Monday, 12 October 2009

Tea Revives You

I love this and I'm going to get one for my kitchen...woop!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Glorious Tea Juice

I can't resist British information films and this one is particularly wonderful.

The narrator's eyebrows are also pretty special.

A recent article from The Times about the UK tea revolution featuring Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Co. The comments are the best bits - my personal favourite is "My wife and I don't have the money to spend on fancy-schmancy tea from specialty farms in Timbuktu".

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Affinities: Tea and Chocolate

My good friend Jonathan is a big fan of L'Artisan du Chocolat, the London based chocolate company. He recently showed me their TBars, chocolate infused with Darjeeling or matcha. Never one to hesitate over either tea or chocolate, I enthusiastically made my way to their new Westbourne Grove shop to sample these bars.

The pairing of tea and chocolate has a long heritage but according to Lydia Gautier, the combining of tea and melted chocolate only began in the 1980s, using at first only flavoured tea such as Earl Grey and Jasmine. The attempt to create a chocolate that marries the development of aromas in 'grand cru' teas and that of the chocolate only really began in the 1990s with the work of chocolatier Jacques Genin. He tried to create a product in which the respective properties of both the tea and the chocolate harmonised and enhanced each other.
In her book The Chocolate Connoisseur Chloé Doutre-Roussel says of him
"Like a perfumer, he intuits the flavour associations, the interactions and harmonies between them. When preparing a ganache, he knows the dance the aromas will perform."
Unfortunately, the TBars don't live up to this standard. Everything I love about Darjeeling was absent from the chocolate. The bar, made from Madagascan beans, is too dark and fruity for this delicate, acidic tea. The matcha bar was better but it is hard to detect any aromas over the sugar punch. Made with cocoa butter rather than cocoa, it had a negligent after taste. Very easy to eat, but not much to appreciate.

Next time in Paris I'll make a pilgrimage to Jacques Genin shop in the Marais and hopefully bring back some of his Puerh chocolates. In the meantime here is a video of him (in French) at his shop.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Name Change

I recently had the wierd experience of the blog being mentioned by the New York Times in a an article about the Covent Garden Real Food Fair where I was, apparently, going to be on hand to discuss my favourite recipes etc... The wierd part was that it was also news to me.
A little bit of investigation revealed that there is a British food blog called More Tea, Vicar which is clearly who the NY Times were meant to link through.

Even though getting a plug from an international news paper is pretty exciting, I would rather it was for my own musings so I've decided to change the title of my blog. "More Tea Vicar?" (something an old friend would say to me over endless cups of tea in Bristol) is perhaps a bit whimsical and was never meant to be permanent. So welcome to The Vital Oolong!
"The Vital Oolong" is in turn a reference to P.G. Wodehouse, a writer I hold in some esteem. On the grayest of London days, or after a particularly boneheaded day at work, he never fails to cheer me up - much like a cup of tea.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Minor Crush

I am a fan of French tea taster Christine Dattner, and cherish her volume Le Livre du Thé Vert (Plume, 2002)
Barbara Dufrene recently wrote a little piece about her career for World Tea News. It gives me courage to keep tasting and exploring new teas.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Tea and Stress

The restorative power of tea is well known. However, it is not necessarily tea on its own that offers relief from stress. Even a short ritual of familiar, repeated movements can offer enough respite from your own thoughts to bring some perspective to a situation.
Drinking tea isn’t about sitting and doing nothing; it is almost a type of guided meditation.

Because they are slightly fiddly to prepare, oolong teas are the ones to reach for when you need to focus your mind on something other than the problem at hand. Since the colour of oolong teas vary so much between rusted green and bright gold, simply contemplating your brew can offer solace.

The work of discerning the different flavours in the tea you are tasting is part of why tea drinking blocks out the noise of the world. Concentrate on the texture of the tea you hold in your mouth. Tannins are drying and these are the components that give the sense of puckering in your mouth. Brew for too long and tannins can overwhelm the aromatic components, while short brewing will offer an insipid brew – a liqueur without the body needed to hold all the flavours in your mouth.

Another aspect of tea is the amount of sheer trouble people go to so you can have a cuppa. Tea is an intensively worked leaf and it is worth remembering the people who have been involved in its processing - from picking to steaming and to the leaves being hand-rolled.

