Tea and Life, Tea Stories

Roll Out The O’Barrell

Being an enthusiast when it comes to politics, I’m one of the limited number of  Australians outside of New South Wales that even knew that the Premier of that State was a man called Barry O’Farrell.

He was the most popular State Premier in Australia, had a huge 27 seat majority, and was leading his party in a state where the other side had politicians being paraded before corruption commissions and jailed for child sex offences and/or drug offences.

He came across and competent and very proper. He even wore the nickname his opponents saddled him with – combining his name and his girth to come up with the imaginative “Fatty O’Barrell”- with pride, which must have really annoyed them no end.

He was untouchable.

And in two days he went from rooster to feather duster, as the old saying goes.

Why? Well it was wine.

Wine, for those of you who have not heard of it, is grape juice. Not lovely freshly pressed grape juice, but grape juice that has basically gone off, which is then bottled and sold to the unsuspecting consumer. When people first drink it, their reaction is normally “well, that’s not nice”, but repeated exposure causes a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, sometimes turning people into willing and earnest consumers of the stuff, often at outrageous prices.

This has been happening for millennia, and to such an extent that it often turns people quite mad, as demonstrated in this fine piece on Beasts of Brewdom from a few years back.

The wine in question was a 1959 Penfold’s Grange. Yes, one of the world’s most famous wines, sells for hundreds if not thousands of dollars per bottle, and made in my home state of South Australia.

Penfolds thought it had no future, and cancelled it in 1956. However, the winemaker, the late Max Schubert, refused to follow instruction and for the next few years produced it and hid it. These so-called “hidden vintages’ are rare and expensive. Not good apparently, but rare and expensive.

Mr O’Farrell was born in 1959, and so an oily, somewhat (now) discredited lobbyist sent him a bottle of the 1959 Grange as a little present, right when a huge contract was in the wind. A few years ago.

Mt O’Farrell was asked to give evidence at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, an interesting body in NSW, which has spent millions proving that various individuals were massively corrupt without actually charging them with anything so far, whilst simultaneously managing to wreck a few careers on the sidelines.

Mr O’Farrell was asked about the gift of the wine, and informed the commission that not only did he not remember it, but on the dates he was given that he was supposed to have received it, he was away.

Then the dates were adjusted. Still didn’t remember it. Hardly knew the guy in question.

Many people have a problem with someone not remembering a gift of wine valued at $3000. Come to think of of it, many people have a problem with valuing a bottle of not-so-good wine at $3000.

Mr O’Farrell claimed to not be much of a wine aficionado. And to be fair, he probably got 200 bottles of wine a year as gifts, though not of this ascribed value.

So, having pretty well denied it all, the Commission produced a hand-written thank you note from Mr O’Farrell.

Mr O’Farrell did the decent thing and resigned. Unlike a federal politician who, with a bit of luck will be locked up for fraud shortly, but who served out his political term whilst the investigation dragged. Unlike a politician in my own state, who has been delaying and delaying a court appearance of repulsive charges for  years now whilst collecting a fat salary and doing not much.

But I put it to you, what if Mr O’Farrell had been a well known tea drinker? Not a wine drinker at all?

Here’s how it might have gone.

Special Counsel Assisting The Commission: Mr O’Farrell, do you remember receiving a gift from this man?

Mr O’Farrell: Not really. I get a lot of gifts.

SCATC: Really, it commemorated your birth year?

Mr O’Farrell: Oh, you mean that copy of Tea For Two Cha Cha by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra from 1959? Along with a packet of a superb Lord Petersham Tea?

SCATC: I put it to you, Mr O’Farrell, that the vinyl record you casually mention was worth EIGHTY-NINE American cents on Amazon.com, and the tea was worth at least TEN DOLLARS.

Mr O’Farrell: Well, I’ve drunk the tea, but you can borrow the record if you like.

SCATC: No further questions.

Mr O’Farrell: I’ll just get back to a spot of Premiering then, shall I? It’s been real, you guys.

