Friday, September 11, 2009

The Quest for Tea

Spaniards are drinkers of coffee, not tea, but in the ancient land of the Moors you can find teterías, Moroccan-style tea houses bedecked in tilework, ottoman cushions and rugs. They are more a commercial conceit than a vestige of culture, but are nevertheless mini Meccas for the deprived tea lover.

When I learned about the Salon de Té Al-Zahra in Ronda, which offers over a hundred different teas, I made a beeline. A darkened series of low-ceilinged rooms with red walls, the décor was cozy but the air was smoky and hot. There’s no ventilation in these deep old buildings, and non-smoking establishments are a very non-European idea (though France is apparently catching on). Since recovering from this flu, if I spend the evening in a smoky restaurant – which is inevitable in Spain if you want to eat – I spend the night coughing myself to sleep. But after two weeks of abstinence, I’ll do anything for a decent pot of tea.

In Jerez de la Frontera, the Tetería La Jaima has very high ceilings and is much better ventilated. Even the hookahs they have on the menu are barely noticeable. The teapots come in three sizes, and I ordered a grande, which typically serves four or five people. The waitress double-checked, thinking my Spanish must be bad.

“Grande? Por uno solo? Es mucho mucho.”

“Si,” I smiled.

It was served in a decorative brass teapot and filled my glass a dozen times.

Unpredictably, the most pleasant tea house I’ve found in Europe is in the medieval Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. After seating yourself under a large tree in the garden, the bearded waiter in flowing pantaloons brings a hundred-kind menu of black, green and white teas, with milk or lemon, spiced with cinnamon, anise, roses, or even chocolate, and a little brass bell. You while away the day in the shade of the tree, and whenever you want another pot of tea, you just ring the bell.

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