18 April, 2007

A Quest for Gongfucha

It's great to be back. Google Analytics tells me that visits to this site increased while we were away, from 50 people/day to 70/day! You must be trying to tell us something.

Now we're back, let's see if we can get the visitor count back down again... :)


There truly is "no place like home". London is a foreign land, and is dirty, dirty, dirty. However, it's also the centre of culture and life as we know it in the UK, and so to its faults we temporarily turn a blind eye.

The photograph above (showing the Houses of Parliament) is from the conference proceedings. Looks nice, right? Amusingly, the conference location was about as far from Parliament as is possible to get whilst still calling ones address "London". It took me 1.5 hours to get from the conference site to Parliament each day. I get the impression that the attendees who came from abroad must have been sorely disappointed, if they believed the blurb in the conference literature...

While Xiaomao presented her paper at the conference, I took the opportunity to explore London. My quest was to find London's premiere gongfucha spot. It shouldn't be hard, given that (like the Internet) London is so large that literally all types of life and interest are represented there, somewhere.

I started off with a Google search for "London Chinese Tea Shop". This gave me an approximately 50-50 divide between the following two types of establishment:

i) "Afternoon Tea"-style outfits: generally pretty hotels, serving the usual "English" teas, scones, and cakes. There are 6.02 x 10^23 outlets for tea of this kind in London - I counted. It's uncanny, being precisely equal to Avagadro's constant (to 15 significant figures). That's a lot of Earl Grey.

ii) "Speciality Tea" outfits. Whittards is the prime example. Everything you don't want, scented and flavoured with every possible combination of additive imaginable. It's horrific, being the tea equivalent of buying wine from a petrol station [gas station].

Hit number 9,324 was "The Tea House", in Covent Garden (a traditionally interesting market area of central London). Making a few small concessions to gongfucha, in that they had a few teracotta replicas of yixing pots, I was dazzled by their array of... jasmine, rooibos, and Earl Grey. Sigh. They even had an "Earl Grey oolong", ironically enough, without actually selling wulong itself.

Hit numbers 9,325 through 9,327 looked more promising. "Jenny Lo's Tea House". Started in the late nineties, it looks small and interesting... could they be the gongfucha I'm looking for in this city of faux Jane Austen high teas? Sadly, this turned out to be a restaurant/cafe. It has good reviews, yes indeed, but for their food. Again: sigh.

Determined to find somewhere, something, anything of interest, my eyes pass onto hit number 9,328. "TeaSmith" - the web-site looks minimalist, and doesn't mention food. So far, so good. Could these be the droids we're looking for?
A short ride on the Tube, and we're standing in the definitely trendy/experimental/independent climes of the Spitalfields area (nearest Tube stop: Liverpool Street Station). There's a famous church that directly overlooks the area (shown right), designed by Hawksmoor, who was very generous in his architectural contribution to Oxford.

TeaSmith is a bijou shopette that looks at first glance like a bar with a row of tea next to it. It's very new, apparently trading since last November. Are we about to experience the familiar dread of blueberry pumpkin chocolate rooibos, washed down with a English Breakfast chaser?

Thankfully not. Run by a friendly, knowledgable Scot by the name of John, it may be that London finally has a good teahouse.

All this serves as a prelude to the part you're really interested in: the tea. It's pretty good. Via a sourcer in HK, John aims for small-farm leaves of a fine quality. Even his hongcha is long-leaf, which is a favourable sign.

In the course of six hours spread over two days, I drank my way through a smooth dahongpao, a decent tieguanyin, a gaoshan longjing (apparently from Xihu, which was an unusual treat), a quiet dancong, a Korean green ("Sparrow's Tongue" - which I thought was mostly used for the name of 2nd-selection longjing), a remarkably unrevolting shuixian, and two shupu (one allegedly aged 10+ years, but it's so very hard to tell with shupu).

Generally decent, and I like the commitment to small farms. The focus is very much on Guangdong and Fujian tea for wulong. Obvious omissions were my favourites (such is life): Taiwan wulong, shengpu, and hongcha. In fairness, John expressed an interest in finding a decent source of Taiwan tea. Shengpu is being deliberately shunned due to the "price bubble" - which is a bit of a pity. It's like a whisky shop not stocking Ardbeg, or a wine shop not selling bordeaux.