After my flatmate, the personification of bravery, dealt with a half-decomposed mouse trapped under our fridge (while I hopped about uselessly), I sat us down to prepare a couple of oolongs to quiet the mind and the stomach.
A Dong Ding from Le Palais Des Thés and a Baozhong (light roast) from Tea Smith in Spitalfields did the trick.

The Boazhong was very special. I brewed it in a Yixing pot and the tea was meltingly flavourful, evoking white flowers and later, as it cooled, unripe melon and nectarine. After the first brew, my flatmate and I had a good sniff of the inside of the lid (it's where the all the aromas are concentrated) and we both experienced an intense smell of commercial perfume but without the accompanying alcohol. It disappeared almost instantly but it was lovely enough to bring a tear to Isabelle’s eye (really, I saw it).

Which ever tea choose to keep your spirits up, remind yourself that spending half an hour of concentrated effort on preparing tea is a better plan than hiding under the covers with Leonard Cohen.

Reading: Silence by Sara Maitland
Watching: mostly South Park
Drinking: Gin and Tonics

Thursday, 6 August 2009

On Being Under Pressure

I've invented a new fun game involving pouring hot water over tea leaves and playing Hunt the Teapot while it brews. The skill is locating your teapot before your leaves over-brew and the game becomes especially exciting if combined with Hunt the Strainer.

Having a messy kitchen and writing a dissertation is clearly taking its toll.

Reading: The Makioka Sisters
Watching: Downfall (for the laughs)
Drinking: Jing's Yunnan Gold

Friday, 10 April 2009

Milk and Sugar?

I am of the firm opinion that if you need milk and sugar in your tea you are not drinking the right tea. However, if this piece of design by a fellow finn Tanja Sipilä was on the table, I might just make an exception. It is called the Newton because it uses the force of gravity to keep the sugar bowl in place when you pour you milk. It is available from

Monday, 6 April 2009

African Tea - Pictures

I have some important work to do tonight - so i'm procrastinating. Here are some more pics from Burkina Faso and Mali.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

African Tea

Needing to get my yearly Africa fix, some friends and I organised a trip to Burkina Faso and Mali. The FESPACO film festival was being held in Ouagadougou and we thought it would be the perfect time to see something of West Africa. I was left speechless with admiration for these beautiful countries, especially Burkina Faso which I would return to in a heartbeat. The south in particular is delightful with glorious countryside, very special people, and a capital city to lose your heart in. The only downside is the women are so beautiful and so exquisitely dressed that we, red-faced and in sweaty tee-shirts, were left rather beaten about the ego.

Of the two, Mali is the tea drinking country. Straddling the Sahara desert, the Sahel and in the south, sub-tropical grasslands, Mali has palpable Berber and Tuareg influences. The country is also very Muslim and all this is reflected in their tea drinking - a tradition familiar to anyone who has visited North Africa. The only difference is in Mali they do not add bushels of fresh mint.

You feel these influences immediately as you cross the border. While Burkina Faso had a few roadside kiosks selling cups of Liptons and Nescafe, Malians were always brewing up fresh pots of morning, mid-morning, lunchtime, post-lunch and evening tea outside their shops and stalls.

Unfortunately I wasn't a huge fan of this Malian brew. Strong and very sweet, I appreciated the experience of drinking it by the banks of the River Bani with friends and Mopti's curio sellers than the tea itself. Made with cheap China green tea, it is boiled up for about 20 minutes over little braziers and then decanted into a teapot and well sugared. The brew is then repeatedly poured from a great height into small glasses to foam up the tea. I never managed to master this technique, even with the shouted encouragement of my travel companions.
"You've got to pour it from higher up! Higher! HIGHER"

The teapot and glass is then placed on a tray (by now wet and sticky from having poured the tea over my hand and tray rather than into the glass) and offered around. Only one or two glasses is ever needed since the tea is shared. The skill comes into foaming up the tea adequately and then being able to measure it out so that everyone gets to have a sip.

Every time we were invited to tea we would be told of a Dogon/Fulani/Bambara saying that goes "the sip is bitter like death, the second is mild like life and the third as sweet as love". After hearing the same saying from almost everyone we met, it lost its romance. I took down the Dogon version but looking back on my notes, I suspect that my transliteration will one day embarrass me so I won't repeat it.

After two weeks I did start to long for a cup of something special and I was glad we bookended our trip with time in Paris where good tea may be found if you know where to look - I urge you to make a beeline for La Maison des Trois Thés on Rue Gracieuse (no.33).

