventured, the darker the path became. The road was more uneven with each step. Asphalt turned to dirt. Street lamps vanished altogether. Then we suddenly came upon…

Daylight?!

We were no longer in the suburbs. What beheld us was a coniferous forest with thin trees and prairie-like shrubs. It looked similar to our usual environs, save for the cold, dry air. Abacus didn’t seem to care. He found the nearest tree, gave it the sniff once-over then relieved himself – happily making his mark on this strange hillside.

Dead ahead of us was a small campsite. That alone didn’t puzzle me; it was the occupants that gave me pause. One was a short, stout, bearded man in a pointy green hat. Short was an understatement, though – he was downright diminutive. The other appeared to be a man on first glance, dressed very dapperly like a British scholar. Mutton chops hugged his cheeks, giving him a jolly appearance. The problem? His skin was an off shade of blue.

The third occupant was the only normal one of the trio, and yet the one that stood out the most. He was thin, neighborly-looking, and possessed a perma-smile. He was stirring “something” with a wooden spoon in a rather ornate cauldron. And he was staring right at us, grin never fading.

“He’s here,” the small, pointy-hatted man said.

“Looks like it,” the mutton-chopped, off-skin-colored man replied in a Scottish baroque.

The smiling man said nothing.

Abacus tried to escape the leash and pounce his new “friends”, but I reined him in. “Who…” I began.

“You should already know the answer to that,” the Scot said. “After all, you’ve written about us.”

“You can’t be-” I pointed, mouth agape.

The sort-of-Scotsman stood and bowed, “Formerly Robert Fortune, at your service.”

“Formerly?”

“That means he’s dead,” the smaller man cut in. “-Ish”

“The polite term is undead,” the Scotsman countered.

“A zombie,” I said simply.

“That’s racist,” the smaller man responded.

“So that would make you-”

“Thedaius,” he said with a salute. “Thed, for short. No pun intended.”

“You’re the gnome I wrote about!” I said excitedly.

“You’re a quick one,” Thed said dryly.

“Don’t mind him, he’s always pissy,” Formerly Fortune muttered to me.

As my attention was diverted, Abacus escaped my grasp long enough to nose-molested the gnome. He toppled over and tried to ward the Saint Bernard off to no avail. Fits of laughter escaped the grumbling gnome as he was tackled and licked.

“Abacus, get off him!” I yelled.

“It’s okay,” Zombie Robert Fortune assured me. “He’s good with animals, despite his gruffness.”

And just like that, Thed had the wily puppy eating out of the palm of his hand – literally. He had fetched some strange snack out of one of his many sacks. Abacus feasted from his tiny hand and instantly turned docile. A puddy of a pup if I ever saw one. Amazing.

“Funny,” the gnome said. “You named him Abacus. I knew an Abacus once. Saint Bernard, too.”

“Don’t tell me he runs a flying tearoom,” I said, arms akimbo.

“He does, indeed,” Thed said with surprise. “How’d you know?”

“Lucky guess,” I replied with an eyeroll. “Who’s he?”

My attention was turned toward the smiling stirrer by the cauldron.

“No clue,” Robert Unfortunate shrugged. “He just showed up today. He hasn’t said a word.”

“He might have something to do with why you’re here,” Thed offered.

“And he’s French,” Zombert Fortune growled.

“That’s a bad thing?” I asked.

Thed shook his head. “Not necessarily…unless you’re British.”

“I’m Scottish!” Zombert Fortune snapped back.

“Fine, British ‘citizen’,” Thed amended.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked. “And where is here?”

“We’ve been traveling for…” Thed paused in thought. “Shit, how long have we been traveling?”

“Going on forty years, I think,” Un-Robert Fortune-Zombie said, tapping his chin.

“And ‘here’ is Mongolia,” Thed answered. “Not sure what part.”

“We took a break from our trip to India,” Former-Robert sighed. “Ley-line travel is exhausting.”

“And thirst-inducing,” the gnome added. “I said I was parched, and the Frenchman appeared.”

“We think he’s brewing tea,” Undead Fortune whispered to me.

Sure enough, when I went up to smell the contents of the Smiling Frenchman’s cauldron, I whiffed tea. Smoky tea. One of my favorite types of tea. The Smiling Frenchman just kept right on smiling as I smelled.

“Have you guys tried any of it yet?” I asked.

“We haven’t dared,” Robert Unfortunate replied.

