Tea’s new finesse

Tea is now being sourced, served and appreciated with as much connoisseurship as fine wine. Alice Lascelles reports

Henrietta Lovell on the Lakyrsiew tea estate in Meghalaya, India
Henrietta Lovell on the Lakyrsiew tea estate in Meghalaya, India | Image: © PaulWF

When was the last time you read a restaurant drinks list from the end? Not just the end of the wines, but the very last page, where mineral waters, fruit juices and “a choice of speciality teas” often languish alongside a note about the service charge. Because this neglected realm of the drinks list has lately started to look a lot more enticing, due to a revolution in the sourcing, service and appreciation of one drink in particular: tea. From five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants to hip East End wine bars, the tired old Twinings selection box is being jettisoned in favour of single-estate oolongs, hand-rolled green teas and precious aged Pu-erhs, served with as much attention to detail as fine wine.

For evidence of this, look no further than The Ritz, which, despite already serving a staggering 400 afternoon teas a day, recently launched a £95 “epicurean” variation on the traditional formula, featuring six, privately sourced teas paired with a menu of delights devised by executive chef John Williams. Served just once a day, to a maximum of six people, at a table nestled in an alcove adjoining the famous Palm Court, the three-hour Epicurean Afternoon Tea has all the hallmarks of a classic high tea – bone china, exquisite cakes, piano tinkling in the background – but the drinks are the stars, served from an array of antique silver kettles warming over spirit lamps. From the first fragrant sip of Chinese Silver Needle to the aged Pu-erh, the afternoon is a delight, but also an education, as charismatic Sardinian tea master Giando Scanu peppers the tasting with historical anecdotes from his travels around the world’s great tea regions.

Postcard Teas 100 Year Shui Xian tea, from £24 for 30g
Postcard Teas 100 Year Shui Xian tea, from £24 for 30g

For a slightly more mischievous take on afternoon tea head to the London Edition hotel, which has launched its own twist on the tradition – Scandal Water. Served by a flickering fire in the wood-panelled surroundings of the cosy Punch Room, it is named after the 19th-century slang for the drink that fuelled gossip among the idle rich, and pays tribute to the days when a cup of fine tea (most often green, and certainly served without milk) was considered the ultimate luxury. ‘‘Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the butler may have had the key to the wine cellar, but it was the lady of the house who kept the key to the tea chest on her person at all times, because tea was so precious,’’ explains the menu’s creator, Rare Tea Company founder Henrietta Lovell. ‘‘A woman making tea for another woman – or possibly her lover – was a very intimate thing.’’

For £35, guests choose three teas from a menu of five, each accompanied by a dainty canapé and, as is traditional, buttered English muffins. My pick would be Rare Tea Company’s Silver Tip Jasmine, an intoxicatingly perfumed white tea from the Fujian mountains made by painstakingly layering tea leaves and jasmine flowers over six nights. Once one has tasted this alongside a tiny pastry case of jasmine-infused chocolate ganache and a glass of gin and jasmine punch (a nod to tea being a common mixer for punches in the 18th and 19th centuries), it comes as no surprise that this tea was once the preserve of the Chinese emperor.

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Anna Hansen’s well-reviewed The Modern Pantry in London’s Finsbury Square also does afternoon tea (from £30) showcasing six sweet and savoury dishes paired with teas from Lalani & Co. True to Hansen’s eclectic style, these include a pink peppercorn financier with a hand-rolled black tea from Nepal, and a dhansak spiced veal mince pai tee with a sencha from Japan’s Kyushu island.

Not to be outdone, Harrods also now offers an oriental twist on afternoon tea in its fifth floor Chinese restaurant Chai Wu, featuring a selection of dim sum and sweetmeats paired with fine teas including a specially sourced Big Red Robe oolong and a small-batch lapsang called Jin Jun Mei – which translates rather delightfully as “Golden Beautiful Eyebrow”.

Original Gyokuro, £60 for 30g
Original Gyokuro, £60 for 30g

But really good tea isn’t just confined to the afternoon any more – increasingly it’s a feature of the fine-dining scene too. For the recent Noma residency in Sydney, chef René Redzepi charged Lovell with sourcing something one-of-a-kind – Cloud Tea from Lakyrsiew tea garden in the forested hills of Meghalaya, India. ‘‘We chose a batch of unique tea from a specific pluck, at a particular time, from a specific field, from a specific estate – handcrafted in a very specific way,’’ says Redzepi. ‘‘This was the only tea served and it was utterly unique.’’

Another Michelin-starred chef who approaches tea with all the care of a sommelier is L’Enclume’s Simon Rogan. For his recent venture, Fera at Claridge’s, many hours of tasting and research went into selecting the list of eight fine and rare teas, ranging from a white tea from Malawi to a Chinese lapsang. “Tea is so often overlooked in restaurants,’’ says Rogan. ‘‘We wanted to create the same standards through the entire food and drink menu.’’ This attention to detail even extends to including a recommended number of infusions for each variety, since many of the greatest teas can continue to evolve through five, 10 or even 20 infusions.

