Our Cup of Tea: Treasure Hunt, Sep. 2012

Vienna is well-known for its coffee houses, but tea has just as much history, as seen in this month's Treasure Hunt

On The Town | monatoemboel | September 2012

Vienna’s teahouses have a long tradition, dating to the 1600s (Photo: Jägertee)

In a city known for its coffee houses, Vienna residents now gladly sip the once mysterious "herb that the Chinese call tea," as Imperial Captain Christoph Carl Fernberger von Eggenberg referred to it in 1624. As proof of its success, today, numerous teahouses speckle Vienna’s 1st District.

Let’s begin at Schönbichler on the Wollzeile (www.schönbichler.at). Its shelves are filled with dark red and black tins, designed to conserve the tea’s refined aromas. As I step over the threshold, memories resurface: I used to come here as a child, barely able to see over the scattered counters, topped with glistening old brass scales. I stood on my tiptoes to watch the young vendor carefully scoop my mother’s order – 100g of Diplomatenmischung – into a gold-coloured package.

Even now, underneath the polished shine of tea caddies and Whiskey bottles, the shop retains an ageless charm. I head up a narrow staircase to the deserted "Theegalerie" overlooking the front of the shop, where I settle onto a bench and listen to the bustling activity below. Whilst I wait for my pot of Galeriemischung and cucumber sandwiches to arrive, I toy with the idea of leafing through the select volumes of Schönbichler’s one-shelf tea-library.

Through a passageway ending on Stephansplatz, I swing by another favourite. In the former stables of the Teutonic Knights is Haas & Haas (www.haas-haas.at). Here, white drapery divides the vault-like shop into colourful sections of chocolates, crystallised fruits, jam, tea sets and, of course, tea, from St. Petersburger Teemischung to the Eierpunsch blend. Today it’s threatening rain, but on sunny afternoons I like to sit underneath the awning in the courtyard behind the shop and observe the odd customer enjoying a Russian-style tea ceremony complete with samovar, smoked salmon blinis and a shot of Rusky Standart Platinum Vodka.

The oldest teahouse in Vienna is JägerTee (www.jaegertee.at), down past the Staatsoper: A secret in plain sight, many walk by this inconspicuous shop front without knowing it’s there. I have to weave through a group of tourists to reach the entrance and I smile at the fierce glare of a Chinese dragon in the window almost daring travellers to enter the quiet shop. I slide by to pick up a pack of Jasmin Pearl Tea Dragon, an exotic hand-rolled blend I want to try.

In the tiny tearoom at the back, the muted light is occasionally broken by low hanging spots, which cast an almost stark, white glow at the small tables and draw my eye to the steaming clay pot of Second Flush Darjeeling, while obscuring the Tibetan Buddhas and Chinese Tang horses on the surrounding shelves.

For my last stop, I take a tram around the Ring past the Burgtheater to Demmers Teehaus (www.tee.at) below the Mölkerbastei. Shelves decorate every wall of the shop, displaying hand-made teapots from Yixing, covered in Chinese characters and tins with ancient maps of the Indian Ocean, thought then to be a "Map of the World".

Upstairs, a gallery is furnished with low tables surrounded by comfortable leather seating, where I settle in for a lazy afternoon spent reading a book while devouring a piece of chocolate cake carefully selected from the vitrine.

So Anglophiles, fear not! Vienna will also cater to your needs at teatime, if you know where to go. Follow your nose, and you won’t be disappointed.

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