Tea for two (or more) at Piacha, Islington

call-me-katie-tea-and-cake-at-piacha-on-upper-street-islington-great-for-tea-and-cake-in-london-03In case it’s escaped your notice – between the multiple afternoon tea reviews, posts about tea and, erm, separate tea Tumblr – I really, really love tea. So when the lovely, totes-unslummy Jo said she was working with a tea shop and would I like to pop in to meet the owner and try some tea I said “hell yes” and “can I bring a friend?”. “The more the merrier,” said Pia, owner and powerhouse behind north London’s Piacha cafe, so my pal and colleague Katie and I scuttled over.

Katie’s post, from which I completely shamelessly stole this surprisingly flattering pic of me snuffling tea like some sort of truffle-hunting hog, goes through the teas in detail, as well as the delicious sandwiches and chocolate we tasted. What I’m going to do instead is give you five good reasons why, if you’re in London or are likely to be in the general vicinity of Islington any time soon, you should get your bum down to Piacha asap. The rest of the photos are distinctly more wonky because I took them…

1. The tea collection

IMG_9304First and most important. There is a very comprehensive mixture of types and flavours here, but what I love about it is that most of them are blends of actual ingredients rather than ‘flavoured tea’. Now, I am not averse to the latter – my breakfast blend of choice is T2’s Brisbane Breakfast and one of the Piacha teas that blew me away was the Black and Cherry – but if you’ve ever had a good chai blend (and Piacha has one of those, too) you know that adding actual chunks and pieces of stuff makes a considerably more subtle and delicious tea. There are good numbers of ‘plain’ base teas – black, green, white and oolong – but also fab infusion combinations, such as roiboos spiked with cocoa husks for a comforting chocolatey hit and matcha mint (not my thing, but very, very popular).

Piacha has enough choice that you could conceivably try a different thing every week, but not so much that you find yourself playing safe. My top ones to try:

For tea purists: Shui Xian Oolong – a black oolong that’s incredibly rich and nutty, with a real kick-ass depth of flavour.

For flavour fans: Black and Cherry. Basically like drinking grown up cherry sweets.

For cold days: Biting and bracing Chilli and Ginger. An infusion that literally grabs you by the throat and can’t help but make you feel better – and I don’t even usually like ginger.

Additionally, there are boxes of the individual added ingredients – cocoa husks, dried rose buds etc – on the counter, so ask to have a sniff if you’re not sure, and buy some to take home and play with your own tea blends.

2. Pia Ikkala

IMG_9326I set out my feminist stall without hesitation, and I’d support a woman’s business if I thought it was great no matter who the woman behind it was. But as it happens, Pia’s an absolute rock star. Coming from a background in corporate law, she’s fiercely sharp and constantly on the lookout for something interesting to try – especially if it involves any of her favourite things: tea, eating and yoga.

It undoubtedly helped that we tend towards the same favourite kinds of tea, but I found her such a joy to talk to, and she’s often hanging out in there. But regardless of whether you actually meet her, knowing she’s behind the business makes you feel in safe hands. I don’t fetishise independent ownership, but here I think it’s what makes this cafe special; the teas are carefully chosen and blends are uniquely created for the shop, the menu is thoughtfully developed to make tasty tea pairings and the friendly atmosphere makes it welcoming to all – such as the little girl standing on tiptoes to slurp down a tea milkshake the next time we visited.

And anyway, even if you don’t care about that kind of thing, I cannot think of a single major coffee chain that does a half-decent cuppa.

3. Nom

IMG_9329The thoughtful Piacha menu infuses tea even into savouries, with lapsang ham sandwiches and genmaicha salmon (the latter pictured on the right of this photo) on the comprehensive tea menu. The apple honey brie sarnies (on the left of the photo) are wrapped in a sweet, dense walnut bread. There are at least three big cakes in the window from which to sample slices – “where there’s tea, there’s cake” said Pia by email before we met, which did indeed predispose me to like her – and a cabinet packed with delightful bites like canelles, macarons, chocolate tiffin slices and more. And recently they’ve added some extraordinary artisan chocolate truffles to the mix, which sounds, I know, like the height of hipsterdom but holy mango and basil, Batman. I’ve never eaten anything quite like it and I’m slightly angry it took 35 years to do so. Other combinations, like raspberry and mascarpone, were quite something too.

If you go for afternoon tea, which is something I’d definitely come back for, you’ll get a broad array of tastes, including four different teas of your choice and matcha ice cream for a little under £15pp. Apparently it gets packed on Saturdays, so book ahead.

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The mango and basil truffle deserved a close up.

4. Tea smoothies and milkshakes

IMG_9375.jpgI know, I know, it sounds weird. But adding vanilla ice cream and fresh peach chunks is so far the only way I’ve ever found to drink Earl Grey that made me like it. Tea adds such a lovely fragrant note that it can only make unusual mixtures more brilliant. Be brave.

This little lovely is a refreshing blueberry matcha iced blend, which is more liquid than the milkshakes, but less of a dessert.

This is not a sugar-free zone. I think you just have to live with that. I did.

5. The setting

IMG_9315Sofas and wooden chairs; an extra, quiet, area tucked away downstairs (seen left); plug sockets everywhere… This is a blogger’s paradise. Not to mention that the teaware and beautifully lit shelves up at the front make for a nice thing to gaze on even if Upper Street is windswept and grey.

