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Tom Holmes talks to Henrietta Lovell who in 2004 left behind a successful career in corporate finance to go and source fine teas across the world’s most remote estates, many of her friends thought that she was crazy.

What they didn't predict was that a few years later her unspoiled varieties imported to the UK from small farms in China and Africa, would serve to supply chefs like St John’s Fergus Henderson and The Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal.

Henrietta Lovell, Founder and Director of The Rare Tea Co.

Henrietta Lovell, Founder and Director of The Rare Tea Company

TH : Why is tea so exciting?

HL: Because it is at once familiar and yet unexplored. 

People in Britain drink an average of 6 cups of tea a day but of the plethora of teas we could drink we mostly drink just one type – industrial grade black tea. It’s a bit like Italians only drinking instant coffee or the French making do with wine from a cardboard cask.

 

Why Rare Tea?

It’s not that there is anything wrong with what we drink – it’s just that there is so much more out there. The incredible complexity of oolong, for example, amazes even Michelin starred chefs.

And this exhilarating new world of flavour isn’t restricted to exotic teas. My greatest love is making “ordinary” English tea into something extraordinary. English Breakfast doesn’t have to be a bland blend. It can be both reassuringly recognisable and surprisingly delicious.

What we think of as “normal” tea can hold such exquisite subtleties as to make you weep for the wasted years.

Where once we had only had granules we now have fragrant coffee beans. Beside malt vinegar in cupboards across the country there is wine, cider, sherry and balsamic. Where there was only vegetable oil the nation has embraced olive, sesame and groundnut.

Now it’s tea’s time.

Rare Tea Co.

TH: What does the Rare Tea Co. brand stand for?

HL: First, please suspend your cynicism. We are very used to brands talking about passion when they mean pale enthusiasm and quality when they are really referring to passable mediocrity. 

Rare Tea is not that kind of company. 

Rare Tea stands for unparalleled tea.

I don’t believe there is another company anywhere selling better tea. I know that sounds like hyperbole. Of course I would say that, but I am willing to put my words to the test. You just have to taste it. 

Tea can be produced and bought for a few dollars a kilo or for thousands. Just like wine it depends on the varietal; the terroir; the season; the growing conditions; the pH of the soil; when the sun first hits the bushes in Spring and, of course, how it is produced. 

But unlike wine, where knowledge and expertise are often required to identify the good stuff, with tea we can all get it immediately. It just tastes better.

Rare Tea stands for our farmers.

Again you’d be forgiven for hearing marketing spieI here. It does sound a bit like spin, I admit. However, I travel the world to seek out independent tea gardens and farmers who still grow and craft their tea for its quality, not for volume or the lowest price.
 
We work with men and women who have inherited generations of workmanship and are fiercely proud of what they do. We deal with them directly and pay the price they need for their farms, and the people who live and work on them, to thrive.

I interviewed one of the farmers we work with for BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. This explains direct trade in greater depth:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pn410

Over the years we have built up a loyal following, often described as cultish.

Once you’re hooked on the good stuff there is no going back. Our customers believe in what we do and they love what they drink. I’ve been known to meet jonesing customers on street corners – desperate to replenish their stash.

Satemwa Estate, Malawi

Tea Plucker and Tea-Lady on Satemwa Estate, Malawi

Henrietta Lovell

TH: What are you doing that’s so different?

HL: Almost everything.

The most obvious thing is that Rare Tea Company does not sell tea-bags. When I started the company in 2004 it seemed like madness to most people. With only about 3% cent of tea drinkers using loose tea why wouldn’t I sell bags?

But in 1968 only 3% of British households didn’t drink loose leaf. Things can change quickly. You just have to dare. And I do dare.

Rare Tea is not industrial grade teas stuffed in bags. There is no silken (read: plastic) pyramid nor a tag hanging menstrually from a string.

