Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review: Camellia Sinensis Tea House

Today we finally visited the Camellia Sinensis tea house just off St Denis in Montreal. I'd been hearing about it for a while now and it was one of those things we kept saying we'd do, but we never thought of it at the right time. But today we had plenty of time and happened to be in the area, so we popped in for a spot of tea.

When you first walk in from the street, it's like walking into another world. A quiet, softly lit, fragrant world. It was an overcast late summer sort of humid and rainy day, so walking into the dim shop was surprisingly nice. I imagine it would be a wonderful thing to walk into on a cold winter day as well. There was a window seat, a few cozy looking booths in the back, a bar in the middle, and a number of small tables scattered in between.



We were shown to a table and given a small sample of tea (though I couldn't tell you the name if my life depended on it, the lady said it so quickly) and the menu which comes in a small binder. On each table was a small card reminding patrons that this was considered a 'technology-free zone' and to please turn off all electronic devices so as to enjoy (and allow others to enjoy) the experience. A very interesting position for a shop to take these days with a coffee house on every corner oozing wi-fi in the hopes of getting you to spend your afternoon there, marinating in caffeine.

As we sipped our sample teas, we flipped through the binder which, I must admit, is a bit daunting. I really know very little about tea... I know there are a few different colors of the stuff (black, green, white, etc) that come from a few regions of the world. I know it has a rather dramatic and bloody history, involving empires, colonies and rebellion. But as far as the stuff you drink goes, I know the basic kinds you find at the grocery store, and I know the kinds you find at David's Tea. But this place was nothing like either of those... this was the serious stuff.

The menu read like a wine taster's bible... talk of notes and aromas, tannins and bouquets. Each tea had a description telling you what it would taste/smell like... things like 'a crisp and sweet finish' or 'flavors of fresh bamboo shoots and toasted hazelnuts'. On top of that, there were about half a dozen ways for the tea to be served... some came via the method recommended by the shop, while others you could have brought dry with a carafe of hot water for you to brew on your own. Some came with multiple cups, one for smelling and another for tasting. I watched one girl order a single type of tea for herself and be presented with a tray bearing two drinking cups, a small teapot, what looked like a small pitcher and another tall, narrow cup (their website has a video explaining this technique, apparently called the Gong Fu Cha technique). For someone like me, it was confusion and more than a little intimidating.

The lady serving was very friendly and helpful and gave us a quick explanation of how the menu worked. Had I asked, I'm sure she would have helped me decipher the menu and find something to try, but I was rather too shy to ask. She also left a small bell on the table that we were to ring once we had made our choices. I found this to be a novel idea as it was a subtle way of saying she wouldn't bother us again until we were ready to be bothered. That being said, when the time came to order, the atmosphere in the shop was so tranquil, neither of us wanted to actually break the silence by ringing the bell. I finally made B do it ;)

After much deliberation, and almost giving in to the urge to simply close my eyes and point, I finally settled on a black organic tea from India called Nilgiri Coonoor. The description told me: "These large, dark, metallic leaves come from the blue mountains of the Nilgiris, in Southern India. It is a stunning example of a tea from this category and is sure to please fans of light and aromatic black teas. Fruity (candied papaya, peach) and lightly floral (osmanthus) bouquet. On the palate, the bright liquor shows well-structured tannins and possesses spicy (pepper, coriander seed), fruity (orange zest, preserved fruit) and slightly malty aromas. The soft finish is long with nicely balanced fruity tannins." I tend to find many teas to be a little too astringent or bitter, so something fruity sounded nice. B opted for Sencha Ashikubo, a green tea, whose description told us: "This tea comes from the magnificent Ashikubo valley and has undergone a long drying process. What results is a clear, mild liquor that is slightly fruitier (mango and kiwi) and toastier (corn, hazelnuts) than other, generally more herbaceous, Senchas. An ideal tea for anyone starting to discover Japanese teas."

My tea came already steeped and in a simple ceramic tea pot and was ready to be enjoyed directly. B's, however, came in what is called a Kyusu teapot along with a carafe of hot water and a list of instructions a mile long. He was to pour the water first into the drinking cup, then into the tea pot and let the leaves steep for 15 seconds at which point he was to pour the tea back into the cup to drink. She noted that you must get every drop of tea out of the pot each time or else the tea would over-steep and change character, which I'm guessing isn't a good thing. The second cup was to steep for only 5 seconds, the third for 20 seconds, and every cup after that for double the amount of time of the previous cup. Kids, this is *not* your grandmother's cup of Twinings via a tea bag from the cupboard. 

Once we both had our teas poured and ready, we each took a sniff and tasted. Mine smelled quite mild and was a light amber color... and on the first mouthful I tasted... artichokes. I'm not kidding. It tasted like cooked artichokes. *sigh* While artichokes are one of my favorite summer foods, I don't care for my tea to taste of them. I took another sip and rolled it around in my mouth, hoping for some other taste to peek out... nope, nothin' but artichoke. Every now and then I would get a faint hint of passionfruit or pineapple on the aftertaste, but the next sip of tea got rid of that right quick.

B's was equally strange. The fruit was there... you could smell it, it was much a much brighter scent and a lovely jade green color. Only, when you drank it, the fruit and typical grassy green tea flavor gave way to a taste of... cooked chicken. It took me a minute to figure that one out, but as I took a sniff and sip, it smelled/tasted just like the steam you smell on cutting into a poached chicken breast. *blink* I had seen descriptions of some of the teas mentioning artichoke, so while I wasn't thrilled by tasting that in mine, I wasn't surprised by it either. But nothing prepared me for chicken tea.

Regardless, we both continued to drink our teas, enjoying the ambiance of the shop and quietly (but desperately) trying to taste something else in our respective tea cups. The overall experience was quite pleasant and we both said we would like to go back to try other teas. The teas we tried... well, I'll just chalk them up to having chosen teas not suited to our particular palates. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it! They offer courses, starting with an Introduction class and moving through the different regions and types of teas, for $35 a piece, so we may look into something like that this fall and see if we can find some teas that suit us a bit better. ;)

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