Henrietta Lovell is the founder and the driving force behind the Rare Tea Company, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Sourcing some of the world’s best and most unusual teas direct from their tea gardens, the company’s tea has gained acclaim with restaurants like Noma and St John, with supermarkets like Waitrose, and with customers ranging from cabbies to duchesses.
Tea is really really good for you. It’s got masses and masses of antioxidants. A little bit of caffeine isn’t a problem, especially if you make several infusions. As the water penetrates deeper into the leaf you get different flavours released. The second infusion isn’t the same as the first and so the only trick is to drain the pot dry between infusions. Make sure when you’ve made your infusion, pour out all the water, because if you steep tea in water, then like steak left frying in a pan, it will become more and more cooked, and less palatable.
People think they’re being terribly healthy when they drink herbal tea, but it’s all flavourings and colourings. When you buy a flavoured tea, like strawberry tea for example, there’s no way you’re getting the flavour from a fresh strawberry. If you take a fresh strawberry and put it in water you won’t get strawberry flavour, everyone knows that. I had some of the teas tested, because one of my chefs wanted me to reproduce it for him. The highest ingredient after tea was sugar, then flavouring. But you can use a natural English herb, grow it in your garden and dry it for the winter, or buy it from us if you haven’t done that, and it’s absolutely delicious.
A teabag is glue, bleach and the lowest grade tea you could have. You put it in your cup, you brew it, it’s very very flat and one-dimensional in flavour, and while there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s like comparing a cheap burger with steak. It’s totally industrially processed and it doesn’t have any complexity. It’s just tannin really. Then you’ve also got bleach in the bag to make it look white and clean, and glue to hold it together. Hiding inside the bag is really really low grade tea.
We used to be famous for drinking amazing teas. We changed the terroir on teas, moving them from China and taking them to India and Sri Lanka and Africa. All the things you know to be true about wine, are also true about tea. So just like a wine when you take the same varietal of grape and grow it in South Africa or California or France and get a different flavour, it’s the same with tea. We were famous for making blends and growing teas in different places and we would buy them from everywhere. In your local grocer’s shop you’d buy tea by estate or region, and you’d blend them yourself. You’d have a little assam there and some muscadel, a bit of darjeeling and China tea. People did that naturally.
During the Second World War tea was so important to national morale that the government took over supply. Beer wasn’t rationed because we could get through the war without beer, but we couldn’t do it without tea. The government bought the cheapest teas they could and mechanically crafted it so it would go further and be cheaper. Then you’d go to the grocer and get your ration of tea and that was it. That’s when tea became ‘tea’. When you ask people what kind of tea they like and they say ‘normal tea’ as if there’s nothing else, that’s from the Second World War. It’s a modern thing.
If you work directly with a farm it’s almost impossible to be an asshole. Tea is a dollar a day economy because farmers have been forced to put it on sale cheaper and cheaper. The supermarket’s not going to lose money, so the farmer has to produce it more cheaply which means more industrialisation and less skill.
I want to redefine what good means. Tea has to taste good, do good physically, and be good for the people who are producing it. We work with farmers directly, and we guarantee the harvest which means that they can try things, and invest in labour and skill. Industrial teabag tea is harvested by machine and processed by machine. Our teas are all handpicked, crafted in small batches, and that takes a lot of skill, a lot more labour, investment and a clear route to market. That’s what we’ve been doing for ten years: Direct trade with skilled farmers, guaranteeing their harvests and their routes to market.
All you need is a thermos, a tea cup, and a tea pot. Put a teaspoon of loose leaf tea into your teapot, hot water in your thermos, and you can pour your tea at your desk. That one teaspoon will do you several cups of tea, it’s beautiful and so much cheaper than a takeaway coffee. And it’s good for you and it’s good for the farmer!
Read this article as it originally appeared on FlavourFirst