Dawn Kennedy discovers where to slake the global thirst for gourmet tea in Cape Town.
Tea, the staple beverage in the East, is becoming the drink of choice for an increasing number of people. Many are exploring ancient cultures and traditions and discovering the pleasures of, for example, the Japanese tea ceremony and Indian chai. As the pace of life increases, tea is touted for its contemplative, even spiritual, qualities in preference to its more hyperactive counterpart – coffee. But think beyond milky rooibos or mugs of stewed tea, thick with sugar. We are returning to the luxury of loose-leaf tea, which, in defiance of instant gratification, take time to brew.
“With tea leaves you learn to slow down and appreciate the potent natural energy of the earth, water and its plant gifts,” explains Oways owner Lisa Tsai. With a menu consisting of over 70 Nigiro teas, Oways offers the widest range of loose-leaf teas in Cape Town. Ranging from roasted mate tea from Argentina to unique rooibos blends, Oways teas are sourced from over 20 countries.
Lisa says that the drinking of loose-leaf tea is not a new culture, but the revival of an old tradition, enjoyed by all our grandmothers. Tea bags first appeared commercially nearly 100 years ago, thanks to a thrifty New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan. The tea bags resembled small sacks. It was only in 1944 that the familiar rectangular tea bag was invented. While tea bags have had a deleterious effect on the quality of the tea we drink, they have led to the development of a new art form in the Netherlands – tea bag folding – which, since 2000, has spread and become a popular craft in the US and UK.
Still, you won’t spot any tea bags lurking at Oways. Here, loose-leaf tea is stocked in cylindrical tin jars and brewed in special tea pots with perforated glass receptacles that are placed in glass pots. Tea is served with a timer as each tea has an optimal brewing time. Equally important is the water temperature. Whereas black and rooibos teas are best brewed at 100 degrees, green and oolong teas prefer lower temperatures. The bitterness that many attribute to these teas only occurs when they are brewed at 100 degrees. Lower temperatures elicit the subtle grassy, citrus tones of the tea.
If you are used to drinking strong, milky tea with sugar, ordering from the menu can be a challenge. A tea tasting is a great introduction to the intricate range of flavours available. For my tasting, Lisa chooses six samples of tea from categories of green, oolong, black, fruit infusion and rooibos. The colours green and black describe the amount of fermentation: green tea is not fermented at all, black is fermented the most and oolong is moderately fermented.
Whilst Lisa is a native of Taiwan and grew up drinking only oolong tea, she now enjoys rooibos, for which she developed a taste when she came to Cape Town at age 13. Lisa encourages South Africans to appreciate their indigenous rooibos and honeybush teas, grown in the Cederberg and near Port Elizabeth. While overseas visitors often buy bags of rooibos tea to take home, locals rarely order its variants from the menu. She suspects this is because of overexposure to poor quality tea throughout their childhood.
I plan to work my way through all 70 blends on the menu at Oways. So far my favourite is the Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls, which is a limited-production jasmine tea from the Chinese province of Fujian. Long-leaf tips are infused with freshly cut jasmine blossoms and then hand-rolled into small pearls that unfurl delicately as the tea brews.
Nectar of the gods
The Tibetan Teahouse grew out of owners Maryna Kruger and Anna Slabbert’s yearning to create a sacred space. Inside, a recording of the ubiquitous Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum blends with the scent of sandalwood incense to dissolve away your troubles. The walls, painted in the rich orange hues of Tibetan Buddhism and decorated with mandalas and silk paintings known as thankas, create a warm, full-hearted space.
Tea is served in hand-carved wooden teacups and saucers, since Tibetan folklore states that “drinking tea from a wooden cup makes you handsome, popular and wise”. These traditional artefacts, sourced from Bhutan, are becoming increasingly difficult to find as they are being replaced by inferior and costly tourist versions.
Here is the only place in Cape Town where you can sample Tibetan butter tea. Tibetan nomads are said to drink up to 40 cups of this salty beverage a day to counteract the cold at high altitudes. They mix it with barley that has been cooked in sand, sifted and ground to a fine powder, which is then mixed with the tea to make nutritious balls that they eat throughout the day. As Anna says, it’s probably better to think of butter tea as a soup. To suit western palettes, the teahouse serves a mild version of the tea, using ordinary butter that is churned with milk and with only a touch of salt added. However, even without the wild flavour of yak butter, the tea is surprising to our palettes.
