By Elly Welch
“Thanks for the lovely smells!” calls the gentleman just leaving. He’s not being ironic. It smells delicious in the Hebridean Tea Store. Like Christmas, and candy, with a whiff of continental sophistication swirled in.
“He was having a sniff of my new Machair tea,” explains owner Sabine Weiten, balancing precariously on a chair to replace it. “Its my own blend, heather and cornflowers.” She swirls the caddy under her own nose. “Magical,” she breathes.
It would be wrong to apply the ‘Tardis’ cliché to this tiny specialist tea emporium, for The Hebridean Tea Store, which raises a cup to three years trading this month, looks wee and really is.
But big character Sabine, from near Cologne in Germany, has somehow turned its few square metres into a vortex of choice and flavours. She’s even managed to fit in a table and chairs - part of the window display, nestled amongst the teapots.
“I think I have the smallest shop in Stornoway but, whatever space I have, I would fill it!” she says, craning to a high shelf for Castle Brew, a smoky scented ‘Keemun’ that the creator of Lews Castle, Sir James Matheson, would have been familiar with, and that she wants me to try.
As our brew steeps, a shower of customers sweeps into number 8 Church Street ‘like hail’, in Sabine’s words: mums with prams, husbands with lists, visitors curious to investigate the splash of colour that this shop makes on the Stornoway streetscape.
“People might think that the Outer Hebrides is all about boiling a teapot on a stove ‘til the ‘spoon stands up’ but I have been amazed at how adventurous local people, in particular, have been,” said Sabine.
And you can see why. Sabine’s teas are sourced all over the world, and many are blended to Sabine’s specific instructions. Just gazing at the floor to ceiling caddies lining the shop is compelling. But look closer and you’ll see the owner’s inimitable titles splashed all over them: Tickly Vicky, Bad Weather Tea, Fishermen’s Blend, Smiling Dragon, Sleepy Heather.
There are herbal and fruit infusions, flower blends, rooibos and honeybush, green, white and 42 different varieties of black loose leaf. There’s a cuppa for every gender, every age, every time of day, or night, and each with its own instructions. Teabag lovers, its time to dig out your strainers…
“I get to do a lot of tasting,’ says Sabine. “It’s a dream job – you dive in with all your senses. Its just a shame about paperwork, and technology” she adds, frowning at her latest investment, a laser scanner till. “I bought this to make me more 21st century but I think my head is stuck in the last one!” But she’s roaring with laughter.
Sabine is not only the only tea store in Stornoway, she believes she is the only one in the north and west of Scotland, too. But, for her, having a choice of brews has been part of life since her teens when she started working at a tea store in her hometown. She had dreamed of having her own ever since.
And here she is, helped in the busier times by her daughters Barbara and Annika - a family-run business that looks set to grow and grow under her enthusiastic leadership.
Limited space has not stopped her branching out into some beautiful teatime accessories: cups and saucers, teapots, refillable caddies (you get a discount when you come back for a top up). There are biscuits, chocolates, and sometimes she brings in some of her own German baking too. You can even buy coffee, ground while you wait. And if you buy an insulated cup you can pop in at lunch and get a discounted refill.
“To see people enjoying their teas, makes me a very happy lady,” admits Sabine. “A good cuppa – what more do we need?”
Sabine’s shop is open Monday to Saturday, 10-5. You can also buy her teas online at www.hebrideanteastore.scot. There’s probably more room there, but you really can’t beat the sweet fug of a room full of caddies.