Cold Comfort

For the second week running, I found myself unable to go sailing last night. This time, however, it wasn’t the weather that kept me ashore but the fairly heavy cold I’m currently nursing.

This sprang up from nowhere on Monday morning and steadily got worse as the week progressed, reaching its zenith (I hope) yesterday and rendering me unfit to go sailing. At least, I would have given it a go if the crew had been short-handed but there were enough other people available and I was feeling sufficiently rough to consider that it would be better all round if I stayed at home.

I think I feel marginally better today, but it’s still at a fairly yucky stage (I’m sure you’ve experienced enough colds to be able to imagine the gory details without me spelling them out) and I’m also missing tonight’s band practice, though I hope to be well enough to go to tomorrow night’s.

While I’ve been sitting at home, reading the fictional exploits of Horatio Hornblower and dreaming of a life on the ocean wave, I have been soothing my throat with a concoction that my boss (officially “line manager”, but that sounds too corporate for my liking) told me about this afternoon while I was manfully struggling on with my work and looking forward to the moment I could knock off and head home to hit my rocking chair. (Incidentally, in case my boss or any prospective future employer is reading this, I should emphasise that when I’m at work I don’t usually just sit there looking forward to going home – only when I’m feeling ill but can muster just enough strength to drag myself to the office in the first place.)

The concoction in question is actually a decoction (I think that’s the correct technical term) of ginger, black peppercorns and cloves in water. As such, it bears a certain similarity to the honey, lemon and ginger decoction that I usually make up when I have a cold. It also reminded me somewhat of masala chai, which is perhaps not surprising given that my boss is Indian and is therefore steeped in the same culinary/medicinal tradition from which that fine beverage comes.

My method of preparation was to roughly chop a bit of fresh ginger, crush a few cloves and peppercorns in a pestle & mortar and then simmer the whole lot for a few minutes in a small saucepan of boiling water before straining into a cup. I drank a little bit of it neat but used the bulk of it, while the water was still nice and hot, to brew a cup of coffee (as suggested by my boss).

I can’t speak for the medicinal properties but it was certainly pleasant and soothing to drink (with or without the coffee – I’m sure it would also work as a masala chai mix with a bit of black tea thrown in, without the coffee of course!) and will be a useful addition to my repertoire of brews to make myself feel better (if not actually get better any sooner) when I have a cold.

Knowing me to a tea (or coffee)

I have made no secret, either on this blog or elsewhere, of the fact that I love both tea  and coffee.  However, it seems to be the case that many people, including some who know me quite well (or at least, have known me for a long time) seem to assume that I only drink one or the other.

Most often, I think, people get the impression I’m an exclusive coffee drinker.  Certainly it’s true that I like to start the day with a cup of fairly strong black coffee and that’s also what I’ll often opt for if I’m given the choice when I go to someone’s house for dinner or if I’m meeting someone for a chat at a local café (if it’s not a greasy-spoon venue that charges more for a cup of instant coffee than for tea, in which case I prefer the latter).

In fact, I probably drink more tea than coffee on an average day, as that’s what I’m more likely to brew for myself after my first morning coffee (though if people offer me coffee I’m generally more than happy to accept it).  Although I’m quite content with what would be considered a standard British cup of tea (with milk and, unlike coffee, I don’t dislike it with sugar, though I don’t usually bother) I tend to go more for slightly more delicate teas, generally without milk or other additives.  My tea cupboard at home probably contains on average somewhere between 5 and 10 varieties of tea, both black and green (and sometimes white).  I also drink quite a lot of rooibos and sometimes yerba mate, both of which I tend to think of as types of tea although I know that strictly they aren’t.  I’m not generally a big fan of herbal teas, though I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time and I do quite enjoy an occasional infusion of rosemary (which I think is supposed to be good for the memory, though I can’t remember for certain).

One group of friends that I regularly used to hang out with included a lot more tea drinkers than coffee drinkers, to the extent that quite often everybody else there would be wanting to drink tea (of the standard British variety with milk) and I was happy to go with the flow for the sake of simplicity.  At one point somebody I’d only known in that context saw me drink a cup of coffee elsewhere and was surprised as she’d assumed that I was a tea-only drinker.  Actually I still hang out with essentially the same group of people although we now seem to have more coffee and rooibos drinkers in our midst so I quite often go for one of those instead.

The reason I bring this up is not just to reassure you that you’re welcome to offer me either coffee (as long as it doesn’t have sugar in it) or tea but due to an incident that occurred yesterday.  I was chatting to someone I’ve known for almost 15 years and happened to mention that I was about to make myself a cup of tea.  This surprised him as he’d assumed it was coffee-or-nothing for me; to be fair, we first knew each other when we worked together in a university maths department and I drank a lot more coffee and somewhat less tea than I now do (click on the picture below for a possible explanation).

