Tea Times Are A'Changing

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The most widely consumed substance after water, it’s a universal constant that at any given moment, someone, somewhere will be taking tea.

It’s not just the time zones of these teas that differ around the world, but the culture, ceremony, drinking vessel...even the tea itself.

Resident Pixie explorer, Marianna, headed off to a few of our fantastic Pixie independents that celebrate the art of tea to explore the different ways that this magical brew is enjoyed around the world.

Her first stop? Comins, Bath.

The story of Comins is the story of a journey. The journey of one tea sceptic and one tea lover, husband and wife team of Rob and Michelle, from Dorset to Darjeeling where they discovered tea farmers, plantations, and a surprising realisation for Rob.

"I used to hate tea," he laughs. "I grew up thinking that tea started and ended with a milk and two sugars builder's brew. Our first trip to India made me realise just how interesting and varied the drink can be. We created Comins so that others too could enjoy this tea epiphany moment."

He explains how they now travel round the world, meeting tea growers and pickers, sourcing the best speciality teas for their two tea shops in Bath and Dorset, and making sure that each and every farmer receives a fair wage for his work.

I ask Rob what the most interesting tea traditions he and Michelle have encountered during their travels are. His reply comes immediately: "It's got to be the Japanese culture behind matcha. In Japan there is an ancient ceremony which people still follow today on special occasions.  Birthdays, marriages, the arrival of special guests...Japanese families celebrate important days by coming together to drink matcha in a traditional tea ceremony. Sometimes families book out a tearoom. But if you're rich, you have your own private one in your home."

It's been hailed as a "superfood" and is now even available to buy in latte form at Starbucks. Most of us have heard of the famed health properties of matcha, but how many of us, myself included, really know the history behind it?

Rob pulls out a box of Comins' finest ceremonial grade matcha that he and Michelle brought back from their last trip to Japan.

He explains, "Matcha is made from the entire tea leaf. It comes in powdered form, so you don't lose any of the health benefits. One cup of matcha is supposed to contain 10 times the nutrients of a regular green tea." 

One glance at the lush fern-coloured powder and I could believe it.

"And you definitely wouldn't have it with milk like in Starbucks!", Rob looks mortified.

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Currently writing a 75,000 word book entirely devoted to tea, Rob is probably one of the most knowledge people in the UK about the stuff.

As he begins to wash and prepare the teaware for our matcha ceremony (I had the honour of being considered a special guest), Rob begins to explain the history behind the tradition.

"Today the ceremonies come in different shapes, forms and lengths. They vary from two hour intricate, choreographed set pieces, to more relaxed affairs at home. But traditionally it's a very ritualised event. Every movement is planned and there's a strict set order."

The reason for this lies in matcha's sacred origins. In 1191 Buddhist monks from China arrived in Japan, bringing religious ideas and a drink made from a mysterious green powder with them.

The name of the drink? Matcha. 

"Both the religion and the tea quickly took hold in Japan," Rob explains. "Monks used it to stay awake during long meditations."

The popularity of matcha grew quickly and it became a symbol of the elites.

Rob tells me the story of samurai leader, Minamoto no Sanemoto. Struggling for many years with chronic alcoholism, Sanemoto's life was changed when a monk gave him a book about the mental and physical benefits of matcha. Sanemoto found he could replace one drink with the other and decided to introduce the brew to all of his warriors.

The samurai appreciated matcha for its calming properties and took it to prepare mentally before battle. This meditative ritual gradually grew into chanoyu, the tea ceremony you can still see practised across Japan today.

"Tea was the drink of the highest in society - of nobleman, samurai and emperors. Because of this it has to be treated properly."

Rob begins to warm the pots and wash every item in front of me as tradition dictates. "Everything has to be impeccably clean. It's a sign of respect."

I ask him how people learn the art of the Japanese tea ceremony.  "To become a tea master takes 10 years of training. It's not just about memorising the order of the actions but understanding the meaning behind each one. The profession is very well respected in Japan."

 The Japanese even have a special word chado, meaning the way of the tea. For the tea master, you must think about the tea and appreciate where it has come from as you prepare it. 

Rob now brings out the special instruments required to prepare the matcha - tea caddies, cloths, and the matcha whisk, bamboo hand-cut into 100 bristles.  

