Tea Loves: Alison Appleton

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I recently made the virtual acquaintance of Alison Appleton, a tea ware designer from Liverpool. She has created gorgeous tea equipment for brands such as Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, and La Cafetière. Alison is also a hardcore tea aficionado who has travelled to tea plantations in China. I love her work, and am so glad to know a fellow tea lover who is bringing more good tea and tea ware to her part of the world! I hope you get a chance to know her as well through this interview :)

Hi Alison! Tell us about how you fell in love with tea.
I come from a very sociable family. The kettle was always on, and there was always lots of gossip going on over cups of tea! My grandmother always made loose leaf tea and gave it to all the children in the family with milk and sugar.

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How did you get into tea ware design?
I worked as a design consultant to La Cafetière for 10 years, and they sold products dealing with coffee, tea and hot chocolate. This sparked an interest in the history of the tea trade. I then made a few visits to China and fell in love with tea.

I think the story of tea (and all the beautiful products that have been created in order to serve it) is amazing. The history of the tea trade and tea’s extraordinary popularity of being in almost every home around the world makes it a subject worth studying.

At the same time, it is very important for me to make things that are useful as there is a lot of unnecessary ‘stuff’ in the world. I want my pots to be enjoyed and used all the time, not just for special occasions.

You’re “anti-teabag” but the teabag is such a British institution – how do you deal with this?
Unfortunately, the teabag is the most common way to make tea in the UK because it is perceived as being quick and convenient. As a result, many people are used to the very blunt taste of (mostly poor quality) teabag tea.

However, I am very happy to report that there is a growing interest and appreciation of loose leaf teas. We hold monthly tea tasting sessions in our studio during which we take a look around the world and taste a huge variety of Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, African and other teas. We have also selected a range of blended and flavoured black teas. Once our visitors taste these teas, they realise how much finer they are compared to the standard teabag.

They also see how very easy it is to prepare loose leaf tea without any fuss or mess.

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Some of your tea ware designs incorporate Chinese and Japanese tea ceremony elements – what sparked your interest in these aspects of tea culture?
My first collection was inspired by the history of the tea trade in the UK. As tea was introduced to the UK, Chinese decoration motifs were used everywhere. This period saw the birth of British Chinoiserie, Ming vases, Chinese wallpaper, Thomas Chippendale furniture used by famous characters such as Jane Austen and Earl Grey. It seemed like an obvious place to start. My first collection was Darcy, named after the famous literary hero himself. Jane Austen would have drunk tea all day long and it would have been Chinese tea bought from Twinings.

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My favourite design is your Golden Carp Series – how did you get your inspiration for that?
As my collection is quite small, I wanted to ensure there was some variety in the range. This one is the most glamorous and has a bit of bling! For Golden Carp, I wanted to fuse a European shape with Oriental imagery. Everything about this set symbolises good fortune: the carp, lotus and gold are all auspicious.

What kind of message do you want to send about tea with the kind of tea ware that you create?
That tea is special and we should make it properly. When you consider the effort that goes into growing, picking, drying and rolling a whole variety of exquisite teas, it is only correct that we brew them in lovely tea ware.

Good loose leaf teas are relatively inexpensive and can be enjoyed by everyone. I see the new interest in tea as being similar to the recent growth in the coffee business. Today, a huge proportion of people in the UK have espresso makers at home and enjoy a variety of espresso based coffee drinks every day. I hope that one day, consumers will be more demanding when it comes to drinking good quality tea.

What is your most memorable tea experience so far?
I visited a Longjing tea plantation as a guest of a family who had a share in that plantation. They gave me a delicious lunch, and after that, we drank pre Qing Ming Longjing tea all afternoon while sitting outside in the sunshine on a warm autumn day. The plantation looked beautiful and everything was delicious. I felt very lucky to have such an experience.

What is your tea ritual?
I usually drink Uva Pekoe from Sri Lanka for breakfast. This has a strong and malty flavour that goes very well with sourdough toast or my usual bowl of porridge with honey. Mid morning, I will make a pot of Da Hong Pao or another Oolong. Lunchtime, I’ll go for something like a black tea with rose.

In the afternoon, I will always drink green teas as they give me a lift. Before bed I like something light and delicate like a white tea.

Tea is …
Tea is a comfort. It revives and soothes, and always features at important occasions when friends and family are together.

Images courtesy of Alison Appleton

Connect with Alison (@AlisonAppleton) on Twitter

T Ching Post – Growing Up in a Tea Family + Random Updates

Remember the tea pal? I get to tell more of his story on T Ching, yay! Read the full story here.

On other teapallish related news, I met with the Tiong Bahru tea peeps again for another tea tasting session but forgot to take pictures of a very lovely afternoon gathering where we sampled a beguiling Darjeeling tea that tasted like white tea, a honey-sweet Phoenix Dancong, a complex Tieguanyin, a rich and fruity Lapsang Soucong, a robust Big Red Robe and an earthy Imperial Puerh. Yum.

Oh and I have since “graduated” from basic tea class (i.e. finish 15 lessons lah) and am now doing a 1-year (!) intermediate thingy where it’s more theoretical and the lao shi is telling me I should write something after each lesson, which I just did yesterday, ostensibly for another tea-related article for another website. Stay tuned for that!

