What’s Wrong With the Cost of Tea?

This analysis by Which? speaks to something that has bothered me for years but even more so in the UK: why do we have to pay so much for a lousy cup of tea?

I’m not much of a coffee drinker, so if I’d like a warm drink it’s usually going to be tea for me. Yet somehow tea is ludicrously overpriced. Which? found prices that ranged from 89p (McDonald’s) to £1.65 (Costa Coffee) for poor-quality industrially processed tea in an off the shelf teabag. I can understand the mark-up to cover the cost of a high-street shop but this is ridiculous.

A recent Guardian Article about the same Which? analysis has the following from a Costa Coffee rep:

A spokeswoman for Costa said the chain was committed to “extremely high standards on the quality of our products, the environment in which they are served and the level of training we provide our in-store baristas”.

This bothers me even more. Sylvia has become a bit of a coffee snob since working for an Australian company so we routinely frequent places that put a lot of emphasis on the best coffee (no Costa Coffee by the way – they’re one of the worst chains around). Yet very often these places still do the same thing: give you tea bag that costs 3p at the grocery store and charge you up to £2 for the pleasure.

And this is what I don’t understand: why is it that there are hundreds of “gourmet” coffee shops around, shops with highly trained “baristas” using freshly imported mountain-grown beans, hand picked by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of… wherever … and yet their tea comes from a PG Tips or Twinnings tea bag? I don’t see these places offering Nescafé instant coffee or Maxwell House grounds but it’s the equivalent level of quality.

The worst part about all this is that there is a proper way to have a good, quality cup of tea, and it doesn’t involve a tea bag. Like coffee, there can be a huge difference in the quality of the end product based on the way it is picked, processed, and prepared. The best tea leaves come from the top of the bush and are best hand-picked, as opposed to cutting off a chuck of the top by machine, like is the source for tea bags. This is a labour intensive process of course, but that’s exactly where you can start to pay for a better quality product.

Tea that is hand-picked can be dried with the whole stem and leaves intact. Here is an example of traditional Chinese Pu’erh tea (普洱茶):

When it comes to preparing, tea can be very complicated (just like your barista’s coffee). At one end of the spectrum are the traditional tea ceremonies in Asia, but while these are possibly the best way to enjoy a good cup of tea, there are simpler ways that are conducive to take-out shops. To start with, different tea requires different temperatures of water and sorry America – lukewarm water with a teabag on the side is not one of the options. The other major thing to remember is that tea is steeped for a given amount of time and then the tea is removed from the water. There’s nothing worse than bitter over-steeped tea, yet this tends to be the standard product at most chain shops.

Fortunately in a city the size of London there are some places that serve tea properly. Here are a few that we frequent:

  • Yauatcha (http://www.yauatcha.com/) 15-17 Broadwick Street, W1F 0D
    A dimsum restaurant with an extensive tea menu from Taiwan and China
  • Yumchaa (http://www.yumchaa.co.uk/) 45 Berwick Street, W1F 8SF
    A quality tea shop with dozens of different kinds of loose-leaf tea prepared properly.
  • Tapped & Packed (http://www.tappedandpacked.co.uk/) 26 Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia, W1T 1JD
    One of those aforementioned coffee snob shops except this one applies the same snobbery to their tea, going so far as to use a thermometer through the process.

Know of any others? Please let me know in the comments!

Increadible Crowds for Holiday Shopping

The streets of London – particularly Central London – get ridiculously busy in December as people buy their gifts for Saturnalia. Oxford Street and Regent Street were both closed this weekend to accommodate the crowds.

Here are two pictures taken at Oxford Circus. One facing one direction:

Oxford Circus Holiday Crowds

And one facing the other direction:

Oxford Circus Holiday Crowds

Carnaby Street was busy as usual, and had some new decorations up for the holidays:

Carnaby Street Decorations

We did most of our shopping online this year, but it’s great to go out and see the crowds! I love this city.

Three Years!

Three Years in the UK

Today is my three year anniversary of coming to the UK!

It’s been a great three years, and Sylvia and I are still loving it (sorry: no plans to move back to Canada).