He pours the water (warmed to 70°C) onto the powder in three complete turns, ending exactly where he started. Then he starts to whisk the green lagoon forming in the bowl into a bubbling froth. 

My ceremonial matcha bowl (each chosen specially by their decoration to match the personality and status of the person drinking from it) is then placed in front of me and filled with the foamy emerald liquid. I raise the bowl to my lips. Luckily Rob stops me in time. "No, no. You have to turn the bowl around to face the tea master. Every bowl has a 'face', its most beautiful side. The tea master places the bowl with its face to the guest to show respect. You then turn the bowl back to the master as you drink so that the bowl's face is always shown off." 

The whole ceremony is focused around celebrating the best of nature's resources - from the materials of the bowl to the wagashi, the little sweets presented at set times during the ritual. Rob explains, "They're very sweet to balance the herbal taste of the matcha. The flavours change with the seasons to showcase the best of the harvests."

Fully initiated into the ceremony, all that remained was to slurp down my matcha (an important sign that you're enjoying it).

Rob explains that, from picking and steaming the leaves, to preparing the teaware, and appreciating it as you drink, matcha is all about taking time.  "That's what we do here. We give people time out of their day to appreciate small things and we give them our time, talking to them about their tea and where it comes from."

So why not take some time out your day this weekend and spend a few hours as an ancient samurai warrior sipping tea at Comins?

If nothing else, as Minamoto no Sanemoto found, at least it'll keep you out the pub.

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Meet your local independent...

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The Colombian Coffee Company as experienced by our Pixie Explorer Marianna

After a few minutes in Bath's Colombian Company, I quickly realised that the warm feeling spreading through me wasn't just the effect of the silky smooth latte I'd been given by owners JP and Veronica.

From the homemade cakes on the counter to the mementos of JP's South American homeland and the affectionate smiles passed between the husband and wife team, every corner of this cosy coffee shop seems to ooze with a sense of love and care.

JP points to the photos of smiling Colombian coffee farmers on the wall, naming each one, telling me about their farms, their families and which one grew the delicious coffee I'm now sipping.

"When I set up The Colombian Company, I knew from the start I wanted to work directly with small producers. I grew up watching many of them struggling to compete with the big corporations so for me it's really important that the coffee farmers grow as we grow," JP explains. "I wanted to give something back."

The warm atmosphere that greets you as soon as you step through the door is the perfect combination of the cosiness of a traditional English cafe with a bit of Latin American fire. A pretty delicious combination too when you try it in the form of one of the Colombian Company's toasted sandwiches, stuffed with spicy guacamole from a secret family recipe.  

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From Colombia and Spain originally, JP and Veronica have lived in Bath for almost 30 years combined. They met in a bar in Bath, got married in the city's own Parade Gardens, and now have a family here.  They love walking in the park where they were married and watching their son play for Bath City under 9s.

The coffee shop is very much a tribute to their heritage. Veronica shows me the Colombian coffee sacks JP uses to transport all the beans himself and the collection of traditional Colombian sweets and chocolate that customers can buy to take a little taste of Latin America home with them. "Like with the coffee, the money goes directly to local producers. We want every part of the shop to be as ethical as possible", she tells me proudly. I find my foot tapping along to the lively salsa music in the background and spy a poster for Spanish conversation classes hosted at the cafe.

But, Veronica adds, "We also wanted to pay tribute to our home here in Bath. We love living here. We wanted the cafe's interior to be a combination of all our favourite parts of our new home as well as our old ones. We made all these wooden tables and counters ourselves", she points to the lovingly polished surface my coffee is resting on.

"They're designed to make you feel as though you're in the South American forests where JP grew up, but made by us here out of local English wood."

She laughs, reminiscing about traipsing across most of the saw mills in the South West to find the perfect Douglas fir.     

Tucked on the corner of Bath's cobblestoned Abbey Green, JP and Veronica's little Spanish haven is surrounded by the most beautiful and historic parts of the city. Far from being at odds with the quintessentially English view out of the window, the Colombian Company embraces the best of both worlds. And very successfully too judging by how warmly the coffee shop has been welcomed by Bath locals.

