24 March, 2010

A Tale of Two Teashops - Book the Second

I've never made it much further into Brussels than the train station, so visiting the Belgian capital under the guise of attending a conference was an appealing prospect.

I don't tend to meet many Belgians.  We have a game in England, "Name Ten Famous Belgians".  After Hercule Poirot and Tintin (both fictional characters), it gets hard.  Sometimes someone remembers Jean-Claude van Damme ("The Muscles from Brussels").  These days, you can get away with mentioning the first president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy.  After that, you're pretty much into minority sportsmen.

It turns out that Brussels is a very pretty place, unsurprisingly.  The way that my French friends and colleagues talk of Belgians, you'd think it was a nation of countryfolk, farming the land and eating bad food.  In reality, Brussels is a vibrant city, with great food (if you like mussels and chips), outstanding beer (mostly "Trappist" beer, made in monasteries), world-famous chocolate, and humourous people.

As a testament to their mischievous humour, one of the city's famous landmarks is a statue of a boy, urinating.  He is called the "Manneken Pis" (which I'll let you translate for yourself).  As if that wasn't enough, they dress him up in small fancy-dress outfits.  The day I visited him,  he was "Dracula".  The day before, he was "Tibetan Monk".  In a few days, "Elvis".

I don't see the English doing that with our statue of Lord Nelson, somehow.

The children of the night - what music they make...

But enough of Brussels.  My hotel turned out to be right next door to the city's gongfucha outlet, "Nong Cha" [tea-farmer's tea].

Yes, I look like this.

Like Postcard Teas, this shop isn't a catering business - it's set up to sell tea.  The owner is a friendly, open-hearted, brusque chap of Nepalese origin.  He slams his little cup down on the counter like a Russian swigging vodka.  I appreciate his directness.

We drank pu'er. 

Like Postcard Teas, Nong Cha isn't really set up to sell pu'ercha.  He had about twice as many pu'er products on offer as did Postcard Teas (about eight), but they were mostly shupu.  Again, the market to whom city teashops sell isn't conducive to selling aggressive shengpu that needs years to age.  His walls are lined with (rather good) wulong and lucha.  My colleague bought plenty of yancha, for example.  Also like Postcard Teas, the owner didn't count pu'er within his region of expertise, so we spent the time chatting about other teas, and life as a tea drinker in general.

There's not much return value in visiting such shops, apart from the company.  In Nong Cha, I was rather left to my own devices, as the owner went about his business.  This was fine for me, as I was craving shengpu, but it wasn't the most interactive session I've had.  Combined with high prices and small ranges of products (of shengpu), I appreciated the shop for an hour or so, bought a few small cakes, then hit the road, without really feeling an urge to return.


Kavey said...

Loving your photos, may have to plan a return trip, it's been several years since I spent a long weekend in Brussels!

Nicolas said...

Hello, I am French and I live in Brussels.
Nong cha is the only specialized store in Chinese tea.
Here there is nothing extraordinary. We must go in Paris
Brussels, the capital would need a shop specialized tea.
There is means here to make a business.

Hobbes said...

Dear Kavey,

I rather liked the traditional dishes based on mussels (which didn't revolve around chips/fries!). The chocolate speaks for itself. Brussels strikes me as a very amiable place to spend a few days - I certainly enjoyed my week there, in and out of the conference.

Dear Nicolas,

I suppose that, like all city-based tea shops, one can only sell tea that is popular. Popular teas tend to be those that are immediately accessible, hence the demand for lighter wulong and lucha.

Toodlepip both,


Nicolas said...

I was disappointed by rosted wulong.
It was the only one I try.

Hobbes said...

He had some decent dancong, actually. Not as accomplished as Imen's (@ Tea Habitat), but still very solid.



Bryan said...

I've actually been to some shops in the southeast US that sold pu-erh, and like the little place you found in Brussells, they sell mostly shu. C'est la vie! :)

Sir William of the Leaf said...

Wonderful photography!! It adds so much to every post!
Rustic little shops are quite an experience! You never really know what you're going to get!

David said...

So, Tim was telling the truth : you do look like Hobbes ! :-)


Hobbes said...

Dear Mr. Cha,

I rather like a good shupu - but some alternatives would be nice; they must be hard to sell. Ah well, we have the Internet!

Dear Sir William,

Kind words indeed from an enobled knight of the realm. :)

Dear David,

I think I was wearing a suit when I visited Tim!

Best wishes all, and toodlepip,


Anonymous said...

How about Charlotte Brontë? She taught in Brussels for quite a while. In both Villette, which is genius, and The Professor, which is mediocre, I think you'll find about the most opinionated anti-Catholic/anti-Belgian diatribe ever. But it's very sincere.

Great post. I would, randomly, like to thank you for using the word "toodlepip". Without P. G. Wodehouse, it risks falling into disuse--perilous for Western civilization, if you ask me.

Hobbes said...

Dear Anonymous,

I suspect undergraduate students of English Lit. the country over would be weeping to read that their beloved Charlotte could be labelled as a Belgian, and not a Yorkshire Lass. Trust me, you don't want to get on the wrong side of an undergraduate Lit. student...



DJKH said...

Enjoying reading the blog, looking forward to some more tastings. I work for a tea company and was wondering if I could get in touch by email? We have some new puerhs which I'd like your thoughts on, not necessarily for featuring on the blog, (unless you wanted to), just as interested in your tasting notes etc.


Thomas said...

That's curious that it's quite impossible to "name ten famous belgian". Even if belgian made world famous creation, everyone forget about us. For exemple, roller, saxophone, decisive discovery for the invention of contraceptive pills, first synthetic plastic... were invented by belgian, but who know about these persons?

Erwin said...

Dear Mr. Hobbes,
As both a tea-loving Belgian and an avid reader of your blog I can attest to there being no decent teashop within the boundaries of our vast country. In fact, I consider La Maison des Trois Thes in Paris to be the proper teashop closest to home.
Now, as for our culinary offering, you might be a bit exaggerating in narrowing it down to mussels and fries. In fact, our number of Michelin stars per capita greatly exceeds quite a few other countries, Britain being one of them...


Hobbes said...

Dear DJKH,

Thanks for reading. If you'd like to get in contact via e-mail, please try hobbesoxon at gmail.com, and I'll reply from my "proper" e-mail account. (Apologies for the Byzantine methopds, but spam is a beast if you publish your e-mail address in a blog these days.) I'm always happy to drink new tea!

Dear Thomas,

It's more that the rest of the world is ignorant of Belgium's successes, rather than anything else, methinks!

Dear Erwin,

You are, of course, quite right. I enjoyed some very good food during my week in Brussels (and I only had mussels and chips once!).

Toodlepip all,