During this time I’ve learned to love British pub culture and in particular (warm) English ales. Beer anywhere else in the world just doesn’t cut it any more: there’s nothing better than a warm pub & pint on a cold English day. There’s so much going on in London – great food, great events, and lots of friends coming through – that we’re never in search of something to do! Decent public transit is a nice change as well, and it’s fantastic to be able to take a fast train to Paris or Brussels with St. Pancras right around the corner! We also (obviously) love the ability to travel easily (while cheap flights are still around!). I miss good peanut butter though …

In these past three years we’ve travelled to the Cook Islands & Fiji, Hong Kong, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Finland, Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Ireland, Estonia, France, New Zealand (& a bit of Australia), Germany, Egypt, Sweden, Croatia, Montenegro, Belgium – not to mention numerous trips back to Canada (bloody weddings!). I’ve also been shipped off for work to Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and various parts of Europe more times than I’d care to count (though I have to count for tax reasons). After all that travel my passport (a 48 page one!) is full! Of course, my UK Ancestry visa is still valid and the UK government doesn’t want to re-issue it so I guess I’ll be carrying two passports for a while … and don’t get me started on trying to get a new Canadian passport while living abroad …

We’ve spent a lot of time out of the country, so we’re starting to think we should try seeing a bit more of the UK (and London). Plus, working in Cambridge doesn’t allow me to get out in London nearly enough for my liking. Speaking of which, I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I’ve spent on the train between London and Cambridge on my way to & from work. This year I finally cracked and started working from home one day a week, which has allowed Sylvia and I to start taking Chinese lessons together (我们会说一点汉语).

I’m definitely heading to the pub today. Here’s to another great year in the UK!

You call this a loyalty program?

We signed up for Tesco’s “ClubCard.” Basically a loyalty program card like every big chain has these days. After several months of “collecting” I decided to see how many “points” we had worked up. Huh. Only 360? Doesn’t seem like much. Then I find out how this ridiculous program works.

First of all, you need to start collecting points, and then log into the Internet or call Tesco’s to request how you want to get your points. Why do you need to do this? I don’t know, but any points you collect before this point are null and void. Then, Tesco’s will send you a newsletter each month with your “coupons.” No, it’s not like a useful loyalty program – you know, like when you go to Shoppers Drug Mart and the cashier every so often says “Would you like $10 off of this purchase?” Oh no, you have to register, collect points, then wait a month or two for your “coupons” to come in the post.

So the damned thing finally came in the post today. Here’s what was in the envelope:

Tesco's ClubCard Garbage

Here’s the part I actually care about:

One stupid coupon for £3.50

Yeah, that’s right kids! I get a whopping £3.50 off of my next purchase!! That’ll just about cover one coffee for Sylvia at Fernandez & Wells. Remind me why I go through all this crap for £3.50? And of course if I forget to use this coupon I lose the £3.50 and the points are useless. Thanks Tesco’s!

Incidentally, I’m curious to see what they do with this data so I registered the ClubCard in my cat’s name. So every newsletter comes addressed to “The Lady Rib.” I’m sure Tinrib enjoys getting new mail in the post. Maybe I can use the excess crap Tesco’s sends her every month to line her litterbox.

Ltr frm dctr. OMG LOL.

I just received this text from my doctor’s office:

“U will have a ltr from NHS Islington asking u to confirm u r a pt at [name of doctor’s office] Please return this ltr asap or they may remove u from our list ta”

Really? REALLY? OMG LOL.

Another Bike Lock Incident

I got to Cambridge this morning (after landing into Heathrow at 6:30AM) only to find that yet again some idiot had locked his bicycle to mine. Unlike the first time this happened this guy had locked right around my inner frame so there was no way I was going to be able to get free.

Some idiot locked his bike to mine

I figured if I couldn’t get my bike free, the only other option would be to try to open the lock. Here’s what it looked like:

Close up of the Lock

It looked pretty straightforward – four numbers on a dial. I figured there were probably “teeth” inside and the correct numbers would have a gap under them that allowed the teeth through. I was reminded of 1996 when I read the (in)famous MIT Guide To Lock Picking while procrastinating at University. Could this lock really be that simple? Surely it had to be more complicated than this?

So I gave the following a try:

  1. I pulled the cable very tight, putting stress on the lock.
  2. While pulling the lock I rotated each number one-by-one. Each wheel was very hard to move (due to binding friction of pulling on the lock) but when I hit the “right” number the wheel eased up significantly.
  3. I did the same with each of the four wheels and the lock pulled open.

The above took me less than 20 seconds, and I’ve never picked a lock in my life. Here’s the end result:

Lock Opened

My bike was free! The whole ordeal, from noticing my bike was locked and including cursing, looking for a way to unravel it, kicking the guy’s tyres, texting Sylvia to bitch about it, figuring out the lock was probably easy to pick, and picking the lock was about 3 minutes in total. It’s not surprising that so many bikes get stolen at Cambridge Station.

And to the guy who’s lock this was:

  1. In the future, watch what you’re locking your damned bike to and,
  2. Buy a new lock immediately.

Tube Strike

London’s been a complete mess in the past couple of days while the tube workers have been on strike. There are lots of people above ground who should really be below ground. So, just for the occasion, here is the Amateur Transplants “London Underground Song” for your enjoyment:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgwoPG63B3Y]

Soft-Sell Telemarketers?