The temperance movement over a century ago where right when they pushed the line that  alcohol ruined many a great career.

It just goes to show, that we should be electing tea drinkers to high office. Sure there might be the odd scandal (“I put it to you, Mr Treasurer, that the records show that your office spent $24 last year on ‘milk for tea’, and yet you claim to be a First Flush Darjeeling expert”) but overall, it seems a lot wiser.

The twist in this tale is that the lobbyist was trying to win a  contract to supply water to Sydney. If he’d been smart enough to send every politician some tea, he could have recouped some of the cost.

Ah, politics.

 

 

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Tea and Life, Tea Retail

A New Name?

This is a scene from Yes Minister that I have always loved. The second bit, not the first bit.

http://youtu.be/OzeDZtx3wUw

If you didn’t get around to watching it, there’s a suggestion that legislation is to be enacted in the European Parliament to cause the British sausage to cease being referred to as a ‘sausage’, but instead being called a “emulsified, high fat offal tube”.

It does make me think about the nomenclature of tea.

  • If you have a cup of a fine Arya Ruby Darjeeling SFTGFOP, it’s “tea”.
  • If you enjoy a lovely Ali Shan Oolong from your favourite tea garden, it’s “tea”.
  • What about a simple Grade 1 Gunpowder Green, brewed GongFu style in a Yixing pot? “Tea”.

And how about the lowest possible grade black, picked by machines, stuffed into paper bags in eastern Europe or a third world country with no minimum wage and poor food hygiene standards, boxed, plastic wrapped and deposited on supermarket shelves with no consideration except delivering it a few cents/pence/pesos cheaper?

When it’s talked about, it’s still “tea”.

In fact,the latter is over 90% of tea.

So, do we have the nomenclature wrong? Should we rename bad tea as something else. Or good tea as something else?

I’m working on an idea inspired by this.

My next blog will tell you all about it.

But for now: What do you think? What can we do?

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Tea and Life, Tea Stories, Tea Workers

Because I Can

I can add milk to my tea, if I want.Tea or do not tea. There is no \"try\".

Usually, I don’t want to, but let’s say I do.

A tablespoon of milk is about 13 calories. So if one has five cups of tea per day with a tablespoon in each, then it provides about 2% of the daily caloric intake that someone who works manually might survive on.

A teaspoon of sugar has 16 calories. Let’s add two spoons per day to our five cups – though I don’t take it myself – and this works out to 160 calories per day from sugar. That’s actually about 6% of the aforementioned necessary daily caloric intake.

Based on the current price of milk and sugar in Australia – and assuming I buy the supermarket brand cheapest option of both – that’s about $0.42 AUD.  Add the price of a supermarket loose leaf tea and this rises to $0.58

Many Ugandan tea workers would not make that in a day. Comparatively well-paid workers in Assam might take three hours to earn that. Both would likely find a chance to enjoy 6% of their necessary daily caloric intake to be quite significant.

I wonder what either would think of my problems. My “first world problems”.

Once and for all, I’d like to put things in perspective.

If I decide to put milk and /or sugar in my tea, it’s because I can. I generally don’t have to assess the use of milk and/or sugar in terms of budgetary considerations. I also don’t have to use it to supplement my daily caloric intake, as that’s already too high.

I get tired of hearing about how adding either is offensive. “You can’t. You shouldn’t. You mustn’t.”

I will if I want to.

I can call Afternoon Tea ‘High Tea’ if I want to, amongst a group of consenting adults who all know what I mean. I can make my tea in a pot, or a plastic cup or an old sock*. I can drink it from a cup, a basin, a bottle, my bare hands.

Inaccurate nomenclature is deadly: if you are an atomic scientist. Inaccuracy is not good in a surgeon. If you are a chemist or an engineer, please get everything right, all the time.