Friday, 27 February 2009

English Tea

Living as I do in London, it is not uncommon for me to have to defend my position about tea. Whenever I profess to enjoy a cuppa, before I can say Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, I am asked if I like Liptons or Tetleys best. Or, worse, where I would suggest to find some really good chamomile. One doesn't want to be rude, but a short, sharp smack in the face usually works wonders - though does little to enlighten.

Gilles Brochard made the pointed comment that the English are not so passionate about tea as they are of milk. Ah yes. This is even more true with the advent of Starbucks and their crimes against coffee. No coffee should be served with half a litre of milk and froth and any tea needing the addition of milk to make it drinkable is certainly made from inferior leaves (not that you could tell since the leaves have been ground into dust - open an ordinary teabag, go on, it's eye-opening).

George Orwell, a man I hold in very high esteem, wrote a piece for the Evening Standard in 1946 called A Nice Cup of Tea in which he describes the how, in his view, one ought to make a pot of tea. It's a wonderful article full of vigorous opinion and he brings up the usual British tea controversies such as milk in first/last, warming the pot, teabags, sweetener etc... all of which are completely beyond my conception of tea drinking.

While I feel personally affronted when he states, "Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter", I feel physical pain when I read the advice in point six:
"One should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours"
This is a good idea only if you want to destroy every flavour compound in your tea and release into it a superabundance of tannins. This advice is propagated at every turn, and I've noticed modern kettles now stay on the boil for several long seconds before switching off. I can only assume it is on the mistaken assumption that tea ought to be scaled to get the best out of it.

I would dearly love to meet Mr. Orwell, mostly to compare our bookselling experiences and discuss the rise of Fascism in Europe, but I would firmly take issue with his article and perhaps treat him to some serious tea experiences. What he describes in the essay is what the English hold most dear, but everybody else finds very odd about English tea.

Also published in 1946 was George Mikes book How to be an Alien. He offers a very different take on English tea.

"The trouble with tea is that originally it was quite a good drink. So a group of the most eminent British scientists put their heads together, and made a complicated biological experiments to find a way of spoiling it. To the eternal glory of British science their labour bore fruit. They suggested that if you do not drink it clear, or with lemon or rum and sugar, but pour a few drops of cold milk into it, and no sugar at all, the desired object is achieved. Once this refreshing, aromatic, oriental beverage was successfully transformed into colourless and tasteless gargling-water, it suddenly became the national drink of Great Britain and Ireland - still retaining, indeed usurping, the high sounding title of tea."

The erudite Half-Dipper recently wrote a post about drinking tea in London. It is here.

*You can find the article in Orwell's Collected Essays published by Random House's Everyman Library (ISBN: 9781857152425). It's a wonderfully obese volume full of treasures that is well worth investing in if you have any interest in Europe between the wars and English social history. The essay itself is also available online.

*Gilles Brochard's latest book is Le Thé Dans L'Encrier (The Tea in the Inkwell). It is wonderful book about the relationship between tea and literature and includes a guide for serving tea to your favourite author. According to him, Amelie Nothomb, a writer of dark complex emotions with a distinct Gothic sensibility should be offered nothing less than a 20 year old Pu'erh.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Driving away the Droops

I love the Victoria and Albert Museum and I've been going there since I was knee high to a teaplant. Their recent China Now exhibition was eye-opening and featured work by Chinese artist and ceramicist Lin Jing (on the left, lounging on one of her "Long Island" chairs)
The V&A shop is currently selling some of her limited edition teapots by that were featured in the exhibition. I particularly favour the Qiqi teapot (on the right) just because of it wonderful shape.

They also stock a fantastic tea towel that makes me smile everytime I see it.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Tea Palace

Walking down Kensington Park Road today on my way to work today, the sun was bright and crisp and the air fresh. This made a change from the relentless drizzle and snowy slush of the past month. What caused me to drop to my knees and curse the sky on this beautiful day was finding out that the Tea Palace is closing.

Not going forever fortunately, but moving to a undisclosed central London location. Reopening in spring 09, I know that Tea Palace Mark II will be a wonderful oasis and continue to serve delicious teas with style and knowledge.
But I can't help but feel sore-hearted that my favourite place to recharge batteries, have plate of eggs Benedict on payday, or buy up tea presents for friends (it'll be tea or books - deal with it) is moving out of reach of my immediate clutches.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Take a Young Raven from the Nest.....

This post is a little off-message since i'll be writing about a book of smells rather than a book about tea. But bear with me, because you'll love it.

Anyone interested in smells will find "If There Ever Was" fascinating. Subtitled "A Book of Extinct and Impossible Smells", the book was conceived to accompany an exhibition collecting a number of odours whose context has vanished (end of political era, extinction of plant components), or whose smells can only be imagined, such as the surface of the sun - mostly hydrogen, helium and copper.

The book, printed using a press, is a work of art in itself. Collecting together fourteen smells on scratch-n-sniff cards, each scent or odour is accompanied by a description of how it was imagined.
So, putting together the olfactory components that made up the scent of a medieval plague shield included "vinegar as this was the purifying base used at the time . We reconstituted rose leaves using rose oil and true raspberry leaves. We added different elements commonly used at the time to try preventing the settling of the Yersinia pestis (plague) bacteria, such as beeswax, angelica, orange peel, and clove. Also present in the plague shield is a smoky feeling because many fires of aromatic wood were lit at the time to try and fend off the polluted air."

Rub the scented page opposite and that's what you smell. A visceral historical experience as well as lesson in contemplation and in privileging our 'lesser sense'.

A proper review can be found here. One of the contributors Maki Ueda has a blog which can be found here. It's a delight.
Copies can be found at the ICA bookshop or online. (ISBN: 9780955747809)

Thursday, 5 February 2009

St. Valentine's Day

Here is a little selection of tea and tea-related items for those looking for a St. Valentine's Day gift. I’ve made few concessions to heart-shaped objects since this post is really just an extended hint for friends and family. (My birthday is coming up) I have not included abominations such as ‘love teas’, just teas to make people love you (or me love you) if you gift them on the 14th of February.

My most local tea shop to work is The Tea Palace on Westbourne Grove. I love going there on a weekday when its quiet and I can enjoy a perfectly brewed pot of the new season's Darjeeling (they usually carry two or three first flushes). Their gift selection is always secondary to the tea they sell, but includes some elegant, well-chosen items such as silver tea measures and Yixing teapots. They've also started selling candles. Sold individually or in a gift box with the relevant tea, Darjeeling Mist and Spirit of Sencha smell glorious and perfect for the bathroom of your tea loving friend. If you are not planning on adding to their tea stash that is.
If so, then you cannot go far wrong with their tea selection. (They carry a bunch of infusions as well, but that doesn't concern us here) I particularly like their range of single estate black teas. I recently bought a Ceylon Silver Tip which is clear and smooth and redolent of caramel. Nothing better to wake up to on St. Valentine's Day, especially if it's made for you by the one you love.

Ok, here is my concession to heart-shaped pink things. Take a stroll around the Mariage Frères
. They are selling a Yin Zhen white tea whose buds have been shaped into hearts enclosing rose and jasmine flowers. Like with all flowering teas it will look spectacular in a glass teapot though there is a danger of a tasteless, though pretty, disappointment. However, Mariage Frères know their tea, so my hopes run high that the description on the website - flowery perfume, delightfully soft with a velvety texture - is realised.

Jing Tea is one of my favourite tea suppliers and they are particularly good at sourcing oolongs and, more importantly, describing them in a way that makes your mouth water. I was reading about their Iron Arhat Oolong (Wuyi Tie Luo Han Wu Long) and almost fainted with desire. They also sell a really delicious Oolong Ali Shan.
(By the way, Jing has a new blog which can be found here.)

Another London tea merchant is Postcard Teas. They carry a wonderful selection of teas sourced in China and India by the owner. Their tins are all decorated with vintage tea postcards. This makes the tea buying process tricky because often the tea you want doesn't correspond to the tin you have your eye on. The only solution is to buy both. I love their Island Breakfast - a blend of Sri Lankan black teas, and their Jade Oolong.
Their website also lists a selection of tea accessories such as hand-embroidered tea towels.

Monday, 2 February 2009


British tea company LEAF are having a sale on their tea accessories until the end of Monday 2nd of February. Their Yellow Cups tea towel is particularly nice, as is their hand-printed tea cosy by John Booth and Arounna Khounnoraj (seen on the right).

Their website is here.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Tea Images

Incidentally, Le Palais des Thes has created some lovely tea screensavers. They can be found and downloaded here.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Kyoto Journal

The 71st issue of the Kyoto Journal is devoted to tea and it looks like it's jam-packed with interesting features. To source a copy try their website (subscriptions and back issues), or California-based Teance (Unfortunately, while the magazine is only $12, their postage to the Europe is almost $40).