I would never compromise on flavour so I can’t sell bags. It’s not just effete snobbery – it brews better that way. Good leaf tea needs room to swell and unfurl as it infuses. An oolong, for example, might increase in volume twelve times as it brews. That would need a very big tea bag. 

It’s not complicated to pop some leaves in a pot. We’ve been doing it for about 5000 years. 

 

How to make a good cup of tea

It famously took the arrival on our shores of the cafetière to make people drink ground coffee at home. Most of us already have a teapot at the back of a cupboard.

It may take a minute or two more to brew a good leaf. You do have to pour the tea into a cup rather than fishing around with a teaspoon for a soggy bag and then dripping it to the bin. But that moment is a small ritual of pleasure.

A minute is not a burden even in our hectic lives. And if it is a minute that brings intense pleasure it must surely be worth it. I made a short film for the Guardian with a Buddhist nun explaining this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/video/2009/nov/27/tea-lady-cheese-buddhist-nun

Another point of difference is that I don’t buy from a broker. There is a proliferation of small tea companies that have mushroomed in the last few years. There are some excellent brands but the vast majority buy from the same international brokers. It’s a sensible policy in terms of stock control – you only buy what you need – but knowledge of farmers, processes and conditions is scarce. Buyers who use brokers are in those brokers’ hands when it comes to quality, while farmers are at the brokers’ mercy in terms of pay. Either end can get squeezed and very nasty.

I buy our tea directly from farmers. In this way I guarantee the tea from plant to cup. I can ensure quality and decent environmental and social conditions. But it does mean we have to buy whole harvests. Tea is a plant, of course, and it produces its best leaves at certain times of the year. We need to buy harvests from particular varietals, particular fields, harvested at particular times. We need to buy a year’s supply and guess on our growth margin (Restaurant sales in the last year rose 100%).

And no chemical flavourings. Not ever.

Rare Tea Co.

TH: Where did the idea come from?

HL: I think the first inkling I had that I would start my own tea company was during a visit to the Springbank whisky distillery on the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland.

This is my favourite whisky and I was interested to see where it came from and how it was made. The distillers cut their own peat and steep their own barley and a handful of men take care of every stage of the process, right through to the barrel. I asked why they didn’t have more men so they could make more whisky. I remember very clearly that they smiled at me and said they concentrated on making their whisky very good, and that seemed to work for them.

Springbank whisky

At the time I worked for a huge US multinational and this concept came as a surprise.

And they do get by very well, doing what they do very well. Where all the other distilleries in the area folded long ago – or have been bought by the huge multinational drinks groups – Springbank remains an independent distillery.

Rare Tea won’t ever be on the scale of Tata (Tetley, Tea Pigs) or Unilever (most of the rest) but we will always sell the best tea – and hopefully get by very well. 

Henrietta Lovell, Rare Tea Co. talks to Tom Holmes, creativebrief

Henrietta Lovell talks to Tom Holmes

TH: What major issues have you faced building your business from scratch?

HL: My own stupidity. I though a good product would sell itself. I didn’t realise I had to persuade people to try it first. 

Creating a market. It’s much more fun, exciting and, of course, challenging to create demand where there was none, but it’s not a quick process. 

Bank lending. As we grow rapidly it hasn’t been simple to borrow to fund that growth. Banks have chuckled as they tell me they would have insisted on lending me triple what I asked for a few years ago – and now will lend nothing. 

It’s made us canny and meant we’ve had to look at different routes. I’ve used seed funding, for example, from my most loyal and valuable customers.

Rare Tea Co.

TH: What are the main challenges for your sector/category over the next 12 months?

HL: “Is it aw mouth and nae troosers?” 

Customers can only be fooled once by packaging or empty promises.  

Tea can be an affordable luxury, but it must be luxurious.

