Wednesday, 23 May 2012

a teapot and friendly tea talk

why not a Disney teapot?
Visiting family is often a pleasure, and even more so if members of your family are tea drinkers. I wrote about my tea party with Amelia last year about this time. Although we've enjoyed some prodigious tea drinking hereabouts, the home I'm visiting was sorely lacking a proper teapot. Well, until today that is.

Some of you might view a Snow White teapot with a bit of suspicion. 'Is that really a proper teapot?' you're asking yourself. Well, of course it is. And all the more appealing to the little girls new to tea. Hence the design. I've actually made pot after pot of tea in it today. This teapot has been christened and then some.

Oh, there was a relatively small article in the New York Times yesterday entitled Flying as a Time for Sleep, Or Friendly Tea Talk about David DeCandia, who's a master blender for Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. It was an article near to my heart, because it's ostensibly about tea, but deals with periphery topics and draws them in.

In case you can't (or don't want to) get behind the Times pay wall, I'll include my favourite part of it. He's talking about travelling in general and in tea growing regions in particular. Here's what he says:
'A great seatmate is anyone who lets me sleep. That doesn't mean I don't talk to people, on occasion. I'm a friendly guy, and it's always fun to talk to people about tea...I drink about 20 to 25 cups a day. People are very well informed about tea, and aren't opposed to trying new types. So if someone asks me for a recommendation, I'm happy to give them some suggestions. 
Then there are those seat-mates I wish I never spoke with. 
I sat next to one gentleman recently who would not shut up. He was older, and I wanted to be polite...'
Really love this. As a rule I'm polite but curt with people sitting next to me on the plane (or the train, but that's somehow different). But flying from Germany recently, I had a fantastic experience where my seat-mate and I talked nearly the whole flight. It wasn't planned or anything. We simply had a lot of common interests, and one thing led to another and there we were at our destination.

Goes to show: you really don't know what's going to happen next. I could've been a jerk, and said, 'I really want to read my book,' and missed out on a fantastic connection.

Am really glad I didn't do that.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

my Nana could feel us down here thinking of her

Shanghai tea house in Hamburg
While planning my trip to the US, I considered bringing enough tea from home. I have enough, and really don't need any new tea. But such is the quandary of a tea obsessive. I don't need any, but...I desperately want to try new tea. Although I write about tea shops in Germany and around Europe, I have several American tea sources I like. I use these trips while visiting family to take advantage of the places I like the most.

Here I was going through Upton Tea's website ordering one from Java and another tea from India...(a black one I'd never even heard of) and I'm sure I'll get around to talking about here. At some point, I intend to incorporate all the tea I'm drinking on my trip, but as you know I like to write about non tea-related things here, as well.

While I was wrapping up my order, Upton Tea suggested a sample of a tea that they were nearly out of. As I read about it, I thought, 'Oh, my. This is eerily appropriate for the purpose of my visit.' My maternal grandmother passed away recently, and the family is scattered all over. We arranged to meet this weekend. Despite what sounds like it could be a sad and depressing situation, we really had a good time celebrating her life rather then mourning anything.

'What does any of this have to do with tea?' you're wondering. I'm glad you asked. So the tea I read about was called China Pre-Chingming Golden Pekoe. But that'd mean nothing without what I'm going to tell you next. Here's the direct link to the description of the tea that was provided.

As it says:
The festival of Chingming (Qingming) is a 2500 year-old tradition in which people visit the burial sites of their ancestors to pay respect. It is significant in Chinese tea culture because it serves as a demarcation between a distinct pre-Chingming plucking period and the subsequent plucking period occurring after the festival date (usually around April 5). Pre-Chingming teas are prized for their delicacy and subtle, fresh nuances.
So, it's a tea for the ancestors. Honouring one's ancestors specifically. How ideal is this? Like I was almost led to it just in time for my trip. Then I read more about the holiday Ching Ming, which actually takes place every year on 5 April (Here's more about that in Ching Ming). We're weren't willing to wait till next year for 5 April to come rolling round again. We had ancestor-honouring to take care of.

I mentioned my Aunt Elise when I wrote getting into tea in Tucson, and I knew she and her daughter (my cousin Alyssa) enjoyed drinking tea and would appreciate the symbolism of doing so in my grandmother's honour. My mother really likes tea, so it was a foregone conclusion that she'd be game for just such an endeavour.