Yes, you can make a difference with tea. Drink good loose leaf tea. Don’t support the major companies who exploit workers. Don’t trust the untrustworthy. Don’t blindly believe guys like “Rainforest Alliance”. Try not to contribute to the tax dollars of despotic regimes.

But no-one died the last time someone said “Chai tea”. Or credited the teab*g to John Sullivan or the invention of Afternoon tea to The 7th Duchess of Bedford, both of which are demonstrably wrong.

So, a final note for today: I wrote this for myself, but I’m willing to share. The next time we get annoyed at someone for repeating the “rinse away the caffeine” nonsense. The next time someone has a cappuccino instead of a Long Jing or adds creamer to a first flush Darjeeling**. The next time someone mentions K-cups or I am aggrieved at something someone did, or said, or didn’t say, or didn’t do.

I’ll re-read this and get a sense of perspective, and find myself a calm and happy place – probably to rant from.

Some sources:

  • A slightly old report (2005) on nutrition amongst tea workers in Assam is here 
  • A recent UK newspaper report on tea workers conditions in India is here
  • A report on tea worker wages from a Ugandan newspaper is here

——

 *an old sock is the least likely option, but don’t even try to oppress my right to do so!

*OK, so maybe that is TOO far. Some corporal punishment is warranted.

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Tea and Food, Tea and Life, Tea Stories

Bridging the Cultural Divide

Tea varies.

There’s no doubt that I’m reluctant to drink sweetened green tea with milk. But if I hailed from the region of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan, I probably would make it that way.

Rancid yak butter, tea, salt and water may make a delicious beverage if one is from Nepal, but I can’t say I’m keen to try it.

But closer to home, there are cultural divides within the tea community. There’s the “No Milk, Ever” brigade versus the “Milk Always” team. The “Sugar In Tea Is An Abomination And You Will Burn In Hell” syndicate versus that “I’ll have three, and make ‘em generous” lot.

Generally, these groups can get along, but there’s one that I always find interesting here in Australia: the revulsion that some people feel for the concept of Iced Tea.

I CAN understand those people who feel revolted every time someone over 5 years old writes or says “Ice Tea” rather than “Iced Tea”, because it’s just plain ignorant and wrong. But I am fighting a losing bottle as ALL of the multinational conglomerates call their Ready To Drink products that, and I guess they are the new arbiters of the English Language.

When talking to people about Iced Tea, one of the common themes is for detractors to refer to it as “cold tea”, to suggest that it is tea that has gone cold, as opposed to a brew specifically made to be cold. I suspect that not just in Australia, but in Britain and New Zealand and a few other places this might be so.

We find at markets that kids are more than willing to order it. We serve it unsweetened, but with sugar syrup on the side that they can help themselves to. The syrup pours quite slowly and they tend to add about 2 teaspoons of 50/50 sugar syrup, so about 5 grams of sugar. The same sized cup full of cola would be around 35 grams of sugar.

Of course, keen twenty-somethings in full hipster mode drink it unsweetened over ice, but then hipsters always do stuff like that specifically to annoy me. I waited years to be old enough to wear cardigans, and the minute I was, all these young folk started to wear them and drink tea, making me look like I am just a Vespa and a brown shoulder bag away from a mid-life crisis of age-denial.

But there is a fair proportion of people we talk to that are revolted by the thought.

Sometimes we can sway them with a sample.  Sometimes we can’t.

Thinking about it, I wonder if the problem in the USA is reversed. “I only drink hot tea when I’m sick” is something I’ve seen a bit from those quarters.

When we were sick as kids, my mother would dissolved a teaspoon of Vegemite in boiling water, add a teaspoon of margarine, pour it into a bowl over ripped up white bread and pronounce it “Vegemite Soup” as a sort of cure-all.* In that context, it’s hard to imagine willingly having that when one is not sick. Given that it’s closer to the Nepali Tea mentioned above than the way I normally drink tea, I am imagining that these Nepalis are virtually illness-proof.

So, I am left to ponder: what’s harder?