The brands that are offering ordinary tea bags in pretty packaging – “all mouth and no trousers”- as they say in Scotland, are already finding it tough. As we become more careful with our spending we look for real value. And really good leaf tea is actually quite thrifty. You need 3g of oolong to make a cup of tea. But you can infuse it 5 times. You can make five cups of tea from the same leaf and it actually gets better as it infuses. I’m not talking about the grey water you would get if you went for a second dunk of a tea-bag. An oolong unfurls over repeated infusions and as the water penetrates deeper into the leaf different subtleties are revealed. 

A 50g tin of our Oolong costs £6.50 – and yet it works out at under 8p a cup. It hardly breaks the bank but the flavour is sublime.

Henrietta Lovell

TH: How important is design to your brand?

HL: At first I thought it was all about the tea, but I was naïve. I am very fortunate to work with Studio H who have done an incredible job on the presentation of my tea. Without them Rare Tea would be rather slipshod where now it is quite lovely.

TH: Who are your main customers?

HL: They fit into three main sectors:

 

Restaurants and Hotels

We work with some of the world’s best restaurants, including:

  • Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental 
  • Gordon Ramsay – Royal Hospital Road
  • David Chang – Momofuku New York

Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, David Chang

 

  • Angela Hartnett’s Murano
  • The Ledbury
  • The Square
  • Chez Bruce
  • Pied á Terre
  • Tom Aikens

http://www.rareteacompany.com/stockists/restaurants/

 

Our hotel clients include:

  • The Firmdale Group: Soho Hotel, Charlotte Street, Haymarket Hotel etc.
  • Zetter Townhouse
  • St. John Hotel
  • Old Course Hotel, St Andrews
  • St Pancras

 

Retail partners – from Waitrose and Selfridges to award-winning independent delicatessens such as Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh and Melrose and Morgan in Primrose Hill.

Direct internet customers through our website: www.rareteacompany.com

 

I also create bespoke blends for private clients. They include:

  • Angela Hartnett
  • Alfred’s Club, Mayfair
  • Mark Hix
  • Fergus Henderson (St John)
  • Gresham Blake (bespoke tailor)
  • Royal Air Force

Angela Hartnett, Fergus Henderson and Mark Hix

Angela Hartnett, Fergus Henderson and Mark Hix

TH: Who does your marketing?

HL: Watermill – London. The most stylish and the some of the kindest gentlemen in London. They have a motto: “we do the fun stuff so that you don’t have to”, which I admire more than I can say for its ambition. However it’s not true. I have never had so much fun - or success – working with anyone.

Rare Tea Co.

TH: How important is the internet to your business model?

HL: In the beginning it was our main shop – it is still how most of our global customers order from us. We ship everywhere, from Afghanistan to New Zealand, from Peach Tree City, Georgia, USA to Tbilisi, Georgia. With the internet we have global reach without a distribution network.

The website is also our showroom. The product on the shelf can never tell the story like this:

 

Rare Tea Lady receives an OFM award!

Or this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/raretea/sets/72157623664607238/

Or this: http://www.rareteacompany.com/recipes/cocktails/prune-tease/

TH: Along with celebrity chefs you work with some famous brands: Jo Malone, Grey Goose, Selfridges, Sipsmith, Bompas and Parr. What is it you deliver?

HL: I’m known as the tea lady. What I don’t know about tea can fit into a very small sock.

I understand something of the great variety and complexity of tea so I have been extremely fortunate to work with chefs and bar tenders to pair flavours. It’s exciting to see people who are as enthusiastic about flavour as I am using my teas as an ingredient. Better still is discovering new combinations of flavours. 

And then there is the art of blending. There are very few people around the world who create bespoke blends.

Jo Malone, Sipsmith, Grey Goose and Selfridges logos

It’s not enough to blend leaves. You have to understand the customer’s unique flavour profile and use your expertise and empathy to put together exactly what they are looking for. I will follow particular flavour notes rather than simply adding a certain tea from a certain farm, because harvests change season to season and year to year. It’s a complex process and blends will need to be reworked with the new season. I keep detailed notes on each customer and take my work extremely seriously so that each year their blend will be their tea – their ideal tea.