In every way what JP and Veronica have created is a match made in heaven - or more specifically, Bath.

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Pixie explorers go on an adventure with Bath Festivals

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This Saturday, we sent five of our intrepid Pixie explorers off on an adventure. Their mission? To discover the best of creative, independent Bath.

Teaming up with Bath Festivals, this year celebrating their 70th year anniversary, and local events company Trouble Lounge, we chose fifteen of the best movers and shakers (and occasional bakers and makers) in the South West's blogging scene.

Split into three teams, they were taken on three separate trails around 20 mystery locations in Bath, tweeting, instagramming, and boomeranging their way across the city.

Our Pixie trail was a whirlwind international tour of the amazing things Bath's food scene has to offer.

Our journey began in the bustling street markets of Hanoi, learning to fill and fold summer rolls the traditional Vietnamese way at Noya's Kitchen.  After a brief diversion to sunny Italy where we sipped on natural prosecco with Wolf Wines, we were jetting back off to Asia for gyoza dumpling, machta cookies and a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at Comins.

Warmed up by the tea, it was time to cool off with some delicious homemade gelato at Swoon, enjoying the flavours of Sicily's best pistachios and Piedmont's finest hazelnuts as they melted in our mouths. 

Continuing our European tour, we headed to Olé Tapas where we were welcomed with true Spanish hospitality by smiles, sangria and the sound of salsa music. A few plates of crispy calamari, spicy patatas bravas and melt-in-your-mouth monkfish later, it was time to return to home waters. But not before one last stop. Welcomed home in true Bath style by the gorgeous facade of the Abbey Hotel, we ended with a cocktail masterclass from the Abbey's expert bartenders.

Well fed, watered and wine-ed, we joined back up with the other two teams for a drinks reception and prize ceremony at the newly refurbished Walcot House.

A run-down of the photos from the day gave us the chance to relive our delicious foodie adventure as well as getting very jealous of the Trouble Lounge team of fashion bloggers hunting for vintage treasures at Grace & Ted, and the Bath Festivals lifestyle blogger team enjoying makeovers at Space.NK.apothecary. 

For Amelia, who took on the role of chief explorer for the day and led the Pixie trail, the best part was being able to meet the business owners and learn how much thought and preparation they put into what they do. "The passion that the businesses have really came through in the quality of their products - everything from the what's on your plate to how you're greeted is personal and unique."

Ian Stockley, CEO of Bath Festivals, shared with us how grateful he was to all those who took part: "Pixie, Trouble Lounge and our teams of bloggers have done a spectacular job of spreading the word, with creativity and lots of fun along the way.  Bath Festivals depends upon the support of influencers and local businesses to help us sell our 180 events and we’ve been overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity."

Bath Festivals is a fantastic time of year to appreciate all the creative, independent people that make the city so special. We can't wait to see what more they have in store for us this May...

Check out #thebathfestival and our bloggers' instagrams to see what we got up to.

Pixie: @thecoffeetrails_ @salskitchenblog @the_bathonian @jadetigers @katiewoo_

Visited: Noya's Kitchen, Wolf Wines, Comins Tea, Swoon Gelato, Olé Tapas, the Abbey Hotel

Trouble Lounge: @sarahbakertroublemaker  @l.i.p_kate , @bath_holistic_massage , @thesecrethoarder, @jessicaparkhouse

Visited: Wolf Wines, Jolly's, Grace & Ted, Duo Boots, VV Rouleaux, Spotty Herbert's, Sisi & May

Bath Festivals: @bathboxoffice, @lucyplummyhill, @unleashtheparty, @lucy_yogadoo @goodcrowdmedia

Visited: Nicholas Wylde, Molton Brown, Maison Georges/Cafe Oulala, Chanii B, Space.nk.apothecary, Gap

Make The Most Of Frome Market Day

"I always think that the Frome Independent—Frome’s monthly market day—is Frome at its most resplendent. When I tell non-Frome friends about it, I tend to describe it as “a festival in one day” because it really does have everything: music, food, crafts, interesting people, tonnes of great things to buy and sheer vibe." Blog post by Kate Foster, Frome-based writer and business mentor

Meet The Force Behind Bath's Indie Revolution

An independent movement is bubbling in Bath and as we're sure many locals will agree, the centre of this retail revolution can be found in the very heart of the city in Abbey Green.