Selling hot tea to Americans? Selling iced tea to Aussies, Kiwis and Brits?

Or just the act of taking any person outside their tea comfort zone?

 

*I might admit to having made Vegemite Soup for myself at times. It’s actually delicious.

 

 

 

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Tea and Life, Tea History, Tea Stories

The Hypocrisy Continues

I wasn’t sure I should post this. But, here goes.

I spent many hours writing a post recently. And then found one fact that challenged my assumptions.

My basic premise was that the new anti-gay laws in Uganda were a springboard for more or less boycotting African teas.

What I have decided to do is share the post, as it was, up to the moment I discovered a fact I did not like. And then make some commentary around that, and how it actually showed me my own hypocrisy.  The original, unfinished post is below – all the bits in blue.

It’s a heavy post today, folks. Quite a bit of politics, and only a little tea.

The recent history of Africa – the last 1000 years – has been dominated by the actions, not of locals, but by Europeans, and those of European descent.

Significant European interest in Africa started with interest in slavery, and in the centuries that followed, Western countries have looked down on Africans – first as chattels, then as ‘poor savages’ needing civilising, and now as being incapable of running their own affairs.

In particular, the period of colonisation. A time when European countries who couldn’t organise a decent empire – France, Germany, Italy, even pathetic pretend countries such as Belgium – nibbled bits of Africa so they could feel like they were part of the big league, competing with Spain, Portugal, the Dutch and of course, Britain. A time when the big guys hit back and took some of Africa for themselves. A time when brave white men went out to take ownership and shoulder the “white man’s burden” of running these places.

Whether being sadistic, paternalistic or opportunistic, Europeans always knew they were superior on one area: religion. The wonderful term “mumbo-jumbo” is at heart an attack on the spiritual beliefs of various African peoples – an indication of how believing that your ancestor lives in a mountain or that lions have souls is so much less believable than virgin birth and a God who can’t solve famine because he’s too busy checking on what teenage boys are doing under the covers at night.

Colonialism is a mixed legacy at best: the law is one institution that was often pressed upon the unwilling but is now seen as a good thing, whereas other colonial legacies are decidedly bad, such as the genocidal hatred of two basically similar peoples in Rwanda.

Of course, tea is a colonial legacy, and about 12 African countries grow significant amounts of tea. They are the massive tea growing country of Kenya, then a long way back Malawi and Uganda, with Tanzania the only other one of note. The latter three combined grow about 30% of what Kenya grows.

And who grows it? Vast tea companies, like Liptons (Unilever) and Tetleys.

So many people have written so much about the poor practices, lack of workers rights and inhumanity of these sprawling tea estates that I cannot usefully add anything to that commentary at this point.

But Uganda have made the news this week, for passing anti-homosexuality laws. Punitive and primitive, these appalling laws even make it a criminal offence if you know someone is homosexual and don’t report them to the authorities.

Whilst on the face of it it seems absurd to punish a man for having sex with another man by locking him up with hundreds of men for seven years, it is far more than just absurd. It’s an appalling attack on human rights. Led by the teachings of three “Evangelical”  (in the sense of ‘demented’) American preachers, Uganda seems to be determined to cling to the reputation it earned during the reign of Idi Amin for brutality; and the saddest thing about this is, it’s popular.

What is not so readily apparent is that similar laws exists in the other tea growing countries I have listed. It’s not surprising, with South Africa the only significant country in Africa that does not persecute gay people.

The laws in Kenya are virtually identical to the ones in Uganda, one key difference being that they no time or money is being spent on enforcement. However, there is agitation within the Kenyan Parliament for this to happen, with many MPs casting an approving eye on the Ugandan travesty.

In Tanzania, the laws are similar and enforced. In Malawi, the laws are on the books but enforcement was suspended in 2012. It’s great that these vile laws have been suspended, but it is shameful they exist at all.