One of the greatest challenges I have ever faced was creating a tea for Fergus Henderson at St. John that would go perfectly with their afternoon ‘little bun moment’. There are three buns: anchovy, prune and chocolate. This was not an easy blend to create, but please do go to the St. John Hotel just off Leicester Square at 4pm and try the St. John Afternoon blend with your buns.

Afterwards you might try the Prune Tease cocktail that Fergus and I created together. 

TH: Are there any other brands you’d really like to partner?

HL: Yes, brands that also make beautiful bespoke things. Often we swap. I’ve always thought swapping was far superior to shopping. At the moment I need a customised case to carry my tea accoutrements in. And there are certainly chefs I’d like to work with. And tired afternoon teas I’d love to enliven.

Critically, we are in the process of setting up a charity to give a percentage of revenue from a new tea to tertiary education scholarships on the farms we work with.

I really admire what Ark are doing and how they do it. 100% of donations go directly to their programmes for children while their trustees and patrons ensure that central administrative costs are met.

I’d like to run our program like this – perhaps even with Ark. If you’re reading this Ark …

Rare Tea Co. logo

TH: What about country of origin and fair trade?

HL: We pay many times the Fairtrade minimum price for our tea. Because we buy the finest, handcrafted leaves they cost more to produce and they are worth more than industrial leaf. It’s a better deal for our famers and a better tea for our customers.

We deal directly with our farmers and work closely with them. I believe this is a fairer trade than any other label can promise.

I would dearly love to see the tea farmers thriving like vineyard owners. When Malawi is as rich as France and we are drinking tea to parallel the flavours of the finest wines I’ll be very happy.

TH: What support has Rare Tea Co. found as it’s grown?

HL: I’ve had so much help from so many people.

In the early days when I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall it was encouragement like this that kept me going:

http://www.rareteacompany.com/news-and-reviews/customer-feedback/

Alexander McCall Smith offered to write short stories to tuck inside my tins of Lost Malawi to encourage customers to try them. This also encouraged Waitrose to stock the tea. I didn’t ask him to do it.  He suggested it because he is extremely kind and he wanted to help promote something wonderful coming from Africa.

He also wrote about me in Corduroy Mansions:

Just inside the doorway as she went in, an elegant, dark-haired woman was dispensing small cups of tea to arriving customers. Jenny took the proffered cup and sipped.

“Jasmine,” said the woman. “Can you smell it?”

Jenny nodded, glancing at the open silver packet of tea on the table. The Rare Tea Company.

“White tea,” said the woman, “Scented with jasmine. And this is oolong. Would you care to try it? I’m Henrietta, by the way.”

I’m more famous in fiction that I am in fact. 

Alexander Armstrong made these films for me, with Watermill, again from pure kindness and a desire to help. I did give him a cup of tea, but it was cold by the time he got to drink it. 

 

RAF Tea – Alexander Armstrong and the Fokkers

And of course I would be nowhere without the support and custom of the chefs who work with my teas and serve it in their restaurants. There are too many to thank but chef Mark Hix was the first to champion my tea – and the sommelier Katie Exton at the Michelin starred London restaurant Chez Bruce was the first to stock my tea and encourage me to knock on the doors of people who care about flavour.

Most recently, Heston Blumenthal and Fergus Henderson have introduced me to new flavours, new worlds and lots and lots of fun. 

Lastly, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with experts from the other world of drink (who have also championed my teas), the great cocktail makers Tony Conigliaro, Nick Strangeway, Joe McCanta and Jared Brown. 

Tony Conigliaro and Nick Strangeway

Joe McCanta and Jared Brown 

TH: What is your next big project?

HL: We are making 4,000 cups of tea for WW2 veterans; their families and VIPs attending the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park on the 28th June.

During the War, pilots and crew would be provided with a penny wad and a char. The char was a decent cup of tea and the wad was a bun. Fergus Henderson and St. John are providing the buns and we are making RAF tea – a bespoke blend I created for a Battle of Britain veteran which I now make for the RAF to raise money for RAF charities. It’s an old-school English Breakfast blend – the kind of which we were once proud. Fortifying in times of national peril, calming when courage is required. 

