Orange Melange

I promised an OD friend that I would write about my favorite tea shop. This is it.

When I was very young, coffee was a tablespoon or so of my mother’s brew, mixed in with my milk, and tea was limited to mild herbal infusions like Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime or Pelican Punch, the latter a children’s tea laced with cinnamon and carob – sort of a loose precursor to chai – but not.

It wasn’t until I was fourteen or so that I switched to black teas, and was allowed real coffee, though the latter habit wasn’t actively encouraged til I was much older. Well, a little older. When I was sixteen my mother and I would, almost every Sunday, hit the fabric store, to feed her addiction, the library, to feed mine, and our favorite café, where we’d linger over strawberry and sweet cream cheese croissants and strong lattes.

I loved coffee, loved the romance of the bitter black brew, fancying myself to be Jo March writing home from New York, where she first met Professor Bhaer, or Anna Hastings (from Allen Drury’s novels) working late into the night on a story for the morning edition. I was neither, of course, but it was fun to imagine. Becoming a coffee drinker was natural for me, anyway, as I grew up surrounded by other coffee drinkers.

Tea, on the other hand, had to woo me. It began by turning up in songs – Joan Baez’s Suzanne, for example, with the line about tea and oranges from China – and stories – who could resist Alice’s reaction to the Mad Hatter and March Hare, after all?

But the thing that really made me fall in love with tea was a trip to Carmel when I was a teenager. I don’t remember spending the night, only that I had some pocket money, and it was a very walking-friendly town, and as my parents poked around at the Dansk outlet, I went in and out of cute shops, finally turning down a courtyard and finding myself surrounded by three very cute houses that now held shops, one of which was a Tea Emporium (I know this, because there was a sign).

Memory has become murky, and in my mind’s eye the outside of the tea shop has become muddled with the a-frame home owned by the librarian in some small town where we once lived, and that of my pre-school teacher Ray’s cottage in Golden. But inside…inside I remember with reverence.

Once inside the door of the Tea Emporium (it had a name, but I don’t remember what it was, and the store no longer exists, I’m afraid), I felt that I had entered a different world. Outside the sun was shining, but inside it was dark, and sort of smoky, though there was no actual smoke, not because this was California, but because it might affect the tea. I remember the dark wooden floorboards, the dark shelves with jars full of brown and green leaves, each labeled in perfect calligraphy, the black letters stark against the creamy white paper. I remember the wooden counter, higher than most retail establishments have, and the crusty old man in the green cardigan standing behind it.

“I don’t like children,” he told me gruffly. “Especially boys,” he added.

“I don’t either,” I said, meaning it. “Anyway, I’m a girl.”

“Noticed that,” he told me. “You’re a slip of a thing to be in here alone.”

I goggled at that, I remember. His language was like something out of a book, and it was bright and sunny and perfectly safe outside. But I think all I said was, “I’d like a quarter-pound of English Breakfast and a quarter pound of Earl Grey, please.” Or something equally lame.

I remember that he grunted, but moved around the dimly lit store, sniffing jars, and pouring leaves into opaque paper bags, just like the ones used for coffee. He warned me not to let things steep too long, and to put milk in the tea. He suggested I try a cup of Lady Grey, and I loved the hint of lavender, so he gave me some to take home. He also gave me a black tea laced with orange, that was labeled “orange mélange”. This is not a sweet cinnamon and orange tea, but a dark brew with the essence of citrus, and it was delicious. Lisa’s Tea Treasures makes something similar, I think, but theirs is too sweet, too light, too….wholesome. The orange tea I bought in Carmel had a mysterious air, as if by drinking it one would be transported to the Orient Express, to help Hercule Poirot solve a murder. Or something.

I left the store after about an hour. Or maybe it was forever. Or five minutes. I’ve never been sure. But ever since then I’ve loved tea as much as I ever loved coffee, and the store has had a special place in my heart and mind.

I went back two years later, and there was a tea shop in the same location, just as there is today, but neither shop is the same. No shop has ever been the same. And sometimes I almost wonder if my memory is real, or if it was an ordinary tea shop from the beginning, and my brain created the mysterious ambience, and the crusty clerk. Almost.