The Tea Merchant
The story of the tea merchant is among my favourite.
It’s a tale of alchemy - of a destiny foretold and fulfilled. It’s the worldly legend of an extraordinary globetrotting heroine who travels far and wide to collect enchanting treasures, blending these natural wonders into teas of ethereal beauty for all to share. The story of the tea merchant is among my favourite because it is true.
Hoda Paripoush, Founder and Director of Sloane Fine Tea Merchants, had just returned from a trip to Morocco. She was there to visit farmers and source this season’s new crop of mint. Morocco is also where she sources verbena and orange blossom.
Taking advantage of March Break, this particular sourcing trip was also a family affair. With her 8-year-old daughter and her 1½ month-old son in tow, Hoda scoured the markets for inspiration. What she was looking for, this time around, had deeper significance; she wanted her daughter to experience the world that she had been bringing home to her customers all these years. "It’s just such an incredible hub of craftsmanship there," she shared. “So, it’s really great to be able to go and have my daughter see and go into the Medina - which is one of the main markets - and see the craftsmen selling their wares and their leather goods and, just everything. The colours, the beauty of fresh fruits, and I love the Moroccan mint tea, and for her to experience that.”
Over the phone, Hoda recounted her trip to me - her descriptions so vivid that I felt as though I had been taken along for the journey. The sights and sounds of the markets. The farms. The artisans. One particular story of finding and reconnecting with an older 4th generation spice merchant with whom she had shared a cup of his signature mint tea the previous year. Hoda’s a captivating storyteller; an attribute that is curiously reflected in every aspect of her teas. The more we talked, the more I understood that Sloane’s teas are in every way a personal account of Hoda’s history and personality.
Hoda was born in India to Persian parents. At the age of 3, they moved to Brockville, a small town in Eastern Ontario. With a peculiar sensitivity to scents, Hoda was enamored with old perfume bottles that she would collect from friends and family in an attempt to decipher their scent profiles.
Tea was ever-present in her household, a place where the samovar provided the first beverage of the day to the last beverage of the night. Hoda’s fascination with smells translated to tea blending habits at a very young age, using ingredients found around the house: the most exotic that a small-town Eastern Ontario No Frills could provide. She’d drop orange blossoms and rose water into her tea and experiment with different intensities of cardamom - something unusual for a 10-year-old.
Hoda was gifted with an innate talent for blending tea, but this was by no means what she believed was her calling until much later in life. Instead, with age came the familiar pressure of her Eastern immigrant parents’ expectation to become a doctor or engineer. Hoda chose allopathic medicine.
An exceptional student, Hoda completed her undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy with high distinction, then enrolled into naturopathy at York University. Given her stellar undergraduate performance, success was promising and much anticipated by her faculty. But it soon became apparent to Hoda that naturopathy was not the path that she was meant to take.
Hoda’s first semester in the naturopathy program hadn’t gone so well - her grades had declined in a short period of time despite her track record and reputation. Something was missing. Other students were passionate about the program, about the idea of holistic healing and, while she respected the field tremendously and loved the people in her faculty, Hoda didn’t feel the same way and it troubled her deeply.
She had started a tea club at school, something that came naturally to her, dedicating more time to running the club than to her studies. The club became her solace; and teatime the most special time of the day. Earl Grey is the tea that Hoda drinks the most, and, in her university years, it would frequently fuel her moments of welcome escape from the pressures of an undesired future. More notably, Earl Grey evokes deeply fond memories of an important figure in Hoda’s life: Frederick Forbes.
As per Persian customs, despite bearing no relation to each other she called him Uncle Rick. A retired French-Canadian gentleman, Uncle Rick was of Bahá’í faith like Hoda’s parents and very much part of their tight-knit community. When they first immigrated, Hoda’s parents needed help with childcare. It was Uncle Rick who dropped her off and picked her up from school and spent time with her while her parents were at work.
Under Uncle Rick’s tutelage, Hoda learned about the arts, culture, literature, and calligraphy. She also learned western tea drinking etiquette; Uncle Rick took teatime very seriously. He exclusively drank Earl Grey, which Hoda recalls he would have with lemon or milk. Formerly an engineer who helped build the Via Rail station in Brockville, Uncle Rick would frequently take Hoda with him on train trips to Montreal, Halifax, and Ottawa.
Their travels to Montreal would include afternoon tea, her first experience of which were with him. "Whenever I have Earl Grey," she said, “I really have beautiful memories of my time with him because he passed on now, but he was very much fundamental to the person I’ve become. […] There’s not an afternoon tea service that goes by where I don’t think of him. He was a very special soul.” Sloane teas are served on Via Rail today - a special point of pride for Hoda.
She was having Earl Grey the day everything changed. Hoda remembers it with immense clarity. It was a sunny day and Hoda was preparing for an anatomy exam, spending more time on the aesthetics of the diaphragm than memorizing its parts and functions. She had recently read The Alchemist. The book’s core message - that for those who choose to pursue their Personal Legend, the universe will conspire in helping them achieve it - impacted her deeply and was a tipping point in her life. She sipped her tea as she always did, accompanied by Mr. Christie cookies. Suddenly, she had an epiphany: "I realized that I don’t have to do this. I have the strength; I have the opportunity to pursue what I really want to do. And, even though I don’t really come from the tea industry, I didn’t have friends in the tea industry, or influences at the time that I knew of, I just knew that I wanted to be in the world of tea. […] My path was so pre-determined and in that moment I felt such immense liberation because I realized I could do anything I want. And what was beautiful is I knew exactly what I wanted to do."