The evil telemarketer hunts for his next victimI was home sick today, so I had the joy of answering mid-day phone calls (who do they expect to be around to pick these in most homes?). One call was from BT (British Telecom) and it went as follows:

“Hello, is this Mr. Slaughter?”
“Yes.”
“Oh Hello Mr. Slaughter. This is just a courtesy call from BT. Do you have Internet access in your home?”
“Yes I do.”
“Is it broadband?”
“Yes it is.”
“Would you consider switching your broadband to BT if we were to offer you a special deal?”
“Probably not, no.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m pretty happy with my current provider.”

.. all in all pretty normal, except for his response:

“Oh, OK. Well have a nice day then. {click}”

What the hell? In Canada I would have been arguing with the sonofabitch telemarketer all afternoon! Is that all it takes around here to get rid of a telemarketer? Amateurs! :)

Airport Security: the Roulette Wheel of Rules

I’m flying out of Heathrow Airport (Terminal 5) this morning on my way to a few meetings in Munich. I just flew out of T5 last month so I didn’t expect much of a problem, but this morning there was a huge queue. Guess what? They changed the security requirements again! Yay!

So now they’ve decided that because domestic and international flights leave out of the same terminal they need to double-check the identity of people flying domestically (don’t ask me why). That means they take photographs of all domestic travellers, and check everybody’s boarding pass to see if they’re domestic. Great.

After getting through that first new queue, I get to security and an even larger queue. Oh look! After months of advertising “leave your laptops in your bags!” (and chewing out anybody who took them out) they now have big signs stating “take your laptop out of your bag.” What happened to all those state-of-the-art scanners they were supposed to have?

Of course, all shoes come off. That’s been consistent for about a year, except when they decide it’s not.

All of this just adds to the fun of airport security. It reminds me of one time I flew out of a US airport on my way to Toronto, and then flew out of the same airport on the same flight three weeks later. The conversation went something like this:

The TSA person scared the crap out of me when he yelled, “STOP RIGHT THERE!! Take off your shoes!”

I was shocked to say the least; I didn’t need to take off my shoes three weeks earlier. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t realize I needed to take off my shoes.”

“Of course you have to take off your shoes! This is an airport you know.”

Well, as I later learned, when I flew out the first time it was “threat level yellow” and three weeks later it was “threat level orange.” The difference (at security) is that at level orange you need to remove your shoes. Of course, how silly of me.

I guess in the US they at least tell you the threat level (look for it – there will always be a little sign near security stating the threat level). In the UK they just make you guess what the security-regulations-of-the-week will be.

Snow in Cambridge

There’s been slow in England lately, but what’s particularly unusual is that it’s staying. This is the second day we’ve been back from New Zealand and there’s been snow on the ground since. What the hell!? I didn’t sign up for this!
Good thing I’m going to Las Vegas tomorrow (though, it’s probably snowing THERE as well!)
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

It’s Cold in Canada

We just got back from Canada this week, after having Christmas with the Gajewski family. I took this photo the day we were leaving:

Ten Below

Yeah, I don’t miss that.

It was a quick visit, but it was great to see friends, do some Karaoke, and have Christmas with the Gajewskis. I think we did a pretty good job of decorating the reception living room:

Christmas at the Gajewski's

My New Eyes – Part 2

It’s been about two and a half weeks since my first surgery and almost a week since my second. All is well! I had an eye test on my right eye and I can see better than 20/20 – so better than I was ever able to see using contact lenses! It’s still amazing to me that this kind of surgery is even possible.

Here is what my right eye looks like. In the right light (like in this picture!) you can see the Artiflex intraocular lens that’s permanently attached to my iris, beneath my cornea:

My eye with the Artiflex lens visible

Amazing.

I’m still taking eye drops for the next month or so (antibiotics and steriods), but by about the time of the yearly Saturnalia holidays I should be in the clear.

Fun fact, the steroids that I’m taking (dexamethasone) is the same drug that resulted in Polish cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk being disqualifed from the Under 23 (U23) OPA (Alpine nations) Intercontinential Competition in Germany. Too bad: I was planning on participating in competitive cross-country skiing this winter after my convincing run last year in Finland.

My New Eyes – Part One

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with epithelial keratitis, which resulted in severe photophobia one morning in June. I learned that 17 years of soft contact lens wear had eventually taken its toll on my eye and, while they would likely recover, it would be difficult for me to wear soft contact lenses regularly for a long time. My high-myopia prescription (-10 & -9) is too strong for LASIK to be totally reliable and there’s no way I was wearing glasses for the next few years (I have no peripheral vision and I’m likely to get hit by a bus).

