She Sells Sanctuary
Words Stephanie Donaldson
Photographs Kate Jackling
You know your tea. But a day spent with Henrietta Lovell – aka the Rare Tea Lady– is enough to prove you’ve been doing it all wrong. As she advises Noma on the perfect accompaniment to their award-winning menu, we join her to discover that reading the leaves is all about how tea makes you feel. Prepare for a stirring experience…
There’s definitely a touch of the intrepid explorer about Henrietta Lovell – it’s easy to imagine her in khaki safari suit and pith helmet, striding through the African bush, or maybe peeling off a flying helmet and goggles as she steps out of a biplane. In reality, she is a thoroughly modern, 21st-century woman whose clever business sense has allowed her to combine a spirit of adventure with her love of fine tea. She now supplies many of the world’s finest restaurants – and a growing band of discriminating con-sumers – with the rarest of teas. Noma in Copenhagen, Claridge’s in London, Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles and the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco are all customers – and are working with Lovell as she guides them in selecting the perfect teas to go with food flavours. Think of her as a tea sommelier.
Time spent drinking tea with Lovell is an education. Until I met her, I thought of myself as a bit of a tea sophisticate – I always drink my tea without milk and my preference is for white tea made from the silvery bud tips that are harvested from the bushes before they have opened. It causes no end of trouble when I visit other people’s houses and I’ve resorted to carrying my own teabags with me. But there-in lies the rub – teabags. Lovell is on a mission to steer us all away from the teabag. ‘There’s no craft in their making,’ she says, ‘and they are about as British as McDonald’s – they were invented by Americans in 1901. We resisted them for a long time because we love our tea, but in the 1970s we became obsessed by the future with products like Smash instant potato – the teabag was part of that. Since then we’ve generally moved on: we know that white bread in a plastic bag is not the best option; we don’t eat dehydrated potato, and if someone comes round to our house we will get out the cafetière even if we normally drink instant coffee. But we persist in holding on to the utilitarian teabag.’
As part of my re-education, Lovell is preparing a tea for me to taste. She serves it, a little at a time, in a wine glass. ‘This was the ancient way of appreciating tea when it was so expensive,’ she explains. ‘It was more expensive than champagne or whisky and it would have been made, loved and cherished in this way. In China, to this day, people spend a higher proportion of their income on tea than they do on alcohol.’
‘This tea will be unlike any you’ve ever tasted,’ she warns me. ‘I was working with the Malawian farmer who owns the plantation and his pickers kept noticing a very floral aroma of apricots and peaches in just this one field. He tried making white, green and black tea [all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis] using the freshly picked bud with the top pair of leaves, but the elusive aroma just wouldn’t come through. He spent years trying to capture it, then one day when he was cooking with vine tomatoes, he thought to himself, “Why do we buy tomatoes on the vine? Because the aroma is in the vine rather than the fruit. I’ll try working with the stem”. So this tea is actually made from the stem rather than the leaf and is called Malawi Antler Tea.’ And sure enough, the dried tea does look rather like tiny antlers. ‘It’s picked at a particular time with just a short length of velvety stem and the very tender growing bud. The leaf is not used in this tea, so it is quite wasteful and it still only comes from this one varietal in a single field; we are trying to grow it in a nearby field, but it remains to be seen whether we get the same flavour. The expertise, craftsmanship and effort that went into making this tea is quite something – and it really speaks of this one place, this field with its own unique terroir.’
As I hold my glass of tea, Lovell instructs me to give it the same attention that I would to a fine wine. It does look rather wine-like – crystal clear but with a pale golden colour and an aroma that is soft and fruity. Even to my untrained palate, the flavour is subtle and complex and delicately sweet. Lovell then pours me a serving from the second infusion, to experience how the taste has changed. ‘Because it’s made from a woody stem, we can make up to 11 infusions from a single teaspoon,’ she explains. ‘It’s a tea that goes on and on giving. Sometimes the first infusion can be a little bit harsh and you do need to leave it much longer than a normal tea, because the cell structure is deeper. And you’ve got the oxidisation process as well – it gives the tea a much rounder “mouth feel” and even a bit of acidity. Like wine, it’s endlessly fascinating. If you were Chinese and drinking this tea, or an oolong tea, you would sit discussing how the taste changes with each infusion – and it really does change. There’s a Chinese saying about tea infusions – the first is for your enemy, the second is for your servants, the third is for your wife, the fourth is for your mistress, the fifth is for your business partner (business is always more important than pleasure) and the sixth – the best – is for yourself.’
