TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

October 13, 2014

Review: Tea for two at Dobra

Recently DH and I drove up to Black Mountain, North Carolina, from our home in South Carolina, to have tea at Dobra Tea. The day was grey and drizzly so it was not quite as pleasant a drive as it could have been, tho’ still scenic as only the Blue Ridge can be.

Back when I was the editor and publisher of TeaGuide Worldwide Tea Directory (from 1997 to 2012), I learned that tea was almost as popular in Czech as are their wonderful beers, and was delighted to list Prague’s Dobra Cajovna in the Directory. I was even happier when Dobra opened their first tea house in the USA, hoping that a location would open somewhere near us in the NYC area. Sad to say that as new Dobras opened their doors each was further away than the last. (Dobra tea houses also opened elsewhere in Eastern Europe, so I was hoping that if there wasn’t one near us in USA they might decide to locate near Bucuresti, Romania, where it would also be possible to visit. Alas, this was not to be either.)

In 2005 we moved to South Carolina, and a couple of years ago I heard that a Dobra Tea House opened in Asheville, North Carolina. Hmmm, getting closer! Then I heard of another Dobra opening in Black Mountain, a small town about twenty minutes from Asheville.

When DH came home from work one evening and told me that he had a day off next week and was there anything special I’d like to do, I immediately said “Let’s go for tea at Dobra Tea in Black Mountain!” On days when DH doesn’t go to work — weekends, holidays, and any other days off — we spend the mornings together over several pots of tea. And we enjoyed going to tea houses in New York, Montreal, and other places we used to travel to. So off we went.

Black Mountain is a charming little town with small shops and restaurants lining the main street. The tea house is set somewhat back from the other businesses. It’s a lovely wood building with a sizable terrace and a serene ambiance.

Although the day was rather dismal, inside the tea house was bright and welcoming. We walked through the front door past a variety of seating areas, of low tables with cushion seating as well as tables of standard height with chairs or benches. Little nooks off to the sides held book shelves. We picked a table in the front of the tea house where it was filled with light.

We were each handed a thick binder that listed all of Dobra’s tea, tisane, and food offerings. Each beverage and dish was fully and clearly described, and most were illustrated. It took us a while to browse through the book. Our lovely  hostess offered to answer any questions or make recommendations.

For DH the choice was clear: he prefers black teas and has become quite fond of teas from Nepal; there was a Nepal Ilam on the menu. He ordered homemade halvah to accompany it. My starting selection was matcha, sort of like soup before the meal. The matcha was perfectly frothy and brothy, and was accompanied by daifuku — mochi filled with sweet red bean paste. The mochi was wonderful, both in texture and flavour.

When we finished our first teas, DH asked for a refill of his Nepal, while I needed my usual morning oolong. After consulting with our hostess as to the most floral of their Taiwan oolongs, I decided on their Jin Xuan, which I have been favouring of late. I also ordered a serving of baba ghanouj, a dish that I adore — it’s fairly common in the NYC area tho’ rarely seen on menus here in the Southlands.

The oolong tea arrived in a tiny clay teapot along with a cup and a carafe of water for additional steepings, kept hot over a tealight candle. The Jin Xuan did not disappoint; it was exactly what I wanted. The “baba ghanouj” was another story. This dish is a combination of eggplant and sesame tahini, and was so described on the menu. What arrived was more of an eggplant salad — no tahini in sight. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t baba ghanouj.

Service was somewhat awkward: the “salad” rested in a small bowl with a small wooden paddle. As it was rather lumpy it was difficult to dish it out much less spread it on the accompanying very dry, thin crackers (not the pita bread the menu had noted) and some equally awkwardly large chunks of raw vegetables. As the whole plate was generously dusted with za’atar I decided to just do the best I could with it. Again, it wasn’t awful — but I would certainly never order it again.

My oolong provided six outstanding infusions, so that kind of made up for the disappointing nosh. Most of all, I had the opportunity to enjoy morning tea time with my DH without having to fix the teas myself — not that I really mind, tho’ it is quite nice when someone else handles this important job! A sip of DH’s Nepal tea demonstrated that it was expertly prepared.