Theorem machine

Musing on this encounter, it struck me how easily we can have a very limited and inaccurate perception of someone even if we’ve known them for a long time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it means that getting to know a person well can be a lifelong journey, which helps to keep things interesting, but it means we should be careful about jumping to conclusions (especially on more important issues than which beverage someone prefers).

PS if you were wondering about the title of today’s post, it’s a deliberate mangling of the idiomatic phrase “to a T”, which is used to mean “precisely” or “in great detail”.  I don’t think it’s often used in the context of knowing something to a T but I don’t see any reason why it can’t be.

La Dame Azure

As I write this, I’ve just finished drinking a cup of what is currently one of my favourite types of tea – Blue Lady from The Kent & Sussex Tea & Coffee Company.

I first came across this company, which has become my favourite online tea merchant, sometime last year while searching, as I recall, for a place to get Russian Caravan tea (one of my perennial favourites – although their blend is a bit more delicate than I’m used to for this one).  Part of the attraction is that they are based in my home county of Kent, not to mention that they sell a wide range of interesting teas, coffees and other infusions (such as a very pleasant Spicy Chilli Rooibos) at quite reasonable prices (and no, I’m not getting paid to write nice things about them!).

The company is based in the village of Pluckley, which (despite having lived in Kent for almost half of my life to date) I don’t recall ever having visited.  It has a reputation as a haunted village and is sometimes claimed to be the most haunted village in the UK (according to Wikipedia, this assertion was backed up by an appearance in the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of Records, though the article doesn’t mention what happened in subsequent editions).  Supposedly there are at least 12 ghosts which roam Pluckley and one of them is the Blue Lady after whom the tea is named.

Sadly I’ve been unable to discover the story of the Blue Lady, although several web-based lists of Britain’s Most Haunted Places which mention Pluckley (with no reference to a Blue Lady there) also talk about a Blue Lady either at Berry Pomeroy Castle near Totness in Devon (see here – NB Pluckley’s item #2 on the list and the Blue Lady is at #7) or at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire (in this Wikipedia list, which is in alphabetical order per country).  The tea company website is vague on the point, merely referring to “the blue lady spirit who roams our most haunted village” and mentioning that some of the locals call her Lady Blue (so it’s possible that she isn’t officially called The Blue Lady).

In any case, the name seems to have provided the Pluckley-based tea merchants with a good excuse to come up with a fine tea, which they describe as “a is a citrus scented blend of loose leaf black tea with exotic flowers.”  That seems to me to be a good description and in fact the next bit of their description – “A tea to really excite the taste buds. A powerful citrus aroma with a sweet scented taste!” – is also, while subject to a certain amount of marketing hyperbole, a fair enough description.

Incidentally, for those of you who know me as more of a coffee drinker than a tea drinker (which is probably not actually true, although I do retain a strong affection and appetite for the umber nectar, without which I can scarce contemplating starting the day), although I have thus far mostly sampled the teas (including rooibos, though it isn’t strictly tea) of the Kent & Sussex Tea Company, I’ve also recently finished a pack of their Brazilian coffee beans.  I enjoyed this coffee very much and I look forward to tasting a few more of their wares on that side of the fence too.

A nice cup of Joe

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve probably drunk at least 20,000 cups of coffee so far in my life (and look forward to enjoying many more).

Although it’s not a term I use very often, I have long been aware of “a cup of joe” as a slang term for a cup of coffee.  I have often wondered about the origin of this term, albeit not enough to get round to trying to find out.

Today, however, my question was answered in a post on one of my favourite food blogs.  It turns out that it dates back to the First World War, when it was first used by the US Navy.  At the time, the Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson’s administration was a man called Josephus Daniels.  He was keen to improve the moral standard of the Navy and thus introduced several changes including the banning of alcohol.

Needless to say, this was not very popular with the sailors, who had to drink coffee instead of their alcoholic beverages of choice.  They began to refer disparagingly to a cup of coffee as “a cup of Joseph Daniels”, which soon got shortened to “a cup of joe” and the name stuck.

