A few years ago, Lenka Eckertova from the Czech Republic and her English husband Tim Stoneham came to my tea masterclass in London and when we asked them why they had joined the class, they told us that they was planning to open a tearoom in Bath. In due course I heard from Lenka that the tea room was open, that is was called ‘Oxalis’ and would I please visit any time that I was in Bath. We kept in touch, Lenka sent me photos of the interior of the shop and she started selling copies of my Tea Classified alongside all the other stock of teas, herbals, flavoured teas and tea wares. But I didn't manage to fit in a visit.
And then, at the end of last year, Lenka emailed and told me that her Czech tea supplier was coming to the UK in January 2012 and that he would love to meet me. So I thought this would create the ideal time to at last pay a visit to the tearoom, now renamed Teahouse Emporium (Oxalis is actually the name of the tea supplier from whom Lenka buys all her teas and herbals). So last week I travelled down to Bath from London on the train (with a suitcase full of more copies of Tea Classified which Lenka and Tim very kindly continue to sell).
It was a freezing cold day but dry and crisp and, as always, Bath looked charming and elegant in the pale winter sunlight. And when I arrived at what appears to be quite a small shop on New Bond Street right in the centre of the town, it was cosy and warm and I was given a very friendly welcome by Nathan who works full time behind the shop counter and is rapidly learning as much as he can about tea.
I knew that the downstairs part of the shop was the tearoom but I had no idea, as I went down the narrow staircase, what an Aladdin’s cave of history, Czech artifacts, smiley waitresses and tea time treats I would find there. The building was once the domain of a silver smith and the vaults downstairs with their arched ceilings and fascinating corners acted as his ‘safe’. It’s much more capacious that one would expect when standing in the ground floor shop and the three adjoining rooms provide the perfect hideaway for a recuperative cup of tea. Today, the walls are simply whitewashed and the rooms are quietly decorated with Czech lamps, a selection of historical tea adverts and other images, a 1950s photo of the Queen, and a fascinating collection of samovars and urns collected from the UK and various countries in eastern Europe. It’s quiet, cosy, secluded and very peaceful and has, over the past three years or so, become a favourite meeting place for local residents and students, and resting place for tourists.
Bath is the ideal place for this type of tearoom. The city attracts a year-round stream of visitors from the UK and abroad, has an eclectic mix of residents, and is home to various colleges and a university. It’s Georgian past links it securely with elegant upper class tea drinking, not just in wealthy Georgian houses but also in public places at a time when spa towns like Bath attracted the rich for an annual rest cure.
In my book, A Social History of Tea, I explained how “visitors flocked to the spa towns – old established resorts such as Bath in Somerset and Tunbridge Wells in Kent….. tea played a vitally important part of each day’s social life. Idle days could be spent taking the waters, attending the theatre, opera or horse races, promenading elegantly in parks and gardens, partaking in smart society events at assembly rooms, and, of course, taking tea in genteel fashion and with perfect manners.” In Bath, the days passed in a round of bathing in the five baths, drinking mineral waters, breakfasting, concerts, lectures, dancing, and then an early evening dinner was “followed by tea at the Assembly Rooms” which opened in 1771 and are today looked after by The National Trust.
On the day of my visit to Teahouse Emporium, downstairs I found Lenka and Tim with their suppliers and friends, Petr Zelik and Petra Overall from Oxalis in Slusovice in the Eastern part of the Czech Republic. The company sells a wide range of teas, herbals, fruit infusions, coffee, syrups, sugars, snacks and chocolate, and a wide range of tea accessories, tea wares and table wares in porcelain, pottery and glass. I have never been to the Czech Republic and so over the next four hours, I quizzed them about their company, their work, the tea drinking culture of the Czech Republic, their customers, the market. Over various cups of tea, delicious cake and lunch, I learned so much.
And I am to learn more. Petr and Petra invited me to visit their factory and headquarters and my flight is booked to Brno for April. After my visit I shall be writing about tea in the Czech republic, the history and culture, current tastes and preferences, the growth of the market and the work of Oxalis.