OK, final London post. Thanks for your patience. I saved my favorite for the last ...
London's loaded with quality tea shops. Many people will steer you toward Harrod's. Ignore them. The place is a nightmare, crammed with tourists, with no maps or guides to help orient you. (The only reason to investigate their tea offerings is that they sell the fantastic TWG blends; but just buy them online and spare yourself the claustrophobia.) If you must do the British department store thing, go to Fortnum & Mason on Piccadilly. It's roomier, calmer and the sales people are friendly and helpful. They have a more impressive tea selection, and the first-flush darjeeling I bought there is delicious stuff. I'm also told they present a splendid afternoon tea.
Tea canisters at Fortnum & Mason
For serious tea lovers, I insist one shop be at the top of any London itinerary: Postcard Teas. I visited this airy spot on Jane Pettigrew's recommendation. It's tucked away on a quiet, tiny block called Dering Street just off the shopping bustle of Oxford and New Bond.
The owner, Tim d'Offay, has traveled the world for 15 years, imported tea for 11 years and had Postcard Teas open for five. Postcard Teas, get it? "In one sense, these teas are the postcards I send from around the world," he said. The labels of each tea he sells are designed to look like postcards — the 50-gram postcard bags allegedly can be written on like postcards and sent legally through the mails — with each cancel stamp listing the tea's origin.
And d'Offay is big on origin. "We seem to be pushing tea like wine now, but how can we, really?" he said. "There's such poor labeling, with no information on the estate or the maker. On a bottle of wine you get the type of grape, the name of the maker, the vineyard, and at least its location. Tea often has none of that information." Having sourced all of the tea he sells (except the Vietnam offering), d'Offay is particular about this point, which he continues on his new blog, launched just last week:
For over a decade we have traveled to work with small scale traditional tea producers and crafts people across Asia. These artisans are true experts and the keepers of their local tea knowledge and heritage. At a time when tea is internationally appreciated like never before, we believe these often silent heroes of the tea world have much to tell us about their culture’s past, present, and future. The site is called Single Estate Tea because we wanted to help spread their knowledge and campaign for all good tea to have proper provenance starting with the maker’s or estate’s name.
I visited Postcard Teas on a sunny Saturday morning. Tim was leading two young men through a tea tasting. His assistant, Sarah, made me a cup of tea — his own blend, Mayfair Breakfast, named for the central London neighborhood and a nice strong blend of stout but well-behaved blacks — while I wandered the basement-level gallery, looking at Tim's tidy displays of small teapots and large discs of pu-erh. When the tasting wrapped up, Tim clearly was not tired of talking tea, and I suspect this rarely occurs. We tasted more tea (the Yunnan Red Cloud is a sultry, cocoa-y thing — a summer pluck from a bush whose first pick makes pu-erh), and as Tim pours cups of tea he hands you photos of the people who made the tea, of the trees it came from, of the workers who processed it. He talks about what machine-processing methods still qualify a tea to be labeled "handcrafted," and he gets pretty fussy about the application of the word "rare." He plans to follow these threads on the new blog, bringing the people who make the tea into the light for the people who drink it.