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Raise Your Glass to the Flavors of Summer




While every season has its flavors, summertime, with the warm weather, beach trips, and farmer’s markets is the time of year when gardens give up a bounty of fresh produce. Everyone has their own personal, favorite summer dishes that make your mouth water just by thinking about it. Maybe yours is strawberries sliced, mixed with sugar and scooped over the perfect shortcake and then topped with cream. Maybe it is fresh garden peas, picked small, barely cooked so they retain a bit of crispness, and dotted with butter and a touch of dill. Maybe it is corn on the cob. All of these, plus a ton of other summer delicacies I could have mentioned are great, but my ultimate summer treat are blueberries. There is rarely a bad blueberry, but Maine wild blueberries are the best (of course I am not prejudiced in any way), and this has been a great year for blueberries. The wild ones growing down the field have been extra plentiful for no apparent reason. So far, I have enjoyed them straight off the bush, sprinkled over granola, in pancakes, muffins, baked in a maple syrup sweetened crisp, and made into jam.


Here are a few book and tea selections that focus on flavors.




Children’s Book: For the second time in a row, I will start with a children’s book that features my favorite flavor. Blueberries for Sal is a classic, as are all of Robert McClosky’s books. Sal, who is also featured in One Morning in Maine, sets off with her mother to pick blueberries. The blueberries are so tasty, Sal has trouble getting many into her pail, a problem with which I can definitely relate. The blueberries take Sal and her mother in different directions without them even noticing, and they discover they are not the only visitors to the berry patch intent on capturing a summer delight. If you know the story, you know who these other visitors are and how it all turns out. If you have never read it, try it out; I don’t think you will be disappointed. The simple, monochromatic (blue) drawings add to the story’s charm and lends it an air of nostalgia.



Fiction: Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery is the second book I have read by this author. While I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog from start to finish (and this book may appear in a future blog), Gourmet Rhapsody was definitely not love at first read. However, I keep thinking about it and coming back to it, particularly in regard to the enjoyment of epicurean delights and the search for the ultimate flavors. Monsieur Arthens, a well-known food critic and gourmand, has been admired by many, liked by some, and reviled by his closest friends and family. On his deathbed, he searches through his memories for the ultimate culinary experience and is surprised to find that his fondest food memories are tied up more with the circumstances surrounding its consumption than with the high-quality ingredients or skill of execution of a dish. His search though food memories alternates with comments from his acquaintances, including the cat. Some critics of the book state, make the plot go nowhere. Truly Gourmet Rhapsody is lacking a linear plot. We are waiting for a cranky food critic to die, and he takes a while to do it. Yet, the strength of the book is not in the plot, but rather in the language and discussion of the quality of experience. What are the criteria for the ultimate flavor and who gets to decide what it is?



Nonfiction: Much has been said about how food, flavors and a shared table can unite people, and this is true - in the right circumstances. Unfortunately, those right circumstances are all too often missing, and the enjoyment of a flavor can cause a great many people harm. Both themes are explored in A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage, which looks at the overall history of the world through the dominant drinks of different ages. These six drinks in order are beer in the ancient world of Egypt and Mesopotamia; wine of the Classical world; spirits during the Colonial era; coffee in the Age of Enlightenment; tea and the British Empire; and Coca-Cola and American dominance. Because I cannot mention all the interesting details from all six drinks, I will focus on just two and juxtapose the good and the bad. In ancient Greece, appropriate for the rise of democracy, wine was served as an equalizer at social gatherings regardless of social class. However, the modern world gets its wine culture that differentiates between sophisticated and plebeian wine drinkers not from Greece, but from Rome where they used it to delineate social status. The best wine was for the elite, and the worst for the lowest classes such as the slaves. The second, of course, must be tea. Tea was drunk long before the rise of the British Empire, as noted by Standage, and like beer and wine was healthier than plain water at that time. Tea was healthier not just because water was boiled to brew it, but because it has natural antibacterial agents that help prevent water borne diseases. Sadly, the mania for tea during the British Empire is partly to blame for the sad history of slavery in the West Indies (labor needed for the sugar plantations) and was tied up with the causes of the Opium Wars. After reading this book, I definitely look at my cup of tea a little differently.


Tea: I did not realize that the British practice of afternoon tea actually came from the Portuguese, which is where the first of the three teas come from. I walked into a tea shop in Lisbon, Portugal, and asked what a popular tea with the locals was. Without hesitation, the proprietor showed me a tin of Morangos E Champagne. This is a green Sencha tea that combines the flavors of champagne, raisins, strawberries, rose buds and lavender. It is a lovely cup of tea that doesn’t need sugar. The raisin flavor really shone and was surprisingly delightful. Another interesting tea is Ice Wine, which I first encountered in Quebec. The ice wine flavor can be found not only in tea, but in chocolate as well. According to descriptions, grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine which produces a more concentrated flavor, and then squeezed. This grape flavor, different from the raisin flavor in the Morangos E Champagne, produces a delicious experience when combined with black tea. Several different tea companies produce this flavor. The third type of tea, Kentucky Bourbon, I found while on a recent jaunt to Tea Maineia in the little town of Winterport, Maine. The package says, “This is not your grandmother’s tea.” Probably not, but I think my grandmothers would have liked it. For me, it is best with cream and sugar, absolutely dessert like.




 

Artwork credited to Aurora Draws - contact aliceechesley@gmail.com for more details

All photographs by the author


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