So, today I am going for my first of my two eye surgeries (like most people, I have two eyes, and sadly, they don’t do both at once). I will be getting an Artiflex Intraocular lens (IOL) implanted into the anterior chamber of my eye. Something like this:

Artiflex Lens Diagram

Basically a bit of perspex inside my eye. I can’t believe they can actually do these things and, apparently it’s quite routine. My doctor is Dr. Chad Rostron, who’s be doing surgery similar to this for many years.

I know, you’re so excited you can hardly contain yourself, so here it is … video of similar procedure to what I’m getting today:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP1jaxcA-aI]

Wish me luck!!

Born in October, Aged 32 Years

Birthday Scotch - 32 Years

I celebrated my 32nd birthday with my 5-year standing tradition: drink a glass of Scotch that was aged longer than I’ve been alive. This sounded like a very good idea when I was 27, but it gets surprisingly expensive as I get older. I was impressed that I was able to find a 30-year old Scotch in Los Angeles airport on my 30th birthday, even if it was US$250. Fortunately this is one thing that’s become cheaper since I moved to the UK.

Sylvia and I were planning to go away this weekend to celebrate my birthday but that’s been pre-empted by a 2-week business trip to California. We’re still thinking of getting to Scotland however; hopefully we’ll be able to make our planned trip to Inverness the last weekend in October. So, unlikely my 29th birthday, I wasn’t going to have the luxury of purchasing my Scotch in Scotland.

So, I picked up a bottle at local Whiskey shop in London. This year I chose a 32-year old Speyside from Convalmore Distillery; admittedly, a distillery I had never heard of. As it turns out, Convalmore closed in 1985, with this particular Scotch being distilled in 1975 (one of 202 bottles from cask #4246). This bottle was a great purchase as it turned out to be a nice, smooth Scotch with a slightly smokey aftertaste. It reminds me of my daily cups of Taiwanese Lapsang Suchong. An excellent topper to my 32nd.

The Worlds Largest Map and Travel Bookshop

/Media Card/BlackBerry/pictures/IMG00093.jpg

Well Sylvia’s in heaven. After almost 2 years in London we just today stumbled across Stanfords, a shop that bills itself as “The Worlds Largest Map and Travel Bookshop.” All these times we’ve been hunting all around for our more obscure travel books when we could’ve just stopped by here. We know for the future.

Another Year in the UK

September 10th has come which marks another year (a total of two years) since I arrived in the UK. It’s been really great so far and Sylvia and I are still loving it here.

We haven’t been very good about updating our blog lately, probably because we’ve both been living hectic schedules. We went back to Toronto for Lindsay & Kynan Bridge’s wedding in August. I then went directly to San Francisco for a tradeshow and then back to the UK just long enough to pack and meet Sylvia to head to Tallinn, Estonia for the August Bank Holiday:

The Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia

We also spent one day in Helsinki, Findland and instead of taking the ferry from Tallinn we finally got to tick off something we’ve been meaning to do for a while: ride in a helicopter!

Copterline Helicopter

We then used some of Sylvia’s points on the Eurostar from her regular trips to Brussels and visited Paris last weekend.

Sylvia in a Paris Cafe

Of course, for all the good photos you need to add Sylvia to your FaceBook – she doesn’t get around to posting photos on the Britlog much these days! :)

Of course, this year was another great year of travel. This year I’ve been out of the country for about 140 days – about half of that for business travel. For business I ended up in the US, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea. Surprisingly I was able to go the whole year without going to Japan, which is fine by me (I’m not a fan of seafood, but I do miss the Kobe beef). Sadly – to save on travel costs – my trips were on a mish-mash of different airlines, including several trips on the now-defunct Oasis Airlines, so I’m probably the most travelled person in the world with no decent status on any airlines. I’m hoping to fix that in the coming year.

For personal trips Sylvia and I went to Estonia, Finland, the Czech Republic, France, Morocco, Poland, Greece, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and a few spots in the British Isles including a weekend in Northern Ireland. Of course, I also went to Switzerland (Geneva) to see the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – which just went online this week and hasn’t destroyed the Earth yet. We still haven’t seen nearly enough of the UK however; I’d like to get up to see Edinburgh for my birthday (I have to find some 32-year old scotch!) but October isn’t exactly the best time to be going to Scotland …

All in all a pretty good year. We just recently signed on for another year in our house in London (which reminds me – I hate estate agents) so I guess we’ll be here for another year. Now it’s time to get ready for the long nights of the British winter.

I’ll Be a Little Late Coming in Today …

IMG00509.jpg

I arrived at the Cambridge Station bike lot this morning to find a happy surprise: the person next to me had locked her (yes, her: it was a girly bike) bike to mine. Interesting. I had to take apart my brake line by hand to wrestle it free. That made me a little late for work!
Remind me to buy a tool kit to keep in my cycling bag.