The one hongcha on offer was apparently from gaoshan longjing, which was an interesting novelty. It was delicious, too. John indicated that he only stocks one hongcha as he believes it to be a type of tea created by the Chinese in response to the trade in Indian teas to the West. I know that this is true of Baihao/Oriental Beauty, but I am pretty confident this is incorrect for such classics as dianhong, qihong, and chuanhong. I asked for Xiaomao's opinion, to which she became uncharacteristically heated, as this is one of our favourite types of tea. What's your opinion, Reader?

The real joy of TeaSmith is the great conversation with John (clearly in it as a passion of his own, not just a business venture) and his small staff of chatty, intelligent brewers. The tea is far and away an improvement over that which most English people drink, and I appreciate the care taken in selecting the setting (photo courtesy of "Wallpaper.com")


Xiaomao and I had been idly considering the idea of setting up a tea-shop in Oxford, perhaps a little more in the traditional gongfucha style. John's experiences in the capital were illuminating: it seems that London is just about ready for this kind of thing, and that includes most of John's work being converting and educating a generally unknowledgable public. And that's London. Other cities must surely be five to ten years behind this. If it's hard work for John in experimental, "Bohemian" London, it's an indicator of sure failure for such a venture in Oxford, which only has students 50% of the year, and has foreign tourists for the other 50% (who are all seeking quaint English tradition, rather than good tea).

I find it instructive that John has also tried to gradually ease good tea into the public eye, making his shop look like a trendy bar, with a touch of Japanese tradition in the wall-furnishings and crockery: tea is served (via proper Yixing pots) in large (10cl?) bowls, and there's not a pinmingbei or wenxiangbei in sight. Several reviews rightly point out that the aim is to minimise the "cultural shock" for the English public by making it look largely familiar.

Overall: an oasis in a London which is amazingly sparse in its population of real tea houses. The leaf quantity used was astronomical: I was shaking from caffeine intake after my third infusion of hongcha (first brew of the second day), and could barely pour straight. By the time I poured a shupu for one of the staff (fourth brew of the second day), I was shaking so much I poured it on her poor fingers.

John prefers lower infusion temperatures, with a minimum infusion time of 30s - pretty different to most I've talked with.

Also, I had no idea that the British public were so unready for such things. As an example of attitudes to tea, here's an enlightening clip from another review, taken from a bog-standard London magazine (for which I've lost the source):
TeaSmith elevates this simple drink to the level of wine or chocolate. Once you've tried the good stuff, you may never want to go back to your usual cuppa.
I can hear the gentle sound of tears falling from your eyes...

Thanks again to John and his staff for a good few days.

20 comments:

xdustinx said...

Your girl presents her paper and you search for tea? Sounds like a good deal. The experience you had in London is akin to how I felt when in New York City; culture shock, big time. Overall, I'm glad you're back. My morning tea blog reading felt slightly empty.

vl. said...

I too find London hugely unpleasant, it makes a good day-trip though and has a huge array of music concerts.

-vl.

Hobbes said...

Chaps,

Good to hear from you! Big cities seem to be universally horrific. Paris is rather pleasant, though, despite all the French people*.


Toodlepip,

David


* That one's for Stephane; I feel it my duty as an Englishman to poke fun at the French whenever opportunity presents. :)

MarshalN said...

Music concerts? Yes. They only have five orchestras, after all...

Sounds like what I heard from somebody regarding a visit to Scotland. He was hoping to find real tea stores, except most of them are terrible tea rooms serving lipton or the like...

iwii said...

Ah, if you knew how I understand...
I left Oxford and after two years in London, I still can't get accustomed to this city. Surely you have to be English to build a capital which is such an awful place to live in!!

Hobbes said...

Marshal,

I'd never associated Scotland with tea... an interesting idea. I wonder where the visitor got that impression? My Scottish friends seem to like brutally violent coffee. I suspect it's a genetic issue.

Hobbes said...

Iwii,

Are you in London at the moment?