It’s hard to get tea anywhere without wondering if the provenance means that someone unpleasant somewhere is not getting a benefit. But in this case, the governments who pass these laws get millions on taxes from tea.

And that’s where I stopped, folks.

Because I decided to just check the laws in other tea growing countries, to make sure I was not going to have some unhappy facts pointed out to me via comments. And I did discover just such facts.

China? Check. Japan? Check. India? Er, not so good.

Chapter 16, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is, in essence a slightly milder version of the same law as Uganda has just passed. It was put there in 1860 under the British Raj.

It’s true that there is a popular campaign in India to repeal this appalling travesty; and I doubt that it will be on the law books in another 5 years. Some people say that as only 200 people have ever been charged under Section 377 since 1960, it’s not really enforced.

For me, the discovery that this exists undermined my idea that a boycott would be a good plan. After all, I don’t actually drink African Tea which I find generally quite inferior, but I drink and sell a lot of Indian tea. This is a boycott that might actually affect me!

For years, westerners have pontificated about “What Africa should do” and “What China should do” and “What India Should do” and in many cases, there’s been a healthy dose of self interest.

Me too, it seems.

 

 

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Tea and Food, Tea and Life

Baked Goods: Usage and Abusage

Look, you guys, I love you all, but in the words of today’s generation: you’re doin’ it wrong.

By ‘you guys’, I mean Americans. The whole lot of you.

You might find this hard to take, but I’m writing this because I care about you.

You have some wonderful things like the Statue of Liberty, Brian Cranston, a mayor called “Nutter” and marshmallow fluff in a jar, but in other areas it’s not so good.

In amongst the splendid hospitality and much love that we found in the USA last year, we couldn’t help but notice that when it comes to baked goods to accompany tea, there was some serious deficiencies. Even in really good places.

Let’s start with terminology.

The word “cookie”. An excellent word- if you are under three years old.

Seriously, how childish is that word? The damn word is ‘biscuit ‘. As soon as one’s vocabulary reaches the level where “Johnny wanth bithcut. PLEATHE!” is possible, then ‘cookie’ should be extinguished from the tongue of a child. If the word ‘potty’ has ceased to be used then ‘cookie’ should go as well.

There is some argument that cookie is not a childish diminutive of “to cook” but in fact drawn from the Dutch word for little cakes. If so, here’s a tip: if you are tempted to take a loan word into your language, avoid Dutch. It is the singular most appalling language in the world.  A mangy fox with tuberculosis choking to death on a rabid hamster makes a more attractive sound that a Dutch person ordering a pizza. Netherlands has an incredibly high rate of English language proficiency, and it’s easy to see why: even they hate it. There is a special dispensation for the word ‘Speculaas’, but other than that, the Dutch language is dead to me.

Now as far as the biscuits themselves go, you guys do them well. Keep up the good work.

Now we move on to the mistake you guys make when instead of calling biscuits ‘biscuits’, you call something else ‘biscuits’. Something rather unpleasant that you try to hide with gravy at breakfast.

It’s important that every culture have at least one breakfast food that guarantees a stroke by fifty, and you guys excel yourselves at providing a whole raft thereof. In that context the “biscuits” are probably the least offensive thing on the plate.

So what are they? They are almost bread, almost damper (I mean the Australian campfire bread ‘damper’, not ‘more damp’) and basically a mildly edible spoon for gravy. I realise you do have to give them a name. I suggest you call them ‘OHaPoMS’, which is an acronym for “Overly Hard, Poorly Made Scones”.

And that brings us neatly to scones. Which rhymes with “upons” unless you are from certain parts of the UK where regional dialects and/or class alters this.

So, here’s the thing about scones. Look at this quick table and see how you are doing it wrong.

  • Correct: Light and Fluffy. Incorrect: Like chewing on a desiccated doorknob.
  • Correct: Round. Incorrect:Triangular.
  • Correct: Served with jam and whipped or clotted cream. Incorrect: Served with jam and ‘dairy wip’.
  • Correct: Size about the circumference of a teacup. Incorrect: Bigger than my head.

