Food & Drink

Henrietta Lovell talks rare tea

The founder of the Rare Tea Company explains what makes a good cuppa.

Founder of the Rare Tea Company, Henrietta Lovell has been personally sourcing teas since 2004, travelling to tea gardens and plantations in Africa, China, India and Cornwall. She now counts Angelica Huston, Mark Hix, Heston Blumenthal, Jay Rayner and Tom Parker-Bowles as just some of her many fans. A tea obsessive, Henrietta is on a mission to educate Britons, the second biggest nation of tea-drinkers in the world, on just how good tea can taste when properly produced. We caught up with the queen of rare tea to find out more.

My first cup of tea was… at a Great Aunt’s house on the West Coast of Scotland. I sat on a canary yellow sofa with a cup and saucer balanced on my lap. I was petrified of spilling my tea, but felt very grown up. It was a Darjeeling served black with a sugar lump. I’m still chasing that elusive feeling of being-grown up. Maybe that’s why I am so obsessed with tea.

When I was working in China… I discovered oolongs, white teas and finely crafted green teas that were utterly delicious - not nasty, bitter brews for virtuous people. Tea is a great deal like wine- there is massive variation in flavour and quality. Once I had tasted the good stuff there was no going back.

I drink about… six cups a day, but only two or three teaspoons of tea. Good loose leaf tea can be infused several times. And it’s not because I’m Scottish. The second infusion is even better than the first. You can’t do this with tea-bags - the tiny particles give up what flavour they have straight away - the floozy of teas.

I usually drink… white tea in the morning, green tea with lunch and then oolong or Lost Malawi black tea through the afternoon. If I have tea in the evening it is only ever white or jasmine silver tip- because the caffeine is lower in these un-photosynthesizing buds. (It’s a myth that green tea has lower caffeine).

My teas are not like those of the big brands... All my teas are crafted in small batches by artisans rather than being processed by huge machines on an industrial scale. And I buy a harvest, seasonally, direct from farmers. I buy the best tea I can find; it’s more expensive because it costs more to produce, but the farmer gets a better deal and my customer gets an infinitely better tasting tea.

If you want to compare… just try a big brand Earl Grey beside the Tregothnan Earl Grey, which I buy from the only English tea-garden in Cornwall. Not only is the tea they use the very finest, but they scent it with real bergamot oil (the distinctive flavour of Earl Grey tea). Most big brands use chemical flavourings – it’s like smelling something you’d use to clean the bath.

My favourite type of tea… changes. At the moment it’s White Silver Tip Tea. I have developed a liking for tea-cocktails and white silver tip is a wonderful cure for a hangover.

I started the Rare Tea Company because… people don’t know that there is such an amazing variety of tea out there. We are the second biggest tea-drinking nation in the world and we deserve access to the good stuff.

Tea, all tea, is rich in antioxidants… There are so many health benefits associated with drinking tea that it would bore you to death if I listed them - which would be rather ironic. It’s in the processing that you lose some of the goodness of the leaf. White tea is the least processed. My white silver tips are spring buds picked from 20th March to the 10th April. They are just dried in the sunshine- no other processing - so they retain extremely high levels of antioxidants.

I source my teas… direct from farmers in Africa, China, India and Cornwall. I work with independent farmers like Alexander Kay in Malawi, who do everything they can to support the people who work with them. This is a short film about the farm so you can see for yourself.

My finest moment was… winning the Observer Food Monthly best independent/ online retailer award in 2009 - voted by my customers.

My first tea tasting… was in China, many years ago. I was in a room with fifty or so people on a farm in Fujian. They were all watching my every response as I tasted their teas. I was too embarrassed under such tight scrutiny to spit out the tea. At a tasting you might try hundreds of tea, so, like a wine tasting, you really have to spit it out. I didn’t sleep for days I was so caffeinated.

My customers include… Angelica Huston, Mark Hix, Heston Blumenthal, Jay Rayner, Tom Parker-Bowles, Matthew Fort. But people of all walks of life love my tea. Here is another film for you showing who.

I love coffee too... I get some wonderful beans sent to me by one of my customers in Norway. They source single estate coffees much the same way as I do teas. But I’m as un-excited by instant coffee as I am by tea-bags.

I’d love to… buy a few of the huge tea brands and return them to decent loose leaf. In 1968 only 3% of British households used tea-bags - can you see Unilever (Typhoo), Associated British Foods (Twinnings) and Tata Group (Tetley) quaking in their boots?


Emily Jenkinson

23 February 2010