I'm amazed at how superior your vanilla is!
- Des, The Grommet


Tropical foods, flavors and spices: We eat them, drink them, cook with them and use at least one or more daily, but how much do you really know about the delicacies in your refrigerator and pantry? For instance, do you know that Brazil was named for the nut rather than the reverse? Think pineapples are native to Hawaii? Nope, they’re from South America. What about bananas? They originated in the Indo-Malaysian region, extending to Northern Australia, but the English word, “banana” came via West Africa where it was called “banema.” And, it took a lot of selective breeding to make it edible. Learn more about the origins and remarkable facts that illuminate the daily treats we assume have always been available and will always continue to stock the shelves of our markets.

The Important Truth About Saffron


What is bad about saffron?
Intrinsically nothing. However, as saffron has reigned as queen of the expensive flavors and spices since Medieval times, unscrupulous dealers throughout the centuries have used safflower and other imposters as the real deal. Unfortunately, despite laws to keep our food safe, sleight-of-hand is even happening right here in the US. 

Here’s what’s going on:
All saffron sold commercially is now grown in Iran and Afghanistan. Whoa! What about Spain? Times have changed in sleepy La Mancha, where no one tilts with windmills and the region no longer closes down in October for the crocus harvest. Families no longer sit around long tables tweezers-in-hand, plucking the three stigmas from each flower and dropping the purple petals in baskets. Trays of saffron threads no longer rest about the family stove, drying just enough to be packaged then shipped to those who value this coveted flavor in their foods.

Sadly, those days are gone, but Spain still plays a pivotal role in the dispersal of saffron. Spain is where saffron is doctored and passed off as a pure, natural flavor.

For many years saffron has been an important Persian export, perhaps not as valuable as petroleum, but for the culinary world, a necessary delicacy. Sanctions and a changing climate have been very difficult for saffron for quite some time and prices have continued to edge upwards. However, sanctions have been lifted and Iran is again offering premium quality saffron.

Saffron prices have skyrocketed, selling for $1600 a pound or more. Of course, most of us buy a few grams or half an ounce at a time, enough for several meals. At about $4.00 a gram, saffron is actually an affordable  luxury.

Because Spain has been known for centuries as the only place to buy saffron, it is shipped from Iran to Spain for repackaging, then exported as Spanish saffron.

While this is not true of all saffron emerging from Spain, a significant portion is processed to remove the volatile oils and colorants, then sold to Japan as a coveted dye. The threads are left with little flavor and their color is largely gone. Red dyes banned in much of Europe and in the United States are applied to the threads, then dried, packaged in decorative Spanish tins, and sent to big box stores, supermarkets and other destinations, including specialty stores, where they are sold. There is no way to check the saffron in the tins until after it is purchased. The price may be significantly lower, but what you’re purchasing is not what you had in mind.

US customs is aware of what is going on, but allows it through unchallenged. As it can cost up to $40,000 for a full lab report, it’s easier to look the other way rather than inspect each shipment that arrives in our ports.

If you have bought saffron recently, check it carefully. Smell the threads. The odor should be clean and pungent. Tainted saffron that I smelled had only a faint saffron aroma. The threads themselves were dull and mottled, not vibrant with a red and yellow hue.

If you love saffron, don’t take the risk of being duped. Purchase quality saffron, then store it in a cool, dark cupboard, where it will last for years.

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How Much Should Chocolate Cost?

Have you noticed that prices for cocoa powder and chocolate have gone up recently?  One of the members of the Baker’s Dozen, San Francisco group was shocked when he priced a 4-1/2 pound pail of cacao recently.

Sticker shock should be no surprise.  There’s a horrendous political standoff in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) that began with elections in November, but that doesn’t appear to be getting any closer to resolution.  Electricity and water were cut off to half the country recently and food shortages loom.

An article posted by Jaelith Judy in Care2.com explains part of

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True Cinnamon or Not?

Cinnamon is a flavor just about everyone recognizes, but did you know that’s  there’s more than one kind?  One’s true and one’s not though you can find both here in the States.   So how do you know  “what is and what ain’t”?

Remember “red-hots,” those bright red candies that sizzled your tongue?  In high school Home-Ec class we put them into  applesauce, which still puzzles me as it was neither a time- nor money-saver but it did

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Pu’erh Helped Me Lose Weight!

When I started drinking pu’erh tea nearly a month ago, I wasn’t thinking about weight loss.  So imagine my surprise that I’ve lost the two annoying pounds  I typically pack on in January and lug around until May!

It’s not that I hadn’t read about the alleged health attributes of pu’erh, which include weight loss.  It’s that my primary  interests were to learn more about a legendary tea that the Chinese and other serious tea aficionados  spend thousands of dollars to purchase at auction.   A tea from 500- year-old trees tended by hill tribes in southern Yunnan.  A tea that is known to provide energy to those who imbibe it.

Now that I’ve experimented with this tea for enough time to evaluate it, it’s a double-thumbs-up and I will continue to drink it.  Not just because I’ve lost weight drinking it, though that’s a powerful incentive, but because it absolutely boosts my energy without the jitters I typically experience when I consume caffeine.  Oh, and did I mention that it tastes good?

