Dear Tea Friends,
Perhaps because my mother, aunt and grandfather were all school teachers, September, rather than January, always seemed like the real beginning of the year to me. I loved shopping for a new pair of school shoes and a book bag outfitted with a red Big Chief notebook and a box of chrome yellow Number 2 pencils. Both were used to write the obligatory, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay. I thought it would be fun to write one again and share some tea discoveries.
This story begins, as all stories do, once upon a time, when I slipped and broke my foot the day before I was to give talks at the World Tea Expo. It hurt like hell, but since I’d traveled that far, I gave the talks anyway. At the High Tea dinner that night Master Tea Blender John Harney led the applause, cheering “She coulda been a Marine!”
I didn’t feel so brave by the time I got home and was slapped into a cast for eight weeks. By week 3, I was stir crazy and rode the elevator to our building lobby just for a change of scene. My downstairs neighbor Antonio, who had recently moved to Hoboken from the Canary Islands, came through the door and stopped for a chat. He helped me hobble upstairs and said to call on him and his wife, Josefina, if I wanted help. “Actually,” I said, "I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Spanish and now I’ve got the time. Will you teach me?” Antonio was astonished, as was I, when I learned that he and his wife were employed by the Spanish government to teach Spanish language and culture to the children of ex-pat Spaniards in the U.S. And so began a great friendship.
When our new friends visited us in our country house we discovered that Antonio is a Master Bee Keeper and Josefina a great cook. They’d often invited us to visit them in their country house in Northern Spain, so this summer we did. We planed to fly from NYC to Paris, change planes for Madrid, then catch another to Vigo. That was too ambitious.
Our first flight was three hours late and by the time we arrived in Paris our connecting flight to Madrid was long gone. The next flight out was six hours later! I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do after an all-night flight is sit around an airport. Even though Air France offered us a long-distance calling card and a chit for free sandwich and drink, we changed dollars for euros and bought Metro tickets. Forty minutes later we were walking the medieval streets around Notre Dame and looking for something to do.
I wondered if there was a tearoom in the area and impatiently waited until 9:00 A.M. in the U.S. to dial up the one person guaranteed to know the answer. Bruce Richardson must have thought I was barking mad, but he graciously whipped out his “Tea In The City: Paris – A tea lover’s guide to sipping and shopping in the city” guidebook to make several recommendations before the freebie calling card timed out. I never even got to say a proper thank you. So, if you’re reading this, thanks, Bruce!
La Charlotte de I’Isle tearoom (pg. 29 in the book) was unfortunately closed for the month of August, but the glimpse through the window was like something out of a fairytale. Puppets and fairies dangled from the ceiling. Dolls, masks and chocolate molds cluttered the window and counter. I’m making a date to return. All was not lost, however. As Bruce promised, the whole Bohemian neighborhood is chock-a-block with charming and eccentric shops, not to mention three gourmet ice cream stores. Hot and tired, we sat at a tiny zinc-topped table to enjoy a lovely bistro lunch.
We fell asleep on the Metro but got back to the airport in time to discover the flight to Madrid was delayed, too. By the time we landed and checked into the hotel, we’d been on our feet for 38 hours. The flight to Vigo, next day, was late, too. And they lost my suitcase.
Josefina and Antonio met us at the airport and said “Es normal” Spanair always loses luggage, but don’t worry you’ll get it back, “eventually.” Josefina’s family has had a house in Galicia for “forever,” and the holiday house they bought is a 17th century granite-block farmhouse that their architect daughter renovated to include two new floors on top of the original barn/house combo. The former stable is now the living room/kitchen. The house sits on three terraces planted with orange, apple, avocado and fig trees. They have their own tiny cove leading to an inlet dotted with platforms that the fishermen tend as mussel farms.
Galicia is on the northwest coast, with a climate like Seattle, and the so-called "Green Spain" has the best seafood in Spain. We bought freshly caught sardines at the street market one day. They were carefully packed into a shoe box, wrapped and tied with a plastic bag like a Japanese furoski. I had to hold them on my lap. If they’re crushed the contents of their intestines pollute the meat and they are inedible. Antonio grilled them over a coal fire in their own oil. You lay the hot sardine on a hunk of bread, peel back the crispy skin and bite. When the sardine’s gone you layer homemade cheese and freshly picked tomatoes on top of the oily bread. It’s heaven and even their 2-year-old granddaughter demanded more.