It certainly sounds like a plausible explanation for the term.  But…

… a bit of further research (i.e. skim-reading the Wikipedia page on Josephus Daniels) turned up another, somewhat longer, article that casts doubt on this explanation.  It points out that the US Navy at the time was actually a relatively sober outfit in any case so Daniels’ banning of alcohol (which seems genuinely to have happened, though it was actually just aboard ships, apart from special occasions) didn’t actually make  a very large impact on the lives of the enlisted men, since their rum ration had been abolished about 50 years earlier.  It did affect the officers, as it put a stop to their regular wine drinking, but there were relatively few officers and so, as the Snopes article charmingly puts it “the impact of [the alcohol ban] would have been relatively mild, certainly not the stuff of which rueful sobriquets are coined”.

The Snopes article asserts that the actual origin of “cup of joe” is unknown but does postulate a couple of other, more plausible, hypothoses.

One is that “joe” is a corruption of another slang term for coffee – either “java” (which is still in fairly regular usage) or “jamoke” (which I’ve never heard before); it doesn’t explain the origin of “java”, which I assume comes from one of the places that coffee is grown, but it says that “jamoke” is probably a portmanteau of “java” and “mocha”.

The other hypothesis is that it comes from the use of “joe” as slang for an ordinary man (a usage that is attested at least as far back as the 1840s).  The idea is that “a cup of joe” is the drink of the common man.

Ultimately, the origin of the term is and will presumably remain unknown.  Still, it may give you something interesting to think about next time you’re relaxing over a cup of coffee.

Umber Nectar

My recent musings on coffee, inspired by a line from T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, reminded me of a poem I wrote on the subject a few years ago.

Sonnet to Coffee (February 2009):

All hail to thee, thou umber nectar sweet!
Unmilked, thou art to me as very milk,
And needst no sugar for to make thee meet,
But art the very finest of thy ilk.
Each morning when I rise, thou wak’st me up
And helpst my sluggish brain once more to start.
Each evening I take comfort in thy cup
While thou dost warm my hands, my head, my heart.
In truth, thou art a mistress harsh and cruel
Who to thyself a slave dost of me make.
Thrice daily I submit me to thy rule,
For, should I not, my head begins to ache.
O, coffee, thou art both the best and worst,
And with thy kiss I am both blest and curst.

Although not, I think, the original conscious intention, the use of the old-style language does help keep the tone of the poem light despite the fact that it is essentially about the subject of addiction.

Trying to cast my mind back to the thought processes involved in writing a poem nearly 5 years ago is hard work, even fortified by the cup of coffee I’ve just finished, but I think the initial impetus to write it came from the epithet “umber nectar” to describe coffee, which sprang unbidden into my head (doubtless while I was drinking a cup of the same – or possibly when I was painting a picture of one; in case you’re unfamiliar with paint colours, burnt umber is a shade of dark brown quite similar to the colour of black coffee).

Having come up with “umber nectar” and thinking it was a suitably poetic turn of phrase, I quickly decided to write a poem in praise of my favourite hot beverage.  The line “(All) hail to thee, thou umber nectar sweet” followed fairly quickly, as I recall, and because that sounded faintly Shakespearean I decided to aim for a sonnet and use vaguely archaic sounding language throughout (although there’s certainly nothing intrinsic in the sonnet form that requires it).   The poem grew more-or-less organically from beginning to end, as do most of my poems, and I didn’t have a clear end point in mind when I started it.  According to my old notebooks, I nearly finished a first draft, then scrapped it and started again once I realised it wasn’t in iambic pentameter (the standard meter for a sonnet, at least of the Shakespearean variety).  The rather abrupt switch from effusive praise to acknowledgement of the dangers of caffeine was beginning to take shape in the earlier version, although I didn’t get as far as the final couplet which brings the two strands together.

I mentioned earlier the possibility that the “umber nectar” idea came while I was painting.  I have, as I recall, painted two coffee-related pictures (both, as it happens, using the same mug as a model) and, looking back at them, the dates make it unlikely that either was the direct source of the inspiration as one was completed several years before the poem and one a few months afterwards.

You can follow the links (by clicking on the pictures) to see bigger images of these paintings on my Flickr page, and read the captions and comments if you want more information about them.

The first, from February 2003, is entitled Theorem Machine:

Theorem machine

This was probably hanging on my wall (as it is now) when I wrote the poem and may well have inspired (or helped to inspire) the poem even though I didn’t come up with the name when I was painting it (or at least, I don’t recall having held on to the “umber nectar” idea for 6 years – or even 6 hours – before turning it into a poem).

The second painting, from September 2009, is entitled Coffee Things:

Coffee Things

A life measured in coffee spoons

Recently, I’ve been getting stuck into the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

As I mentioned  some time ago, his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is one of my favourite works of poetry.  It’s also the part of Eliot’s work that I know best, having read it many times.  I own two printed copies, one with illustrations by Edward Gorey and the other (the standard Faber edition, I think) illustrated by Nicholas Bentley.  Both are fine sets of illustrations (and the two are quite different in style from each other), which complement the poems nicely.

