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.

22 March, 2010

A Tale of Two Teashops

It's been a busy few weeks, but it's great to be back in Blighty.  Today, some notes on one of a couple of teashops that I've recently visited (one in London, one in Belgium).

Some excuses to go to London are more pleasant than others

I recently found myself in London, which is traditionally an excuse for me to visit TeaSmith.  However, I understand (from Nada, I think) that there is a second teashop in London that sells real tea: Postcard Teas.  Happily, it being situated in the very centre of London, I found myself being sent to an engineering event just around the corner from Postcard Teas.

While TeaSmith operates in the guise of a "tea bar", at which you can pull up a bar-stool and enjoy some gongfucha, Postcard Teas is geared towards just selling tea - it's more of a tea merchant's shop, rather than a teashop.  Happily, the owner (Tim), was more than happy to fire up the kettle, get out a gaiwan, and make me feel at home.  In fact, it's not really fair to say that it's not a teashop, as some of Tim's friends both before and after my arrival were sitting down at the shop counter drinking tea. Rather, it doesn't cater towards catering, if that makes sense.

It was great fun to visit Tim's shop.  I was struck by just how small the teaworld really is - Tim knew TeaSmith's owner, John, and plans to sell Nada's pu'er cakes.  I was impressed with the sporting, generous language he used to describe other tea-merchants; essentially, they represent his competition, and yet he referred to them as friends and colleagues.  This struck me as very healthy, given the internecine struggles that characterise some markets (and in some areas of the tea-world).

Postcard Teas, and Tim, aren't really set up to sell pu'er, which Tim told me straight away when I asked for shengpu.  Given the nature of off-the-street sales in London, this isn't surprising.  Those few brave souls who ask to try pu'er are often nonplussed by its apparent aggressiveness, and invariably prefer the accessible delights of wulong, lucha, and the usual favourites.

That said, Tim previously spent a week in Yunnan, sourcing cakes from a local family (by the name of Liu).  I am now the proud owner of a xiaobing (pictured below), of a very decent 2005 production.  Thanks also to Tim's generosity in providing some fine samples to go alongside the cake.  

(Tim: forgive me, I still haven't had time to box up your samples, though hope to do so within the next few week-ends.  This goes for everyone else who is awaiting samples from me - apologies, as ever.)

In summary, Postcard Teas is a very decent place to get wulong and lucha.  Of course, being in the centre of London, it's customer base isn't the usual Internet crowd, and it has overheads to support - and hence its pricing runs in accordance with that market.  You won't find a great bargain (with respect to Internet sources) in a real teashop in the centre of a Western nation's capital, but you might find some good tea - and I did.  Plenty of good tea, in fact.  

More importantly, I enjoyed a highly pleasurable afternoon with Tim's good company.

Edit: Fans of the mahogany-upholstered, oak-panelled Chadao blog (and who isn't a fan?) will remember an article on Postcard Teas.

19 March, 2010

The Fat Man

on the fat man's smeared lenses
of thin people