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.