After years, nay decades, of being a coffee-mad town, Melbourne seems to have really started embracing the ancient ritual of tea-drinking with specialist tea shops starting to pop up.
The latest addition is Travelling Samovar, a beautifully decorated and cosy tea house in North Carlton. The two-roomed shop feels part Middle Eastern, part Asian and part Eastern European – sort of like a trip on the Orient Express via Rathdowne Village.
There’s a glossy Russian samovar dominating the counter, delicately painted tea pots lining the rosewood cabinets, bright Chinese paper lanterns adorning the ceiling and a crystal chandelier and crackling fireplace in the back room.
It’s possibly one of the most photogenic locations I’ve photographed but at the risk of overloading this review with too many pictures (and never getting to drink my tea) I was restrained with the camera.
Of course there are a huge variety of teas and tea accoutrements showcased in the two rooms. If you’re overawed by the thick menu then I recommend starting off with one of the eight Tea-sers, mini-tea tastings where you get to taste and compare three related styles of tea to compare ($9.95). You’ll drink a lot of tea but also learn a lot too!
I chose the Chinese Green Teas Tea-ser which included teas originating from three different Chinese provinces. It was fascinating to watch the exact science of tea brewing as Pascale whipped out the miniature scale, poured just-under-boiling water onto the leaves and organised the egg timer for the optimum brew. The Long Jing (from Zhejiang) was grassy and fresh, the Jasmine Pearls (from Fujian) was supremely fragrant and sweet and the Yin Si (from Yunnan) was almost savoury.
A brief question to Pascale, one of the owners, elicited a passionate stream of interesting information about the processing of tea, different flavours and experimenting with brewing times. She told me that jasmine tea is so expensive (theirs is around $150 a kilo wholesale) because it is highly labour-intensive process where tea leaves are infused overnight and sifted with night-blooming jasmine flowers at least ten times. Beware of cheap jasmine tea as it’s likely to be treated with synthetic fragrance!
If your taste is more towards a traditional English breakfast then Pascale recommends Larsen & Thompson’s Good MorningAssam blend which is best taken with milk. Oh and I don’t think I’ll be going back to Earl Grey now – it’s apparently just neutral, no-flavour (and probably cheap) tea leaves strongly flavoured with bergamot.
And their most expensive tea? The Larsen & Thompson Duflating OR82 Assam tea from India, full of golden tips, costs $250 a kilo wholesale. If you want to taste before investing try it for yourself as part of the Assam Tea Tea-Ser.
You’ll want some nibbles to go with your tea and while there are a few savoury options (antipasto platter, soup, tart) I suggest you head straight for the cake cabinet and try one of the cakes made on premises by another one of the owners, Katya. I really enjoyed the moist, slightly sugar-crystal coated Persian Love Cake made with yoghurt, almond meal, brown sugar and pistachios and it came with a dollop of rose cream.
But why not go all out with the decadent four-layered sponge slathered in salted caramel buttercream frosting (fortunately I was able to take half of it home)!
Travelling Samovar does a stellar job in creating a special moment, a calm experience, through the act of tea drinking. They are also in the business of tea education and upstairs is a tea tasting room where they will be holding regular tea-tasting events (join their mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org). As a non-coffee drinker in a coffee-mad town, I’m really happy that they’ve arrived.
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