If there was ever a perfect scenario for throwing out the first infusion, this was it. I'd read years ago that many Taiwanese, as well as Mainland Chinese I assume, discard the first infusion as some sort of symbol to the ancestors. Something like you're giving tea to the spirit of those that came before you. Yet, I had no intention of doing it. I don't like throwing tea away.

But the funny/spooky thing that happened? I unwittingly spilled the first infusion. All of it. If that's how the ancestors want to get their first infusion from us, that's the least we could do for them. Then the actual next infusion was poured and enjoyed by me and these ladies (my mom and aunt) who've meant so much in my life.

The tea was a tad bitter the fist few sips, but that settled down quite nicely. A nice caramel taste in the cup, I definitely drank this in my grandmother's honour. She might not have understood what on earth we were doing with a Gaiwan and those little cups, but I'm hopeful my Nana could feel us down here thinking of her.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

tea for horses

tea horse (photo from

Song dynasty: the Chinese were vulnerable because they had inferior horsemanship leaving them vulnerable to nomads and conquerors from multiple directions. The solution: tea. The Tibetans in particular fell prey to the power of the leaf. By giving them a taste of the brew, the Chinese of the Song dynasty actually got their adversaries hooked on the stuff.

'...With the burgeoning tea trade, however, China discovered a new weapon (for caffeine addiction is a subtle but powerful, persistent force) in its Sisyphean attempts to appease and bridle the nomads. This was the beginning of the fabled tea and horse trade, which turned the Tibetans into the most copious tea-guzzlers on the planet, opened up some of the world's most daunting trade routes, and remained a cornerstone of China's foreign policy until the end of the Qing dynasty.'

(source: The True History of Tea p.70 by Victor H Mair & Erling Hoh)

This is a fantastic development. You may be wondering why I'm so fascinated with this. Well, it just so happens that I'm visiting family in Texas over the next few weeks and I've just come up with a brilliant idea.

tea for horses

I wonder how much really excellent Long Jing I'd have to part with to get a halfway decent mare. The book keeps mentioning a measurement of tea that I'd never heard of. A 12 3/4 hand horse in China would have set me back 132 catties. How much tea was there in a catty? Could it have been that much?

Now, I'm trying to imagine the conversation I might have in cattle country with a horse trader.

Me: Howdy there, fine sir.

Horse trader: *eyes me with skepticism* *grunts*

Me: I was hoping to do some business with you today...although I must admit it's a bit unorthodox. Might you be interested in a creative transaction involving your livestock?

Horse trader: *raises his eyebrow*

Me: You see, I was reading in a book about the Chinese and their inability to procure acceptable horses. It was the Song dynasty, and it was causing the Chinese rulers a lot of trouble. They were being attacked repeatedly by their neighbours, who were superior horsemen. It turns out the only thing the Chinese had that was worth trading was tea. 

Horse trader: *looks surprised*

Me: You know the phrase 'All the tea in China'? Well, these Chinese had a lot of tea to trade. So my proposition here is that we recreate this manner of trade and I give you a certain number of pounds of tea for one of your better horses. 

Horse trader: Ah don't drink tea. 

Me: Yet! You don't drink tea yet. I was actually prepared for that eventuality. And the truth is that it doesn't matter that you don't drink tea. The Tibetans didn't drink it either when the Chinese first arrived.  But they learned. Eventually, they made up for lost time. Tell me, my good man, do you drink coffee? Enjoy a daily cup of Joe?

Horse trader: Yeah, I drink coffee. What of it?

Me: Do you ever have a cup or two of coffee and feel your heart start to race and your mouth go dry? 

Horse trader: Uh, well actually...yes. I like the taste of coffee, but it doesn't always seem to agree with me. 

Me: Well, that doesn't happen with tea. Not at all. The caffeine doesn't hit you all at once. It eases into your system and makes you both alert and calm at the same time. Here - I just happen to have a flask of hot, delicious tea right here...

And...scene...can you just imagine? Not only am I going to get a horse, but I'll be simultaneously luring someone over to the leaf-side. This is going to be great.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

té & té in the heart of Seville

I'd done a very brief internet search for tea in Seville and found nothing so interesting. Oh well. 'It wasn't to be,' I told myself. Only a few hours before boarding the train out of town, I turned to my friend Marla who drinks tea and lives in Seville and asked, 'Is there a teashop here?'

She chuckled at me and answered, 'Of course there is. Follow me.' A few twists and turns through streets I'd have never found myself wandering down, and there it was.