Life expectancy for Bomber Command crew during the war was 2 weeks. These men were insanely brave and yet this is the first time they will be honoured. The least we can do is give them the very best tea we have and a very good bun. 

TH: Thanks Henrietta

Rare Tea Co.  

References

Mail Online logo

Sip, sip, hooray! Meet a tea lady with a difference

By Josephine Fairley 26 February 2011

It took a spot of personal hot water for Henrietta Lovell to step out of her ‘fur-lined career rut’ and start the company that aims to fortify the nation. She talks to Josephine Fairley.

Henrietta Lovell – aka the Tea Lady – wants to reintroduce us to the joys of real tea: rare, special (but not necessarily expensive), a delicious punctuation mark in a busy day and a world away from a stand-your-teaspoon-in-it mug of builder’s. Preferably sipped from a vintage bone-china cup and enjoyed with a crunchy biscuit and a cucumber sarnie or two. ‘The best trick with cucumber sandwiches is to roll them with a rolling pin,’ is just one of Henrietta’s many tea-enhancing insider tips. ‘If you don’t generally like black tea, try it with a cucumber sandwich. As the butter melts in your mouth, it makes the tea taste deliciously creamy.’

Right now, tea is indeed enjoying something of a revival as a gourmet ‘experience’. Of course, in this country, we’ve always drunk gallons of the stuff – 165 million cups a day, in fact, according to the UK Tea Council. ‘But the truth is,’ reveals Henrietta, in her Celia Johnson clipped tones, ‘that when it comes to selling tea to Britain, tea farmers palm us off with the worst quality, containing leaves from up to 60 different farms, ground up and mass-produced with no flavour. Most people don’t know any better because the bog-standard builder’s cup is all they’ve ever drunk. But fine tea is a revelation, a real experience – and one we can enjoy every day. And that’s what I want this nation of tea drinkers to discover,’ vows Henrietta, as she pours a steaming cup of the nation’s favourite beverage into a delicate bone-china teacup.

Seven years ago, in her role as a high-flying project manager for a global packaging company (including several years spent in Manhattan), Henrietta found herself in China, the original home of Camellia sinensis, the plant that gives us tea. It was a dull job, as she puts it, but it took her to some interesting places. ‘As I sat in restaurants I saw businessmen showing off by buying a £75 pot of tea for lunch.’ She thought she’d better see what all the fuss was about – and at the first fragrant sip her mind was blown: ‘I’d never tasted anything like it.’ The leaves in the tea Henrietta tasted in China were picked in small mountain gardens, at high altitudes, lightly fermented and of the finest quality in the world.

The catalyst for stepping out of what had become a ‘fur-lined rut’ and starting the Rare Tea Company, though, is more poignant. ‘My father was about to retire. He had a host of plans and dreams that he’d saved up, but then he was diagnosed with cancer and died within three months. I realised that I had to seize the moment.’ And so in 2004 the Rare Tea Co was born.

‘I spent two years sourcing, travelling, building relationships with tea farmers and learning everything I could about tea. I’m quite a sensible girl, so I had savings and hadn’t yet invested in a flat – so it all went into the company. I wrote my business plan and was all set to go.’ Then by a twist of fate, just as she was poised to launch the company, Henrietta was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged just 32. After a year of intensive treatment, however, Henrietta recovered and has now been cancer-free for more than five years.

It was her fledgling business that gave Henrietta a reason to get out of bed each morning during her treatment, no matter how poorly she felt. ‘I rewrote the business plan and started as a little internet company.’ What’s more, she found that drinking tea helped pep her up – and the famous mega-antioxidant boost from teas such as White Silver Tip surely did no harm, either.

