Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

COMINS TEA HOUSE

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

Three years ago Michelle and Rob Comins moved to Sturminster Newton to begin a new life as owners of a tea shop. So far, so quaint, but Comins is no ordinary tea shop. Michelle and Rob are also merchants, importing a range of over 30 speciality teas, direct from source. Their exquisite end product is presented with encyclopaedic knowledge and an unhurried dedication to ceremony.

What brought them to Dorset began several continents away, but their journey begins in England. Michelle and Rob met while at university studying biochemistry and geography. Michelle went on to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals while Rob became a primary school teacher. Michelle worked her way up through a series of roles to a managerial position but felt disadvantaged when leading meetings due to her petite physique.

A friend suggested Michelle should take a less formal approach and hold meetings over a ‘shared hot drink’. The theory being that the time spent preparing and sharing removes barriers and becomes a bonding experience. Michelle tried this out and found that it worked.

The idea triggered memories. Michelle had often taken tea with her mother on Saturdays as a way of remaining close and sharing what was happening in each of their lives. The recollection of this simple ritual struck a chord. Rob meanwhile remained sceptical and it was not until a trip to India in 2007 that things started falling into place.  Michelle managed to persuade him to visit the plantations of Darjeeling where a chance meeting and tea tasting with a Mr Rajah Banerjee, changed Rob’s perception of tea forever. He was converted and the bud of an idea was formed.

Later, when Michelle’s work required that they relocate to Belgium, the couple settled in to the custom of visiting tea houses (rather than coffee shops) as a place to chat and meet like-minded people.  Inspired, Michelle and Rob began to explore the very real possibility of becoming tea merchants, sourcing pure loose-leaf tea from small specialist growers and bringing it home to the UK.

It wasn’t that simple of course. They have three children under the age of 5 and so, at the time, needed to find a home that would accommodate the business and a growing family. The solution, they decided, was to find a house with a shopfront.  And so three years ago Rob, Michelle and their young family moved into The Quarterjack on Sturminster Newton’s Bridge Street, now home to Comins Tea House.

Stepping over the threshold of Comins is likeslipping into another world. The white noise of passing traffic and driving rain gives way instantly, almost eerily, to an altogether pleasant vacuum of calm. Over our Oolong tea, Michelle enthuses >about her customers; ‘They are amazing, open minded people and really keen to try new things’.

At Comins, to compliment their teas, ‘new things’ take the form of Hokkaido, a sweet Japanese milk bread served for breakfast with cinnamon butter, and lunches of Japanese pork, vegetarian gyoza dumplings or Indian Momo dumplings. All unusual, exciting dishes. They even serve a soothing Matcha ice-cream and, in a unique cultural pairing, a traditional array of scones and cake.

Rob and Michelle spend time with customers, explaining the subtle nuances of each tea, along with their provenance and accompanying rituals. ‘Taking tea is about ceremony and making time,’ explains Michelle. ‘There are many different customs and methods. In our increasingly frenetic world the ritual of making, pouring and tasting the tea is a great way of slowing down and taking stock.’ It certainly makes for a healthy experience before even considering the physical benefits of the tea itself.  ‘The key to drinking tea is infusing it many times,’ says Michelle as she pours the 90°C water over our shared Oolong. ‘The ceremony is a journey. This tea is at its best at the third infusion.  The first awakens the tea, the second is drunk but it is on the third that the tea truly begins to reveal itself. You can infuse Oolong up to eight times.’

Our own national ritual of dunking a dusty teabag into some hot water and adding a splash of milk appears vulgar by comparison. ‘Tea is part of the fabric of life in China,’ says Michelle who has recently returned from thereon a tea-buying trip. ‘Taking tea is a mechanism for bringing people together. I really do believe that in the countryside there, they have a better knowledge of plants than we do here. Each village drinks their local tea, it is their way of connecting with their surroundings.’

Part of Michelle’s mission is to support small tea gardens and buy directly from their owners.  She has travelled across India, China and Japan, visiting gardens and sampling their teas. ‘I really want to stimulate the same debate about tea in this country as we have had recently about coffee.’ She actively encourages visitors to try new teas. ‘I want people to taste the different flavours,’ Michelle explains, ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t like it.’ They will guide you so as to make the visit to the teahouse a personal experience and it doesn’t have to be in the company of friends. ‘Lone tea-drinking is a form of mindfulness,’ she points out. ‘Just to sit and think over a cup of tea is very calming.’

Our next tasting is of Matcha tea. Rich and energising Comins Matcha comes from Uji, just outside Kyoto and much has been written about its health benefits. It is often sprinkled on cereal and the like but really Matcha is best taken as a tea. The process of making it is a Japanese ritual requiring years of practise. It involves firstly the correct selection of a bowl for your guest to drink from. In Japan each bowl would have a significance for that particular person (Michelle and Rob import Japanese Matcha bowls for an authentic Matcha experience). Rob is master of ceremonies this time. He pours the water and whisks, with gentle flicks of the wrist, the finely milled green powdered tea with a Chasen (bamboo) brush to create froth. ‘Matcha tea making is very precise and takes years to learn in Japan’. He is passionate about the assimilation and sharing of knowledge and it is this appreciation of detail that drew Rob into the world of tea. ‘I am the tea geek,’ he laughs.

Recently the couple have opened a 2nd tea house on Monmouth Street in Bath where they continue to develop their business both as house and merchant. They also hold talks about their buying trips to the East. China was the most recent but also another fond favourite is Ambootia Gardens in India where they grow the finest Darjeeling. ‘Many tea gardens in India have recently fallen into neglect. Sanjay Bansal and his team at Ambootia are actively reviving many in Assam and Darjeeling. They are using bio-dynamic and organic gardening which will repair the soil-erosion that has taken place and allow the workers to have safe drinking water.’ ‘We strive to have a connected life,’ says Michelle. ‘By supporting the small tea gardens across the world, we’re able to help the growers, in much the same way as Fairtrade does for the coffee industry. They in turn enable us to meet and connect with people over our shared love of tea.

It goes back to tea being a way of bringing people together,’ and with a beatific smile, Michelle pours me another bowl of Matcha.

www.cominstea.com