It turns out té & té has two locations, but this one was at Calle Castelar 2 (phone: 954 222 452). There's another teashop nearby at Pasaje de los Azahares 44 (phone: 954 220 755). You know how you can tell immediately if a shop is serious about tea? This place is one of those. In what I thought was coffee-drinking Spain. This trip has been much better for teablogging than I ever expected.

gorgeous tea gear

Beautiful canisters and tea cups and teapots, as well as a really nice selection of tea. The guy behind the counter introduced himself as Alfonso, and I'm almost certain he's the one responsible for all of this tea drinking goodness.

He offered a cup of what was a delicious black tea grown in South Africa (now I wish I'd asked him more about this tea - it was curiously tasty). Oh, and on the topic of teablogging, I just found that té & té has a Spanish teablog called pasión por el té. Take a look - you'll recognise the layout.

Marla mentioned that many establishments here offer something called 'Pakistani' tea, which Alfonso quickly showed us examples of this: what you'd think of as chai (black tea with clove and other musky spices). Although I was intrigued, I was much more curious about his single estate tea. He had plenty of that on offer, as well.

While standing there chatting about tea in both English and Spanish, another passionate tea drinker overheard us, and introduced herself as a Californian who'd lived in Seville on and off for decades. How I could think there was no decent teashop in Seville is now beyond me. té & té was a pleasant surprise.

a very contented teablogger

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Price of Tea in India

Last week, I got a bit hot and bothered about the price of tea in why does tea cost so much? Well, although there's been some interesting discussion on Tea Trade and twitter even about the topic (I actually agree with yaya that sometimes tea isn't too expensive - that the amount of tea you get from just a bit of leaf is rather impressive). However, it did bring a bit of joking at my expense from an Indian twitter friend

Here's what she said exactly:
Well, although I don't understand '0 Rs/$' (that sounds like free tea to me...I'm not ready for free tea), I think she was exaggerating a bit. I thanked her for her dastardly taunting. She then offered to write a bit of a rant along the same line as my blogpost. Well, you know I love a good guest blogpost, so I present to you Radhika (@levis517) and her unabashed ridicule of us - those of us paying far too much for our tea. Even if you don't agree with all of what she says, I think you'll appreciate her enthusiasm. Oh, and her taunting. That's priceless, as it were.

Without further ado, here's Radhika:

'It was only a couple of days ago that Lahikmajoe posted something on his teablog that I absolutely HAD to reply to. Actually, the post was itself inspired by a comment made by someone else on the outrageous price of tea in their part of the world. Of my 25 years on the planet, 21 have been spent in India, and 4 in Australia – a subset of ‘that part of the world’. Based on my experience, I can say this: yes, you are being duped.

As a good little Indian girl, I am a tea drinker. I made friends with some great people on twitter that were initially based around this drink. However, owing to the fact that I am the only one from a major tea-producing nation I find that, oddly enough, a lot of the time I can’t relate to the others’ tea escapades. There are only two occasions where I must respond.

The first is my endless quest to teach the Anglophone world the difference between chai and tea which is simply this: there is none. I won’t dwell on the topic much because I harp on about it enough both on and offline, and also it’ll detract from the point on hand.

The other thing I can’t resist commenting on is the price of tea abroad.  – i.e. where most of you are. In the case of Lahikmajoe’s post, the response was smug and self-satisfied. But that is because I’m back in the land of accessible tea. Were I still in Australia, the response would probably have been a tearful, heart wrenching ‘It’s not FAIR!

Now I understand there are a number of economic forces that interact to determine the price of a commodity within a given market, but I’m not here to gripe about economics. Why should I? It has no bearing on me if I’m not in said market. And in any case, I don’t feel I have enough expertise in the area to comment on it with any authority. No, the reason I get so upset about the disparity in the price of tea in India and abroad is not based on how much I have to spend to drink it (though I did switch to coffee for a year and a half because I find the tea in Australia intolerable as well as expensive). The reason it is an issue at all, in fact, is a matter of principle. (regular teablogger's note: changing to coffee is most definitely not recommended)

Tea is not meant to be expensive.

Lahikmajoe points out quite rightly in his post that tea is marketed in foreign lands as a luxury product. Can I just say I cannot think of a bigger insult to the drink than to call it a luxury product.