At the beginning, the internet business was pretty tiny and, ‘for quite a long time I knew every single one of my customers by name,’ says Henrietta. Then one night, while at dinner in a restaurant, Henrietta had a light bulb moment: to dispatch her teas to chefs and sommeliers, who (with their refined palates) might ‘get’ the delicate apricot notes of Malawi Antlers, the rich, caramel maltiness of Meghalaya Cloud Tea, or the clean, refreshing notes in Green Leaf Tea. She also submitted an entry to a gourmet competition being judged by chef Mark Hix who declared, ‘That’s the best tea I’ve ever had in my life,’ and promptly put it on the menu in all his restaurants. Bingo! Heston Blumenthal, Angela Hartnett, Tom Aikens and The Dunhill Club all followed suit – and now Henrietta’s teacup runneth over with devotees. Celebrity fans include Anjelica Huston (who declares the Rare Tea Co White Silver Tip – shipped to Hollywood – ‘exquisite’), and novelist Alexander McCall Smith, who Henrietta serendipitously bumped into while sampling teas with the ladies of Belgravia in a supermarket; he was so taken with Henrietta and her tea that he name-checked both in his novel Corduroy Mansions.

‘When my father died I realised that I had to seize the moment’

Part of Henrietta’s time is now spent offering tea-tastings to would-be connoisseurs. At the recent launch of an exceptional new collection of Jo Malone fragrances, for instance – each inspired by a different tea (from Assam to fresh mint leaf and grapefruit or earl grey and cucumber) – Henrietta (clad appropriately in tea dress and cardie) talked assembled guests through a selection of carefully chosen ‘matching’ teas that she’d specially selected for the occasion. Despite now having a couple of employees, she’s totally hands-on and still treks up mountains to source supplies herself, buying only whole tips and leaves from artisans and tea masters. And – importantly
– not haggling, either. ‘We pay the farmers what they ask,’ says Henrietta proudly, ‘because we believe in fair trade.’

As well as ‘everyday’ teas, the Rare Tea Co offers some of the most exclusive varieties you can get your hands on – in some cases there are as few as 100 packs available (and one tea is daringly priced at £1,000 for 100g). But the more affordable Rare Tea Co single estate teas are available in Waitrose – and now, with her Royal Air Force Tea, in Sainsbury’s, too. Pricier than builder’s, to be sure, but at just 27p a pot, or so, much less even than the KitKat you might crunch into at the same time.

It was her fledgling business that gave Henrietta a reason to get out of bed each morning during her treatment, no matter how poorly she felt. ‘I rewrote the business plan and started as a little internet company.’ What’s more, she found that drinking tea helped pep her up – and the famous mega-antioxidant boost from teas such as White Silver Tip surely did no harm, either.

At the beginning, the internet business was pretty tiny and, ‘for quite a long time I knew every single one of my customers by name,’ says Henrietta. Then one night, while at dinner in a restaurant, Henrietta had a light bulb moment: to dispatch her teas to chefs and sommeliers, who (with their refined palates) might ‘get’ the delicate apricot notes of Malawi Antlers, the rich, caramel maltiness of Meghalaya Cloud Tea, or the clean, refreshing notes in Green Leaf Tea. She also submitted an entry to a gourmet competition being judged by chef Mark Hix who declared, ‘That’s the best tea I’ve ever had in my life,’ and promptly put it on the menu in all his restaurants. Bingo! Heston Blumenthal, Angela Hartnett, Tom Aikens and The Dunhill Club all followed suit – and now Henrietta’s teacup runneth over with devotees. Celebrity fans include Anjelica Huston (who declares the Rare Tea Co White Silver Tip – shipped to Hollywood – ‘exquisite’), and novelist Alexander McCall Smith, who Henrietta serendipitously bumped into while sampling teas with the ladies of Belgravia in a supermarket; he was so taken with Henrietta and her tea that he name-checked both in his novel Corduroy Mansions.

