A few weeks ago, when organizing the London Food and Wine Blogger’s Gathering, I was asked whether Henrietta Lovell, owner of the Rare Tea Company, would be able to conduct a tea tasting during the wine tasting. My first reaction was that of astonishment, wondering who in their right mind would want to sip on a hot bitter tea after a glass of cava and before a sip of sherry? Wouldn’t that be rather, off setting? But the request continued to suggest that the tea tasting would teach us the subtle qualities of good tea, and its capacity to cleanse the palate, leaving your mouth feeling refreshed and invigorated, as if nothing had ever touched your palate previously. Clearly, I couldn’t say no.
Not surprisingly, the tea did exactly as promoted. Having enjoyed a big, bold Tempranillo from Rioja and a thick slice of Camembert cheese, I was a little astonished to find that the luke warm paper sippy cup filled with a light, herbal smelling green tea literally washed my palate clean. So clean, that when I purposefully filled my glass with aÂ German Reisling, it was if the gripping tannins of the Tempranillo that previously wrestled with my tongue into submission not 2 minutes earlier, had never existed.
I admit that I am rather addicted to Henrietta’s teas. Having quit coffee not 1 month ago, I now wake up and savor a pot of her green tea every morning. But it was Henrietta’s passion when talking about tea and its relationship to wine that truly piqued my curiosity. And if it piqued my curiosity, I had faith it would incite yours as well. So today, I bring you a short interview with Henrietta Lovell, and thank her for taking the time, after her whirlwind trip to Malawi, to answer my questions.
1. How did your incredible passion for tea grow?
I used to work in financial print- not the zenith of excitement- but it did take me round the world. Working in Asia I was privileged to be ‘wined and dined’ by clients and in China that often meant tea. They are extremely proud of their teas which have been cultivated for around 5000 years. Instead of buying an expensive wine to impress a guest they would think nothing of ordering a $100 pot of tea. That might seem extraordinary but so was the tea.
Coming from a proud tea drinking nation I was so often stunned by the incredible complexity and variety of teas from around the world that just weren’t available at home. I began to realise that we only knew one kind of tea- mass produced, industrial black tea. What was worse was the low quality green tea the unsuspecting consumer was being fobbed off with. Interest peaked in green teas because of the health benefits of less processed teas but the UK consumer has been lead to believe that it must be a bitter brew for the virtuous because they had no access to the delights of the good stuff. Over and over again I meet people who say they don’t like green tea only for them to dry a decent one and be immediately won over.
You can buy tea for pennies a kilo and thousands of pounds. I realised that BIG TEA was all about margins and volume and both the farmer and the consumer were getting a bad deal.
I started Rare Tea to cause a revolution- to give people access to the very best teas they had been missing out on. Not just tea connoisseurs but every day tea drinker’s. I didn’t want to put people off with complicated names and a vast array from the mediocre to the good. I offer a small selection of the best. I’ve traveled the world seeking out the finest so that my customers don’t have to be experts to enjoy good tea. Hopefully people will trust me and branch out into new worlds of flavour. I source all the teas myself and work directly with small farmers.
What is rare is that I am not looking for vast volumes so I can work directly with small farmers and craftsman. I don’t buy from a faceless tea-broker. I’m not looking for massive margins and I can pay my farmers what they need to craft their tea.
3. Where do your teas come from, and what is the deciding factor in choosing which teas to carry?
Flavour. It has to taste good. There are terroirs for tea just as there are for wine. The finest White Silver Tip Tea, for example, is found near the small town on Fuding in the Fujian mountains of China. Just like champagne the tea differs from farm to farm depending on varietal uses, soil, rainfall, growing methods, harvesting and production. Teas may have the same name and come from the same place but they are not all equal. I look for the best flavour.
However, its not always that simple. The environmental impact and conditions on the farm are also important. I just got back from Malawi where I’m working with a farm that is doing amazing things to help the local communities as well as protect the delicate ecosystem.
4. At the tasting, your eyes literally sparkled with excitement when sharing each of the tea’s unique aroma, color and flavor. As a wine lover, can I transfer any of skills I use to appreciate a wine to the way I might appreciate a tea?
All of them. A tea tasting is very much like a wine tasting. The aroma comes first. You suck in as much oxygen with each sip as possible and roll the tea around your mouth, Unless you want to be awake for a week you must spit which is just as hard when you’re tasting gorgeous teas as it is when tasting fabulous wines.
There are as many different teas in the world as there are wines- maybe more. The tastes are just as fabulously complex and diverse. One of my first advocates was the Sommelier Katie Exton from Chez Bruce, in London. From her I realised that people who were interested in wine were fascinated by flavour and easy to win over with their first taste of the good stuff.
Yes- most teas are very sensitive to light and air. They really should be kept cool and dark and most importantly airtight.
When making good tea the leaf to water ratio is crucial. It is best to measure a teaspoon of tea per cup and infuse for about 3 minutes. Pour all the infused tea leaving the leaves dry (not steeping) in the bottom of the pot. It’s a bit like taking a steak out of the frying pan when it is cooked to perfection. The leaves can then be re-infused several times revealing different subtleties of flavour. This can’t be done with cheap tea-bag teas because the tiny particles have a massive surface area and give up their flavour straight away like floosies.
6. Like wine, there are high quality teas and low quality teas. Are there specific signs we can look for when searching for a high quality tea?
If it comes in a paper box, and inside are bags, the people who made it don’t care about it. The tea will be stale before you open it. It’s like leaving a fino sherry in a decanter or wine without a cork.
The best teas come from whole or large pieces of leaf- these need room to unfurl as they infuse so they are always better loose. Cramped in a tea-bag whatever shape or material- even the best tea wont be at its best.
Like wine you get what you pay for. If it costs 99p there is a reason and you can be sure they have compromised on taste.
If the tea is full of herbs, flowers and flavourings its generally because the tea itself is no good.
7. In a wine tasting, you showed us that tea can be used to cleanse the palate? Are there specific teas we should use for white wines, heavier red wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, sweet wines, etc.? Or is there a tea that is essentially, the jack of all traits in cleansing the palate?
Oolong is the most flexible. Good oolong has such depth of flavour it can stand up beside the richest reds but is subtle enough to work with delicate white.
Generally I would suggest using whole leaf green teas with white wines. With softer red you need a good oolong and as you move into really full bodied reds the best pairing is a rich black tea like the malty caramel of Emperor’s Breakfast.
The important thing to remember is the first sip of tea is overwhelmed by the residual wine in you pallet. It is the second sip that the flavours are revealed.
That tea needs milk and sugar to make it palatable. The good stuff is delicious on its own. I’m not saying you must drink it black or that its sacrilege to add sugar but that it is GOOD on its own. This is not true of industrial teas, of course.
Second misconception: Tea is cheap. It can be made cheaply by vast agribusinesses so that our supermarkets can use it as a loss leader. But the good stuff needs to be crafted and what you pay for is a concentration on flavour rather than volume. If we were prepared to pay a bit more for our teas it would benefit not just us in terms of flavour but the small farmer.
9. If someone is conducting a wine tasting and would be interested in calling on your services to guide them through a wine and tea pairing, is this something you can offer?
Claro que si! [Which I assume she means, “Absolutely Gabriella, I would love nothing more than to infuse the masses with my undying passion for tea”…or something to that affect]
10. If we are interested in purchasing your teas, where can we find them?