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Yunnan, China: Birthplace of Pu’erh

In the process of my Numi Pu’erh tea blogging challenge I have become quite interested in pu’erh, not just because it tastes good, but because it comes from a very interesting part of the world that most of us in the West know little about.

Yunnan Province in Southwestern China, is the birthplace of pu’erh.  It appears that there are few, if any,  early records about pu’erh, but it has been around for at least 1500 years,  as I mentioned in an earlier blog. 

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More About Pu’erh

There is something in my DNA that drives an insatiable curiosity about learning.  It’s kind of an intellectual archeology.  I want to uncover information about uncommon or newly discovered treasures.  Naturally, when the opportunity to take the pu’erh challenge presented itself, I wanted to learn more about the tea I was consuming. Now that I have been drinking it for nearly two weeks, I have continued my investigation.

Roy Fong, the founder and proprietor of San Francisco’s renowned Imperial Tea Court, has written a new book, Great Teas of China. Given that pu’erh comes from a tropical region of China, it seems totally appropriate to tell you more about this fascinating black tea.

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Pu’erh & Chocolate: What’s Not to Like?

I’ve never been a coffee drinker.  I tried when I was a Freshman in college, mainly because everyone else drank coffee.  They served coffee and doughnuts in the morning in my dorm great room on the weekend.  While I loved the aroma, I didn’t like the taste unless I poured in cream and sugar.  Even diluted, coffee made me jittery.  As I wasn’t a doughnut eater and given that the coffee made me feel strange, I let it go.  It wasn’t until my forties that I started to drink tea in the morning, and more to warm me up than wake me up.

In recent years I’ve grown quite fond of tea, usually drinking green during the day and a decaffeinated tea in the evening such as Numi’s Vanilla Nights decaf.  When I took the Pu’erh challenge I thought it would be an interesting way to learn more about a tea with a big history in China.  I hadn’t expected that I would get hooked.  I am.

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The Numi Pu’erh Challenge

Recently I went to the Specialty Food (also known as the Fancy Food) show in San Francisco to see what was new and exciting in the food world.  I also went to connect with companies who are supporting sustainability and ethical trade with farmers as well as selling fair trade and organic products.  I’m happy to say that the number of specialty food companies buying consciously is growing, a hopeful sign for growers and consumers alike.

A company that I am quite interested in is Numi Tea.  We carried Numi’s  Indian Night Decaf Black Vanilla tea in our gift packages and by the box when we were still doing retail sales in our online store.  The vanilla is delicate and understated, just as it should be so that the quality of the tea leaves are enhanced rather than overwhelmed by the vanilla.

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What is Chocolate Tempering and Why do We Do It?

Courtesy of Chef Stephany Buswell: www.chefany.com

When you melt chocolate you are melting the cocoa butter crystals as well as the sugar. In order to achieve the original luster and stability of the chocolate you must temper it before dipping or molding.

The technique is not difficult; it only requires practice with care and patience.

Some important information about tempering:

The room used for tempering and dipping should be at 65? – 70? F. and draft free. If the room is too warm the chocolate will

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Negotiating Cafes for Coffee In Paris

Café Francais
Courtesy of The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

This is a guide for drinking coffee in cafes in Paris

Café express: Sometimes called café noir, café nature, or café normal.  This is a small, espresso-style coffee. (Calling it an espresso would raise the ire of Italians everywhere.)  If you simply say you want a “café,” this is what you’re going to get.  Every time.

Café serre: A tight café express, more concentrated since it’s made with

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Chocolate’s Really Good for You!

Did you know that dark chocolate can improve your vascular function?  Better said, did you know that dark chocolate is actually really good for you?  Well, it is!

Dark chocolate is part of a category of flavonoids called flavonols. Within that group are a number of compounds that have catechin. Those two compounds, catechin and epicatechin, are naturally occurring chemicals that can increase the levels of nitric oxide in your bloodstream.

Raising the nitric oxide level makes your arteries dilate and relax, promoting better blood flow.  As we age, our arteries can narrow and become constricted.  If they become inflexible and narrow too much we develop athersclerois. When this occurs, our blood pressure goes up, which can lead to cardiac disease or stroke.

In 2004,  Mary Engler, a professor in the School of Nursing at the University of California San Francisco (and who should probably be nominated for sainthood), set up a clinical trial to

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Lychee, Litchi sinensis, is a tropical and sub-tropical fruit that comes from a mid-sized evergreen tree that has leaves that are coppery in color when they first appear, and that turn bright green when mature.  The fruit is an ovoid drupe a few inches in size, covered with a rough, red inedible rind that is easily removed.  The fruit itself is translucent white and delicious. There is one brown seed in the center.

The lychee is native to low elevations of the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien in Southern China.  Cultivation spread over the years through neighboring areas of southeastern Asia and offshore islands.  It reached Hawaii in 1873, and Florida in 1883, and was brought to California from Florida in 1897.  Madagascar is a primary exporter of lychees.

