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Vol. LXV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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Serious Tea Drinkers Gather at Infini-T

Anne Levin

Those who swear by their daily mugs of java have welcomed the proliferation of coffee houses in Princeton. But while tea is always available at these cafes, the choices can be limited, making those who favor the leaf over the bean feel like second-class citizens.

The owners of a new cafe in town had these under-served in mind when they opened on Hulfish Street two months ago. Tea is the focus at Infini-T Cafe & Spice Souk, and we’re not just talking about tea and scones. There is serious tea consumption going on here, with unusual and prized varieties that the owners travel to plantations in India and the Far East to procure.

“Was that a good amount? It’s just a little bit of cardamom, and I didn’t want to overwhelm you,” co-owner Mary Fritschie told customer Eddie Grove last week after brewing some green tea for him to replicate the kind he likes to drink in Afghan restaurants. “This is the way it’s been served to me in India,” she told him.

After waiting patiently for several minutes as the tea brewed, Mr. Grove, a sophomore at Princeton University, pronounced it “perfect.” “This place is unique, because they have such a personalized approach,” he said. “They will make whatever drink you want. I come here all the time. I’m a prospective Near Eastern Studies major so I like to sit here while I do my Persian homework.”

On a recent, blustery October afternoon, there was a gentle hum of conversation and low-volume music inside Infini-T, which is at the downstairs site of the former Underground Cafe. Big jars of spices, from hibiscus and licorice root to chrysanthemum and garam masala, sit across from the entrance. Colorful scarves from India hang in one corner. Tables and chairs, pillows on the floor, and low couches provide seating. Shelves of books, most of which Mr. Fritschie buys from Princeton Public Library’s used book sales, are available to customers, along with games and chess boards.

Ms. Fritschie and her partner, Michael Carnevale, each live in Princeton with their families. Mr. Carnevale was formerly a Tax Partner with the firm Deloitte & Touche LLP; Ms. Fritsche grew up in a “Mom and Pop” store and has always wanted to replicate the small-town, friendly atmosphere in a retail setting. Both owners are avid travelers.

“My parents owned a five-and-dime in Bergenfield, and everyone knew me in town,” Ms. Fritschie said. “My great-grandparents had a soda shop in Paterson, so it’s always been in our family.” Her love of travel was nurtured early. “My mother was from Holland so we’d travel back and forth,” she said. “Then, from when I was 17 till I was 20, I hitchhiked and backpacked through Europe. I just loved meeting other people from different cultures. I’ve raised my kids to be travelers, too.”

Mr. Carnevale’s travels have taken him to such exotic locales as Cairo, Dubai, and Mumbai, where he is drawn to the local markets, or souks. When he and Ms. Fritsche were thinking of opening a locally-based business that would reflect their interests and allow them to spend time with their families, teas and spices made sense.

“We observed that there was no real teahouse in Princeton,” Mr. Carnevale said. “We thought the population would embrace the idea of tea — a good cup of tea. We wanted to be environmentally conscious and health-focused. Fair trade also comes into play.”

He and Ms. Fritschie flew to India specifically to visit tea plantations in Darjeeling and Assam and learn about the different teas they produced. “We stayed at one estate and we observed that they really take care of their employees,” Mr. Carnevale said. “We were comfortable with their practices and thought they were consistent with the fair trade concept.”

The fact that Mr. Carnevale is a connoisseur of wine is not surpising. “Tea is like wine in that everything has a little bit of a different taste,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities in tasting wine and tasting tea. We’re educating people about tea, the way we might educate them about wine.”

The teas served at Infini-T are also available in their own private tea tins displaying the year and the vintage. The latest crop of Loose Leaf Black Tea is labeled “2011 Assam Second Flush,” from the Khongea Estate in Assam, India. “We have about a dozen of the best teas you’re ever going to get,” Mr. Carnevale said. “I’ve tasted and picked the best ones.”

Teas are brewed in French presses rather than net bags at the cafe. Different teas require different temperatures, and brewing times vary. Chai is simmered each morning for two to three hours.

Details are key. “We’ve thought a lot about how to serve our teas,” Mr. Carnevale said. “We decided on Bodum double-walled glasses, because they keep the tea warm but don’t burn hands.” Turkish teapots are used to brew Turkish coffees (the cafe does serve some coffees), along with Turkish sugar cubes and Turkish delight candies. Moroccan tea comes in Moroccan teapots and glasses.

Ms. Fritschie bakes in the cafe’s kitchen each morning. The menu is all-vegetarian and caters to various requests. Some offerings are vegan, others are gluten-free. “You’d be surprised at how many requests there are when you start talking to people about their dietary needs,” she said. “We try to be conscious of these needs and spend time with people talking about them. We use pure ingredients, organic when we can.”

Some of the recent offerings included a buttery biscuit flavored with lavender, vegan oatmeal cookies, and an iced, green cupcake made with Japanese matcha green tea powder. “I love baking in this kitchen,” said Ms. Fritschie, who uses two new ovens. She is considering offering cooking demonstrations led by people from different countries as part of the community outreach efforts, which also include live music, poetry readings, and performances. “I’ve met the most wonderful, eclectic, unique people in these past eight weeks,” she said. “We tell everybody ‘yes’ if they want to perform or read poetry. A man named Sam Hamod came in recently and asked if he could do a reading, and I found out he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.”

Study groups from Princeton University come in regularly to meet, reserving the space they prefer. “We have all ages,” Ms. Fritschie said. “You’ll see grandmothers and grandchildren as well as university students and first dates. They might stay for hours playing games or just talking and drinking tea.”

So far, Ms. Fritschie feels, she and Mr. Carnevale have been successful at creating the ambience they had in mind. “I wanted someplace comfortable where you can sit and relax and not be rushed,” she said. “It’s counter service. Nobody is laying a bill on the table and urging you to hurry up. We want people to take all the time they want.”

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