Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Our Cups Runneth Over

All was not well at Fort Victoria in November of 1850. Scottish labourers, fed up with the hardships of pioneer life, were threatening to leave the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost and head to California, where they could earn higher wages spurred by the ’49 gold rush. Chief factor James Douglas needed a bribe to keep them here.

“To prevent a general strike and desertion, 2 ozs. of Tea and 1 lb. of Brown Sugar were allowed to each of these men weekly,” he later wrote, “a circumstance I do not now regret as it satisfied them.”

Tea and coffee are so commonplace in the Pacific Northwest today that it’s easy to forget they were once considered luxuries. The HBC crammed its ships from England with goods to trade for furs, and since the natives had no interest in exotic leaves and beans, they were only available to Company employees at Christmas, if at all.

That changed with the Fraser River gold rush of 1858. Victoria boomed, and importers quickly set up shop to satisfy the tastes of American and Chinese miners. By the end of that year, one writer noted, Victoria had “twenty or thirty restaurants and coffee houses ... in short all the beginnings of a large city.”

Perhaps the most successful of those early merchants was James Fell, an English grocer who opened a spice warehouse on Broad Street in 1864, and advertised his wares across the province with the slogan, “Always ask for Fell’s Coffee at the mines.” A devout spiritualist, Fell served as the city’s mayor from 1885 to 1887, and dedicated his profits to philanthropy, buying the collection of books that started the city’s first public library, and helping establish the Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Fell’s enterprise is gone, but we still have Murchie’s Tea and Coffee, which started in New Westminster in 1894, although it didn’t open a Victoria outlet until 1951. The oldest continually-operating such importer in the city is Cairo Coffee Merchants on Fort Street, which has been here since at least 1922.

In Victoria’s early days, the coffee in local eateries wasn’t much better than you’d find at a logging camp: cooks would roast the beans in a pan, grind them up, and boil them into a soup. By 1905, the Colonist was advertising newfangled stovetop percolators that produced “a drink fit for the gods,” and finer establishments used glass vacuum pots. But coffee-making remained complicated, and coffeehouses retained their early reputations as smoky, male domains. (Indeed, some Victoria establishments called themselves “coffee saloons”.) Tea had been the most popular drink in England since the 18th century, and as Victoria evolved from a frontier town into a wealthy colonial city, tea became even more prominent here.

Numerous family-friendly tea gardens sprang up around town, especially at parks and beaches, popular for weekend outings. The B.C. Electric Railway built the Deep Cove Chalet in 1914 at the end of one of its streetcar lines. The large, cream-coloured house that sits nearest the water on Gonzales Bay (photo left) was once a tea pavillion, which operated from the early 1900s to the 1930s. Another tea garden stood in Mount Douglas Park (photo above right); Emily Carr used part of it as a studio in the 1940s.

Most elegant of all was the Japanese Tea Garden (photo below right), built by the Takata family on the Gorge in 1907, and landscaped by Isaburo Kishida, who later designed Japanese gardens for Butchart Gardens and Hatley Castle. Tragically, this tea garden closed in 1942 – when the Takatas were sent to internment camps – and vandals destroyed it soon afterward. Fortunately, Esquimalt plans to build a new Japanese tea house on the site.

Like all international commodities, tea and coffee have been affected by world events. Britain stockpiled tea during World War I, escalating global prices; during World War II, the Canadian government rationed citizens to one ounce of tea or four ounces of coffee per week. In the 1970s, cartels in India (which grows most of the world’s tea) and Brazil (coffee) drove up prices again, stimulating greater cultivation of both commodities in other countries.

Since then, thanks to relative economic stability, global travel, and ever-fussier consumers, the demand for boutique tea and coffee has exploded, and locally too. Around 3,000 people attended last weekend’s Victoria Tea Festival, and the Fairmont Empress currently serves afternoon tea to some 80,000 customers annually. In 1993, the year before Starbucks opened its first outlet here, Victoria only had 17 coffee retailers; today, Starbucks alone has 24 outlets in the city, and over 100 independent espresso-slingers crowd the phone book.

Victoria can also boast one of the first caffeinated websites, coffeecrew.com, started in 1995 by Colin Newell, an IT specialist at the University of Victoria. (Newell’s local roots go deep: his grandmother was a tea-leaf reader at Cairo Coffee Merchants in the 1920s.) So he seemed a good person to ask: why do Victorians seem obsessed with hot, fragrant drinks?

It’s the climate, Newell replied. Scandanavian countries are the biggest per-capita guzzlers of coffee – Britain is biggest for tea – “and where there’s continuous rain, there’s continuous coffee consumption.”

As James Douglas knew, sometimes it’s the small pleasures that keep us here.


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