More accessible is the divine home-made chai tea. One sip and I’m surrounded by the swish of silk saris. The secret to this delicious beverage is in blending whole cardamon pods; the remaining stringy pieces are chopped with scissors before adding an equal amount of cinnamon and a pinch of white and black pepper. This leaves remnants of cardamon at the bottom of each cup, which are delicious to chew.
The high vaulted wooden ceilings in The Lounge at the Table Bay Hotel evokes the grandeur of bygone days, when the idle rich nibbled delicately on cucumber sandwiches to fill the empty hours between lunch and dinner. The Table Bay is the only hotel in Africa serving TWG, which describes itself as the finest luxury tea brand in the world. It’s not an empty boast.
High tea at Table Bay is a truly sumptuous three-course affair. Each course is paired with a tea selected from a list of recommendations. The first course, a selection of quiches and sandwiches, is enjoyed with the mesmerising crown jewel flower. This tea does a delicate dance as it brews: white tea leaves are hand-sewn around an amaranth flower, which takes eight minutes to unfurl and sink to the bottom of the glass pot before it is ready to drink. Next, scones, served with thick clotted cream, tangy lemon curd and home-made grape jam, are accompanied by an intoxicating earl grey, infused with citrus fruits and speckled with French blue cornflowers.
The grand finale, a splendid array of deserts, deserves to be enjoyed with something special: I choose Bain de Rose Tea, infused with the scent of delicate rose buds, picked in the area of Grasse during May when France’s Provence luxuriates in their incomparable scent.
A choice of where to sip it in style
The Mount Nelson Hotel Gardens – daily morning tea from 9.30am–12.30pm, and afternoon tea from 2.30–5.30pm with live music. Try the signature Mount Nelson Tea, a blend of six teas with rose petals from the hotel’s very own garden. 76 Orange Street, Gardens, 021 483 1948
Table Bay Hotel,– daily high tea from 2.30–5.30pm. V&A Waterfront, 021 406 5918
One&Only Hotel – high tea daily from 2.30–5.30pm, with a selection of oolong, green, black, white, infused and fruit teas. V&A Waterfront, Dock Road, 021 431 5800
Grande Provence, Franschhoek – high tea on Saturdays and Sundays from 3–5pm with Earl Grey lavender, tropical green, golden chamomile herbal, English breakfast, southern mint herbal, white pear, sweet ginger peach, Bombay chai and dragon eye oolong. Off Main Road, Franschhoek, 021 876 8600
Grande Roche Hotel Paarl – daily high tea from 3–5pm (Saturdays from 9am–2pm) with 21 different teas. Plantation Street, Paarl, 021 863 5100
Vineyard Hotel – daily high tea from noon–3pm with a variety of Twinings and Dilmah teas. 54 Colinton Road, Newlands, 021 657 4500
12 Apostles Hotel – daily from 2–6pm. Victoria Road, Camps Bay, 021 437 4015
The Cape Grace – daily high tea from 11am–6pm, West Quay Road, V&A Waterfront, 021 410 7100
Lord Charles Hotel – daily afternoon tea from 2.30–5.30pm with 10 different Dilmah teas. Corner Faure and Stellenbosch roads, Somerset West, 021 855 1040
and: Herbal tea created at Babylonstoren’s new Greenhouse Tea Garden. Babylonstoren is situated 4km from the R45 between Franschhoek and Paarl. 021 863 3852. www.babylonstoren.com
Nigiro Tea Merchants – at Origin Coffee Roasting, 8.30am–5pm Mon–Fri, 9am–2pm Sat–Sun. 28 Hudson Street, De Waterkant, 021 421 1000
Oways – with 66 teas, 7.30am–5pm Mon–Fri, 9am–2pm Sat. Heritage House, 20 Dreyer Street, Claremont, 021 671 2850
Tibetan Tea House (Sophea Gallery) – with spiced chai and Tibetan salty butter tea, 10am–5pm Tue–Sun. 2 Harrington Road, Simon’s Town, 021 786 1544