Last week I ventured over to Auckland's North Shore for a morning tasting at Tea Total, hoping to soak up as much tea-related knowledge as possible. Fortunately Anna Salek, the store's owner was the perfect person to combat my inexperience. Anna's been in the tea business for a while now: she started with a humble stall in Sydney's Rocks Market 20 years ago after realising that tea's broad appeal and portability made it a perfect product for those looking to take a little something home with them. The stall's success meant she could forgo a 9 to 5 job and to just work each weekend instead. It also planted a passion that raised its head in different ways throughout her career.
Anna opened her first Tea Total in Mission Bay, but says it wasn't the right time for the business and the location wasn't ideal so the store shifted to Mt Eden and then Milford. Now, Anna wholesales to cafés, delis and hairdressers throughout the country and also exports flavours overseas so needed a bigger space for both her warehouse, shop and offices. Anna sees her latest venture in Mairangi Bay as an intriguing yet organised space where people can be free to browse without the pressure of a sales assistant hovering over their shoulder. Of course, Anna and her team are more than happy to answer questions and impart their wisdom if asked – they've got a well-honed knack for finding the right blend based on just a few hints or favourite tastes.
The first thing I notice upon entering Tea Total is its incredible smell. (I'm interested to learn that after years of exposure, Anna can no longer pick up this scent). The smell changes and develops as I wander around. As Anna talks about the space, I can't help but lift and sniff inside almost every bell jar I can reach, and then some. Each tea sample is nestled inside a cut–out book – a clever combination that brings to mind a well-spent winter's day.
We move towards the back of the store where we sit down in front of some delicate glass beakers and wooden trays of the teas we're about to sample. Some contain dashes of delicate, bright flowers; some are balled into tiny pearls; some are brimming with dried fruit and berries. The inviting textures get the better of a couple of us and we take up the offer to touch the delicate leaves. Anna boils the jug and pouring hot (and dashes of cold) into the line-up of pots along the wall and it looks like a beautiful science experiment – one that's perfect for trying at home.
We try a delicate China White Hair and then a jasmine tea, Phoenix Dragon Pearls, which remains my favourite for the rest of the tasting. The Goji Berry and Raspberry tea smells incredibly sweet, while Pu Erh Mini Tea Brick is earthy – Anna tells us she sees this as beautifully representative of Chinese teas. Next up is an Earl Grey with flecked with blue petals; apparently this is the one of the best-selling teas from Anna's original Rock's Market selection.
We're told the bright red Hibiscus Berry Boost was dreamt up by a group of schoolgirls for a charity project – it has a more satisfying, nuanced edge than your average cordial–like raspberry tea. I've never been the biggest fan of ginger I'm surprised to find myself enjoying the Ginger Lemon Kiss, a flavour combination that's requested more than any other. Finally, we ponder the Mellow Carrot and Cranberry tea trying to find its secret flavour until someone pipes up with the unlikely but correct suggestion of beetroot.
Tea Total isn't the sort of place you should go if you're in a hurry. Unless you've got a specific flavour in mind, the store calls for patience and calm – it should be experienced slowly. Natural light streams in; the layout is clean–cut and simple, which allows the small, tantalising samples to become the focus. Tea Total sells small trial–size packets alongside their full-sized bags, as well as a selection of pots and tools to suit any special occasion or daily ritual. Whether you book in for a group tasting or just need a packet to last through lunchtime, you're unlikely to leave Anna's team empty–handed. If you can make a decision, that is. Not that anyone could blame you for wanting to take home more than one.