Australia was/is an absolute disgrace to the little leaf. The place is full of ‘tea houses’ and ‘teashops’ where you spend 4-5 dollars (200 – 250 rupees) on tepid, flavoured water with absolutely no personality or charm or purpose. They have this appalling institution called T2 which has made a business out of denigrating the innocent little tea leaf by engaging in a vile and I daresay mostly fictitious form of tea snobbery that tramples all over what I regard as the true purpose of tea. Tea brings people together – in a country of so many different languages, faiths and  facial features, it unifies an entire population. In Australia, and I imagine most of the developed world, it is marketed to serve the opposite purpose. You show off your tea, your wide and varied knowledge, the many different kinds you can identify, what flush, which leaves, how long should they be steeped and, most importantly, how much each is worth – the same way you do with wine and gadgets. But maybe that’s why I can’t take part in any other tea-discussions on Twitter. 

You see, In my part of the world, tea is comfort, warmth, and hospitality. In its classic, romantic avatar, it’s a boy and a girl at a railway station on a monsoon evening, with a glass of chai, sharing a packet of Parle-G biscuits. That’s from an ad for Parle-G based on millions of real life scenarios that take place across the country. I had my own on a train back from Lucknow when I was 17 and the man next to me asked if I’d like a cup of tea from the chaiwalla doing the rounds of the carriages. Please, don’t get any unsavoury ideas. Like I said, it is a literal and figurative token of warmth. The gent himself was Muslim and they often tend to be hospitable. We spoke a little over our chai and chips. He managed to soothe my edgy teenage nerves, this being my first solo train trip and all. I think he got off at Nizammudin, while I debarked at Delhi. Natch, we never saw each other again. 

Our tailor offers us a cup of chai whenever we visit to pick up our clothes. It’s his way of stalling us while his minions start and finish the job they were meant to have done the week before. The tea is from one of the shopowners in the market who’s known us for the past two decades. It’s sweet, milky and is sharpened with ginger. Absolutely beautiful. We don’t even mind the tailor’s slacking off. We wouldn’t go to anyone else.

I have a job now and I am delighted everyday by the cup of chai that apparates on my desk moments after I arrive. Without our chaiwalla, the office would fall apart. It’s why his name is the second one on the website’s staff page – just under the head honcho’s. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it’s what makes me get up in the morning. The stuff is so potent, the aroma comes wafting through the rooms from the kitchen.

One of my best friends and I have taken it upon ourselves to spend more time together now that we know how much we miss each other when I’m away. We go to a handicrafts market near her house – it includes food stalls representing each state in the nation. We sit down over a cup of kawha or kulhar chai and talk about a list of topics that somehow hasn’t run dry after 17 years.

We have a shawlwalla who visits us in winter – for obvious reasons, selling shawls. I happened to mention how much I wanted to try to make kahwa yet how I was constantly thwarted by the absence of the right kind of tea. A week later, he dropped by bearing a bag of the stuff as a gift. 

My favourite memories of my undergrad involved me and my three closest friends sitting around 4 cups of tea (maybe one or two of coffee) on the college lawns on a sunny but nippy winter day, working on assignments due or just tossing ideas about our favourite theorists back and forth. The tea was the oversweet teabag variety, and I still get served it now and then. By tea snob standards it’s not worth the calories you burn drinking it, but for me the taste is a constant throwback to three of the best years I ever had.

I make tea as well. Some years ago, my father made a work visit to the North East. It must have been Assam because he returned bearing a bag of tea that weighed a kilo. I was admiring it in his house, he asked if I wanted it and I thought that was a great way to nick it. It’s the best tea I have ever had. It’s not high brow, not the top leaves, not full leaf, either, but it’s strong and sweet and powerful enough to hold its own against any spices I might add without losing any of its flavour. It’s my favourite tea to make – a silent kitchen, a pot, some water on the boil – add your ingredients and inhale. It’s one of the most therapeutic activities I can recommend.

There’s no room for snobbery in a tea culture. There’s also no room for economics. We don’t discuss price or quality of tea. We might spare a sentence to how we like our chai if we do. But, like I said, tea is an expression of fondness. A kind of catalyst that brings people together. Most of the tea you drink in India will cost you little or nothing. You’ll pay something between 3 and 10 rupees for a paper cup of nectar. Mostly, it’ll come to you. It’s a part of life, you know? It’s not something you think about. It’s just always there. It’s like a friend and friends aren’t luxuries.'

Thursday, 3 May 2012

La Tetería in Málaga draws you in

pull up a chair
You've been in Málaga's cathedral, as well as several other churches, and not only the Museo Picasso Málaga but the Casa Natal de Pablo Picasso, too. Up on the hill is the Alcazaba (castle) and below it the Puerto (port). If only there was a decent tea salon mixed in with all these tapas bars.

Well, I'm here to tell you there is. It's called La Tetería and it's a dream. Some tea shops make a half-hearted attempt at proper tea, but this place is definitely not one of them.

