Friday, 9 August 2013

How to make a nice cup of tea

With each infusion, the tea bud opens up, bringing different nuances of flavour. 
Henrietta Lovell, a kind of sexy Nancy Mitford, came over for a cup of tea last weekend. Ten years ago, she started her business, The Rare Tea company, and has single-handedly revived an interest in tea as a serious drink. Now there are thousands of small tea companies, which can only be a good thing, but hear this: Henrietta was the one that kickstarted this movement. 
She talked to me about the history of tea and how we got to be in the state we are in, drinking bags full of factory tea dust rather than whole leaf tea. 
All tea is from the same bush, camelia sinensis. Yes, green, white, black, oolong, the lot. The difference lies in how it is processed- white being the least, through to green, oolong, black and finally pu’er. The leaves are picked early in Spring, in the morning, just the tip, and then hand rolled in a wok.
In the 18th century, the Duchess of Bedford started a trend of drinking tea mid-afternoon in her bedroom. She'd invite a few aristo mates. 
Tea was stratospherically dear, pricier than champagne, so it was kept in elaborate wooden caddies with lead lining in cupboards under lock and key. The mistress of the house would carry the key on her belt. This tea was mostly green tea, not black tea, which is what we generally drink today. Black tea only became popular about 50 years afterwards. 
It wasn't taken with milk and sugar either. There would be a pot of hot water (a samovar), and it would be poured, just enough for each cup, into the tea pot. Tea was drunk in infusions, just as the Chinese do today. Henrietta told me that the Chinese say:

The first infusion is for your enemy

The second infusion is for your servants
The third infusion is for your wife
The fourth infusion is for your mistress
The fifth infusion is for your business partner
The sixth infusion is for yourself

In China, they spend more on tea than they do on alcohol.

As tea drinking became more popular as a social event, afternoon tea moved from the bedroom to the parlour and servants would prepare it. 

Tea filtered down (haha) to the general populace. Everyone drank tea. Up north, workers have tea instead of dinner because when they got in from work, they'd have a big pot of tea with their meal. The housewife would make a pot of tea then strain it into a Brown Betty teapot which they'd have on the table with their food. 
Middle class housewives would create their own blends with the aid of their local grocer.
Things carried on like this for ages, until the Second World War, when, horrors, there was threat of a tea shortage. Tea was considered so important for war-time morale (on a par with fuel and food) that the government bought it in bulk and stored the tea in warehouses for the duration of the war. But the government weren't buying for taste, they were buying for price. The tea wasn't very good quality. People started to add milk and sugar. 
Just after the war, in 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay on tea. Henrietta suggests that his essay was propaganda, on how to make tea with the low quality stuff. This is where the legend of the boiling water came about. Good tea should not be infused with boiling water but tea bags and poor quality tea need it, or there is no flavour.
Tea has also been used to clean: when my mother was six years old and in hospital to have her tonsils out, nurses threw damp used tea leaves onto the floor then swept up the dust. No chemicals were used in those days.
The next tea revolution came about in the late sixties, 1968 to be precise, when the first tea bags, a new-fangled thing from America, started to become popular in the UK. In 1968 only 3% of the population used tea bags. Everyone possessed a tea strainer.
In 2013, only 3% of the population use loose tea. Henrietta has been working for a decade to reverse this. She mostly works with Chinese, Indian and African tea gardens. She recommends Postcard teas for Japanese tea. It's hard for a woman to do business in Japan. She's experienced speaking to Japanese growers and businessmen and being 'blanked'. Very politely of course, it's Japan after all. It's as if you haven't spoken at all. The Chinese, on the other hand, are very meritocratic, it's all about business and gender prejudice is simply not good business. 
Henrietta created RAF tea, which is sold in Waitrose, developed with WW2 veteran Terry Clark. Ten per cent of the profits go to the RAF. She travels all over the world, forging relationships directly with farmers so that they get a fair deal for their hard work, no middle man involved. Recently she travelled to Calabria to procure bergamot (a gorgeous scented citrus fruit) for the oils in Earl Grey.
I think she'd go down a treat in America, with her energy, drive and enthusiasm and her English manners. Americans tend to drink iced tea and Henrietta is trying to convert them to cold infusions made with better quality tea.
Henrietta appeared on The Apprentice last year, which mischaracterized what she does and her product, which was a shame. Still, she's reached a different audience, so perhaps it was worth it. 

This is her advice:

  • Good tea is a luxury drink, hand-picked and rolled by small family farms. Expect to pay.
  • Use a high tea to water ratio, so only add enough hot water for the round of cups that you will pour. 
  • Drain the teapot of water each time. Don't let the tea steep in water.
  • Most electric kettles boil at just under 100ºf. Wait a minute before pouring in the water, then it will be at around 85º, a good temperature for tea.
  • Keep your tea in small airtight tins. The enemies of tea are air and light. Don't keep your tea in glass jars.
  • Tea leaves need room, space to expand. Try not to use a pot with a filter in the lid.
  • Make several short infusions
  • Green tea is often considered bitter, that means it's badly kept or not very good green tea.
  • Milk and sugar is fine for all black teas. 
  • (Personally, I put milk in first, but that's considered a bit non-U by writers like Evelyn Waugh.)
  • In terms of commercial tea, sold in bags, go Irish or Yorkshire. 
  • The Irish still care about their tea, being one of the biggest tea drinking nations on earth. I love Barry's tea.
  • Yorkshire tea, made by Taylors of Harrogate, is also good quality.
  • Clippers and all the others are industrial crap. 
  • Tea matches with food wonderfully, better with fish and chips for instance, than wine, beer or champagne. 
  • Brew in a clay teapot or glass. Not silver. Stainless steel is fine.A clay teapot retains the flavour of several brewings.
Buy Henrietta's tea here. I tried the silver tip white tea and the whole leaf green tea, both were so refreshing and delicate. We have to train our palettes to appreciate more than bog standard tea. 
There is a famous Snowdon picture called 'Einstein thinking'. I feel I've captured a similar atmosphere here. Henrietta Lovell putting the kettle on and below Henrietta pouring tea!

Watching the leaves expand


  1. Woah...Henrietta can make my cuppa any day!

  2. What a fascinating post - and I'm relived that my tea of (limited) choice passes muster - Yorkshire Tea seems to work well with out very soft water.

    1. Yes they have hard and soft water Yorkshire tea

  3. Marks and Spencer used to do - maybe still does - a blue box of tea bags, and I always used to like those. Also like Barry teas as mentioned. I also like Lady Grey, and started to prefer it over Earl Grey. Love a cup of black tea with milk with fish and chips. Learned to drink that with relatives up North. I also like tea with a sandwich, instead of coffee.

    1. I'm not really a coffee person at all. I'm now completely obsessed with tea...

  4. Assam first thing and then either Earl Grey, Lapsang or Yunan when I get home from work depending on the day and the mood.
    Lovely article Kerstin, thank you.

  5. Are you aware of the fact that the story of tea began from China and is still continuing? I want to share more interesting Chinese tea info through my blog, so I like you to visit


I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)