I don't think London has been "built" so much as "evolved". It's like a bacterium growing in agar jelly... :)

Steven Dodd said...

Glad you're back. I enjoy your "adventures in tea" (sorry phyll :)

No place like home, though.

sjschen said...

I echo your much of your concerns here in Toronto.

Although there is a rather large Chinese population here, there are no "Chinese tea houses". Ten-Ren is as close as it gets, and that's a tea shop. And even then that's not saying much.

iwii said...

Hobbes,

Yes, I am in London most of the time since I am living there actually.
This things happen unfortunately...

Hobbes said...

Doddy, sjchen,

Thanks for popping by. You know, I'd always imagined Canadians to be more refined in their tastes than most other nations - I had them pegged for at least a good chance of tea-houses.

Hobbes said...

Iwii,

Well, well! We seem to live pretty close to one another, then. Maybe we can arrange a meeting, perhaps with VL, to get some drinking in.

Any other British readers out there? Google Analytics indicates someone around Bedford is an avid reader... :)


Toodlepip,

David

vl. said...

Sounds like an interesting idea...

-vl.

iwii said...

Why not? :-)

sjschen said...

Looks like your opinion of Canada have been twiddled by this country's global propaganda ;)

Most Canadians I meet like their tea soaked from paper packets and made "double double" (as in two shots of cream and two tablespoons of sugar). That or they like "tea" that has been heavily doused with fragrances and given names like "Aztec cocoa cinnamon jasmine delight".

Sad really...

Space Samurai said...

Thank you for confirming what I've been suspecting about the English, that as a whole, they don't know anything more about tea than Americans, and that tea being a cultural icon of the Brits has lead to the miss-conception that they are experts.

I just hosted a "tea party" for my wife and her friends, and one young lady vehemently defended her Tazo teabags, because she just got back from London and "every one uses tea bags there."

Hobbes said...

Hah! Well, it is true, at least - most people in London do use teabags!

I think "proper" tea culture in Britain is limited to certain social circles, much in the same in many countries: old institutions, such as universities and churchs, some areas of the rural country, that sort of thing. Definitely, en masse, British people know, and care, little about their tea. I hope that's changing.


Toodlepip,

Hobbes

Anonymous said...

I've just found your blog after a long search on google to find out about the best tea's. I'm British (living in London) and just getting into quality teas, strange to think that we regard ourselves as a nation of tea drinkers but our really rather clueless about tea, so any guidance appreciated. I'm afraid I'm still using tea bags - not out of love for the product but because that's what I've been brought up on and it's soo ingrained in our culture. I've been to Teasmith and enjoyed it- planning on going again. I have no idea where to start and what to buy. Is it a case of just jumping in? Anyone know anywhere to buy decent tea in the UK? Would love some advice as how to ease into quality teas. I'm used to Assam and like maltiness so does anyone have any suggestions of what I should be looking for? Also love jasmine tea. Please excuse ignorance but I've just started to learn. R

Hobbes said...

Dear R,

It's good to hear from you - welcome to the Half-Dipper.

You're absolutely right: just jump in. My preference is to buy tea via specialist Internet vendors; buying from actual shops in the UK typically results in overpriced tea of low quality. Tea Smith is a happy exception, and the members of staff are great at helping you determine which teas you enjoy.

If you enjoy wulong (a.k.a. oolong) teas, I always recommend Teamasters - an outfit run by a blogger who lives in Taiwan. The quality of his tea is absolutely remarkable. It's not cheap, but it is outstanding.

For pu'er (a.k.a. pu-erh) and a few other types of tea, I also like Essence of Tea, where the quality is fantastic. This is an outfit run by a nice chap who lives in Cornwall.

Your best bet is to get back to Tea Smith and drink widely. I think John, the proprietor, gets a lot of his wulong from Teamasters - it certainly tastes and looks similar, and is named almost identically, in the manner idiosyncratic of Teamasters.


All the best,

Hobbes

Hobbes said...

P.s. I just re-read the article, from 2007, which noted that the Half-Dipper received 70 hits/day back then. We're currently up at 896 hits/day, which goes to show how things grow. :)