Plus, it’s roughly equidistant from Angel and Highbury and Islington stations, so access is easy enough. And when you have, finally, had enough of tea (what’s wrong with you?) there are lots of great shops to potter around in (After Noah. Do it).

About a week after our tasting, Katie and I were back and dragging our pal Christina in for more tea – this time on our dime, so if you’re the type to be suspicious of bloggers, you know we must have loved it for real. I also bought the aforementioned Black and Cherry myself after tasting, and have it for when I fancy a sweeter hot drink or just need extra comforting in my cuppa.

If you’re too far away, you’re not excluded from all the fun, as Piacha does online orders of tea. I’m waiting for one of my caddies – I have a tea shelf stocked to groaning with loose leaf – to be available before nabbing some Shui Xian oolong; it’s a gorgeous savoury and I’m still thinking about it.

Disclosure: Katie and I were treated to a range of teas and treats by Pia and the team. Our opinions of what we sampled are entirely our own.

Review: 6teas Liquid Tea Concentrate

The 6teas bottle from each sideMy sister gives marvellously good presents. From Barbican and BFI membership (for reals, she’s great) to random infusions of goodies, she is a thoughtful soul. On her last visit to London, she bore with her this curious drink – a loose leaf tea liquid concentrate in a bottle.

The 6teas premise is simple. They brew, blend and bottle loose leaf teas in, well, six varieties from vanilla roiboos to green. The flavour K chose for me (knowing me well) was an Assam and Darjeeling blend known as the ‘Big Daddy House Blend’. Each bottle has six servings, and serving sizes are marked in a scale down the side. The tea looks pretty cloudy at this stage – like that horrible tea with a drop of milk some people insist on slurping (make a commitment – milk or no milk).

IMG_4916Now, I do love me some loose leaf tea, and I’ve become a really ridiculous tea snob, it’s true. Once you’ve got in the habit of properly brewing and drinking it, you realise that most teabags do actually taste of stewed powder and paper, and if you drink black tea – both type and milk status, as I often do – it’s simply not appealing from a bag. I’ve taken to only drinking roiboos in the office as the teabags are less grim (yes, yes, privileged problems, I think we’ve established that).  Still, I thought it was possible that liquid tea concentrate might be taking my tea hipster credentials just a tad far and – I admit – I thought it might taste a bit peculiar.

So, in with the serving into a mug, giving it a quick sniff (really rather nice). I went with a whole serving to begin with, although many of my mugs and teacups are quite small and K had said she goes for a weaker tea and can usually get seven or eight servings from a bottle. In it went. In went freshly boiled water. The cloudiness vanished, and there was a dark amber cup of tea with a strong, natural scent.

IMG_4875You know what? It’s lovely. Delicious and fresh. In fact, it tastes like a genuinely lovely cup of home-brewed proper tea. And unlike making Darjeeling at home it can’t be overbrewed (it’s such a bloody hard one not to tip into bitterness and since sugar in tea is an abomination unto Nuggan I am not going there). I’ve taken the rest of the bottle to work where I am, indeed, having slightly smaller servings for a lighter cup, and enjoying the taste of proper tea while it lasts. It does need to be refrigerated once opened, but as I sit in an open-plan office around 15 feet from a fridge, this isn’t a problem.

And yet… here comes the sticky bit. The cost. 6teas sells the tea in 3-packs, so 18 servings for £15.00. Even if you’re going to extract more like 22 servings, you’re still looking at, essentially, at least a 70p cup of tea. Now, knowing the costs of loose leaf and taking into account packaging, marketing, staff and expertise, I don’t think they’re overcharging in the slightest. From that perspective, I think it’s actually phenomenal value. But from my budget perspective, my 100g boxes of leaves can extract around 30 cups for around £10 (or 33p per cup). This is still way more expensive than a teabag, obvs, but we’re all a bit stupid about what we do with any disposable income we’re lucky enought to have, and that’s my indulgence. So what I need is tea fanatics with more money than me to spend lots and lots at 6teas until it brings the cost down a bit for all the rest of us.

IMG_4917All that said, I think it’s something I could be persuaded to get now and again, and if I attend the market in Yorkshire where my sister picked up her bottles I would buy some in person to support a local business I think has come up with a great-tasting, interesting, different product. Personally I’m not a fan of fruit infusions or floral blends – jasmine yes, Earl Grey yech – plus I don’t like vanilla flavouring in tea so I’d stick to BD or the green variety, but I hope they’ll be able to branch out to look at an oolong blend with a bit of success and encouragement.

The six blends are:

Big Daddy House Blend (Assam & Darjeeling)
Golden Green Tea (A fruity blend with Osmanthus blossom)
Pina Colada (flavoured black tea – not my cuppa, for sure!)
Rooibos & Vanilla (with a bunch of other flavourings, including strawberries
Red Fruit Dream (possibly my nightmare)
Russian Earl Grey (oh wait… but it is an interesting blend of Earl Grey and Russian Caravan if you like that kind of thing)

Or you can mix and match three together, or buy a gift card for a tea-obsessed friend. All available to buy online.

Disclosure: None needed as this was a gift and a voluntary review. I also blog with a friend about tea at Oolongingly.