They usually feed the kids an “early” dinner at 8 or 9 p.m., then bath and bed, but adults don’t have a dinner until 10 p.m., then stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning. Lunch is the big hot meal of the day with soup and salad, freshly baked bread, local farm cheese and cured ham with olives. Big siesta for at least 1-3 hours. What a swell idea!
When my suitcase hadn’t shown up after two days we drove to a little village to go shopping. Looking for lingerie and sandals, I discovered a shop, La Casita del te, that sold tea, coffee, drinking chocolate and tea brewing accessories. The loose tea assortment, which was properly stocked in light and air-tight canisters, included:
Darjeeling 1st Flush
Negro Aromatizados added tea with cinnamon. Te Pakistani added cardamom and vanilla. Pu Erh was listed as a red tea. They also sold a Formosa oolong, China Gunpowder and Japanese Bancha. Tes Verdes Aromatizado includes blends of roses, Moroccan mint, malva leaves, linden, strawberries and chamomile.
Later we visited a friend who lives near Bilbao. Her mother’s Scottish and her father’s Basque and her godmother is my aunt. Tea drinkers all. Yolanda made Williamson & Magor Earl Grey tea every morning with an electric kettle. After she left for work, we took the subway into the city and spent a day at the Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum. It was breathtaking to see it rise from the river like an enormous piece of crumpled tin foil. The titanium skin changes color with the time of day. Antonio had suggested that we make a reservation in the museum café for the tasting menu. It was frightfully expensive but fabulous. “Sensations, Memories and Flavours” – dessert was “a cold juice of dark cacao, with a frozen milk and anis infusion and almond crunchy leaves.”
Tea wasn’t on the menu, but Bilbao has several interesting tea shops. Tea Shop of East West Company is a chain with stores all over Spain. The shops are tiny, but well designed and well displayed with an impressive assortment of tea and brewing accessories. There were cups of cold fruit tea to sample next to the jars of Rooibos safari confit de te and bottles of tea liquor (an after-dinner digestif) brewed in a nearby wine region. They too had an extensive Carta de Tes. Tes Puros included teas from Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, Ceylon, Japan, Kenya, Formosa and China. There were 6 Pu Erhs, including several blended with cinnamon, orange, or vanilla. Tes Verdes Aromatizados includes greens mixed with lemon, coco, peach, vanilla, banana and ginger. The aromatic blacks included an Earl Grey Crema, Superior, Special and Royal as well as toffee, cream, blood orange and even pina colada. The most interesting "tea" of the day was a Cannabis, carrot, peach, ginko blend spotted through the window of shop closed for vacation.
There were many more adventures, including a visit to the “beach sauvage” – Spanair still had my swimsuit – an overnight trip in a cozy sleeper train car, and a trip to Santiago de Compostela to see the famous cathedral. On the long walk uphill from the bus station we crossed under a stone arch and heard two musicians playing the gaita, a version of the bagpipe. It gave me chills to stand in that great square listening to the music, watching the pilgrims wander in tired, dirty, but ecstatic to have completed the 3-5 week journey. Most still do it on foot, as they have for 500 years.
Finally it was time to fly back to Madrid. Plane a bit late, as usual, but this time we weren't racing to make a connection. Roger went to the Prado museum, I’d already been, so I went shopping for birthday gifts in a department store. Watched an old lady snap open fans, listen, flutter and then drop several back into the bin. She saw I was fascinated so she demonstrated how to open and use a fan gracefully. “Don’t flap it like a rag!” She flirted with her fan and asked if I liked it. “It’s very pretty.” “Take it,” she said. “I’m only here to satisfy my curiosity and amuse myself.” She asked how long I was staying in Madrid and said it was too bad that she didn’t live closer so she could take me home with her. That experience summed up the whole trip for me. It was about unscripted, non-tourist moments with ordinary people, and unexpected invitations.
Happy end of summer.