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Imagine if you will, rather, a quiet cave of a shop. In the window is a beautiful round wooden circular shelf with tiny compartments all filled with paraphernalia relating to Chinese tea such as clay teapots and dainty little cups.
There are medicinal teas for example. Winter Chestnut tea to soothe the throat and calm the nerves. Amazing Rose for blood circulation and skin toning Red Millennium to improve vision, to detox and release stress.
It all sounds a bit New Age. But again you have to put this thought from your mind as well.
There is nothing new here. The history, the lore of tea in China dates back many thousands of years.
As does the premise, the precept of this shop. It is about an appreciation of Chinese tea and Chinese culture and it is the first shop of its kind in Melbourne, although Vincent, the part-owner, tells us there are many such shops in China. "The Chinese drink tea, all day" he says. "Like Australians might drink water or perhaps coffee. Tea shops are ubiquitous like your coffee shops are here."
My daughter and I order a Puer tea which is $12 a pot and wonder at some of the other varieties which are up to $68 a pot.
But then of course we are naive and it is only over the next hour or so that we learn something of the specialness and traditions behind Chinese tea and why some teas are so prized.
Instead of just being given a pot of tea there is a rich ceremony to our being served. Everything is done over a special bamboo mat which must have a channel underneath that collects all the excess water, as Vincent carefully pours water over the tea pot to warm it and then swills the inside.
Finally after much aplomb we are served two tiny glass bowls of tea, which he then continually refills from the pot as they become half full. Every so often he adds even more hot water to the pot. The brew becoming increasingly potent as we were away the next hour (no wonder they named this place Chat) sipping tea and asking Vincent about some of the lore surrounding Chinese tea.
He tells us of the tea academies in China where people spend their lives studying tea, as we might study wine in Western society. "Such experts can tell the region by the taste of the tea. They become tea snobs." he says. "There are teas" he continues, "for various ailments, as well as teas that are in tune with the different seasons and teas to cool you down if you are hotblooded, or heat you up if you are coldblooded, to balance the yin and yang. "
He shows us the huge rounds of compressed tea known as tea cakes. They come in packs of seven he explains "because traditionally the seventh one was always siphoned off by the Emperor."
Some of these tea cakes are worth $700 or more and he tells us how these have to be kept very carefully in the home in much the same way that Australians might lay down a good bottle of wine.
While the store is quiet when we are there Vincent explains how the late afternoons become quite busy with business people doing deals. "Box Hill is such a centre for commerce now especially with the huge banks such as the newly opened Bank of China and HKBC (Hong Kong Banking Service)" he says."Business people come to talk about matters over tea."
It seems quite a few deals must be made by the looks of the other goods on display. Chat also specialises in cigars (no there is not a cigarette in sight and there is no smoking allowed inside). These range from Bolivar at $31 each to Cuban Sancho Panz cigars at $150. I also note quite an amazing array of top shelf whiskys including some Japanese varieties.
While this is not a food cafe in the traditional sense there are some snack type foods such as sun dried mango, sour plums, pistachios, seaweed phoenix rolls, egg rolls and almonds ($5 for a choice of 3).
Vincent also runs tea appreciation classes for those interested in learning more about this fascinating area.
In all this is a very different experience for Aussies, a taste not necessarily of a foreign country but of the ethnicity that makes our own multicultural society so unique.
This is a fantastic little specialty Chinese tea cafe we found in Box Hill. These guys know their tea! My brother and I made a trip to the cafe as we really enjoy trying different teas and was hosted by Spencer. Not only is he an expert on Chinese teas but he also a really nice bloke:) We tasted a variety of unique and authentic Chinese teas and really enjoyed our time chatting with Spencer who thought us a lot about the tea - from its traditional manufacturing process, the history behind it and how it is served. A fantastic experience that we as tea enthusiasts would highly recommend to anyone! Thank you Spencer! Cheers!!!