I like tea shops but proper tea shops are becoming harder to find. Of course, when you say “tea shop”, there is an ambiguity. Do you mean a retail outlet where you buy tea to take home and brew in your own teapot or do you mean a place where you sit at table and drink the brewed tea provided? As it happens, I like both and visit them frequently.
On moving to Islington, I got into bad habits: I started buying tea from the supermarket. Most supermarkets sell a very restricted range of teas and even if these have the right names like “Darjeeling” and “Assam” and “Lapsang Souchong” they usually leave something to be desired. Well, that’s my experience. I was reminded what proper tea should be like when I visited the Bramah tea and coffee museum and bought some of their Russian Caravan tea. Drinking this was like waking up after a long sleep: when I had finished it and brewed the usual supermarket tea that I had been drinking for months, I found it disgusting.
But where do you buy tea these days? It’s very difficult. There used to be a nice little tea shop in Flask Walk in Hampstead called Fern’s. They also had a branch in Covent Garden. For a long time I bought all my tea from them. In fact, I was so impressed with the place that I asked if they needed an assistant. That was when I received the bad news that they were closing down. Such a shame.
There’s always Whittard’s, of course, but I find it hard to take Whittard’s seriously. Their tea never tastes of anything. I don’t know how they manage it. Possibly it’s a trade secret.
Wherever we go on our expeditions, I keep a look-out for tea shops. Or for delicatessens because some delicatessens sell good tea. But there’s a limit to how much you can carry on a single occasion and you really need a good source near home.
I presently buy my tea from that sweet little tea shop in Neal Street, Covent Garden. If you live in London and love tea, you will almost certainly know this shop. It goes by the unassuming, if appropriate, name of The Tea Shop* and is very small.
On the ground floor, they sell tea – all kinds of tea – and tea-making implements of various kinds, including single-cup infusers, filters, caddy spoons, etc. On the staircase and the first floor there is a display of cups, mugs and teapots. It’s worth having a good look around from time to time as there is always something to surprise you. For example, this time I spotted the complete kit for drinking Mate Tea (Yerba Mate), including the gourd it is traditionally drunk from and the metal tube with a filter at one end through which the tea is sucked.
The Tea Shop sells herbal teas as well as green teas and the more usual fermented teas. I have to admit that I have tried both herbal tea and green tea but I always come back to “proper tea” in the end. My current passion is Russian Caravan tea and I bought 4 packets.
Russian Caravan tea is rather odd. Buy Darjeeling or Assam, for example, and you have some idea what you are getting, but Russian Caravan is a blend and there doesn’t seem to be a standard recipe, though there is usually some Lapsang Souchong in there somewhere. It’s this that gives the tea its smoky punch.
Years ago, I had the somewhat eccentric idea of combining all the partly used packets of tea in the kitchen cupboard into one super blend. It was so good that I tried to work out what was in it so I could make some more. In the end I settled on two parts Keemun to one part Formosa Oolong and one part Lapsang Souchong. Imagine my amusement, the other day, when looking for tea on the Web and finding that this was exactly one of the recipes advertised: I had apparently reinvented Russian Caravan tea myself!
Whenever we have been out, the first thing we do when we return home is to put the kettle on and make tea. I happily drink it all day long when I am at home. When we are out, we also stop for tea when convenient – which is where the other meaning of “tea shop” comes in. The tea you are served in tea shops, cafes and restaurants varies from wonderful to horrible but it is always a pleasure to come home and brew up. Asterix can keep his Magic Potion as long as I can have my tea!
*The Tea Shop, 15 Neal Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9PU, tel 02072407539.