So bottom line: three excellent teas, two excellent sweets, comfortable seating and surroundings. I’d say it was a near-perfect tea. With the autumn colours now nearing their peak in the Blue Ridge area of southern North Carolina, this has no doubt become a very pretty drive, and and I’m looking forward to our next trip to Black Mountain and Dobra Tea.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

There’s a lovely terrace — unfortunately it was raining the day we visited.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

A bright and welcoming interior — the table next to ours.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

There are also several low tables with floor cushions.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

A beautiful display of mostly handmade tea ware.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

More tea ware and pretty art work on the walls.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

I loved these little cups with the Dobra logo displaying many of their teas and tisanes on the counter so you can see and sniff before you decide.

Dobra Tea, Black Mountain, NC

Our table in the front window. My setting is a cup and small clay pot of Jin Xuan Taiwan oolong; the carafe with tealight candle provided water for six infusions. DH’s setting is his second pot of Nepal Ilam black tea. The green book on the chair on the right is the tea house menu.

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January 9, 2014

Ramblings: The making of a tea drinker

I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice before how my dear husband used to roll his eyes every time I mentioned tea, bought tea, or bought new tea ware. Although he didn’t drink tea at home, to his credit he did join me on several visits to tea rooms.

Cafe-at-Frontenac-Quebec

The Cafe at Chateau Frontenac in Quebec (temporarily closed for renovation). Photo courtesy of Chateau Frontenac.

One of the first tea rooms we visited together was at the magnificent and historic Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. In a beautiful dining parlour overlooking the St. Laurence River we enjoyed a luxurious tea time, complete with white-glove service. I think it was the rich miniature pastries and the glass of sherry that first gave him pause to consider that this “tea thing” might not be so bad.

After that were numerous tea times in New York at the late lamented Teabox at Takashimaya and at the wonderful Franchia. We explored various tea spots — now long gone — in Montreal, where we used to visit twice a year when we lived up North. We even visited the Montreal Botanical Gardens to observe a Japanese tea ceremony. And there were several visits to tea rooms in Bucuresti, Romania, with his father often and happily accompanying us.

Yet still … he didn’t drink tea at home.

tea-leaves_and-cupThen in the autumn of 2002 we were invited for a semi-private tasting of India teas — Darjeelings and a couple of Assams — by Kevin Gascoyne, who was then proprietor of Kyela Tea. He fixed about a dozen of his excellent teas for us to taste. This was around the time when different processes of Darjeeling teas were just being introduced here in North America, and we sampled greens, whites, and oolongs in addition to the familiar black teas of the region. Through Kevin’s gentle guidance, we discovered the nuances resulting from the different methods of processing “the champagne of teas,” as Darjeelings are often called.

This event, for me, was a revelation: these “alternative” teas were extraordinary, and led to my long and continuing journey through these varieties. For my dear husband, tho’, it was the dawn of his appreciation of fine teas, and of understanding why I loved them so.

Since then we’ve spent nearly every weekend and holiday morning quietly together enjoying our teas, and it’s a rare day when DH doesn’t sip his way through two potsful of one of his favoured rich black teas. Recently when we did some exhausting remodeling in the house, finishing at nearly midnight on New Year’s Eve, my dear husband turned down my suggestion of a glass of wine and instead asked me to fix him a pot of tea. (He still doesn’t fix his own tea — after all, his wife does it better. ;-) )

teaHe even has his own favourite cups — and, like me, he prefers his tea served in glass.

Although he doesn’t pretend to know a great deal about tea, he does know which ones he prefers. Generally he likes the more assertively-flavoured black teas. However …

During a business trip to Stockholm many years ago he stopped in at Tea Centre of Stockholm and brought home one of those cute little tins of their signature Soderblandning. I liked it (I was still drinking flavoured teas at this time) and he ended up adoring it. For several years it was his favourite cup — until the regular trips to Sweden were discontinued and obtaining this tea became rather difficult and costly. I took this as an opportunity to expand his repertoire of the flavourful black teas he favoured. And so …

Along with Darjeelings (preferably Second or Autumnal flushes), he likes nectar-y Assams. Amongst his favourites are Assam Golden Tips, Nahorhabi Assam, and Mangalam Assam, all from Harney & Sons; Vithanakande, Pothotuwa, and Pettiagalla estate Ceylons via Capital Tea Limited; and of course just about any black tea from Camellia Sinensis, where Kevin is now a partner and continues his tradition of fine teas.

