The cobbled backstreets of Frome might be the last place you’d expect to discover a taste of India. But duck through a low doorway on St Catherine’s Hill into the buttery yellow glow of a Cotswold stone interior and close your eyes.
Wafts of smoke-blackened pine, spicy nutmeg and sweet chamomile reach your nose and suddenly you’re in the mountains of North India brushing your fingers against the leaves of surrounding tea plants.
The decor inside Moo and Two, Frome’s best speciality tea and coffee merchant, captures some of this feeling. Once inside, forge through jungle-like tangles of exotic house plants to reach the wooden counter (hand-crafted by owner, Euan) and place your order.
After exploring the age-old Japanese ceremony behind matcha with Comins in our last Pixie tea blog, I decided it was time for another eastern adventure…this time to the plantations of India with Moo and Two.
“These days you can find so many speciality coffee shops and craft beer bars, but very few people have managed to crack the art of a really great cup of tea”, Euan explains. A lifelong tea-lover, Euan set up Moo and Two to bring top quality Indian brews to Frome.
“My mum knows India very well, so when I was choosing where to source my teas it was the natural choice. We go every year together to meet the pickers and the farmers. That way we can check the tea is being grown to the standards we want, and that the workers are being treated in a way that we’re happy with.” Once Euan has visited the plantations and brought the loose leaves home to Somerset, he sets about blending the teas into his own special concoctions. He brings me over a steaming mug (helpfully labelled “Green Tea”). “This one is a really special blend I made. It’s part Kerelan green tea and part holy basil. Tea is almost always picked by women. Holy basil is unusual – it got its name because it’s picked by monks, the holy men.”
I breathe in the fresh, grassy notes, listening to the sounds of Bob Dylan crooning out from a turntable hidden inside the stone wall. Euan reminisces about his adventures on the tea trails of India. “We often spend 12 hours driving round one plantation. Because tea needs to be grown at a high altitude the terrain is rugged and the drops treacherous. Road safety isn’t really a thing over there, or suspension…”, he laughs.
“Tea is very different in India. There’s not really a cafe culture. A lot of people are too poor to pay to sit in for a cup of tea. But during lunch breaks you can find everyone on the streets queuing up at tea stalls…it’s the one constant,” smiles Euan. One of the most important people in Indian society is the chai wallah, the Hindu word for a tea seller, he explains. The chai wallahs sell very cheap cups of tea, poured from giant steaming urns that they carry round on their backs. Sometimes they cycle round towns and cities and along beaches and rivers, other times they wander up and down trains, shouting “Chai! Chai! Chai!”.
I ask if this chai on wheels is anything like the PG Tips we know here. “Absolutely not,” Euan shakes his head. “It’s sweet, milky and spicy – flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. A bit like the chai lattes we have here. There’s no tradition of ‘tea and cake’ either. On the trains, after the chai wallahs have walked past, other vendors come by selling fritters, bhajis and deep fried bananas with masala spices.”
Each chai wallah adds their own flair to the tea preparation. Whether it’s a pinch of saffron placed on top of the milky froth, some ginger mashed in to the bubbling mixture, or magician-esque displays of tricks in swirling and pouring a metre long stream of chai from one pot to another…the unique flavour of a chai wallah’s tea craft is often what keeps customers coming back.
In India tea is not just a way of life, but also a way of prolonging your life through the healing properties of the herbs used. Moo and Two try to emulate this by recommending teas based on their health benefits. “We have lots of regulars here. Some people always order the same thing – I don’t even have to ask them before making their tea. Others like to hear suggestions based on how they’re feeling: chamomile when you need to calm your nerves, green tea if you’re suffering from bad circulation…”.
The offering of tea is an important part of Indian hospitality. The phrase chai pani, literally meaning “tea and water”, is used when greeting visitors and offering welcome drinks in Indian homes (although watch out, as it can also mean to bribe someone!). With all these uses, it’s no surprise that, as a nation, India drinks the most tea of all of us, consuming about 30% percent of the global output. Moo and Two is the perfect place to get a taste of this rich tradition of both tea and hospitality: you can buy loose leaves and the bags of Euan’s specially crafted blends to take home, or just stop by to enjoy a cuppa and a chat while enjoying their fantastic vintage record collection. Now time to hop in a rickshaw and head to our next tea destination…