‘When my father died I realised that I had to seize the moment’

Part of Henrietta’s time is now spent offering tea-tastings to would-be connoisseurs. At the recent launch of an exceptional new collection of Jo Malone fragrances, for instance – each inspired by a different tea (from Assam to fresh mint leaf and grapefruit or earl grey and cucumber) – Henrietta (clad appropriately in tea dress and cardie) talked assembled guests through a selection of carefully chosen ‘matching’ teas that she’d specially selected for the occasion. Despite now having a couple of employees, she’s totally hands-on and still treks up mountains to source supplies herself, buying only whole tips and leaves from artisans and tea masters. And – importantly – not haggling, either. ‘We pay the farmers what they ask,’ says Henrietta proudly, ‘because we believe in fair trade.’

As well as ‘everyday’ teas, the Rare Tea Co offers some of the most exclusive varieties you can get your hands on – in some cases there are as few as 100 packs available (and one tea is daringly priced at £1,000 for 100g). But the more affordable Rare Tea Co single estate teas are available in Waitrose – and now, with her Royal Air Force Tea, in Sainsbury’s, too. Pricier than builder’s, to be sure, but at just 27p a pot, or so, much less even than the KitKat you might crunch into at the same time.

The Royal Air Force Tea (‘Calming in times of national peril. Fortifying when courage is required’, so the slogan goes) is very close to Henrietta’s heart. Since her breast cancer experience she’s been keen to ‘give back’ and not simply by paying fair prices for her teas. After meeting a Battle of Britain veteran, Terry Clark, Henrietta decided to create for him a bespoke blend (from Malawi and Darjeeling), the kind of old-school British tea that pilots like Terry drank while waiting to be scrambled in the Second World War.

Terry liked it, word got around, and before Henrietta knew it she was in a cab en route to Whitehall for a meeting with the Ministry of Defence. To commemorate last year’s 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Henrietta packaged Terry Clark’s special tea, proudly emblazoned with an RAF roundel, and currently donates ten per cent of the price to the RAF Association Wings Appeal. What’s more, inside, there’s the Rare Tea Co’s own take on a ‘golden ticket’: tea-lovers could win a year’s worth of free tea, or even a flight in a Spitfire. And even if not, they’ll get to enjoy a darned good cuppa.

It’s quite some goal, to change a nation’s tea-drinking habits and blitz the tea bag once and for all. But nobody knows better than Henrietta that anything is possible after a cuppa: building an empire, winning a war, even helping to beat a life-threatening illness. As Eleanor Roosevelt once observed, ‘Women are like tea bags: you never know how strong they are until you put them in hot water.’ In her quest to debag Britain, Henrietta would prefer to be gently infused, loose-leaf-style, in not-quite-boiling water, and sipped reverently. But the Rare Tea Lady is living proof that Mrs Roosevelt definitely had a point.

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Friday 13 May 2011

Anatomy of taste: To the bitter end

In the first of a five-part series examining the five different taste elements, we ask Henrietta Lovell what she loves about bitter.

Imagine only ever encountering delicious food and drink that perfectly suits your mood and palate. It would be a world of sensual delight. While it's an unlikely prospect, knowing your unique palate is a step in the right direction – not to mention a very useful skill, common among producers of great food and drink. Acquiring it requires years of work, or a burst of concentrated, enjoyable thought; we're for the latter.

Grey Goose, the world's best tasting vodka, understands individual taste and this summer will offer a series of opportunities to discover your personal taste by holding Taste by Appointment. Taste experts will work with guests to help them understand the complexities of taste and discover their preferences. A bespoke cocktail will then be created for them.

Henrietta Lovell (pictured) certainly knows her palate. She founded the Rare Tea Company after her previous job took her to China and led her to discover the world of fine tea. She now supplies bars, hotels, restaurants and chefs, as well as sending out tea to Afghanistan, where the troops are big fans: "They love it."