I have also had a copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems (Faber, 1954) for a few years, although I don’t think I’ve read quite everything in there.  This anthology, which was put together by Eliot himself, contains many, though not all, of the poems from his earlier published volumes.  It includes The Wasteland, which is probably his most famous poem.

Quite recently, I picked up an electronic copy of Eliot’s Complete Poems, mostly to get hold of Four Quartets (probably his second most famous work, which I particularly wanted to read after having read about it).  I also got a couple of commentaries on his work, some of which is quite obscure and benefits from a bit of study to understand what it’s getting at (although it is perfectly possible to derive much enjoyment from it without picking up on all, or indeed any, of the references).

Although I’ve mostly been reading my new electronic anthology (with a view to reading all of Eliot’s published poetry before too long), I have been dipping into my dead tree editions as well, mainly for the sheer tactile pleasure of handling real books.  I discovered a couple of passages I had underlined in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of Eliot’s earlier poems (dating to around 1918, as I recall) and the source of the title of his first published anthology: Prufrock and Other Observations.  Evidently these underlined passages were the bits which most leapt out at me on my first reading of the poem, several years ago, and they are still amongst my favourite bits of it.

The first is a single line that I find particularly appealing:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

I’m not sure precisely what Eliot had in mind when he wrote that line but, as someone who drinks quite a lot of coffee (and rarely goes for as much as a whole day without at least one cup), I like the idea of somehow using coffee spoons (or rather, the cups of coffee that you make with their aid) as a measure of the passing of your life.

I have no idea how many cups of coffee I have actually consumed in my life.  Based on a rough estimate of 2 cups per day for the last 25 years (since I was about 11), and assuming 365 days per year (i.e. ignoring leap years etc.), it’s something like 18,250 cups.  It’s not uncommon for me to only have one cup in a day (although, as I said, I rarely miss a day entirely) and I have been known to have a lot more than two cups, so I suspect that’s probably a fairly low estimate and it would probably be safe enough to round it up to 20,000.  That’s something to ponder next time I’m lying awake at night.

Anyway, back to the poetry symposium…

The other passage is slightly longer, and is an explicit reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the play, not the character):

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…
Full of high sentence but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I would guess that the attendant lords in question are probably meant to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who were such minor characters that Tom Stoppard felt inspired to redress the balance by rewriting the Hamlet story from their perspective in his excellent play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).  This passage is quite apt for someone who used to dream of being famous (and preferably also rich) but is now quite content to live in relative obscurity and does his best not to take himself too seriously.  Not, of course, that I have anyone in particular in mind with that description.

I have missed out a few lines from the middle of that second quote.  If you like the bit I’ve quoted (or even if you don’t), I’d recommend reading the whole of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  This particular passage comes from quite near the end, while the coffee spoon one is near the middle (my edition doesn’t give line numbers and I can’t be bothered to count them).

A match made in heaven?

I love coffee and I love beer.  Hence, a post I read today at the Kitchn blog caught my attention as it was all about java-infused beers, i.e. beers with coffee in them.

All of the five examples of commercially available coffee beers listed were stouts or porters, so presumably this is the type of beer that has been found to work best with coffee.  Unfortunately, it being an American food blog, the chance of me being able to find any of these beers over here is pretty slim.  I will have to keep my eyes open to see if there are any similar beers available on the UK market, or I will have to try brewing one of my own (it’s about time to get some more brewing underway in any case).   Apparently the coffee can be added to the beer wort while it is still hot, in the first stages of brewing, or can be cold-brewed into it later on.  I would probably go for the latter approach, so that I could try it first with a small batch rather than risk destroying too much beer if it doesn’t work.

Thinking about brewing coffee beer reminds me of my first naive attempt to make chocolate stout.  Unlike coffee beer, which does actually contain coffee, chocolate stout traditionally refers to a stout brewed with chocolate malt, which is just very dark roasted malt, and doesn’t have any chocolate in it.  As a student, I did some brewing with one of my housemates and we decided to have a go at a chocolate stout but didn’t realise what the name referred to; our approach to making it was to add some cocoa powder to the brew.  Although not a traditional chocolate stout, it was nevertheless a very tasty brew – probably one of the best we made together.  I have brewed a few other stouts and porters since then, but have not yet got round to doing another chocolate one (either with chocolate malt or real chocolate).

Perhaps if my experiments with brewing a coffee stout are successful I could combine the two ideas and make a mocha beer?