My partner is a total tea fascist and whenever I make a pot it is never, ever right. It’s: ‘Did you use fresh water?’ Then it’s: ‘You used re-boiled, didn’t you?’ And then, with a sniffy look: ‘How long exactly did you leave this to brew?’ When I give up, think sod him, and just dunk a teabag into a cup for myself, does he leave me alone? No. I then get: ‘Ooh, make yourself a cup of tea, why don’t you? After all the pots I’ve made for you…’. You may well ask what has kept us together all these years, to which I don’t really have an answer although I can say, with some certainly, that it isn’t the tea, just as it isn’t the sex*.
However, I have noted lately that tea is becoming just so in. In fact, tea may be the new coffee just as coffee was once the new tea and brown was the new black until black became the new brown again and so on and so on and maybe, for all I know, the turnip is now the new goose-feather duvet, although I’m betting you don’t sleep as well. Anyway, in the supermarket you used to get just a few brands but now there are whole tea aisles (by ‘supermarket’ I of course mean Waitrose. I did once go to Asda but the chavs frightened me). Plus, there appear to be all these new tearooms popping up, including TeaSmith in Spitalfields, where you can not only drink tea, but learn about it too. I decide to go to TeaSmith, whence, I tell my partner, I shall doubtless return an expert of the kind that will outexpert you and will never tire of telling you so. He says, ‘In that case, I’m coming too.’
So off we go. TeaSmith is owned and run by John Kennedy, a lovely Glaswegian, and his wife, Tomoko Kawase, who is not Glaswegian because she is Japanese. It’s a beautiful space with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with tea and teaware, a tea bar for drinking and tasting and learning more, and a tea gallery featuring Chinese silk and glass-boxed Yixing teapots from China.
John has always loved tea, even as a little boy, but it was travelling in the East as a specialist in ‘business start-ups’ that made him realise that we in Britain actually know nothing about ‘real tea’. Come on, John, I say. We’re British. What don’t we know about tea? We’re famous for tea. In the Asterix books all wars with Britain have to stop between four and half-past so the Brits can have tea. We are tea. He says yes, as a nation we drink 196 million cups of it a day but 96 per cent is made with tea bags and do we know what is in tea bags? Tea? we suggest. The tea in tea bags, he says, is either made with ‘fannings’, the tiny bits of leaf left over after the better grades and larger leaves have been sifted away, or ‘dust’, which is literally the dust particles of leaves left in the bottom of the barrel. In short, he says, ‘it’s factory scrapings’. ‘But I like tea bags,’ protests my partner. ‘They are convenient,’ concedes John, ‘and fine if you like a commodified, monochrome, one-dimensional product.’ My partner looks quite upset, which is most amusing. Honestly, I haven’t had as much fun in ages.
John sells 35 varieties of tea, all of which are artisan and from single estates. They have wonderful names like Sparrow’s Tongue and Jasmine Pearls and Mandarin Orchid and are divided between the four basic types: white (young leaves that have undergone no oxidation; green (a tiny amount of oxidation is allowed and then stopped by the application of heat); oolong (oxidation takes two or three days and is then stopped somewhere between green and black tea); black (the leaves are allowed to fully oxidise). We only really drink black tea in Britain. Why? Well, here is another surprising factoid. Here’s John: ‘The tea bush itself — Camellia sinensis — is only indigenous to China. It was our colonial forefathers who introduced it to India then Ceylon and Kenya, mainly for economic reasons. However, the soil and climate in these countries were only really good for the transplants most suited to producing black teas. Further, for soil and climate reasons, these teas were harsher than the Chinese black teas, hence our particular habit of adding milk and sugar to take that edge off.’ He then says that a Chinese person would no more add milk to tea ‘than a Scot would add lemonade to a really good whisky’. So now you know.
John gives us a tasting of a white tea (White Peony, £7 per 50g), a premium green tea (Long Jin First Flush, £14), an everyday oolong tea (Wuyi Dark Rock, £9) and a premium oolong (Phoenix Supreme, a whopping £22 per 50g). Absolutely amazing. Truly a revelation, especially if you’re mainly used to PG. It must be like only ever having had turkey twizzlers and suddenly discovering real meat with real flavours (by the way, never believe a male turkey that says it has flu; it’s probably just a cold).
The White Peony is smooth and sweet, the Long Jin First Flush is, perhaps, slightly nuttier with a prolonged aftertaste, while the Wuyi Dark Rock is not only a deeper colour, but also deeper flavoured, with a sort of barbecue taste (not surprising, I suppose, as Wuyi oolongs are fried at high temperature). And then it’s the Phoenix Supreme, which was Chairman Mao’s favourite and is John’s favourite. ‘I first tasted it with a tea master in Hong Kong and it changed my life,’ he says. ‘It was what convinced me that there could be a business here, that I could bring the beauty of tea back to Britain.’ It is spectacular — sort of ripe and fruity with an absolutely delicious lychee aftertaste. This tea, says John, ‘has been massaged by hand until the juices are released’. I wish someone would do the same for me.
Alas, although John does do a lot of temperature-taking and water-pouring and faffing between this pot and that, I don’t have the space to go into all the details of proper tea-making and everything he said, so here are a few highlights. The water, for example, must be off the boil rather than boiling. Boiling water will scald the leaves. Tea contains caffeine, yes, but it doesn’t work like the caffeine in coffee ‘because other amino acids ensure the caffeine stimulates the circulatory system rather than the central nervous system’. Tea can absolutely count as part of your day’s fluid intake. It’s not a diuretic. And as for using reboiled water, it’s fine, makes no difference at all. ‘What?’ exclaims my partner. ‘It’s just a myth,’ says John. This has to be one of the best days out ever.
I leave having bought a Yixing teapot (made of unglazed earthenware, it’s porous and allows tea to ‘breathe’) as well as three of the teas we’ve tasted. I make the White Peony when we get home. ‘You know what,’ says my partner, ‘it is really delicious.’ Damn. It looks like we might stay together, after all.
*(Only joking. We did it once and it was quite nice.)
TeaSmith, 6 Lamb Street, London E1; www.teasmith.co.uk. Opening hours: 7 days, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.