Saturday, July 10, 2010

Europe: Sir Robert's Blend

I bought a lot of tea in Europe. Had to lug a separate carry-on on the plane home full of tea and teaware. The shincha from Copenhagen, the Goalpara from Amsterdam — my tea cabinet overfloweth. But the first tea I will be reordering, because I'm going through it like mad, is one I chanced upon in, of all places, Helsinki, Finland.

Robert's Coffee is a shop that started in Helsinki in 1987; now it's a chain across Scandinavia. (Sound familiar? The logo's even hunter green.) On our beautiful afternoon in Helsinki — possibly our favorite stop on this trip — we wandered into a shop just off the city's Esplanade boulevard. They offer a fine range of teas from around the world, and I bought a signature product, the Sir Robert's Blend. It's a mix of Chinese and Indian teas, with a heavy dose of Keemun. If you've read the blog this far, you know I'm a sucker for Keemun. This blend, with the Keemun spiciness and some other, rounder flavors — it's fantabulous. My favorite afternoon tea at present.

Coffee and teaware on display at the Design Museum in Helsinki.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Europe: Tea in Amsterdam's Red Light District

Before we took off for our recent vacation in northern Europe, I made a note of some tea shops worth tracking down. I'd read a little something about the Geels & Co. coffee and tea shop. What I failed to realize is that it's smack dab in the middle of Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District.

And I wasn't even looking for it the afternoon we stumbled through that perfectly tame neighborhood of quaint sins. Suddenly, after sex shops and prostitutes and "coffee" houses (which, I discovered, also serve tea — marijuana steeped in hot milk), there was my own primary vice: a crusty-looking tea shop. Geels & Co. has been run by the Geels family for 150 years. The tea canisters stacked behind the counter look about that old ...

This being The Netherlands, with a long history of trade with (and colonies in) Indonesia and Malaysia, I inquired about the teas available from those places. They had two black teas from Java, hardy-looking stuff in big plastic bags of a few hundred grams. At the shopkeeper's recommendation, I went with a black tea from Goalpara, a tea garden in Sukabumi, West Java. I've been enjoying it since. It doesn't leap out of the cup or dance on my tongue, but it's a sturdy, reliable and even in brief brews a strong black tea. Sometimes you need that.

The other reason to drop by Geels & Co., maybe the chief reason, is because on the second floor is the Coffee and Tea Museum. I'd like to describe for you the wonders contained therein, but we were there on Tuesday and the museum — run as it by volunteers — is only open for two and a half hours on Saturday afternoons. Believe me, I tried to convince the clerk to let me at least peek inside. She was having none of it. The notes I had say it's a "collection of old coffee trade artifacts, like coffee grinders, tins, burners and traditional appliances has been arranged by passionate coffee and tea lovers." I had to settle for a glimpse at the upstairs window ...

A couple of other intriguing tea options for the Amsterdam visitor:

  • Seeing a rock show at De Melkweg? This famous venue has several extra intriguing rooms, including a movie theater and the Tea Room, full of couches and hookahs.
  • You're in Amsterdam, you'll take a canal cruise. Don't argue, it's worth it. There's a tea option for these, too: the English High Tea Cruise, which you can board at Rederij Lovers near the train station. It's not cheap: starts at 38 euro.

My patient traveling companions,
waiting for me outside Geels & Co.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My desire crescendos for Tea Forté

On our recent travels, I finally had the chance to try a brand of tea that was a treat for the tongue. On a cruise, there's always free coffee and tea available in the buffet. But it's crap coffee and crap tea. No doubt recognizing the other side of this market, our Celebrity cruise was equipped with an elegant, Italian-style coffee shop, Cafe al Bacio. You could order something to sip, something to nibble and sit in the comfy wing-back chairs and watch the water go by. To my delight, this spot served a line of really fine teas: Tea Forté.

Tea Forté servings come in pyramid-shaped bags. They're super-sturdy, and maybe actually packed a bit too tightly. But this cafe had purchased pots especially for them; on the end of the bag's string is a tiny plastic tea leaf, which they pulled through a steam hole in the lid, so it stuck out. Nice presentation.

More importantly, the teas I sampled — as after discovering the cafe I returned there almost every afternoon to read and write — were pretty great. They've an Earl Grey that might be the tastiest bergamot I've ever had, perhaps because of a tinge of orange. The English Breakfast is OK. It's a "gourmet" tea brand, so they're heavy on the flavored stuff, and the Orchid Vanilla — with added coconut — is pretty sumptuous. The whole line seems fancy, perfect for restaurants. But, hey, Oprah loves it, singling them out for an endorsement years ago in O magazine, so by all means rush out and snatch 'em up.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

'Boston harbor a tea-pot to-night!'

From The Yankee Tea-Party, Or, Boston in 1773, a stylized account of the Big Brew, written by Henry C. Watson and published in 1852:

It was the fourth of July in Boston. Throughout the city which cradled the Revolution, the anniversary of the birth of the free and happy United States of America was celebrated with rejoicings unknown to the shackled people of monarchical countries. Meetings were held in various parts of the city, patriotic and democratic speeches made, bells rung, cannons fired, pistols, crackers, and fireworks of all descriptions discharged, toasts drank, and festivities of all kinds indulged. ... But a more unusual and far more interesting meeting occurred in Boston, about a quarter of a mile from the wharf known ever since the commencement of the Revolution as Griffin's Wharf.

In the upper room of an old and somewhat dilapidated tavern were assembled a party of old and young men—the representatives of two generations. Three of the old men were the remaining members of the famous Lebanon Club; the first liberty club formed in the colonies, and the one which designed and executed the project of destroying the tea at Boston. They had come from various parts of the country, upon agreement, to meet once more in the house where the disguised members of the club had met on the evening of the sixteenth of December, 1773.

... "Well, the seventeen men of our club determined, whether we were aided or not, to destroy the tea which the East India Company had sent to Boston. The plan was soon formed, as it always is when men are determined to do a thing. We wanted no captain—each man could command for himself. We resolved to disguise ourselves in Mohawk dresses, and carry such arms as would enable us to sell our lives pretty dearly; we also pledged ourselves never to reveal the names of any of the party while there was danger in it. We expected to have a fight anyhow, and the first man who faltered was to be thrown overboard with the tea. We came to Boston and found the people ripe for the deed. A great meeting was to be held at the old South Meeting-house, and we concluded to wait and see what would be done there. We lodged at this tavern, and held our councils up in this room. Well, there was a tremendous meeting at the Old South, and most of us were there to help to keep up the excitement, and to push our plan if a chance appeared. Young Quincy made a speech that stirred the people, and made them ready for anything which would show their spirit. The people voted with one voice that the tea should not be landed. We saw how things were going, came back to the tavern, put on our Mohawk dresses, and returned to the meeting. Pitts succeeded in getting into the church just about dusk and raising the war-whoop. We answered outside. Then Pitts cried out, 'Boston harbor a tea-pot to-night!'"

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I pi-tea the fool!

Oh, good grief ...

Should've been marketed to boost the new "A-Team" movie.

(Thanks, Lah-Tea-Dah!)