Friday, May 28, 2010

Shopping in Hong Kong with a Pro

Hong Kong residents are some of the world’s best shoppers. They, of course, observe the Chinese New Year’s but have also adopted Valentine’s Day and Christmas as additional opportunities to buy presents. The world’s products are easily available and at good prices. But how can a visitor take full advantage of these offerings? Enter Alicia Daigle, a former resident of Paris.

An Oklahoma native, Alicia lived in Seoul for five years and Hong Kong for four. One bedroom of their apartment stored the many bargains she found in her time in Asia. I knew I was in the hands of a shopping master in our early e-mail contact. She quickly displayed her knowledge of “vendors” as in “I have a purse lady”, a “lady at the Jade Market” and a “fabric guy, too”. At Yuet Tung, you can design your own dinnerware and have it hand painted and shipped. You must go to Shanghai Tang - “expensive but fabulous”. Every e-mail had a new suggestion.

We set up a shopping day which came with a set of instructions from Alicia, all of which proved helpful.

1. “It takes time.” Starting at 9 a.m. with a long metro ride to Yuet Tung, we arrived at a porcelain warehouse of gigantic proportions. Down many aisles were hand painted dishes stacked to the ceiling. As Alicia noted, there was no apparent inventory control. A large purse could do some damage here. It was tempting to order a set of hand painted dishes, especially after seeing the prices and the painting apparatus. This is becoming a lost art. But they couldn’t assure me that the set would be microwavable - a requirement in our household.

2. “Your hands will get dirty. Bring wet ones and tissue.” Bathrooms were precious commodities and wet ones saved us from the dust of many products.

3. “Bring water and snack bars/crackers.” It was going to be a full day and we would not have time for lunch. We stopped, briefly, at a bakery for bread to go. Otherwise, it was full speed ahead with only snacks on the metro.

4. “Wear comfortable shoes.” As we slowly passed through the beautiful flower and bird markets, we were glad to be in our ugly, black walking shoes. The birds noisily visited with each other. Owners bring their birds back to the avarian market on a regular basis to mingle with their own. Of course, the owners also visit. If only we had had more luggage, I would be the proud owner of an exquisite bamboo bird cage.

5. “The Jade Market has reasonable prices.” Alicia’s lady at the Jade Market was a find. Her specialty was “slightly chunky to very chunky with an Asian flair”. All of us bought necklaces, tassels, and key chains in that style. Considering the prices, we weren’t sure all purchases were really jade but we could truthfully say we had bought them at the Jade Market. It was up to our friends and family to inquire more if they really wanted to know.

Last stop was at Om International, a pearl store that can’t be beat for quality and price. The experience included just finding the showroom. Located on a side street in Kowloon, across from Hong Kong island, an overhead sign on the sidewalk pointed us into a stairway. One floor up was a steel door. We rang the bell and a small window behind bars opened to a slight, bespectacled woman. Since we didn’t look threatening, she allowed us to enter a lovely, small showroom with displays of beautiful pearls. There was no way we could leave without a purchase (or two).

So ended one of the most intense shopping days I’ve experienced. We rode on five different metro trains, shopped the enormous and the intimate, observed the Chinese spoiling their birds and buying buckets of flowers, took advantage of the famous Chinese jade and bought pearls with a story to match. We couldn’t have done it without our pro. Alicia monitored our time and steered us down the right streets and hallways. She knew quality and prices. She would tell us that “they’re giving it away” if we hesitated about buying. And she was right every time. In fact, our only regret is that we didn’t buy more.

Yuet Tung Call for directions.

Shanghai Tang - Pedder Building (built 1924) on Pedder Street between Queen's Road Central and Des Voeux Road. This is dead center of the central business district on Hong Kong Island.

Jade Market - MTR Red Line to Tsuen Wan. Get off at Yau Ma Tei Station - Exit C. You will be facing Nathan Road - turn right and walk several blocks to Public Square Street. Turn right on Public Square street, walk one block to the temple which will be on your left. It is worth it to walk into the temple and also to check all the guys playing Go on the temple grounds. Shanghai Street runs in front of the temple. Cross Shanghai Street. You should be facing a large cream colored building - Yau Ma Tei Community Center. Turn left on Shanghai Street in front of the YMT Community Center. Walk about one block, turn right and walk between the small playground with the turquoise blue fence and the YMT Community Center. The Jade Market will be right in front of you. It is an unassuming red, blue and green building.
Eva Ho's stall is #308. She does not bargain much - maybe 10% depending on how good or bad business is at that time.

