By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America
I’m becoming a tea snob. I never meant to be, but the more I learn about the herb the more selective I become about my camellia sinensis brew.
I blame Melissa Simard, owner of ‘Round Table Tours in Montreal for my growing obsession with quality tea. In early 2017, Melissa took me on a Tea Tour of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. We visited five different tea shops. I came away with a new appreciation for the evergreen shrub that grows in tropical and subtropical climates.
We met at My Cup of Tea, a narrow tea shop in Montreal’s Chinatown. Owned by Kenny Hui, Carina Vong and Leo Leung, the company sells traditional Chinese teas grown specifically for the company. I was learning that tea can be a personal experience for a tea vendor and something they personally taste before sharing with consumers.
In addition to traditional tea, they carry “blooming teas.” These hand-tied balls of herbs and flowers wrapped in young green tea leaves “bloom” in hot water. Packaged individually, they’re popular as wedding favors.
Our next stop was Camellia Sinensis, famous in the tea world for operating one of few tea sommelier training programs on the continent. The salon is small and cozy, with only about ten tables and free from the glare of electronic devices. Whip out your cellphone or laptop and risk being gonged for disrupting the aura of calming energy.
Teas served here or sold in the adjacent boutique are sourced by one of four owners who travel to the great tea-growing regions of the world. Leaves may be single estate oolong or vintage Pu-ehr or any of their other 250 teas. Those on the tour sample three varieties – a white, oolong and pu-ehr. A server teaches guests to “wake up” the tea leaves with a quick rinse of hot water before steeping them. A “tea wheel” similar to a wine flavor chart helps tasters find words to describe subtleties. For example, a white tea could taste a bit vegetal; perhaps a hint of spinach describes the faintly amber liquid.
This is where I had an a-ha moment. Commercial bagged tea blends will never taste the same. I won’t shun them. In fact, I’ll still drink McDonald’s iced tea. I just think of it as a different caffeine-delivery system.
Our third stop, Kusmi, has romantic history. It began in 1867 when a young Russian tea blender received a tea shop as a wedding present. The business remained in his family for 80 years. After nearly disappearing in the second part of the 20th century, the Kusmi brand was reborn in the early 2000s.
The company specializes in tea blends. A purist may snub the idea of flavored teas, but would be wise to put aside prejudice and taste the masterful blends, perfumed only with natural essences. Tea tour participants get a private tasting of eight blends. Among them are the more traditional Anastasia, a combination of black tea, bergamot, lemon and orange blossom, and the more innovative BB Detox, a combination of green tea, maté, rooibos, guarana, and dandelion and flavored with a hint of grapefruit.
A fourth stop – The Mayfair Cocktail Bar — comes about three hours into the tour, just in time to meet the need for food. Inspired by late 19th century Victorian high society, it offers a late afternoon pause to sit and regroup with a tea-based cocktail.
The Green Velvet cocktail, for example, combines gin, absinthe, lime, cucumber with Kusmi’s gyokuro tea. Other cocktails are touched with Earl Grey, chai or kombucha. Reinvented and swankier tea sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres are served high-tea style
The finale – the Cardinal Tea Room – is behind a red door up 20 stairs above a small independent restaurant. It’s difficult to spot unless you know where you’re going.
Again, this spot differs from earlier stops. It is French café meets tea room complete with mismatched cups and red ceramic tea pots. And, it’s wonderful. The menu offers simple scones, sandwiches and pastry that are delightful with white, green, black, oolong and other tea selections. All brews that satisfying the emerging tea snob in me.
Stopping at five tea spots, the tour takes about five hours and covers 1.6 miles of comfortable walking plus a taxi ride. Tourists visit Chinatown, the Latin Quarter, The Plateau and Mile End. The tour is available year ‘round; though busier in summer. With cupsful of warm tea it’s comforting on a drizzly afternoon. Melissa or her guides come prepared with umbrellas and bottled water. Guests are advised to wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather.
For more information visit roundtablefoodtours.com or contact the company at (514) 812-2003 or firstname.lastname@example.org, The Glutton Guide to Montreal, a 130-page e-guide to Montreal’s food scene by Simard and Amie Watson, is available at Amazon.com.