Talking Tea

Last night, the National Museum of Singapore invited me to share tea history trivia as part of their Lighter Side of History Public Lecture Series. Initially, the organisers told me it would be an “intimate gathering of around 100 people”, but apparently, there was such an overwhelming response that the talk had to be shifted to the theatre which could seat around 250 people, AND there was a waiting list. Given that I’m nowhere near being famous nor do I have an impressive job title like “Chief Archaeologist”, it can only mean one thing:

THERE ARE MANY, MANY TEA LOVERS IN SINGAPORE! YAY!

During the Q&A session, there were people who shared their own tea trivia too and I liked how there was that sort-of dialogue happening. For example, there were two accounts of how tea got to be called ‘tea’. Version #1:It is derived from the Hokkien word for tea – ‘teh'(and likely so since Fujian province is a tea-producing region). Version #2: While being shipped to Europe, tea cargo was marked with an ‘X’ as the angmohs had no idea what to call it. People started reading the ‘X’ as a “t’and that evolved to ‘tea’. Cool, huh? I also was impressed with an industrious group of Japanese ladies who painstakingly took photos of every slide.

And what’s a tea lecture without some real tea? Very grateful that a tea business friend sponsored and served Ceremonie – this really lovely Israeli gourmet tea brand (LOVE their packaging) which hasn’t been launched officially in Singapore yet (soon, soon!). Some ladies looked very, very stoked about the tea they could sample and bring home. It’s a good feeling knowing that this little event managed to tea-light a few folks.

Origins

My friend Jean wanted to know more about the history behind the different types of teas. There are actually quite a lot of versions to these historical accounts, but I chose what I deemed the most probable/interesting.

Green: Green tea is regarded as the first type of tea to have come about. There are records from the 4th and 5th centuries of Chinese steaming tea leaves and compressing them into cakes. Steaming tea leaves to become green tea became the de facto method of tea production during the Tang Dynasty. Later on, other green tea processes came about such as pan-frying came about. The traditional Japanese green tea powder, matcha, actually originates from the Chinese. However, a certain Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) decided to ban powdered tea and that is why most Chinese green tea is in loose leaf form or cake form today.

White: While white tea has seemingly only become more popular in the past decade, it actually was quite a hit back with Chinese royalty in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) where white tea came in cake and powder forms and was claimed as the best tea around by Emperor Hui Zhong. The first record of white tea production was during the earlier Tang dynasty  (618 – 907 AD), the renaissance period for Chinese tea production. But for the kind of white tea you might be used to drinking e.g. Silver Needle and White Peony, that processing method  came about only during the Qing dynasty in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Black: Not much information about its origins – except that yes, it did come from China and yes, it was being sold by the 16th century. The Jiang family in Tong Mu Village, Wuyi Mountains claim their ancestors are the ones who creatively came up with black tea. Soldiers had occupied their village one 16th century day, and the peasant farmers were cut off from processing a freshly plucked crop of tea. Instead, the soldiers used the piles of soft tea leaves as their beds, and when they left a week later, they left a pile of blackened, twisted oxidized leaves. The villagers, in a bid to salvage their losses, sent the leaves for drying anyway and tried to sell them in the market. This blackened tea prove to be a big hit with foreign merchants and black tea soon became the popular tea to export from China.

Oolong: Apparently, the semi-oxidised method of processing tea originated from the Wuyi mountains in Fujian province and hence it derived part of its name from it. But I much prefer this popular legend: one day, a tea plantation owner was scared away from his drying tea leaves by the appearance of a black serpent. When he cautiously returned several days later, the leaves had been partially oxidized by the sun and gave a delightful brew.He called the tea ‘oolong’ as that means ‘black dragon’ in Chinese.

Pu-erh: Historical records indicate that pu-erh was served as a tribute tea to the Emperor all the way back to the Eastern Han dynasty (25 -220 AD) and even used as a form of currency. It was and is still regarded as a medicinal tea because of its microbes and its unique fermented processing method originated in Yunnan. Up till today, the best pu-erh comes from there. Its name originates from the Pu-erh prefecture in Yunnan province, where pu-erh tea was commonly sold.

If you have any other historical nugget to add, please feel to share them!

The Indiana Jones of Tea

One reason why history was my favourite subject in school is because of the fascinating personalities that lurked between the rise and fall of nations. The history of tea is no exception, and my current favourite tea bloke from the past would be horticulturalist Robert Fortune (1812-1880). So basically, with all the drama from the First Opium War, Britain began looking to grow tea in their own colonies as back-up – namely, India. Here comes a somewhat middle class Scottish bloke, Robert Fortune (really, you can’t get a better superhero name than this) in 1848 who did all kinds of plant-based espionage (collecting tea plants and seeds, getting a peek into a tea manufacturing plant etc) in the rural parts of Fujian and Guangdong by learning Mandarin, growing out a pigtail and posing as a Chinese official.

And he wasn’t just incredibly courageous, he also had a good head about him. For one, he was the first ang moh/kwei lo to realise that black tea and green tea actually come from the same Camellia sinensis plant. When his first shipment of tea plants was botched up due to the ineptitude of certain British East India Company officials, Mr. Fortune also had the foresight to keep aside some seeds for a 2nd (and successful shipment) even though that was actually against “company policies”.

He ain’t called the Father of Indian Tea for nothing! For All The Tea in China presents an intriguing version of his biography.

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