So how did this fascination with tea start? ‘I never really loved teabag tea,’ she says. ‘I just didn’t have that emotional attachment. Of course I’m British and I drank it, but it wasn’t a staple of growing up. My mother was raised in Morocco and my father in Argentina, so our food was a bit more exotic. Tea was only drunk at breakfast, and I wasn’t even offered it, I had milk. But there was this amazing tea,’ she continues, ‘you tilt the lid at an angle and you smell the lid. That is the first scent and you may also smell the infused leaf because the wet leaf is highly fragrant. For some tea makers, that first aroma is almost more impor-tant than the drinking, because it is the first impression.’
‘In China, people spend a higher proportion of their income on tea than they do on alcohol’
‘Then you have the first sip,’ she continues. ‘That initial taste is different from the taste as you swallow – and here’s the really interesting thing about tea: the mouth feel. You roll the tea round your mouth – it can be silky, buttery, oily, thin, viscous and even quite meaty and thick – but there is also something else going on: the tannin’.
Lovell explains that tannin attaches to the proteins in our saliva and makes the saliva insoluble – it dries the mouth in the same way that very tannin-rich wines make you thirsty and hungry, which is why they are only really good with food. ‘It’s the same with tea,’ she explains. ‘When the British started to drink more strong black tea from their colonies around the late 1800s, we changed the food we ate. Before then, we were drinking light Chinese black or green tea accompanied by the scone-like English muffin, made with white flour and a small amount of butter (to provide the milk protein that attaches to the tannins and lubricates the mouth). Muffins were replaced by crumpets because they lasted better, and finally with the advent of machine-produced black teas containing high tannin levels, we needed scones, clotted cream and jam. A scrape of butter was replaced by a big wodge of clotted cream!’
Tea was still taken black at this point – only the poorest quality tea had milk and sugar added. ‘The deep flavour profiles are lost if you put milk in tea,’ says Lovell. ‘It’s like red wine and steak – you don’t want to mix them together – you want to enjoy the different flavours. Drink milky tea with a scone and you lose everything, it’s such a shame. With a well-crafted black tea, you are trying to control the effect of the tannin so that right at the end it’s really pleasurable. When you swallow and the tea leaves your mouth, the residual flavour is really important. A few months ago I sat with a master maker of ‘Iron Goddess of Mercy’ oolong tea in Anxi in Fujian Province and we spent a whole afternoon tasting tea. We had no translator, so we did it all on looks and signals and signs, and he was really adamant that we spent time considering and appreciating the flavour of the tea after we had drunk it.’
By this stage in our conversation, I was beginning to wonder how on earth I was going to find the time to accommodate such refined tea drinking in my life, but Lovell is realistic. ‘I’m not saying that every cup of tea you drink has to be very good tea, but just one out of the national average of six a day – wouldn’t that be a real pleasure?’ I’m also reassured to find that I won’t need to procure a Gai Wan – apparently a glass teapot makes excellent tea. ‘It might take you a couple of minutes more, but certainly less than the average advert break on the television. All you have to do is take a little bit of care and pour some water on the leaves in the tea pot – as opposed to putting a teabag in a cup. And, she points out, ‘a teabag still needs to be removed and deposited in the bin, dripping all the way.’
‘Finally,’ says Lovell, ‘you should consider how tea makes you feel. There is a big movement in the food industry, partly led by Noma, to re-define what “good” means. It must be good in terms of where it comes from, its sustainability and the effect on the people who produce it. When I started travelling to the tea plantations in India and Africa I discovered the terrible abuses that many workers suffer. Then I read about Green & Black’s chocolate company in the Observer Food Monthlymagazine and their concept of working directly with the farmers – not just going through a broker and putting it in a pretty package – and I thought to myself: I want to be part of something like that.’
‘At Noma I work alongside the sommeliers and chefs on the philosophy as well as the flavour. They trust me to produce something pure and delicious, but it is equally important that their guests leave feeling enlivened. If you have just had a very complicated meal of several tiny courses of mind-blowing deliciousness, using ingredients you never tasted before, in ways you’ve never experienced before, each mouthful is a revelation and it requires thought. But it’s not a pompous or serious meal – the restaurant is very warm and friendly, with a lot going on, and at the end you go to a different room to drink tea or coffee, have petit fours and perhaps an aquavit. These are going to be the last sips you have before you go home. Coffee will enliven you but it is a very punchy and fills the palate, whereas tea can really lift you up. With an after-dinner tea, I always add a digestive element and a flavour to revive your palate. This last tea will give you a breath of clean excitement – a last wonderful taste that is bright and lifting.’
Perhaps the ultimate accolade to Lovell’s achievements in the world of tea is that she now sells China tea to the Chinese. ‘They don’t care that it is expensive, because they understand and appreciate it like good wine. When they started coming to me for their tea it was because they trusted me.’ It’s quite a journey from those early forays into China – and there’s no doubt that there are many more chapters to come in Lovell’s love affair with fine tea.