Friday, March 2, 2012

Varieties of Tea-Drinking Experience

As a wee young'un, growing up divided between Paris, Rome, and New York, I inexplicably became addicted to the most English of beverages: tea. (Or so I believed; having moved to England, I have discovered that the selection of flavoured tea borders on the abysmal here, and I have taken to drinking paper-cup coffee in the mornings). Indeed, as an awkwardly home-schooled preadolescent seeking some measure of stability during my solitary teen years (I spent my thirteenth and fourteenth years nearly entirely without human company), I spent a disproportionate amount of time scouting excellent flavored teas across the globe. While nothing ever quite lives up to Chez Pauline - which my grandmother brought back for me from a trip to Argentina five years ago, and for which I've been pining ever since), I have - for your reading pleasure - compiled a list of Excellent Tea Shops whose flavors have, essentially, defined my childhood.

1. BiblioTeq, Via dei Banchi Vecchi, Rome, Italy
When I lived in Rome back in 2004, I was the kind of socially maladjusted, Anais-Nin-reading, Baudelaire-quoting fourteen year old who accidentally starts a fire while attempting to ignite a teaspoonful of Sweet and Low over a glass of absinthe (New Year's Eve, 2004). I dropped out of school and spent my days cycling through Trastevere, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and wishing that I could be a beautiful, glitter-wearing, glam-rock-listening, fin-de-siecle-inflected Harlequin. This eccentrically overcrowded tea-and-chocolates shop around the street from my house provided me with props to realize that dream: teas with decadent flavours like "orange and chocolate rooibos", "Father Christmas," "pear and cinnamon", and "chocolate almonds." The owner also had an excellent dog.
To buy: "Pear and Cinnamon tea", "Gen Mai Cha," art nouveau tea containers.

2. Castroni, two branches, Via Cola di Rienzo and Via Ottaviano, Rome
At fourteen, I attempted to convince
my mother that this was the prettiest
area in Rome.
The nineteenth-century district of Prati, with its staid architecture and geometric boulevards, bears no resemblance to any touristic conception of "Rome." A thoroughly middle-class residential neighborhood without any particular sights of interest, Prati somehow became (to my mother's great consternation) the locus of my teenage quasi-rebellion. Still resentful at having been plucked from Paris, I was just too cool for Renaissance palazzos or Baroque churches - I insisted on dragging my mother to the colorless boulevards of Prati to indulge in my "art nouveau boulevard" obsession (Prati does, after have, have a gorgeous fin de siecle pharmacy!) and eat mediocre Chinese food. Castroni (and not, as I thought for years, Gastroni) - an enormous food shop with "expat-friendly" ingredients and a selection of absinthe chocolates - also sold a selection of flavored black teas by the "etto." I distinctly remember eating all of the caramel out of the "caramel black tea" bag. And I still stand by my defense of Prati as a neighborhood.

3. Mariage Freres, Rue des Grands Augustins, Paris
It's a cliche - but what a cliche! When we lived on Rue Dauphine in 2003, steps away from the most luxurious, decadent, bloody overpriced tea shop in Paris. But each eleven-euro canister of "Marriage Imperial", "Casablanca" or "Marco  Polo" tea brings me back to my inexplicably loose-reined childhood (why wasn't I enrolled in school again? Why was I cycling through Montmartre, pretending to be a nineteenth-century prostitute*, listening to Debussy? All things that would have been poetic if I wasn't a thirteen-year-old truant with a hypothetical fixation on laudanum.) When I turned up at an actual legitimate educational institution a few years later, I was referred to by my chess club friends as "the girl who talked like Shakespeare." (And when you're too nerdy for the chess club, well...). But a few months of drinking the incredible, twenty-euro "Falling In Love" chocolate-hazelnut-vanilla tea? The most delicious route to social ostracism ever. (Tied, only, with the the des celts at Passage Dauphine, which deserves a separate post).

*I didn't quite understand the whole "syphillis" thing.

4. Tea and Sympathy, Greenwich Avenue, New York
Back before I was a Mucha-and-lillies-and-consumption obsessive in Paris and Rome, I was an equally ill-adjusted pink-wig-wearing, fishnet-and-corset-clad, David-Bowie-obsessed thirteen year old who once wore a shirt from Religious Sex emblazoned with "Subversion Sells" to an Upper East Side private school (re)admissions interview*. I was convinced that England, as the home of David Bowie and Oscar Wilde, was filled with Awesomely Bohemian Things, and I spent my weekends (I was actually enrolled in an educational institution at this point in time, albeit the sort of weird school that allows its thirteen-year-old to wear corsets to class) in the East Village, browsing the local Wiccan shop, listening to My Bloody Valentine, nursing a daily Tasti-d-Lite habit, and thinking that regular attendance The Rocky Horror Picture show made me the coolest thirteen-year-old in existence (I totally was). Tea and Sympathy, home of chocolate-and-vanilla tea and imported Murray mints, was therefore the coolest place in existence for the coolest thirteen-year-old in existence. Tiny, cramped, and demanding a $15 p-person minimum spend, Tea and Sympathy is acceptable as a sit-down venue; however, it's preferable to just buy loose tea from the sister shop next door.

Of course, I haven't found a single good decadent tea shop in England (although excellent cafes and dilapidated-chic Tea Rooms abound). Tbilisi, conversely, has loads of untapped potential, and the selection of loose teas at the tea stand near the Orbeliani St Populi is worth a review post of its own. Memories of coffee-houses abound - but, like Proust's madeleine - only the smell of Mariage Freres "falling in love tea" can evoke the utter pseudo-decadent chaos that was my teenage years.

*I attended the school between the ages of 6-12, left to attend an arty-hippie school, thought briefly about returning, then ended up in Paris instead.

Which is why, boys and girls, you should never let your twelve-year-old read The Picture of Dorian Gray unsupervised. Terrible things might happen. (And, nine years later, your twenty-one year old daughter may apply to do her DPhil in the theological study of decadence.)

No comments: