Put the tea bags down and step away from the coffee. Proper tea is having its day and the world’s top chefs and restaurants are loving the leaves.
Why do restaurants want their own blends?
We talk to Henrietta Lovell, aka the Rare Tea Lady, who has made bespoke teas for Heston Blumenthal, Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson as well as Claridge’s, Murano, Noma and Hoi Polloi.
The question is why not. The common denominator between all the restaurants I work with is how seriously they take what they do and their attention to detail. Why wouldn’t they extend that to the tea.
Can one blend be that different from the next?
Absolutely. When talking to a sceptic, I always suggest thinking of it in relation to wine. All the main things that can affect wines can affect teas: variety, season, climate, altitude, soil pH, terroir. There are even some aged teas out there.
How do you go about creating the teas?
It’s about matching a tea to what the restaurant wants to serve it with, which is usually many different things rather than just one. Once we’ve decided on what we want, I need to blend different leaves until I reach the desired flavours and strength.
Do you use technology to help you blend?
No. It’s all about the nose. You have to build up a repertoire of flavours, learn to recognise them and know where they come from. Learning the seasons and flavour variations of teas from different areas also helps me predict what to expect.
Which blend has been the most challenging to create?
The St John blend was a tricky one, and because of this it was also one of the most fun. Fergus Henderson wanted a tea to go with an afternoon tea he was making that featured an anchovy bun, a chocolate bun and a prune bun. I had to make a tea that went with all three of these, which was really tough.
And which blends are you particularly proud of?
As well as the St John one, I created a blend for Mark Hix’s Smithfield restaurant. He specified that he wanted something that the workers in Smithfield would enjoy just as much as the bankers in the City would; that was a fun task. Getting to create a traditional blend for Claridge’s was also pretty special.
Is what you do unique?
I certainly can’t think of anyone doing anything the same in London. Since I’ve started, I have noticed a few companies trying to replicate what I’m doing in terms of packaging, though.
Do you mind this?
In general, no. I love the idea that what I’m doing inspires others to take tea more seriously and source great produce. But because I source direct from farmers and tell my customers where it comes from, it’s very easy for big brands to try and swoop in and undercut me.
Has this happened?
There was one very big tea company which tried to. I can’t mention names, but everyone would know the brand. I only found out because one of the farmers I work with told me that they made him an offer. The funny thing is that the tea in question holds most of its flavour in the stems rather than the leaves, and it was the leaves this company wanted to buy.
What’s on the horizon for the Rare Tea Company?
More of the same, really. And a book, but I can’t say too much about that at the moment.
Finally, can you tell us something we don’t know about tea?
Mint tea should be made with dried mint, not fresh: everyone always gets that wrong. When you take fresh mint leaves and put them in hot water, you’re just making mint soup. Given most of the mint used is sprayed with chemicals, it’s not very good for you either. We source organic, dried mint which gives a much brighter and fresher flavour. It is served at Noma.
Visit the Rare Tea Company website to buy or find out more about Henrietta Lovell’s teas