Posted by: ben | April 27, 2009

aye tea part two: edinburgh

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A few weeks ago Ben felt the need to revisit his old university town of Glasgow. Whilst there he stumbled across two teahouses and wrote about them for this blog. During his time in Scotland, he also snooped around Edinburgh and, well, guess.

Ben: After a few days in Glasgow, we went across to Edinburgh for a day or so. I’ve only ever really visited Edinburgh for a few hours or to meet people so took the opportunity to wander around and explore as much as I can.

(I should say that I spent nowhere near enough time in Glasgow. Goddamn, I love that city. In my previous post I forgot to thank my good friend Libby for letting us sleep on her floor. Ta, Libs.)

Edinburgh is a very different city to the ‘gow. Edinburgh’s much, much posher – though Glasgow has things like Princes Square and the swanky shops in Merchant City, Edinburgh feels much shinier and old-fashioned. It’s largely due to the tourist traps on the Royal Mile and probably isn’t justified at all but the impression is of a much classier city.

In such a city, it couldn’t be too difficult to find some looseleaf tea, could it?

In preparing for our trip I asked the subscribers of the teatunes twitter account if they could recommend anywhere that served nice tea in Edinburgh. The lovely Jennifer suggested a few places, one of which seemed very appealing. I looked that place up on Google Maps, made a note in my jotter and awaited the trip. That place?

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Eteaket. Frederick Street, Edinburgh

Eteaket is a little treasure. It’s located not too far from Edinburgh’s main shopping area but is just the wrong side of George Street and hidden in a basement unit. It would be easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there; talking to one of my friends that evening who’d lived in Edinburgh for years, he was unaware of its presence despite being an enthusiastic tea drinker. Reading about it online, it would appear that Eteaket has only been open since December 2008 so its perhaps not unreasonable that it’s still a little unknown.

Much like Brewhaha in Glasgow, Eteaket plays into the average person’s idea of a teashop. However, whereas Brewhaha ties into the sixties ideals of big teapots and pastel colours, Eteaket plays on the theme of tea as the reserve of posher types. There’s a general feel of Georgian elevenses about the place – the tea is served in proper bone china cups, all cutlery is polished and classically designed, they serve scones for afternoon tea. Their website likes to allude to etiquette and the proper way for civilised types to dine; my favourite tip?

If you’re meeting the in-laws for the first time or meeting an important client, it’s advisable to take bites of the finger sandwiches rather than stuffing it in your mouth in one go. It avoids embarrassment.

Sage advice, even for country oiks like me.

Don’t let this put you off at all, though! The cafe is light and open and should you show any sign of consternation the staff will happily point you in the right direction. The afternoon tea is a bit of an olde worlde cliche, sure, but when the scones are this light it doesn’t matter what order of society you’re from. The bone china you’re presented with will often be in a different design from the person you’re drinking with and there were no tuts or frowns when I gorged on my slice of millionaire’s shortbread.

So what’s the tea like? Uniquely in the four places we visited, here the teas were not organised by black, green, white etc etc. Instead, the menu behind the till offers choices based on rarity and the bravery of the drinker. This might cause purist fops to wave their kerchief and mop their brow in dismay but it’s a refreshing change. It means that my fiance can quickly find an Earl Grey or Darjeeling from the ‘easy’
bit of the menu whilst I can scan down the more esoteric stuff without going peacemeal between the different types of leaves. In case this is too unconventional for you, they do have little paper menus listing their wares more normally.

eteakettableEteaket was the most obvious with the care they put into brewing. The tea is bought over in glass plunger-style teapots (with silver metalwork to match the silver spoons and the gilt edging of the bone china, of course) along with a triumverate of silver egg timers. Evidently when they add the water to the leaves, they turn this timer over so you know when to finish the infusion. When the teapots were bought over to our table my partner was told hers was ready when the green (three minute) timer was finished and that mine was finished halfway between green and yellow (four minutes). The timers? Housed in a silvery enclosure, of course. This is blinking clever – it’s a little austentacious and helps make the occasion feel like, well, an occasion whilst also ensuring your tea’s brewed nicely without the staff having a parade of teapots behind the till waiting to cool. Incidentally, they sell these timers on their website should you ever want to replicate the experience.

The teas offered are pretty diverse – a good representation of what you’d expect along with a good few custom blends. The white peony tea I had was springy and zippy, enough to convince me that my prior opinions of white tea were ill-founded. On a nice summery Edinburgh afternoon with the sun shining through the window, that refreshing brew made a lot of sense.

Located where it was, it was no surprise to see Eteaket pretty busy when we visited. I can’t see the brand becoming a chain like I suggested with Brewhaha largely because Eteaket seems extravagant and careful, not the sort of qualities that are easy to replicate. It could easily become an Edinburgh institution though; from what I saw it’s not too far off already.