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Busily buzzing away perfecting displays, welcoming regular customers and preparing beautifully decorated biscuits for the tea time rush, Silvana de Soissons has no time for anything but the authentic and artisanal. Since adopting Bath as her hometown, Silvana has made it her mission to celebrate local artists and artisan food producers, telling their stories through her blog, The Foodie Bugle and selling beautifully curated local homewares, food and drink from her shop and tea room of the same name.

 The team at Pixie has a special place for Silvana in their hearts and we are proud to work closely with her on her most recent project, The Independent Bath Market. In our humble opinion, her success and influence on the city of Bath is to be celebrated. We caught up with her to give you a glimpse of how this good-humoured, hard working and meticulous businesswoman made it happen.  

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What motivated and inspired you to open The Foodie Bugle? What were your intentions when starting the business?

 I started The Foodie Bugle as a blog, then an online shop, then it became a printed magazine and finally a bricks and mortar shop. We wanted it to be a hub for artisan food, drink and homewares. Our shop in Abbey Green is a welcoming, light bright shop and tearoom – our intention has always been to create a homely, cosy place, as so many chains are really bland and impersonal.

 What steps did you take to get things going in the beginning?

 I have always been very chatty and community minded, so social media, blogging and participating in my local community have always come naturally to me. I got my business going by engaging with like-minded people on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, reaching out to bloggers, journalists and editors and by showcasing other independent Bath businesses through guides, maps and media trails.

 What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new (and returning) customers?

 By far blogging and social media – in particular Instagram. I find that telling your story, honestly, openly and consistently, is the best way of attracting engaged customers and followers.

 What challenges have you faced running an independent business and how have you overcome them?

Running an independent shop is challenging at this moment in time because retailing overall is not easy in any field – there are large, discounting chains all over our city and online and also Brexit, the recession and the general state of the economy have made people more cost conscious and cautious. All you can do is work very hard, try to keep your standards as high as possible and make sure that you give customers a reason to come back to you.

 

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 When did you decide to launch The Independent Bath Market?

 We started planning it about six months before the launch in May 2017 – it takes a long time to get planning permission in Bath!

 What has been the best and the worst thing about setting up a market in Bath?

 There is a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy in everything you do in Bath and it is also always a challenge to find really good artisans, growers, producers and traders in the Bath-Somerset area. The residents also needed quite a lot of persuading in the beginning as hosting a market in the middle of the city raised concern amongst B and B owners who feared the noise and buzz the market would bring. The best thing is looking round Abbey Green on market day and seeing amazing stalls and traders and lots of people browsing and buying. It has brought a community together and that is an achievement.

 Can you give us an insight into any habits you have/do which set you up for success every day?

 I think having really high standards and strict procedures and methods is important – our business runs on them. Every day there is a set list of procedures for organising, displaying, serving, cleaning and preparing. These are written down and are part of the training we give to staff. We have very high standards in ordering homemade cakes and biscuits from great bakers, the very best teas and coffees, the best homewares etc, etc. Everything that is chosen for the shop and tearoom is hand picked, tasted, tested and checked.

 What advice would you give to someone considering opening an indie business?

 I would say make sure you research your market thoroughly so that you are sure there is lots of demand for what you are intending to do. Location is very important if you are looking for bricks and mortar premises. Be prepared to work 24/7 for years and years because nobody will care for your business like you do – if you want the job done you will need to do it yourself. Keep an eye on the small details. Look and learn all around you – visit the best places in your city or town and see what they get right. Always share within your local community – tell your customers where other great indie businesses are in your locality. Good karma goes round!

 

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What's next for Silvana de Soissons?

 I am writing a book and have started Bugle Social Media to help other businesses widen their reach and engage new customers. That should keep me busy!

Through her commitment and creativity, Silvana has gained a cult following on social media who enjoy her photography and open approach to storytelling. See for yourself on Instagram and twitter and get a feel for the The Independent Bath Market before the next event on 20th August in Abbey Green.  

You'll find Pixie supporting the local makers, artists and producers as we join her movement for a more local community collective, reigniting the local economy.

 

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