We have an old brass samovar from Tula.
It is round and fat like a good healthy babushka, with a big beautiful petal belly round and voluptuous, and it was only a centrepiece when I was growing up because the coal funnel had gone missing, and we couldn't use it really.
It was made in 1910, and grandma Helena, my namesake, had taken it with her on her back almost, when the Russians came into Estonia and she, her husband and her little brood left. They were on a list you see, and my great Uncle Hartius - he vanished. Vanished away into the depth of the Gulag. The voice of many echoed in the words of Solzhenitsyn and nobody to this day knows what happened to him. He just simply disappeared.
|Little Bear Lake|
There is an old photograph of Uncle Hartius.
He is dressed in Jacobean costume staring out dark eyed dark haired and handsome in a very Tyrone Power sort of way and looking somewhat like him too, poised proudly and severely in a role I never witnessed but see still in this photo, the ghost of him now in the snow swept dunes of Siberia....He was a fine actor in his day they said. He was with his family on the train ready to leave when he just had to go back to the house for someone.
And nobody ever saw him again.
But grandma had the samovar which ended up in our house and every Easter, it gets a fine polish and Easter eggs, their shells dyed with onion skin , their shells all marble glowing and shiny with a rub of butter, are placed around it in the centre of the Easter table surrounded by the feast. Shining in glory and of other days gone by, and hopefully those tortured souls in the mists of the north of Baikal, in peace now.
When did it all begin?
I had my first taste of Ceylon tea at Grandma's. And Grandad used to design labels for Wissotsky before the war. She used to make it in that very samovar from Tula when it was still in working order, even though by the time I was ready to try some the samovar was already out of service but still majestic, mysterious and basking in the polish of a bygone era. Gosh, Tolstoy was still alive when grandmother started drinking tea out of that samovar!
As a child I liked my tea with rich creamy milk and very sweet. Sometimes, I still make it this way, just to trip down memory lane a little.
When did it all begin?
When I was very young, and had the best loose tea at grandmothers?
She only ever made loose tea. And it was always excellent loose tea.
When my mum used to give me Earl Grey tea as a child and tell me stories of Ceylon?
It was Ceylon then, but I was very young and I remember the day when she became Sri Lanka and it always did something to me inside, and perhaps the pressing need to go there started somewhere way back then, and mum used to pull out the atlas and show me where it was and in some atlases there would be pictures, and plenty of tea plantations. Mum grew up in England after the war. She knew more about the history of tea than I ever did and told me all kinds of stories and always made me lovely cups of tea. And in our family, we always had good tea.
I lived out east for a time, teaching and running an Art department in Riyadh where I made so many life long friends and lost a few who were never destined to be. Good tea was hard to find unless you knew where to go. I always had fine tea at my Saudi friends houses and wondered where they got it from, and never thought to ask. At the supermarkets, there were few good teas on the shelves and the usual run of the mill bag tea was just terrible. And the need for good tea awakened my palate.
And so, it all began with the search for excellent tea which brought me to the salubrious hills of Sri Lanka.
Well, that, and Michale Ondaatje. I suppose in some ways I have him to blame too. It all began when I read Running in The Family while I was in Art College, which so inspired me that I actually made an illustration for The Passions of Lalla. She was delicately carved into a block of linoleum, waves of water mingling with waves of her own hair becoming waves and her face serene as an angel in sleep floating with the monsoon water, far, far away. But tea came into my hands and head before the book ever did. The book itself merely made me want to go to the tea.....
And, from there, I never turned back. Tea and Sri Lanka had a way of quietly and quickly seeping into my marrow, like a marvellous perfume, and I was hooked.
And then, I met Lalith, by the way of becoming pen pals through the advent of the internet and a mutual passion for tea and things Sri Lankan. Lalith himself is from Sri Lanka. We often spoke and still talk about tea together and share tea thoughts and ideas about different types of tea, and my knowledge base began to grow; Lalith is an exceptionally fine teacher and no matter how modest he is, or however he looks at it, I will always consider him my first and foremost mentor in tea education even though my knowledge grew on a very casual basis at first just because we enjoyed talking tea. Lalith is a tea expert. He used to manage a plantation in Nuwara Eliya ( one of my favourite haunts there - I have many) and is a tea sommelier par excellence.
It was Lalith, who runs his own tea business now, who said to me a few years ago when we met for a cup at Betty's Tea Rooms in York, that I ought to start a tea business. And eight months later, The Monsoon Mountains Tea Company was conceived and, eleven months after that, it has now been born.
And in many ways, it all began with a number of factors.
But I shall never forget the mystique surrounding that samovar from Tula.
Greetings from Sunny Edinburgh