Most of what passes for scones in the bits of the USA we visited are not only offensive but virtually an offensive weapon. And this is true of ritzy 5 star places as well as Bohemian little tea shops.

Guy, you do tea pretty well- if one goes to the right places. But between making some baked treats poorly and giving daft names to others, it’s a bit of let down.

Let me help you out here.

I have a theory that part of the problem is that “lemonade” is a part of many scone recipes. And lemonade in the USA is, for some reason, not a fizzy drink like it is in the rest of the world. The fizziness is part of the rising process.

Here’s one of the simpler versions from Lady Devotea’s extensive list of scone recipes: Just mix together 6 cups of self raising flour, 2 cups of actual proper  cream, and 2 cups of ‘Sprite’ or other fizzy lemony soda. Add a pinch of salt, form into a sticky dough, rest for 5 minutes (the dough, not you), cut out with a floured glass and bake on a tray spread just far enough apart to almost touch when they rise. I have no idea what temperature to bake them at using that confounded Fahrenheit system, but they can be baked quickly at a medium temperature, or for a better result, slowly at a lower temperature. Take them out when they almost start to colour.

15 minutes and a teapot full of Lord Petersham later, you’re doing it right. You can spend some of that time whipping actual cream with some icing sugar and real vanilla extract.

There you have it, America. Think of this as an intervention. You can recover from this. But it will take time. And love. And quite a bit of baking and eating.

Luckily, I’m here to help.

 

 

 

 

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Tea and Life, Tea Retail

Transition

My posting has slowed down lately.

Partly that’s because of a huge rant that I spent a week on and then never published after some facts I discovered damaged my contention. Part of it is that I am writing for paid sites here and there. And partly it’s the time factor.

The funny thing is, it’s happening at a time when I have a lot to say. Or a lot I could say.

Many of you know Lady Devotea and I have operated two distinct businesses for half a dozen years now: tea and …the other stuff.

Well, we’re closing the other stuff.

And we are working on a plan to undertake The Devotea in a new way. A bold, surprising plan.

And of course, it’s top secret. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.

Maybe it will come off, maybe it won’t and I’ll give it all up for a new career as funeral director, chicken sexer or street sweeper. The next few months are critical.

Since I’m not sayin’ , feel free to make up your own scandalous lies about what we might be doing. Or even suggestions.

 

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Tea and Life, Tea Stories

Reflections on The Art Experience

Recently, we tried a new concept.

Tea as art.

The idea was to make a phenomenal tea: something a cut above our stable of blends. Something that would take a lot more work; something unique; something that would take far more effort and time than could be recouped. Something highly individual.

You may have read of our “Love of My Life 2014″ blend.

Now that Valentine’s Day has been and gone, I’ll share a little of the experience.

The blend was available only in a little tin. The little tin was quite expensive as these things go. Gram for gram, it was ten times the price of our usual blends.

For starters, little tins cost a lot more than  our usual packaging. But the price really reflected nothing more than the time that went into it.

A standard blend may take months to develop, but then is unlimited in its future sales if it is good. This was different. It was limited to twenty tins of ten grams each.

Selling such a tiny quantity – in fact, I only ever created about 250 grams – was never about money. It was about the experience.

It might seem like the height of conceit for a blender to sign and number tins of tea. Sometimes I think that myself. But anyway, I did, and presented tin number 1 to Lady Devotea.

Since then, I’ve been able to see first hand how the market has taken to this. The first order was amazingly from America, and whilst I won’t break a confidence by saying who it was, it was a person who has a strong involvement with the arts and I think who totally understood what I was doing.

Since then, we’ve taken the tins along to many markets. Side-by-side with great tea at one-tenth the price, there has been a fair amount of resistance. Sales were a little slow.

That makes sense to me, our retail tables are for tea, not art, and here we are mixing up the concepts.

