My last night in Stockholm, I found myself wandering the narrow cobbled lanes of Gamla Stan, the late medieval island heart of the city.
Square in Gamla Stan
It’s a beautiful part of a very beautiful city. I had come to Sweden with few fixed ideas about what I’d find; blonde wood furniture, meatballs, and possibly (hopefully!) Abba.
What I came away with was an abiding appreciation for an elegant city of water and light…..
….a city where avenues of neo-classical palaces and buildings painted in vibrant Renaissance colours are pierced by soaring church spires…..
Gothic, Italian, Northern European
…..and morph without any visible discomfort into rational lines of Mid-century Modernism; blocks of offices, hotels and shops.
Taking one last turn around Gamla Stan’s back streets, I stumbled across an inviting and warmly-lit tea shop called Chaikhana. The interior sported a counter lined with old-fashioned cannisters of tea and its two cosy rooms were dotted with little marble tables.
Tea, tea everywhere, but not (yet) a drop to drink
The front room was full, mostly with older clients, ladies of a certain age and men in suits, or at least sports jackets. The back room seemed to be empty, but as I started to sit at a table, the waiter informed me that there was to be a tea-tasting there that evening, so if I wanted an unhurried cuppa, it would be better if I sat at a table in the front.
Intrigued, I asked if the event was private or if the public – in other words, yours truly – could also attend. After a brief consultation, I was told that although the event was fully-booked, I could probably be accommodated.
I was delighted. Despite my English-Indian heritage, I have only developed a love for tea in the last few years. As a child, I loathed the sweet, milky concoctions my respective relatives downed by the gallon and for years, I treated the drinking of tea as a subtle but profoundly cruel form of torture.
My idea of hell
I first got an inkling that there could be more to tea than milk and sugar when I moved to Japan. The Japanese drink tea even more frequently than the English or the Indians but, being civilised, rarely add anything more than water to their leaves. Still it took me another ten years to fully shake off my childhood antipathy and actually learn to enjoy drinking tea.
Our host for the evening was to be the owner of Chaikhana, Mr. Ashok Kapoor, a man of Indian origins who never had my troubles. Switichng effortless between Swedish and English, his rich accent betrayed traces of the Sub-continent, England, France, America and yes, even Sweden, influences picked up over several ‘lifetimes’. Mr. Kapoor began life as a dancer, but went on to work for Reuters, Dow Jones and even had a stint as the managing director of an IT company before fulfilling his dream of opening a tea shop.
A man of many lives
“I lived in Paris,” he told me afterwards, “near Marriage Freres (one of the oldest tea shops in France) in the Marais, and every day as I walked past it, I’d tell myself that one day I’d open a tea house of my own.”
Oh, the an-tea-cipation!
And now, he has. But from the moment Mr. Kapoor began to talk, it was clear that his interest in tea extended far beyond owning a tea house. Peppering his speech with facts, figures and anecdotes, both historical and personal, he took us on a voyage into the world of tea that revealed at every turn the depth of his passion.
As we progressed through the evening, we were served five different types of tea, from five different tea-producing nations, each accompanied by something appropriate on which to nibble. But the evening extended far beyond learning to pair tea and food. We learned about the differences between White Tea, Green Tea, Oolong Tea (and there are two different kinds of Oolong, mind) and Black Tea (or Red Tea in China) and to round off, we learned that Lapsang Souchong might taste like smoked tead but actual Smoked Tea tastes nothing like Lapsang Souchong.
Mr. Kapoor told us about teas that no longer exist and which teas might, in fact, genuinely help with weight loss. He explained to us how and when tea leaves are plucked. And by whom. In Imperial times, for example, White Tea was reserved for the Emperor and was only harvested by beautiful women wearing silk gloves and using gold scissors. These days, tea’s still mostly picked by women (99% of all tea pickers are female) but they no longer wear silk gloves or wield gold clippers.
We learned how (and why) tea leaves are processed. How it was the Scots who discovered tea in India. How tea became an early form of currency. Why a more expensive tea is actually better value for money in the long run and, on a more practical note, how to make the perfect brew.
And of course, when the evening ended, all the teas we’d tasted were available at that lovely little counter on our way out Chaikhana’s door.
Impressive, but try dipping one of those in your teacup