Chairs and tables are set outside in the shadow of both the Iglesia San Agustín and the above-mentioned Picasso museum, and everything about the place draws you inside. The decor, the music, the friendliness of the staff - all of it indicates that good things are going on here.

'What about the tea?' you ask. As good as the rest of it is, it's the tea that really matters. For a tea salon in a very busy tourist-saturated area, their selection is extraordinary.

such a selection
Plenty of flavoured green tea:

One called a 'moroccan' (green tea, mint and sugar), one with the name 'viento sur' (hibiscus, orange, mint, and 10 vitamins), and another called curiously 'fata morgana' (rose petals, cornflowers, and sunflowers). Yet I was most interested in the 'buen día' (Darjeeling, Japanese green, Ceylon with fresh strawberries and vanilla). I got a small canister of that last one and can tell you about it later.

Many flavoured black blends:

A 'suenos de buda' (black and green tea, ginger, and clove), and a concoction called 'canemón' (Earl Grey cinnamon and lemon). The creatively named 'crema irlandesa' (whiskey cream and cacao) in addition to their 'jengibre melange' (ginger, mint, and guava).

For white tea, there was a Pai Mu Tan and then several flavoured blends. A stawberry/vanilla, a cherry/jasmine, and a mango/lime.

I rarely get excited about flavoured tea, though. 'Do they offer any  single estate tea?' I hear you asking. Actually, yes. As if you had to ask.

There were two sorts of Assam: a Bazaloni G.F.B.O.P and a Rembeg T.G.F.O.P. (I had the former and it was delicious), at least three sort of Darjeeling: a Tukdah F.T.G.F.O.P. first flush, a Darjeeling de Otono F.T.G.F.O.P.1 (Margaret's Hope), even a green Darjeeling from Selim Hill F.T.G.F.O.P.1 and finally a Sikkim 'Temi' F.T.G.F.O.P.1.

I'm not going to list all their tea here. You can find quite a lot on the website La Tetería. There's also plenty of Rooibus and tisanes. There was also a section called 'Preventative and Curative Infusions' that I really hope I don't need for a long, long while. My plan is to stay as healthy as possible in the meantime.

La Tetería was much more than I expected. My assumption was that there wouldn't be much in the way of tea drinking in southern Spain. Gladly, I was mistaken. I can definitely recommend this place. If you find yourself in Málaga, you should definitely let yourself be drawn in.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Why does tea cost so much?

grouchy as I want to be
It all started with this innocuous query on twitter:
Sounds like a simple enough request, right? 'Why does tea cost so much?' Why, indeed. 'What're acceptable prices?'

I'm afraid I can only give a small sliver of the answer. My knowledge of the tea industry is only from the perspective of the end user. The customer.

someone better qualified

When I have questions like this, I often turn to Xavier (@teaconomics). He studied economics, and has a mind for such things. When he and I visited tea shops in Nice earlier this year, he had a very logical and well thought out response to 'Why does tea cost so much?'

If you don't know his blog, you really should take a gander here: Teaconomics.

He writes about where tea and economics meet (hence the blog's inventive name). Although I couldn't begin to create the in depth analysis he does, I find his writing compelling and tend to celebrate whenever I see a new blogpost over there.

Having dealt with the reality that there are economic factors that make tea expensive, now I can get on to my more emotional response. And the way I'll begin my answer to whatever financial rationalisation you throw my way is with one simple declarative word: Bollocks!

Yes, it's a commodity. I understand that this is a product that comes from a plant, and that growing conditions can make for a myriad of hassles and unforeseen circumstances. There are tea auctions and logistics to bring the sacks of tea to your country. If you've got a stand alone shop, there's rent and overhead and I could go on and on about that part of the argument.

but wait just a minute

However, I continue to disagree. I believe tea doesn't have to be so dear. It really doesn't.

The impression I get is that tea is marketed and sold as a luxury item. That means it's purposely priced highly and intended to be viewed as something to be valued. I understand that and if I thought it was the actual tea growers who were getting the inflated profits, I might be more sympathetic.

From what I've heard and read, that's rarely the case. The sometimes obscene prices go primarily to those who have marketed it. I'm not against marketing at all.

I'll be in the United States again later this May, and I danced around this topic when I was there last year. It's something I'm sure I'll write about more extensively. The good news for Brian and others tea newcomers is that many of us are constantly on the lookout for reasonably-priced tea.

Is that really too much to ask?

(photo source: Source of Inspiration)