Sunday, August 30, 2009

Our Neighbors to the North

by LEW PERIN

Montreal City Hall. Photo: David Iliff for Wikipedia

As July turned into August in New York, my wife and I headed north for a week in northern Vermont and Montreal. For most of the trip, tea wasn't at the top of the agenda, but it turned out that there were several tea experiences to be had before we returned to what Geraldo calls the Big Teaberry.

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We spent a couple of days in Burlington, Vermont, which is the place I usually think of when I consider the possibility of ever living in a small city. Burlington is nice all year round, but it has a special glow in summer. There we were able to see what Dobra Tea, the company that has helped spread tea culture in the Czech Republic, might be able to do on this side of the water. I liked it a lot. It's a relaxing place, pretty in a non-fussy, small-B bohemian way. Their manager (or is it franchisee?) Laura is hospitable, and knows a lot about tea. The selection of teas is wide.

Church Street, Burlington, Vermont. Photo: M.F. Wills for Wikipedia

I decided to drink Fenghuang Dancong. Laura was happy to let me brew it in a nice Yixing pot, pour into a lovely cup, and refill the pot myself from a kettle warmed by a candle beneath it. I don't think there is currently any place in New York City that will let a customer do that. The leaves were good for three steeps easily. I must say, though, that there weren't enough leaves to do real gongfu -- it was essentially big-pot style. I don't remember the price, but it wasn't much. I think if I moved to Burlington I'd try to work out an arrangement with Laura to pay more and get more leaf!

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In Montreal, we had an invitation from Kevin Gascoyne of Camellia Sinensis for an oolong tasting there.[1] Camellia Sinensis has two shops in Montreal; we visited the one in the Quartier Latin, a neighborhood that reminds me a bit of the East Village in New York. It's essentially three things: a place to buy tea leaves and equipment; a place to drink tea; and, by appointment, a place to taste ten or a dozen different teas in a category at once. We didn't really try "normal" tea drinking there, but the surroundings look comfortable and harmonious. As a bricks-and-mortar place to buy leaves, I really haven't seen its match. They are really deep in both Chinese and Indian teas, and some of their teas are priced comfortably for everyday drinking. I talked at length with two of their employees (neither of whom was an owner), and both knew a lot about what they sell.

Rue St-Denis, Montreal, in the Quartier Latin. Photo: Gene Arboit for Wikipedia

For us, the main event was the oolong tasting. Our host Jonathan and we sat in a peaceful room with nothing but ten teas and some unobtrusive music for an hour and a half (the session was theoretically for only an hour, but Jonathan was in no rush.) When I saw the teas lined up in ISO standard tasting sets, my heart sank, for I remembered the way Indian tasters use that equipment to torture Darjeelings by pouring on water at a full boil and steeping for five minutes. But Jonathan knew what he was doing: the water wasn't boiling, and the steeps were much shorter than five minutes. What this session did have in common with Indian-style tasting was that each tea got the same treatment. Each brewing vessel got decanted into a big handleless cup, and we would spoon the liquor into our small individual tasting cups.

Marché Jean-Talon, Montreal. Photo: Gene Arboit for Wikipedia

There were oolongs from Taiwan, Anxi, Wuyi, and the Phoenix Mountains, some new and some aged. They were all worth drinking, and some were pretty remarkable. But the most important thing about the experience was not the specific teas: it was the opportunity to compare so many teas at once with the support of pleasant surroundings, good companions, and the absence of any distractions. There is a sense in which the teas spoke to each other: they took on vivid identities the way people do in a conversation.

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Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal. Photo: Tango7174 for Wikipedia

Down by the river, Montreal has an old quarter where pre-20th century architecture is better preserved than in any other North American city I know. While wandering around that neighborhood, we stumbled upon something totally unexpected: a traditional Chinese teashop/tearoom. Ming Tao Xuan is a pretty, serene place with many kinds of teas and teaware, some of which -- Yixing gaiwans! -- are very hard to find in the West. Like Dobra, they were willing to leave me alone with a gongfu setup: Yixing pot, fair pot, tasting cup, aroma cup, tea tray, and a well-designed hot water carafe. I could have stayed there for hours, I suspect, without being harried. Unfortunately, the Tieguanyin leaves, though reasonably plentiful, were pretty much played out after two steeps. I think I'll try Ming Tao Xuan again the next time I'm in Montreal to find out if I was just unlucky with that TGY or, maybe, I left my taste buds at the hotel by mistake.

~~~~~ Addresses ~~~~~

Dobra Tea
80 Church Street (entrance around the corner)
Burlington VT 05401
Tel 802.951.2424
dobratea.com

Camellia Sinensis
351 Emery (just west of St Denis; also a shop in the Marché Jean-Talon)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Tel 514.286.4002
camellia-sinensis.com

Ming Tao Xuan
451 St Sulpice (near the Notre-Dame Basilica)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Tel 514.8459448
mingtaoxuan.com

~~~~~ Note ~~~~~

[1] Let's do the disclaimer now. I count Kevin Gascoyne as a friend, and the tasting session was gratis, but such tasting sessions are a regular service there, and I've paid full retail whenever I've bought tea leaves at Camellia Sinensis.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

All,

Just a point of information on Yixing-style gaiwan, which indeed are difficult to acquire in the West. I understand that Yixing-style gaiwan in either brown or terracotta can be ordered from Ray Fong at Imperial Tea Court.

Steve.

Grasshopper said...

Lew--Many thanks for this wonderful article. The prose, photos, and links are all first-rate. Great job. Best always, ~grasshopper

Lewis said...

Grasshopper: Nice of you to say that, but only the prose is mine - our august editor supplied the pictures and links.

corax said...

*blushes*

Jason Witt said...

I enjoyed this one, especially with how the tearooms allowed you to do what you wanted with your own tea set. That's pretty cool. Tasting the different Oolongs would have indeed been a highlight. And the Chinese place? Yi Xing gaiwans are a good find. --Spirituality of Tea

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article. I too came across Camellia Sinensis in Montreal this summer at Jean Talon. I purchased a Yellow Tea that they had just received. I am glad that the Tea seller is reputable. I am a little wary of Yellow Teas. I did buy some other teas which I enjoyed very much.

RLV