Last week, we held a tea tasting at an art exhibition, an opening for Adelaide artist Samantha Tipler. That was very different.

A different crowd: Hipsters. Advertising creatives. Small business owners. Other artists. Semi-naked people covered in body paint. Comedians. Musicians.

Whilst I only fit into two of the above categories – and a third in my own mind – it instantly seemed to be a tea drinking crowd. All good news.

Art

Photo Courtesy of SMI.nted Inc (c) 2014

Over the next few hours, Love of My Life attracted attracted quite a bit of the right sort of attention. The idea of numbering and signing each tin, which tea buyers couldn’t seem to grasp, made sense to many of these folk.

It sold quite well. It just goes to show context.

The next day was Valentine’s Day, and at the end of the meal I created for Lady D, we had a cup of Love of My Life.

It was phenomenal. The carefully selected flavours had mingled after 4 weeks in the tin, creating something that was far better than what went in.

So at the end of the day, the tea was art and the art was tea, and the tea repaid those who had faith in the art by being worth the price. Not just for the concept, not just for the packaging, not just for the exclusivity, but because it’s great tea.

Even if it’s also the height of conceit to mention that.

 

 

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Service, Tea and Life, Tea Retail

To Market, To Market

I live a complex life, like most people these days.

Here’s how Roger Waters explained this:

You wake up in the morning, get something for the pot
Wonder why the sun makes the rocks feel hot
Draw on the walls, eat, get laid
Back in the good old days

Then some damn fool invents the wheel
Listen to the whitewalls squeal
You spend all day looking for a parking spot
Nothing for the heart, nothing for the pot

(from Me or Him, which is from ‘Radio K.A.O.S.’ one of my favourite albums ever.)

So yes, life is more complex than when we were mucking about in caves a few millennia ago.

The tea business – well, our tea business – is a complicated undertaking – not least of all because it is part-time and we do other stuff.

We are in the process of realigning the other stuff. As part of the review of the aforementioned other stuff, we might decide to increase the amount of other stuff, or reduce it. Which will leave more or less time for The Devotea. And that involves a lot of thinking and planning.

We spent the weekend doing two markets.

The first was expected to be extremely busy for various reasons; but Fortune (as in the mythical force, not the famous botanist and tea pioneer) did not favour us. It was an extreme heat day, there was a ‘catastrophic’ level fire alert, and then an uncontrolled bushfire started nearby. We hung on for a while but eventually had to pack up and depart.

Sunday was a different story : a perfect day, a lovely location and yet not a lot of people. We did what we always did when that happens, which was to have a good percentage of success with the limited opportunity available.

The point with markets is that for us, it’s not about the money.  Our measure of success is that we have a hard-core following of fans whom we see regularly, and we revel in the opportunity to meet new people and share our teas with them.

It’s easy for me when I’m making someone a 191o , whilst Lady Devotea shares the joy of Aussie Ginger Chai with an interested couple, to think “this is what we should do full time. Stuff anything else”.

Is it realistic? Perhaps not entirely. Is it unrealistic? Also not entirely.

It is definitely thinking time. Maybe that will lead to a big announcement. Maybe nothing will change. Time will tell.

 

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Tea and Life, Tea Stories

Spy vs. Spy

I used to be a spy.

Not a heroic, brave armed-to-the-teeth spy, as you see in a variety of silly films.

I was head of the corporate intelligence section of a recruitment business I worked for. In fact, I was the corporate intelligence section. I got to be James Bond, M and Miss Moneypenny all at once. Sadly, there was no tricked-up Aston Martin or exploding pens.

Funnily enough, my predecessor WAS an actual spy. He had worked for a country’s Intelligence Services, and under his watch, the Research function because quite extraordinary. There was a rumour that he had dressed a window cleaner and strolled through the offices of a major competitor, polishing windows and having good look and listen.

Anyway, head office of our company – in the Netherlands – gave our office one day’s notice that they were transferring him around the world for a bit, and it happened on the same day I was telling my boss I was bored and considering quitting; and a few hours later I had a 20% pay rise, an office of my own, and a filing cabinet full of stuff.

