Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The champagne of teas

I'm just making my second pot of tea of the day. I want a lighter drink so it's Darjeeling, "the champagne of teas." That's what it says on the packet anyway.

I'm making the tea in a splendid teapot and cup set which was a gift from my daughter. Unusually, the teapot holds just the right amount for the cup and a half of tea I want.

A friend and I started wondering about teas and wines. If Darjeeling is "the champagne of teas." what does that make Earl Grey? The Gewuerztraminer, perhaps. And Assam might be a St. Emilion. We wondered if there was a good summer's job in France, drinking tea and wine and writing suitable descriptions. (If you are a French tea importer, I would really like that job.)

But good tea and coffee - not to mention teapots, coffeepots, cups and associated devices - seem to be the latest victim of the financial crisis. I went into Whittard's yesterday - it is one of the few shops I like - and walked into a sense of almost-tangible gloom. It's not so unusual these days. Sometimes the gloom is marked by an excess of cheeriness with shop staff smiling as broadly as they can and asking with determined enthusiasm, "Can I help you with anything?" But that draws attention to the vast empty spaces between the elegant displays where large red signs advertise price-cuts. Elsewhere the staff can't conceal the creeping misery and their worries for the future, though they remain polite and helpful, slipping into familiar shop-assistant mode as if it were a familiar coat. I used to think it was the crowds I hated, and that sales with space to move were fun - not any more. Sometimes I even shun the free samples of food and drink that are pressed upon me, though I almost always accept the hot coffee served by smiling teenagers with trays on traffic islands and in doorways. Behind them I can see empty chairs and tables where once customers lurked waiting for a seat.

Everyone has been waiting for price-cuts so the streets are crowded. There was a short queue of parents and grandparents taking children to meet Father Christmas (no charge and no purchase necessary) and a female elf in red and green managed the queue with a stern frown. The children were quiet and less excited than my two were in their Father Christmas days.

I met a friend to drink gluehwein in the Old Market Square. At first that too was fairly empty but at about 6.00 the queues lengthened. Soon I could barely hear the singing reindeer's head (bilingual in English and German) introduce itself for the third time (as "lustiger Rudolf", I think). It seemed slightly hesitant but nonetheless it stretched its neck and blinked hopefully as it began its rendition of "Tannenbaum" and "Silver Bells."

I stayed for more gluehwein than I'd intended and, as I made my way to the station, noticed that many shops were open long past their closing time though most of the customers had gone. At home I turned on the news. The second item told me that Whittard's is about to go into administration. I wonder how many of the shops I passed will still be open next Christmas.


Kathz said...

I'm pleased to hear that Whittard's has been save but suggestions of a merger with Past Times are disappointing. Whittard's is good when it sticks to its basic, specialist role of selling tea, coffee and related equipment - the tea and coffee are of good quality as are the coffee makers while the china is cheerful. There are occasional quirky products which are fun. However, Past Times, which is occasionally amusing, bases its appeal on nostalgia for a fake England rather than high quality. I fear the quality of tea and coffee would be less valued in such a setting - and I would be less likely to shop for tea and coffee - or gifts - in a shop like Past Times. Whittard's won't survive if it loses its core customers and markets itself on quaintness.

David Mery said...

The vocabulary of tea tasting is already very evolved and looks similar to that of wine tasting. See http://www.palaisdesthes.com/en/glossary/index.htm(and you may want to book a course at the tea school on one of your next trip to Paris).

br -d

P.S. The first shop was opened by friends.

Anonymous said...

In my worldview, champagne is more like the Darjeeling of wines. And I like the idea of Gewürztraminer as the Earl Grey of wines. Which wine is the Lapsang Souchong, I wonder?
Regrettably, I am not a tea importer, but the offer of hospitality remains open, for whenever you can catch the TGV from Paris-Est.
Meanwhile, I guess it is the second anniversary of the blog? Happy Anniversary!

Kathz said...

Thanks for the tea-related comments. I love the idea of calling champagne the Darjeeling of wines. I've also looked up the vocabulary of tea-tasting - the Palais des Thes seems to deserve a visit although current exchange rates mean I'll have to be less extravagant when I next travel.