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Summer Sippers

Courtesy of Annaliese Keller: www.malabartradingco.com 

Here are some unique and delicious iced beverages created by tea specialist Annaliese Keller.  The teas and tisanes can be ordered from www.malabartradingco.com and affordable are well worth ordering.

Caribbean Cooler
This refreshing beverage is reminiscent of the rose-colored iced drinks served at Caribbean street carnivals. For best results, make the tea the night before serving.

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Commonly Asked Questions About Tea

Commonly Asked Questions About Tea
Courtesy of Annaliese Keller: www.malabartradingco.com

Q: How many cups will I get from one ounce of tea?
A: A pound of tea yields between 200 -250 cups of tea. An ounce of tea will yield between 12.5 and 15 cups of tea. 

Q: How much loose tea should I use?
A: Typically at professional tastings, the optimum tea quantity is 1.5 grams per 5.5 ounce cup of water. However, few have a gram scale at home and must rely on common household measures, such as a teaspoon. Start with a level teaspoon of loose tea, and then adjust it up or down according to your taste. It doesn’t take long to find your preferred strength. Keep in mind that using too much tea is a waste of product, and can result in a bitter, unpalatable cup of tea.

Q: Do you sell decaffeinated teas?

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Afternoon Tea on Onomea Bay

Afternoon Tea on Onomea Bay
Courtesy of Sonia Martinez: www.soniatasteshawaii.com

On a beautiful Spring afternoon not long ago, I was invited to join friends for tea.  Now, I know that many people welcome friends to drink afternoon tea and share scrumptious food, but how many people have the pleasure of experiencing drinking tea at the source? 

My friends Rob Nunally and Mike Longo are the owners of Onomea Tea Company a boutique tea garden located on one of the most beautiful bluffs overlooking Onomea Bay near the Village of Papa’ikou on the East Coast of Hawai’i Island.

The setting for our beautiful tea was their spacious open upstairs lanai with a view of the bay, the ocean and included, just for our enjoyment, a playful mama and baby whale jumping and having fun just off the bluff.  A double rainbow and a ship leaving Hilo Harbor completed the stunning ‘special effects’.  

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Tasting Tea

Courtesy of Annaliese Keller: www.malabartradingco.com

 TASTING TEA: Getting Started

Tea tasting is similar to wine tasting: specific methodologies are used for tasting tea and an entire language exists for describing tea characteristics. 

A good way to begin tea tasting is to line up your favorite teas in different categories and start comparing. Or, set up four black teas from different regions, such as Assam, Nigiri, Darjeeling and Sikkim.

As you begin your tasting journey, note how the flavors may differ depending upon origin, soil type (terroir), style of tea and steeping time. Like wine, differences in taste can be attributed to location, climate and how the tea is processed. Steeping times also attribute unique characteristics to tea. Try brewing one black tea at intervals of 30 seconds, ending at five minutes. Or, infuse the same oolong leaves four times, noting the unique flavor profiles from each subsequent steeping.

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How to Properly Brew Tea

How to Properly Brew Tea

Courtesy of Annaliese Keller: www.malabartradingco.com

Brewing tea does not require special equipment. You may use a saucepan, a lovely porcelain teapot, or a simple clay teapot. Do NOT use mesh ball infusers or “spoon” infusers. Tea brews best in water with the leaves freely circulating. A small, fine mesh strainer is helpful for removing leaves from the finished infusion. There are also mugs available for single cups of tea with fitted strainers that rest on the rim and can be removed after infusing.

Start with cold, filtered or bottled drinking water. Heat water to the correct temperature for the tea you are brewing (see chart below). Do NOT use boiling water for green or white teas. Boiling water will burn the leaves and create a bitter infusion. The cooler water temperature is CRITICAL for green and white tea.

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Sesame, Sesamum indicum, is a flowering annual plant with numerous wild cultivars in Africa, as well as some in India and Pakistan.  It is now grown in tropical regions worldwide and cultivated for its highly nutritious seeds that grow in pods.  The flowers of the sesame plant are usually yellow, though some cultivars are blue or purple.  The seeds themselves can vary in color from creamy-white to black. 

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Peanut, Arachis hypogaea, is not a nut but a legume.  However, as it is so universally used as a nut, and as most people refer to it as a “nut,” I’ve included it here.  Native to Mexico, Central and South America, the peanut’s shell is, botanically, the fruit, and the peanut itself is a seed.  It appears that it was initially domesticated in Argentina or Bolivia and there is evidence that in prehistoric times it was domesticated in Peru.  It made its way to Mesoamerica well before the

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Candlenut, Aleurites moluccanus, is native to the Indo-Malaysia region and was introduced in ancient times throughout the Pacific islands and into Asia.  It now grows in much of the tropical world.

The candlenut is eaten in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisines, usually ground and made into sauces.  It is also used in traditional Hawaiian cuisine.  Candlenuts are sometimes substituted for macadamia nuts when they aren’t available, but the candlenut is much

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