“You’ll work it out”, I was told in the 5 minute briefing I got before my predecessor boarded a plane. “The job is to know everything that’s happening, preferably before it does so, and to find stuff out. That’s it.”

First day of new job, first five minutes and I was asked a question by the Executive Branch Manager. “There’s this guy called x*, he used to work for Company ABC* about 12 years ago. I want to talk to him about a role. Can you see if you can find him?”

In less than five minutes I was back. “He now works in Darwin, here’s his complete resumé, here’s his phone number, I’ve spoken to him and he’s in a bank queue at the moment but he’ll ring you in ten minutes”.

You see, it was around the turn of the Millennium, and I’d used this new thing called ‘Google’. Pretty simple, really, but I was instantly a legend. Right time, right place, right technology.

From then on, I got invited to every meeting; my opinion was sought on everything. My time was never checked on or micromanaged. I could disappear “out intelligence gathering” when I liked. I read three newspapers over several cups of tea every morning.

Imagine that. I got to work, turned on my radio to the ABC (news, talkback and oh, yes, cricket!), made a pot and proceeded to read three newspapers. In fact, I persuaded the company to subscribe me to all the newspapers at home so I could start on the bus on the way in.

I’d extract the racing pages and read them cover to cover.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. There was an incident where one of our competitors picked up a contract with one of the Executive Branch Manager’s major clients. He rang his contact in a fury, only to find the guy was dead. Turns out as the guy was also on the board of the Turf Racing association, his obituary had been in the racing pages. From then on, I read the racing pages as well. I started marking them each day with “NFDT” in red texta (“No-one F*cking Died Today”).

But the best part was hanging about tea shops.

You see, as many recruiters will tell you, an awful lot of recruitment happens across a table with two cups on it.

I remember once going out to lunch about noon by myself in a tea shop with a notepad to do some planning. As I was finishing up close to one o’clock, about eight people from a major competitor came in and started bitching about their clients at an off-site meeting. I sat there for two hours making notes. I had to keep ordering tea to cover myself. I was close to exploding when they finally left.

So life was reading the paper, drinking tea, making large pots of Darjeeling or Ceylon tea at 11am and 3pm and sharing them across the divisions (we had 120 people, and I justified this as “keeping my ear to the ground”), hanging about in tea shops, meeting with various informants (usually in tea shops) and winning awards for being so damn valuable. I acquired much expertise, often appeared as an expert in court, wrote lengthy and expensive reports. The perfect role for a know-it-all such as myself.

I also somehow acquired the job of managing the administration staff, which meant I could direct them as to which tea to buy. We had kilos of good tea coming in.

After nearly six years it was time for a change. I knew I had a job offer commencing about six months hence, and leaned on my network to get a six-month contract with a major competitor. I had to pretend I didn’t know who my new colleagues were when I met them. No-one notices the guy in the tea shop, nursing a Java Taloon and reading or scribbling in a notepad.

When I took up the bright new job eight months later, it only lasted 14 months, I was burned out, I think. I had much more responsibilities, and was more often to be found hunched over my keyboard; my tea drinking was hurried, the papers remained scantily read.

I found myself thinking back to happier times.

And so, I quit and we bought the tea shop. Not the best decision we ever made, and most of the problem there was a blindness on my part.

About a week in, a recruiter I used to work with was interviewing one of the assistant managers from a local baked goods manufacturer in our tea shop. It was clearly an interview, I could see both the resumé and the body language, and I’d interviewed the guy myself a few months previously. After half an hour, another recruiter I used to work with who had changed firms came in and took a table, only to be joined by the other assistant manager of the same baked goods manufacturer. Both groups steadfastly refused to look at each other directly, whilst casting guilty glances across the rows.

Made me feel quite nostalgic.

*names changed for privacy, and also because I can’t remember.

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