Bitterness is an inherent characteristic of tea, forming part of the roundness, warmth and balance of a perfect infusion. "People associate tea with tannin and bitter is a part of the flavour, although it's not everything," says Lovell. "Some tea is crafted by hand, you get incredible, really complex flavours, and the bitterness is perfectly married and balanced."

Her other favourite bitter flavours also come from the natural world. "A fresh almond, or apricot kernels, or a grape. And apple pips! When you chomp through and you get that sharp bitterness of a pip, that is perfect with a sugary apple. I eat the core as well."

Lovell says there's more flavour profile in tea than there is in wine, creating the potential for all sorts of responses. When conducting a tasting, she uses a special technique to encourage full appreciation. "I often pour tea into a wine glass," she says. "People taste it differently. They start to appreciate it and take a sip rather than swilling it back. Inside the cheeks you might find the dryness of the tannin, you can feel a pepperiness on the tip of your tongue, and the bitterness I feel on the roof of my mouth. It should make your mouth feel rich and round."

Lovell's research reveals that tea has always been used in cocktails. Originally, teas such as green leaf were used to lengthen punches served in large bowls. "That's the kind of tea we drank then, and green tea meant clean water because it was boiled," she says. "It's bitter, the perfect bitter to balance sweet in cocktails."

Lovell also recommends adding the bitterness of marmalade peel to cocktails: "For a breakfast cocktail, as an alternative to the famous bloody mary, have a black tea, vodka and marmalade. Beautiful."

Taste sensations Henrietta Lovell shares some of her favourite bitter and tea combinations:

A bitter cocktail:

50ml Grey Goose L'Orange
30ml RAF Rare Tea Company tea
15ml Orange liqueur
Garnish: orange peel
Stir over ice and strain into glass

I like to use tea in a long cocktail – you could make a lovely black tea and add a cup of it to Grey Goose vodka and an orange liqueur (see recipe and bottom image). The orange liqueur adds sweetness and the tea gives a lovely balance. Or, you could make a bitter infusion from tea and use a few drops of it in a vodka martini.

Bitter-sweet treats

If you put a few drops of a tea infusion into a toffee, you get a lovely caramel flavour tinged with a little hint of bitterness from the tea. It makes a balanced toffee that's really very nice.

You might think a white tea would be too delicate to go with chocolate but renowned chocolatier Paul A Young does a very dark chocolate with a water-based ganache with white tea and it works perfectly. The tea comes through, even though the chocolate is so rich.

Cooking with tea

You can take a bit of salmon and poach it in green tea, just a gentle one, and you get a gorgeous flavour. I serve it with rice cooked with jasmine silver tip tea. Tea also works beautifully with cheese.

At Grey Goose Taste by Appointment, taste experts will help you discover your personal taste and find your perfect-tasting cocktail. Events will take place on various dates between 1 June and October. For more information, visit guardian.co.uk/tastemakers

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About the Editor

Henrietta Lovell and Tom Holmes

Henrietta Lovell and Tom Holmes chat over a cup of Rare Tea.

As Founder & Chairman, Tom launched creativebrief in 2002 with the intention of revolutionising agency search and selection.

For many companies, marketing success depends largely on the quality of agencies and media partners a brand engages. However, finding the right ones can prove difficult and time consuming, as the marketplace is complex and constantly changing.

www.creativebrief.com is now the leading provider of agency intelligence to senior marketers and makes the marketing landscape more accessible, transparent and navigable, providing brands with the critical intelligence required to make accurate and informed decisions.

Tom’s role now focuses on evangelising about creativebrief and raising the profile of the business across all our core audiences of leading brands, senior agency executives and government. A major part of this sees Tom drive our Market Leader Interview initiative which puts the spotlight on what it means to be a leader in marketing today.

Prior to creativebrief, Tom spent over 20 years working with some of the world’s leading agencies and brands in UK and internationally, including Account Management roles at WCRS and Saatchi & Saatchi, Board Director of The Lowe Group and Executive Vice President of Grey Worldwide.

Tom’s Linkedin profile

 

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