“Uh…you,” I addressed the Frenchman. “Three cups, please.”

The Smiling Frenchman’s grin widened, and three cups winked into existence – as did a smattering tea leaves that circled about our heads. He poured the contents of the ladle into them. Said cups hovered over to the gnome, the departed botanist, and myself. I took a sip..and instantly knew that it had a name – a fitting name.

“Pause in the Taiga,” I said aloud.

Pause in the Taiga

This was an interesting blend to look at, mainly because of the different leaf shapes present. There were the regulars – the BOP pieces, a couple of gold-tipped ones, and a few stems – but what was really shocking was the presence of some ball-fisted oolong leaves. Even more surprising, they were greener-style like an Ali Shan. The aroma was gently smoky with a floral underpinning – as expected from a Russian Caravan variant.

The liquor brewed to a rusted copper color with the same gentle, smoky aroma – like the last vestiges of a campfire. Taste-wise, the fire-fueled feeling hit first on the forefront, followed by a bit of malt and tobacco, and the aftertaste was oddly smooth. Not so much creamy, but definitely smooth. A very decent manly morning pint.

“It’s like a fruit garden someone set fire to,” Thed mused.

Zombie Fortune nodded. “I quite agree. Smoky but with an underpinning of fruit and flowers. Most peculiar.”

Abacus attempted to lick the edge of my cup, but I gave his nose a diligent swat. He recoiled slightly…before making a second attempt. When the dog no longer acquired my immediate attention, I looked back up at the Smiling Frenchman. His cauldron had changed to one less ornate and colored differently.

Another tea?” I asked – unbelieving.

He nodded, but that was all.

“I dunno about this,” Thed warned. “The first one was fine, but now what’s he got planned?”

My fears were abated by the smell. The Smiling Frenchman brought more cups to the floating fray, along with a pastiche of dry leaves. It was like these blends were tailored to me specifically. Like the Taiga one, this was also on the smoky side. Not as strong but rather more like a Keemun with a kiss of smoke. The leaves themselves looked like a mix of Keemun with a BOP of some sort.

Shere Khan

Shere Khan

The liquor brewed straight copper like an Assam with a burly, malty-sweet nose. Taste-wise, it was incredibly smooth, somewhat winy on the front. The middle was dominated by a sense of strength, smoke and sweetness. The aftertaste gave no impression of dryness or bitterness.

What was particularly odd, though, was that while this was a darker cuppa, it was lighter on the smoke than the Taiga.

“Shere Khan, you say?” I said aloud.

The silent smiler nodded again.

“He said something to you?” Revenant Robert Fortune asked.

“Not really,” I answered. “It’s like they have a name the moment you sip ‘em.”

“You’re drunk,” Thed stated bluntly.

“That’s…beside the point,” was the only the rebuttal I could give.

The cauldron in front of the Smiling Frenchman vanished again. One that was vaguely Russian in appearance replaced it. The smoke smell was superceded by something more wildernessy with a dash of fruit on the fragrance. As before, three more cups appeared in mid-air, a display of leaves danced above each. Literally, they were dancing. Quite Disney…and quite bizarre.

Just like the other two, I had no idea what to really make of this one, and the Smiling Frenchman was leaving no clues. I saw some obvious leaves in the fray – some Long Jing, maybe some Mao Feng – but there were others that were darker still. Some were even ball fisted and added a grapy lean to the scent. That made me think that some Formosa oolong had made its way into the recipe.

Origine

Origine

“Origine, huh?” I said.

The Smiling Frenchman winced slightly at my butchering of his language.

The liquor brewed a dark amber with a mineral and berry aroma. The taste was a collision of different sensations. On the one hand it was light and fruity, on the other, vegetal, graphite-like and slightly bitter. A part of me liked its harshness, but another part – the one that expected a lighter brew didn’t care for it. Given the oolongy inclusion, this would’ve probably handled a gong fu prep better.

“Definitely my least favorite of the three,” I said, pursing my lips.

My announcement of which actually caused the Smiling Frenchman’s grin to diminish somewhat.

“Actually, I prefer this one to its smoky counterparts,” the gnome chimed in. “Reminds me of home.”

“Quite a strong green tea presence, for my tastes,” said the undead Scotsman. “But it has enough of an orange pekoe palate for my liking. I wonder what’s in it.”

“Company secret,” came a German accented growl from behind us.