Om International - # 6 Carnarvon Road, Friends House, First Floor, Suite A3.
MTR Red Line 1 or Line 2 to Tsuen Wan. Get off at Tism Sha Tsui (most folks just call it TST because it is difficult to pronounce) Station - Carnarvon Road D2 Exit. As you exit, just look straight ahead and OM is across the street on the left about half a block from the D2 exit. You can see their sign as you step onto the street. Remember it is on the first floor which is our second floor. Their first floor is the ground floor. This is not on HK Island it is on the Kowloon side.

Flower Market - MTR Red Line 1 or Line 2 to Tsuen Wan. Get off at Prince Edward Station - Exit B1. You will be at the corner of Nathan Road and Prince Edward Road, West. Turn left on PERW. If you are going the right direction, the Mong Kok Police Station will be on your left and an elevated road on your right. Walk about three or four blocks to Sai Yee Street. This is where the Flower Market starts. Turn left on Sai Yee and walk one block to Flower Market Road. Right on Flower Market Road. You can just continue down PERW and come back up FMR.

Bird Market - Most people call it the Bird Market but the correct name is Yuen Po Bird Garden. It is at the end of FMR at Yuen Po Street - far left back corner of the Flower Market if you are walking down FMR to Yeun Po Street.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

New Zealand's Passion for Coffee

New Zealand is a former British Colony that only separated from the mother country in 1926. The English brought their church, language, left side driving, and tea sipping to this beautiful place. Tearooms dominated the hot drink culture until the arrival of American soldiers and European refugees during World War II when coffee was introduced. Unfortunately, instant coffee ruled until about 30 years ago when the Kiwis decided to get serious about their caffeine. They not only embraced freshly roasted and ground coffee, cappuccinos, and lattes, they also created their own variations. Today, good coffee is available from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets.

My husband and I knew it was serious coffee territory upon arriving at our first hotel. The coffee maker was a French Press - a far cry from the usual Mr. Coffee. The hotel provided a small carton of milk upon check-in. A hot water pot made it easy to prepare fresh, strong coffee in the morning. This pattern continued with almost all of our hotels.

The nicest surprise was the discovery of the Flat White, Long Black, and Short Black - not the most romantic of names but quite descriptive. These drinks are available in Australia and New Zealand and both countries claim their origin. They are the Kiwis’ own variations of the cappuccino, espresso, and Americano.

The Flat White is the most popular coffee drink “down under.” It is made with one shot of espresso in Australia and two in New Zealand. Milk is steamed enough to generate wet microfoam - that wonderful, creamy topping to a good cappuccino. The milk is poured from the bottom of the pitcher into a petite tulip cup followed by a small layer of microfoam. It has less milk than a latte, less foam than a cappuccino and is strong but not uncomfortably so. I loved it immediately.

A Long Black reverses the preparation of an Americano. Water is steamed and poured into the coffee cup. Two shots of espresso are then poured over the water, thus preserving the “crema” or foam. If you must have dairy, a very small pitcher of steamed milk will be served to the side. The Short Black is really a South Pacific name for a shot of espresso. These drinks so dominate New Zealand that the local Starbucks and McDonalds have added them to their menu.

It’s hard to describe the importance of coffee in New Zealand. Every small town has at least one coffee house and often more. With no significant local coffee chains, most coffee places are individually owned and operated. Full of Beans, Express Yourself, The Grind, Coffee Break, Divan Coffee name some of the smaller coffee shops. New Zealand’s barristas have placed in the top ten at the world’s barrista competition since 2002. And for the visiting coffee lovers, a web site, Zest, offers a guide to the top cafes and an explanation of New Zealand coffee terminology.

Kiwis are happy to talk about coffee. My van driver to Akaroa on the South Island discovered fresh ground coffee through a boyfriend’s influence and was quite aware of the difference a good barrista can make in the preparation of drinks. She even knew low fat milk frothed as well as or better than that of whole milk. During a phone inquiry, the owner of a kayaking operation in Okaria, a tiny spot on the Tasman Sea, boasted of his kayaks and great coffee. He was right on both counts. And in Nelson, an artist first shared valuable information on the history of coffee houses in New Zealand and the location of the best coffee roasters before he talked about his art.

