Service, Tea and Food, Tea and Life, Tea Retail

A Tea-Stained Town.

Those of you who awaited each day’s gripping recounting of my search for decent tea in Thailand last June might well expect similar tales of deprivation and heroism whenever I travel, and as we’ve slipped away to Melbourne for a few days, you may be breathlessly awaiting the sequel to those heady days.

An earlier blog, which is mostly dormant, had a lot to say about Melbourne – none of it flattering – and so you may also be expecting tales of  a grim, dark place.

Since that blog a few years back, though, I’ve fallen back in love with Melbourne. I come here maybe twice a year on business, and additionally, Lady Devotea and I usually head here once or twice a year to catch a show or catch up with a friend who moved here.

An additional bonus is that our good friend Verity lives here with her husband Tennant and baby Pippin. Verity is known to many readers of this blog as @joiedetea, and it was one of those cases where a real-life meet-up with a fellow twitterer has led to a standing invitation and a real friendship. Lady Devotea and I spent a delightful evening there on our first day here, scoffing home-made pizza in endless varieties, followed by a rich chocolate concoction with two of Tennant’s home-made ice creams – sour cream and golden syrup. Both amazing. And to follow it with a Margaret’s Hope Silver Moon was perfect.

You can’t ask for much more that good food, good company and great tea.

Good food is something Adelaide and Melbourne share. It’s pretty difficult to get a bad meal in either city, though you’ll pay more in Melbourne. You’ll pay more again in Sydney, where food is a hit and miss affair – it can be sensational or it can be described as ‘pedestrian’ in a way that is insulting to pedestrian food.

Now, let’s talk tea.

Whenever I’m in Melbourne on business or pleasure, I always visit the Hopetoun Tearooms.

It’s been around for more than a century, named after the early philanthropist Lady Hopetoun. It’s in The Block Arcade, which is wonderfully and elegantly appointed and also features the only Victorian location for Haighs – the iconic brand of fine chocolates from my home state.

The first thing you notice when you get into Hopetoun is … you can’t get in there. There’s often a twenty minute wait for a table. At a tearooms! I know that seems absurd.

You could argue that it’s all about the cakes. One of the best display cases of cakes you’ll see, facing into the arcade to lure passers-by with their sweet goodness and/or badness- depending on whether you are a dentist, a nutritionist, or someone with an actual life. Other foodstuffs there are also quite acceptable, to say the least.

Their range of teas is quite unique, though not extensive, maybe 15 to 20. I don’t think that’s many- then again, I have over 50 varieties at home.  I know that even good places might only offer 6 to 10, but a specialist tearoom is in a different category.

With the exception of one blend that neither of us liked, Lady Devotea and I have sampled the tea menu extensively and found it very much to our liking. Their “Congo Bongo” mango and coconut is one example of a tea that is much better than it sounds. The exception is called “Bard’s Tempest” and I won’t bore you with the details.

Whilst the service was really friendly as always yesterday, we didn’t see Tony, the co-owner there who normally stops by for a chat. We also noticed that the cake portions were really tiny compared to previous visits. Maybe Tony is just smart enough to make sure the tea reviewers gets extra cake – we were introduced by the previous owners so he is aware of my propensity to bang on about tea experiences good and bad to all and sundry. Not that the cake wasn’t excellent and filling as served. Perhaps they were getting a lot of half or three quarter eaten portions.

Anyway, on this occasion, Lady Devotea chose a strawberry sponge cake accompanied by “Darjeeling”.

I’ve gone past the point where I could order something described as “Darjeeling” without knowing the estate, the flush and the year, unless I have severely limited options. On this occasion, I went with a pear and chocolate frangipani tart, and so the green tea with pear seemed a logical choice.

And it was a good tea. It was a sencha, probably Chinese, with little bits of pear in it. No surprises there. But it was a good combination. In fact, I took a picture.

The ambience and the décor – very old world – has a lot to do with the Hopetoun experience, as does the high levels of service and the fact they actually know how to make and serve tea.

I’m in Melbourne again next week, specifically for one dinner meeting, which I’ll be holding at The Oriental Tea House, another favourite spot with the bonus of great Yum Cha. They do some interesting oolongs, and much as it pains me to say it, an extensive array of beer and wine for my guests. I have a few hours to kill beforehand, so I’m pretty sure Hopetoun might feature in those few hours. I see nothing wrong with a visit to a city following an airport / tearoom / another tearoom / back to the airport plan.

But I’d like to talk about the walk-in experience in Melbourne. It seems virtually everywhere you go, there is loose leaf tea.

“WHAT?”, You scream. “Loose Leaf Tea? Virtually EVERYWHERE? Where is this nirvana? Where’s my plane ticket? Sell my house! Give the dog away! Send my elderly parents to a home for the bewildered. I’m off! To paradise!”

It’s a reasonable reaction. And it’s true. With breakfast, lunch and dinner over the last three visits – let’s say 18 meals – I think we’ve only walked into one place, discovered tea bags in residence and left.

Now, let’s talk about why. Who is responsible for this? Is it a state law? – obviously, it would be if I ran the show but I don’t, so no. Is it that teabags are expensive here? No! Is it that consumers demand good tea – YES!

But why? We’d all like good tea everywhere! But from upmarket restaurants that slop a bag into hot water to Harrods – yes Harrods, admittedly in Malaysia – who have loose leaf on the shelf but only provided bagged tea with their “special offers”, when dining out we’re made to feel that we’ve suddenly entered a parallel universe where teabag tea is good enough.

I think we can give all of the credit to T2.

T2 is the closest Australian equivalent to the “Teavana” I hear so much about. Prepackaged teas,-expensive, though often good. About a zillion teapots, none of them cheap. Books, infusers, you name it. Basically if tea is like crack cocaine to you, these guys are the most serious pushers in town. I can’t walk past one, and I can’t not buy something each time.

This time, it was some Panyong Congou for drinking back at the hotel plus this cute sunflower infuser.

But every little cake shop; every little coffee nook, every restaurant, every snack bar seems to have T2 tea available to provide to their customers. Five varieties, six, a dozen… they all have some.

For that contribution alone, I give great thanks to T2. But it raises two interesting points:

One, T2 has just opened in my home town. The effect of this is that I will be encouraging tea lovers across Adelaide, when visiting the East End, to cut up rough if offered a stinking tea bag. Scream. Stamp your foot. Threaten to call the fraud squad. Threaten to call me. They have no excuse now, with T2 on their block.

And secondly, what do Hopetoun, Oriental Tea House and the like have to do to keep the lines at the door and the reservations hard-to-come-by? They have to offer a unique experience where merely offering loose leaf tea is not unique in itself. This is what they do, and they need to keep doing it.

I could live here, in this tea-stained town. Perhaps they’d make me Mayor. Seems fair.

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