Epicurean Afternoon Tea, £95, at The Ritz
Epicurean Afternoon Tea, £95, at The Ritz

A memorable tea from this list is the Original Gyokuro (£25), a cult green tea from Kyoto, Japan, with a savoury, almost broth-like intensity and a long, scented finish redolent of lilies and peonies. ‘‘This is a favourite of chefs,’’ laughs Timothy d’Offay, founder of Postcard Teas, which, together with the Rare Tea Company, sourced all the teas on Fera’s list.

Established in 2008, Postcard Teas specialises in working with ultra-small-scale producers – the average farm it sources from is a mere five acres – making it popular among sommeliers and chefs wanting tea with a strong sense of terroir. Every one of its teas is labelled with the exact location, the producer and sometimes even the vintage, backed up by a nigh-on exhaustive amount of detail online.

Scandal Water afternoon tea, £35, served at London Edition hotel
Scandal Water afternoon tea, £35, served at London Edition hotel

‘‘The quantities involved, with very specialist Chinese teas in particular, are so minute you have to have a lot of information, or else you might not be buying the real thing,’’ explains d’Offay over a cup of earthy Shui Xian, a charcoal-roasted rock oolong from one of China’s most renowned tea makers, Master Xu. ‘‘I wanted our teas to have complete provenance and traceability.’’

For some teas that means narrowing it down to a particular plot or cliff, but others get even more specific than that – Postcard’s Gui Hua Xiang (Osmanthus Blossom Fragrance) Phoenix Oolong was harvested from a single 200-year-old tree on Mount Wu Dong, the most celebrated bit of terroir in China’s Phoenix Mountains. Sweet and haylike at first, this delicate brew becomes more complex with each infusion, ripening into peach and citrussy tropical fruit. (If you can’t lay your hands on this, Sager + Wilde restaurant in Bethnal Green currently lists another of the company’s single-plant oolongs: Master Lin Heaven Scents Dan Cong.)

Postcard Teas in Mayfair
Postcard Teas in Mayfair

Iced tea, too, has had an upgrade lately at restaurants such as New York’s hip Momofuku, where the Ssäm Bar serves it from a regularly changing menu. Infused in cold water rather than hot, the leaves produce a more delicate, less tannic flavour profile that’s subtle and refreshing, says executive chef Matthew Rudofker, who can also be found using tea for everything from brining eggs to curing fish.

While fine teas are not traditionally paired with food in the east, a growing number of chefs can be found serving tea right through a meal. At The Clove Club, the current tasting menu sees sweetbread-stuffed morels paired with aromatic kaimairicha (a pan-fired green tea from Japan), and duck served with a blend of oolong, apple juice and juniper. At Mayfair’s Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Benares, meanwhile, chef Atul Kochhar created a three-course feast pairing delicately spiced dishes with a flight of four teas, including a palate-cleansing apéritif of cold-infused jasmine tea in place of champagne. The teas for this particular menu came from Jing, another leading name in the field of fine tea that has raised the game of 70 Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide, including Per Se (New York), Joël Robuchon (Tokyo) and the Fat Duck (Berkshire), as well as Amber at Mandarin OrientalHong Kong, which serves a bespoke Jing Red Dragon blend.

Jing handblown-glass Gong Fu Tea Set on a bamboo tray, from £50
Jing handblown-glass Gong Fu Tea Set on a bamboo tray, from £50

For Jing’s British founder, Edward Eisler, the goal has been not just to improve the quality of the tea that’s served in these restaurants, but the manner in which it is served too. ‘‘It’s about using the right amount of tea for the right amount of water for the right amount of time,’’ he explains. ‘‘Generally speaking, people tend to use far too much water in far too big a tea pot, when they should really only infuse the amount they’re going to drink.

‘‘The Chinese way of preparing tea, based on a tradition called gong fu, is to make it in small quantities and decant it into small cups to be drunk very quickly.’’ Jing’s own Gong Fu Tea Set  – a handblown-glass affair complete with pot, pitcher and cups on a bamboo tray – can be enjoyed at Brown’s Hotel’s Tea Library, or purchased (from £50) on the Jing website.  

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A small but beautiful selection of pots, cups and accoutrements, produced by artisans from Kyoto to Sweden, also lines the walls of Postcard Tea’s serene headquarters in Mayfair. When I visit, the staff are cooing over half-a-dozen calligraphy-marked wooden boxes containing their latest consignment of ceramics from Asia, along with several tissue-wrapped cakes of precious Pu-erh tea the size of dinner plates. With a market value of £1,500 apiece, these truffly treasures may not appeal to everyone (although I’d recommend trying a Pu-erh “vertical” like the one I did, spanning vintages from 1995, 2005 and 2015), but I defy anyone to leave this shop without investing in at least one of its colourful little tins and embarking on a tea odyssey of their own.

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