Thed’s face went as white as his little gnomish beard. Formerly Fortune paled even more than he already was. I stood there aghast…and promptly wet myself. Abacus wagged his tail happily in anticipation. Mere feet away from us was a half-man/half-tiger dressed – in what appeared to be – a double-breasted suit. He adjusted his tie as he came forward.

“A were-tiger?!” I yelped.

“That’s racist,” Thed muttered to me.

“Tiger-man, thank you very much,” the suited feline rumbled.

Abacus could no longer contain himself. How could he? There was a large cat in front of him. Before the tiger-“man” could do…whatever he was going to do, he was mauled (with love) by the 140-pound pup. The suited tiger shouted and “ROWR!”-ed in desperation as he was bombarded by licks, sniffs and drool of the fuzzy kind.

“That is one useful dog,” Thed smiled, arms folded.

“Sometimes,” I mumbled.

“Get him…” the tiger-man managed to start through the struggle. “…OFF of me! This is Armani!”

“W-what are your intentions?” I stuttered.

“I’m a tea merchant!”

“Abacus, leave it!” I snapped.

To my surprise, the Saint Bernard did as he was told. The tiger-man got up, dusted himself off, and attempted to wipe off the muddy drool with a handkerchief. It didn’t quite work.

“The name is Khan,” he said with a sigh. “I’m with him.”

He pointed at the Smiling Frenchman, who – in turn – waved innocently as he continued stirring.

“You could’ve just said so,” Thed grumbled.

“It’s enough that your partner doesn’t say anything,” the departed Scot-botanist interjected. “But a tiger-man showing up out of nowhere would cause even seasoned travelers a fright.”

“It was supposed to be a blind taste-test,” Khan explained. “For the Tee Faktorei.”

“Never heard of ‘em,” I said.

“No one has,” the tiger replied. “Yet.”

“I don’t think you understand how blind taste-tests work,” I continued. “You’re not supposed to surprise the participants, and they usually have to volunteer.”

“Oh,” Khan mused. “I was told you three liked to be caught by surprise.”

“By whom?” Robert Un-Fortune asked.

“Guan Yin.”

That name made all three of us groan.

Thed cursed first. “Damn woman sure holds a grudge.”

Zombie Fortune shook his head. “Guess it’s time we start packing.”

“Forgive the miscommunication,” Khan said with a bow. “We hope you enjoyed the experience.”

The tiger-man went over to the Smiling Frenchman, snapped his fingers, and both vanished with a flash of light. That left us – three disparate companions, all joined by a similar dilemma – alone by a dying daytime campfire. Only the whiff of smoky tea remained.

“So…” I said with a clap. “Now what?”

“Now, we head to Darjeeling,” Thed said while gathering his duffel bags – all twice his size.

“We’ve been trying to stay ahead of the Bodhisattva of Mercy for four decades,” Zombie Robert replied. “For awhile, we thought we lost her. Turns out her attentions were directed at you for the writing you did.”

“Then you found us,” Thed spat. “Thanks.”

“I didn’t mean to,” I said defensively. “I was walking the dog.”

“Ley-lines are tricky,” Un-Fortune returned. “Sometimes they’ll whisk you away without a moment’s notice.”

“You’re welcome to come with us,” Thed offered – albeit begrudgingly.

“I’ve…” I had to think of something. “…gotta get the dog home.”

The gnome shrugged, “Suit yourself.”

The undead Scotsman stretched out his hand and motioned for me to take the cloth-covered item in it. I unraveled it and found an oft-used white gaiwan.

“Her name is Liddy,” Zombie Fortune said. “Just ask her, and she’ll find us. Should you change your mind about joining our little trek.”

Thed interrupted. “Ley-line travel requires a vessel of some sort – magical, obviously.”

“Take care,” Robert Fortune waved. “And do be careful what you write about.”

“I will,” I lied.

The two disappeared in a flash. I looked down at the gaiwan, sniffed it for a second. Then I uttered a phrase jokingly, “There’s no place like home.”

Before I could chortle, the dog and I were back in our driveway. I looked down at the little lidded cup. Whatever beer buzz I had was replaced by tea reverie. The dog looked up at me expectantly. I smiled at him, and spoke to the gaiwan in my hand.

“Darjeeling, huh?” I said to no one. “Maybe…”

All custom blends used for this write-up were provided (and produced) by Teaconomics.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén