CULTURE

Tea for the connoisseur, from China to the Andes

It’s been a long time since the only choice of beverage in Greek cafés was Greek coffee or Nescafé. Espresso, cappuccino and all varieties in between have long been a part of café life, but it’s still very difficult to get a decent cup of tea. In the old days, cafés at least served herbal brews for anyone with a cold or a stomachache, but nowadays a preference for convenience has seen the spread of the commercial teabag that real tea-lovers abhor (and some blame for the lack of popularity of tea among Greeks). Although not as easily available as «real» coffee, «real» tea, whether white, green, oolong or black (plain or blended) has a growing following and several stores cater to specialist tastes. The largest selection is found at Madras, in Piraeus (19 Notara Street), where Stefanos Papatzialas not only imports, distributes and exports hundreds of varieties of tea from China, India, Sri Lanka and other tea-producing countries but is continually developing special blends, painstakingly researched. «We have teas blended to our own specifications,» Papatzialias told Kathimerini English Edition. Papatzialias says his is a specialty house of tea, as is Mariage Freres in Paris, but with a focus on the wholesale trade, he sells at much lower prices. Teas are blended and distributed both in bulk and packaged (loose or in teabags) under the Madras and Champion labels. Even the teabags (Papatzialias has also developed the popular «Pop’s Cup» for the mass market) are made to precise specifications and contain 2 grams of tea, rather than the usual 1.5 grams (or less). The wholesale and retail outlet, in the heart of Piraeus’s shopping center, now includes beautiful teapots and cups made to order from China. They include reasonably priced variations of the traditional blue and white Ming designs with pagodas or dragons, as well as a range decorated with an old Chinese script pattern. Another blue and white design incorporates grains of rice embedded in the china in traditional patterns, and which darken when tea is brewed in the cup. There are also pots and cups in the delicate green Celadon ware with a blue dragon design. For the true connoisseur is the exquisite, natural clay Yixing pottery, fired in such a way as to leave a rough texture on the inside of the pot that slowly absorbs the flavor of the tea. In China, it is said that if one runs out of tea, just pouring hot water into an old Yixing pot will release the flavors the pot has absorbed over the years. «Our criterion in choosing any of our products is to be able to make good tea. We choose the pots for their capacity and their ability to retain heat,» said Papatzialas. Madras tea and teapots are also on sale in several retail outlets, including Miseyiannis in Kolonaki (7 Levendis Street and Irodotou). Miseyiannis has been specializing in coffee for nearly 100 years, but also stocks a selection of teas including the familiar Jacksons, Windsor Castle and Twinings brands alongside decaffeinated and organic teas, and a wide selection of herbal teas. Among their selection of teacups are the lovely Graf von Mennenburg ware. The Painesis family, whose ancestors emigrated to East Africa in 1896 to set up coffee and tea plantations, opened their first coffee and tea store, Queen’s, in Athens in 1981. Importers and distributors of coffee and tea from around the world, the Painesis now have three outlets in Athens (18 Ploutarchou, Kolonaki, 54 Metamorphoseos, Halandri, and 247 Patission, Koliatsou Square) one in Piraeus (165 Kountouriotou) and one each in Astros Kynourias and Larissa. Apart from a range of India and China teas, there is the traditional, caffeine-free Rooitea (Rooibos tea) popular in southern Africa, Japanese teas including Genmeicha (containing popcorn and rice), Bancha green tea, Gyokuro and powdered Matsa tea. From South America comes Lapacho, the tea of the ancient Incas, and also Mate, which in South America is reputed to have magical qualities, complete with the matero in which it is brewed and drunk – a small hollowed-out pumpkin with a narrow neck. The tea is drunk through a metal straw which ends in a small bulbous strainer to prevent the leaves from being sucked up through the straw. Traditional teapots are also on sale, along with the more modern James Sadler ware, and Japanese Nambu cast ironware. All these teas, as well as coffee, are served at Queen’s store-cafés in Kolonaki and Piraeus. Queen’s also supplies the Food Company cafes in Anagnostopoulou Street, Kolonaki and on the sixth floor of the Eleftheroudakis bookstore on Panepistimiou Street. The art of a proper brew Tea should be brewed in a pot that has first been warmed with hot water, which is then discarded. Put in one spoonful of tea per person (one extra for the pot is optional, depending on the strength required) then add boiling water. Let the pot stand for a few minutes to allow the tea to «draw» before serving. Leaves of the finer blends can be used more than once. All true tea comes from the same plant (Camelia sinensis). The four types of tea (black, oolong, green, white) result from the fermentation (oxidization) process. Black tea is made from leaves that have been fully oxidized. Oolong is semi-fermented, whereas green tea is not oxidized, but withered, immediately steamed or heated and then rolled and dried. White tea, the rarest and most delicate, is picked 48 hours or less between the time the first buds become fully mature and the time they open, then dried in natural sunlight.