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.