Biased as this sounds, I consider myself a very trustworthy person. You can trust me with your house key, your wallet, your birth certificate and even your kids. . . . but not tea. You could hand me your entire life savings in cash and fully expect to have every penny returned to you upon demand, but leave a full teapot anywhere near my grasp and I will very likely consume far more than my fair share and make liberal use of your milk, honey and sugar. On the exceedingly rare occasion that I do turn down tea, my friends have immediate concerns for my health. So when I was wandering around Frederick a few days ago scouting out places to review and just happened to stumble upon the new Voila tea shop, it was love at first sight.
The scent of hundreds of dried tea-leaf varieties and steeping samples immediately captured my olfactory sense upon opening the door. I was torn between turning left or right because both walls were covered in tin cans full of loose tea leaves. I felt overwhelmed as I realized that I could not possibly take a sniff of all of them in a reasonable amount of time even if I hurried with each one. At the same time, taking in all of the nice furniture and tea accessories was going to take more than a quick visit, so I decided to come back another day to talk with the genius behind this little piece of Heaven in Frederick.
As crazy as it sounds, the shop owner, Mary Jean Clark, is a bigger tea enthusiast than even I could dream of being. She stocks 230 different types of loose-leaf tea, and that was after she spent months sampling from about 1,700 different types from suppliers all over the world to find just the perfect blends. She actually wanted to stock over 300 teas, but found that her store just wouldn't make the room for it.
So how does someone become crazier about tea than I am? Well, it all started in France. Mary was unhappy with her job, and while on a trip to Paris she discovered many cafes and tea shops that inspired her. She felt that Frederick was able to sustain a shop that has tea as a main focus, and she specifically modeled her store on a French shop called "La Route au Thé" or "The Route to Tea."
When I asked Mary what makes her tea different from grocery store tea, she said the best way of explaining it was to see for myself. She took a plain teabag out of a store-bought box labeled "Super Fruit," which is a blend of green tea, red goji and raspberry. She cut the bag open and poured it onto a dish where it looked like green powder or dust. Then she showed me the tea from her store that she calls super fruit and it looked like a pile of discernible dried herbs and fruit. She could point to the different constituent parts by name and distinguish them from the full green tea leaves.
As she described her tea, she also read my mind. I was worried that her kind of tea would have to just be for special occasions, for surely it would come with a higher price tag. But before I even asked she said that 2 ounces of her tea only costs $8. I looked around a bit online and found that the grocery store brand can cost more than $10.
She had a lot of trouble saying what her favorite teas are. However, she eventually came up with a few frontrunners that are anything but typical grocery-store flavors, but why don't I let her tell you about it herself?
As with most of the stores in downtown Frederick, another big difference between Voila and the grocery store is the level of service. Mary works really hard to discover exactly which tea is best for which customer by starting with broad categories like black or green and slowly narrowing down the list. She can describe subtle influences on the flavor that I would have never considered, such as the mode of transportation used to bring it out of the fields. She reminds me more of a maker of fine wines than a tea seller. She refused to talk with me during regular business hours for fear that her attention might be taken away from her customers.
Mary said that in choosing the tea accessories for the store she was less interested in presentation than practicality because there are already many antique stores in Frederick that provide elegant tea sets and she didn't want to compete with them. She also wanted to make her teas as easily accessible to the average person as possible. Every tea has an ideal water temperature and steeping time, so she has several pots, infusers and other vessels that allow you to carefully and conveniently monitor these particulars. She showed me a heavy-duty portable tea thermos with a built-in infuser that can be removed from the tea at the right moment without having to open the lid. I was super excited about this because I had always thought the only option for drinking tea on the go was a tea bag, but now I have choices!
For those who like to doctor up their tea with sweeteners, Mary can't even seem to do that in the typical way. Her honey comes from a local producer who also imports several special flavors that I have never before now seen outside of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, including one that tastes vaguely like marshmallow. But all of the bottles that she sells have no added flavor, meaning that the flavor comes entirely from whatever pollen the bees used to make it.
Even her sugar has a unique flare. Imported from France and sold in individual burlap sacks sealed with wax, the sugar granules are left in their raw form and infused with various flavors such as citrus, cocoa, and ginger.
Although Mary is very good at explaining the particulars of how to make each cup of tea perfectly, if you still aren't up to trying it on your own, you can actually order hot and iced tea by the cup and she will brew it for you right in the store. She was gracious enough to make me a nice tall cup of a black tea she called "Anti-Oxidant Yum" on ice. Definitely a strong black tea, the pomegranate, blue berry and cranberry blended into the mix made it much more interesting than my typical afternoon teas.
The store is on the small side, but Mary has still made room for some really nice chairs for taking a rest while you shop. She said that she figured most people coming into her store would be with other people who may or may not share an enthusiasm for tea (Gasp!) and that they might "need a place to park." She figured that since she would be taking up the space with seating, she might as well go ahead and provide a nice line of furniture for sale, so she found a provider based in North Carolina called Old Hickory Tannery. Made of sturdy wood and covered with many different leather options, Mary says that she is able to offer this furniture at a great discount compared to most of its other locations.
I said my regretful goodbyes to Voila in the only way that was really appropriate. I bought two types of tea that I have always had a very difficult time finding. Normally I have to drive all the way to Shepherdstown for one of them, which although a fun trip, is not always a possible one for someone who lives near Frederick on a low gasoline budget. But now that I've found this place, you and I will never have to worry about running out of our favorite teas again.
10 N. Market St.
Frederick, MD 21701
www.voila-in-frederick.com (coming soon)