Recently I’ve introduced him to a few teas from Simpson & Vail that he very much enjoys: a long-time favourite of mine, Orangajuli Assam; their proprietary Dunmore East Blend, one of the very few blended teas I care to drink; and what has recently become his preferred cup: Nepal Aarubotay, which he likes despite its being organically grown ;-). This really is a delightful tea, reminiscent of an autumnal Darjeeling but, as DH puts it, “more so.” Which reminds me that I have to reorder this one …

Kevin has since gone on to write a very well-received book about tea, and has become something of a tea rock star, regularly speaking and presenting tastings at World Tea Expo. Tho’ I’ll always think of him as the tea man who made a tea drinker of my husband.

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November 13, 2013

Ramblings: Everybody starts their tea journey somewhere

Filed under: exotic tea,food,iced tea,tea,Tea sites — by teaguide @ 4:22 pm
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People often strike up conversations with me at the supermarket. Usually I enjoy these conversations, which generally fall into one of three categories. Some folks just want to chat, and I guess I look pretty harmless, so they figure it’s safe. Others must think that this is my first visit to a supermarket, because they give me all kinds of advice on what to buy.

iced-tea-glass-lemonThe third type of conversation, and naturally my favourite, is with folks who think I look smart, and actually ask for my advice. Often it’s a gentleman who can’t quite decipher his wife’s shopping list, so he asks me which is better, white or red grapefruit. (Red, fer sure.) Or the couple who needed a tie-breaker because one wanted to buy their usual brand-name stuffing and the other wanted to try a new brand because it’s less expensive. (I told them that for a difference of less than a dollar, I’d go with the known quantity because everybody notices the stuffing!)

A couple of days ago I was perusing the aisle with teas, as I often do just to see what the big tea companies are putting out and what local people are drinking. There was a lady standing there with two boxes of teabags, carefully reading labels and comparing one against the other. As I walked up, she turned to me and asked if I drink tea. Ha! “Yes I do, ma’am.” (I’ve been doing my best to get into the lovely Southern habit of addressing folks as sir or ma’am.)

Then she told me that she loves her tea but her doctor had just informed her that her blood sugar is too high and she needs to stop eating, and drinking, sweets. And that she doesn’t like any of the sugar substitutes so she was hoping to find a tea that she could drink on its own.

(Some of you probably don’t get the connection with tea and sugar, but here in the Southlands everyone and probably their dog drinks sweet tea — that is, iced tea sweetened to the point where it makes your teeth curl. Sweet tea is so popular in these parts that it’s often referred to as Southern table wine, tho’ most folks simply call it “tea” and everyone knows exactly what they’re talking about.)

supermarket-teaWell, this lady showed me the boxes she was holding and looked at the others on the shelf and asked me if I knew which one would taste good without sweetener — something with a nice flavour. So I looked at the boxes, and I looked at the shelf, and then I looked at her. “Ma’am,” I said, “do you use the Internet and the Web?” She answered sure, who doesn’t these days, and told me how much she loves chatting with her grandchildren in Canada over the ‘net.

I dug into my purse for a pen and a piece of paper while telling her that the teas on these shelves were okay but I didn’t really think any of them were particularly tasty, and that a lot of them were probably old and losing flavour before they even reached the shelf. Then I wrote down the web addresses of a couple of tea vendors, and handed it to her.

“These are two of my favourite long-time tea sellers, and I’ve always found their teas to be fresh and tasty — and they have a big variety of them, so you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Browse through their products — they have loose-leaf tea and good-quality teabags. If you don’t see something you like, or if you don’t want to wade through all the many teas they offer, give them a call, tell them what you want, and ask them to make recommendations. They’ll send you a print catalogue if you prefer, and will be happy to send you samples so you can try them before you buy a full-sized package. They’re all nice folks and have been in business for a long time, and they’re always happy to answer your questions.”

stk73391corShe looked at the note and said she recognized one of the companies because she had seen some of their teas on the shelf of a local gift shop she likes but had never thought about buying “fancy” teas. I explained to her that tea is pretty inexpensive compared to most other beverages, and that the enjoyment you get from drinking good tea is worth the few extra cents per glassful. Or cupful, if she ever wants to fix up some hot tea.

Then she asked me what kind of teas I drink, and I told her honestly that I generally prefer oolongs … but that she might want to start with a black or green tea — something that would be closer in taste to her usual Luzianne tea, tho’ with much better flavour.

She thanked me, said she’d look them up, and we went off in our separate directions. I sure hope she does look them up, and that I see her next time I’m out shopping, and that she remembers me so I can ask her which teas she decided to try. And I sure hope I’ve played a part in introducing another tea drinker to the enjoyment of better-quality teas. Because everybody starts their tea journey somewhere.

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