The news to her parents was - expectedly - met with slight devastation: "You tell your Persian parents you’re going to pursue the world of tea, they just think you’re going to become a chai wala on the street. My parents lived in India for 11 years and, even though they drink tea, they never processed the world of tea as an industry – something that is bought, packaged, shipped, sold. […] So their worldview of tea was very limited."
In time, they came to appreciate Hoda’s decision. In fact, for her mother’s 60th birthday, her parents accompanied her on a sourcing trip to India. While they’d lived there, they never traveled through the country. "It was amazing for them to see the people I have met, to welcome them with open arms. And the places I have traveled to and the things that I’ve done. It was really magical for them."
Darjeeling 2nd Flush
After leaving naturopathy, Hoda attained her certification under the US Council Specialty Tea Institute Program and later completed the Tea Sommelier Program of Canada through George Brown College. Soon after, she decided that it was time for her to go to India to see the tea gardens for herself.
She attended the World Tea Expo in the U.S. and met a farmer from India. When she mentioned to the farmer and his wife that she was planning a trip to India, they invited her to visit their farm and give her a tour. It became her first sourcing trip.
Armed with a list of Darjeeling tea gardens, Hoda embarked on a journey into a remote part of India. The plane landed in the smallest of airports, followed by a 2 ½ -hour car ride up a mountain, a daunting trip for anyone, let alone a young woman traveling solo.
She was greeted with open arms by the farmer she had met half a world away; he was her gateway and guide to other tea gardens and farmers. Her list astonished him; Hoda had unintentionally chosen 10 of the most premium tea gardens, almost entirely by her own intuition and preference. She returned from her first sourcing trip with North American distribution rights for one of Darjeeling’s premier tea gardens.
"I’m a firm believer that life is happening for you, not to you," says Hoda. “When I first went to India, I really had no clue how things were going to go, but I knew that I was meant to go and that I had to take that first leap and somehow things would work out. I just knew. And I ended up visiting the most premier tea gardens in all of Darjeeling and, frankly, all of India.”
Building meaningful relationships is a hallmark of Hoda’s character, and by extension, Sloane’s core values. There is no supplier in this exchange. Hoda likens her trips to visits to family. In India, she’s known as choti behan (little sister), and she stays in their homes and spends time with their families. It’s, in part, to her dedication to knowing her producers on a personal level, that Hoda has secured exclusive access to some of the world’s most exquisite ingredients. To her, it is more than business. It’s an honest promise to showcase, in all their splendour, the work that they dedicate heart and soul to bring to life and nurture to perfection.
Jasmine Snow Dragon
For something that carries such personal importance, Hoda still approaches tea with careful thought and execution. Opening a tin of Sloane tea is an olfactory treat, and it’s no mistake. Rather, it’s a direct result of Hoda’s impeccable mastery of scent. To cultivate the intrinsic talent that had influenced her tea drinking since childhood, Hoda attended the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France, the capital of perfumery. There, she studied the principles of scent with the clear intention to apply these to blending tea.
Hoda wanted to approach tea blending as an art, with the objective to maintain the integrity of each ingredient. While mass producers often have the reputation for blending tea to mask substandard quality with artificial flavours, Hoda wanted to expose the natural aromas of quality teas, using natural ingredients to further enhance them.
For instance, 83 different types of bergamot were tested before a selection was made for Sloane’s Earl Grey Classic, in an attempt to find the most true to the actual fruit. A cold-pressed Italian bergamot from Sicily – which Hoda taught me is the birthplace of the fruit – is what gives the tea its signature citrus profile.
The same level of discerning treatment is given to every tea. "I take our jasmine scenting very seriously," Hoda explains. “We don’t scent the jasmine here because jasmine is scented, not with an oil, it’s scented with actual jasmine blossoms at origin. And the process of jasmine scenting is really intense and beautiful and very much an art. But the intensity of jasmine that we use on one of our teas in particular is extremely intense and extremely labour-intensive. Yielding that particular tea, our Jasmine Snow Dragon, one of probably the most expensive teas we have to offer, we have about 5 jasmines in our offering and that is the most premium – it’s 7 times its weight in fresh jasmine.”
This extraordinary attention to detail is applied right down to the packaging. Believing that "as much as we can bring beauty into this world, we should," Sloane’s tea caddies are an elegantly ornate affordable luxury; with each piece of their construct also serving an important purpose. “Tea for me is an experience and part of the experience is opening up a caddy or box of tea that is beautifully packaged. Without being wasteful, of course. It’s like a little gift to yourself each time you have tea”
Sloane teas have an almost mystical quality to them. I have never experienced anything quite like my first cup. First was a transcendental aroma. And then, a sublime first sip nothing short of memorable. It was a moment that begets a quiet, contemplative pause; I noticed all of the nuances and care put into every single detail of the tea.
Days after our discussion, I sat in front of an empty page not quite sure how to begin. Hoda had entrusted me with her story and I wasn’t sure how to justly convey its importance - how it should be told. Recalling her words, "there was really no stress that (tea) couldn’t alleviate for me or at least make it better temporarily", I brewed a cup of my favourite Sloane blend: Heavenly Cream.
As the aroma filled the air and I took my first sip, I finally realized, after all this time, why this tea was my favourite. The sweet scent of vanilla, the richness of the black teas; Hoda had unknowingly re-created the tea of my childhood. Though there’s always been a sense of familiarity, I didn’t recognize it at first. Perhaps it was because it was enhanced with notes of bergamot and far more elegant than what I drank as a child in Mauritius, where the vanilla-infused black tea is liberally dosed with milk and sugar.
As it always does, it brought me comfort, but it now also brought me the fantastical memories of a daydreaming child at teatime, dunking her Maria cookies into her tea. I was grateful and inspired. And I began to write.
Words by Kimberley Kwo. Uncredited photos by Abhishek Dekate.