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When in 2004 Henrietta Lovell 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.
You live in London: is it easy to find quality suppliers from other continents?
No! You really have to search. First time I went to China I had to drive around for days and people where very closed. One of my favorite farms is in Malawi, I would have never found them alone but they read about me on Time magazine and the owner sent over some samples packed into a cereal box. Every single part of the box was covered in stamps; it took so long to arrive! At the beginning I thought: “it’s going to be cheap industrial tea”, but when I tried it and I fell off my chair! I had never even heard that there’s a tea production in Malawi. With time it’s becoming easier: there are very few people that -like us- buy small amounts and work next to the farmers. We slowly develop lines together, train them and pay 12 times the price than most industrial tea.
How do you become a tea expert?
It’s about being seriously obsessed! When I was in finance, I used to work in China where I would taste amazing teas. Before that I didn’t know that tea could taste like this, even if my country is the second biggest tea drinker in the world. Then I started discovering more varieties and production methods. Expertise is about seeing, studying and tasting – you never stop learning. People call themselves tea-ologists or experts; I just call myself Tea Lady because I think that everyone can understand the difference between a good and a bad tea like everyone can become a chef. You just have to be obsessed with flavor.
In fact, you work a lot with chefs…
Yes, it works in two ways. The first is using tea as ingredient. If I find something exciting, I’ll take it to the chefs I work with and we’ll see how they can use it. The other is pairing. For example oolong works beautifully with cheese, white silver tip is great with chocolate. I collaborate with Fergus Henderson and he wanted to do a bespoke afternoon tea for his St John Hotel, called the Little Ban Moment. He asked me to create a blend that can work with three different tastes, from salty to sweet. I spent months working on this and it was a great experience.
Have you always had such a delicate palate?
I think that it was an evolution, for example lately I came to discover sake through a documentary that I did for The Guardian. They sent me to Japan and now I’m obsessed with sake! Excitement develops with each new flavor, but I was also lucky. My mother grew up in Morocco and Spain, my father in Argentina: I inherited their culinary values. In the summer we drank gazpacho at lunch every day, which was quite uncommon in England in the 70s! I was so embarrassed when my friends came over because my mother never made the typically English beans or puddings…
Which is your favorite tea?
I don’t have a favorite, but I drink the white silver tip every morning. It’s a tiny little spring bud, collected from the 20th of March to the 20th of April. When you open the bag you can smell the tea farm. There are nearly no tannins on it because it doesn't get to photosynthesize. It also has very high levels of antioxidants, so it’s great for you first thing in the morning. I turn on the kettle and I know the sound of the water when it reaches the right temperature. Fine teas have different types of infusion and they’re all below the boiling point.
Rare Tea Company’s teas are available across selected retailers in the UK and online.