Loads of information on Eteaket can be found on their website: http://www.eteaket.co.uk/

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Tea Tree Tea. Bread Street, Edinburgh.

After we’d traipsed to our hotel when we’d initially got to the city, the fiance and I were keen to find somewhere – anywhere! – to sit down and have a quick bite of lunch before heading back into the main part of town. We wandered the sidestreets not too far from our hotel and, in doing so, stumbled across Tea Tree Tea completely by accident.

Of all the places we visited, Tea Tree Tea is the place that I would have established if I had the business nounce to do so. Tchai Ovna was very nice in a hippy, bohemian kinda way and both Brewhaha and Eteaket were nice if a little pretentious whereas Tea Tree Tea is, to all intents and purposes, a typical cafe which just happens to specialise in loose leaf tea.

Let’s not play this down or imply that this is a negative thing. The temptation when setting up a specialist tea place is to play on people’s preconceptions. Whilst in some ways that helps appeal to a niche it also makes your premises feel out of reach of the majority of people. Eteaket is very lovely but the Edwardian-ish theme that I found charming would be seen as smug and pretentious to others. Tea Tree Tea is just a cafe. It has some chairs and tables and has wooden floors. There’s some sketches on the walls which you could purchase if you were so inclined. There’s a counter and some shelves which house bits and pieces to take home. In terms of decor and theme, it is completely unremarkable. This is something to be celebrated! At half two on a sleepy Wednesday afternoon, the place was packed! Most were drinking pots of tea, others ordered coffee or juice without any recrimination by the staff. Everyone was welcome, no-one was excluded.

Tea Tree Tea, ladies and gents, felt like paradise.

As well as the unremarkable-ness of the decor being a remarkable point, there are two other aspects of Tea Tree Tea that dominate my memories.

Firstly, the staff. Every cafe we visited was staffed by people who would happily guide you if you should so ask. In many ways it’s in their best interests. None of them were as charming and welcoming as the folks at Tea Tree Tea though. Walking through the door we were greeted with a hearty bellow from the counter and advised on which tables were free. We were asked what teas we liked. We stayed unadventurous on this occasion – the guy that served us, far from being disappointed that we’d not opted for something extravagant, seemed only too pleased. We were always greeted when the staff walked by our table (hidden away in the basement) and, by the end of our hour there, we felt like we were more than just customers.

How the staff can do that is beyond me! They must have over a hundred customers every day and each one was greeted as if they were old friends. We enjoyed the atmosphere so much we returned again for breakfast the next day and I felt at ease enough with them to ask for particular recommendations and tried an excellently-brewed oolong for the first time. We had conversations about particular varieties. They made time for us despite the other customers. They walked rapidly from table to table in their shorts and aprons, remembering every nuance of everything that everyone ordered.

To pinch an idea from Mike Dunbar, the guys at Tea Tree Tea truly are tea champions.

teatreebreakfast

Breakfast! A hearty bowl of porridge and some Scottish Breafast tea

Secondly, the tea itself. This was brought to the table in a Chatsworth teapot much like at Brewhaha but, wonderfully, had already been brewed for the optimum length of time before being brought to the table. Should you like your tea a little stronger, they brought the infuser with the leaves to the table too, allowing you to reintroduce it to the brew. This not only allows them to maintain the quality of the tea but also visibly shows the big leaves to the customer. Swank.

The guys that run the shop do know their teas, too. Again, there’s a wide selection and talking to them they have clearly tried to source the best tea they can. I was a little disappointed when I ordered a pot of English Scottish Breakfast to find a very granular leaf but the poky taste showed that this wasn’t some half-hearted effort but an attempt to make a great tea (in which they succeeded).

Tea Tree Tea would probably not have the financial backing or the clever branding that would lead to a big chain in much the same way as Brewhaha, for example, might. They are a very different kettle of fish entirely. They did ask if I fancied starting a franchise down here – very tempting! – and I hope they do expand. What I suspect – and hope – is that instead they will inspire other people visiting on a whim much like I did not only to try new teas but also to start similar ventures. And that, I think, is their coup d’état.

Interested? There’s loads of information on Tea Tree Tea’s website: http://www.teatreetea.com/

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Edinburgh was the end of our little Scottish trip so we didn’t have time to explore further. I’ve since heard of other teahouses in Edinburgh and in other cities but they’ll be left for someone else to discover.

I do have one final post to come in this little ‘aye tea’ series, just some final thoughts and summations. There’s things to be learnt from both cities which I’d like to highlight. Sit tight!

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Responses

  1. Ah! thanks for the plug, chaps!

    I do, now, wish to return to Edinburgh. I’ll let you know if I get to these places if I go up during the festival (I’ve been told I could get a guest slot on a show!)


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