Coffee is promoted even outside traditional coffee houses. A sign advertising ‘Trudy’s Bar On the Beach’ in Akaroa touted the following - “Fantastic View - Great Coffee.” Only in New Zealand would a waterfront bar boast of coffee rather than its alcoholic drinks. At Kudos Food Design, a catering company in Nelson, their portable advertising sign stated “Yes, we do catering. But... we also do great coffee to go.”

As with any novel drink, the Flat White and its cousins have circled the globe and are now available in Great Britain where many Kiwis and Aussies ex-pats live. In fact, Britons themselves are discovering the new coffee variations. The English company Costa Coffee reports a 9.5% increase in sales since the recent introduction of the Flat White. New York also now has a few coffee houses which can supply their local Antipodeans. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we all will have these new wonderful coffee options - without the need of fifteen hours of flying time.

Added Note - Starbucks has just added the Flat White - yippee!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lennox Woods and the Shortleaf Pine Tree - A Peak at Forests Of The Past

In the late 1800's, the ancestors of Martha, David, and Bagby Lennox purchased 353 acres north of Clarksville, Red River County, Texas. Whether the early members of the Lennox family were pioneer environmentalists or just enjoyed picnicking on their land, this acreage was never completely harvested. Only dead trees were allowed to be cleared. The result is a treasure - one of the most pristine, old-growth forests in the state. It was donated by the Lennox family and their foundation to The Nature Conservancy and is available for public enjoyment.

Thanks to its location on the 613,000 acre Pecan Bayou, the largest undammed watershed in Northeast Texas, Lennox Woods has sufficient water resources to support its 51 tree species, 15 types of vines, 93 wildflower species, 39 species of grasses and sedeges, 9 of shrubs and 10 of moss and fern. Birds such as the pileated woodpecker and various warblers travel through. The rare and very shy timber rattlesnake hides in the woods’ nooks and crannies

Botanists are easily distracted here. Many come just to see the shortleaf pine trees, considered the gold standard for the state, with some being over 100 years old. The far more common loblolly pine is grown on nearby tree plantations and likes to invade the Lennox Woods. Because of two recent, severe ice storms, much of the canopy of the woods was lost, allowing the loblolly an entry point. Recently, the Conservancy used “prescribed burning” to muscle out the loblolly trees who don’t survive even a low temperature fire. Natural, shortleaf pine are unaffected by the elevated temperature and are returning in mass.

You don’t have to be able to recognize a Lady Slipper Orchid or a white oak to enjoy the woods. The Martha Lennox Memorial Nature Trail is a mile and a half loop that takes you under trees and over logs and from low, wetlands to highlands. This is actually only a change of 30 feet in elevation but it’s enough to shake up the plant life. As Nature Conservancy employee Jim Edson noted on a recent tour, “The soil’s the thing.” The soil dictates what plants it will support which tells you what animals will live there. Local Master Naturalists have provided markers naming various plants and trees. For visual learners, there’s even a picture of the identified plant.

Keep your eyes alert for Pimple Mounds, raised swells along the trail. Some have surmised these to be former Native American encampments. But the real story comes from the end of the Ice Age when the desert plains arrived, shrub communities developed, thickets created the mounds and eventually, the forests returned. The 5000 year old mounds are a compact history of soil development.

As we stood on the trail looking at an opened forest with sunlight streaming in, Jim Eidson smiled in great satisfaction. “We’re at the beginning of a cycle”, he informed us. If the Conservancy’s efforts are successful, more grasses and wildflowers will grow in the lit woods among more widely spaced native trees. The Lennox family would still be right at home here as would the early settlers. It’s certainly worth the drive to peak at our state’s forest past.

Directions: The Lennox Woods is not the easiest to find. Go North of Clarksville on Highway 37 to FM 2118. Take a left on FM 2118 and travel west for 1.6 miles. On your left is a sign for Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Turn left on this road and go approximately 1 mile. The sign for the Lennox Woods will be on your left and a small amount of parking is available.

Nature Conservancy site on Lennox Woods

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