Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

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, onedimensional 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). …

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