Tucked away in a hidden location in Marylebone is the tasting room of the Rare Tea Company, an independent outlet that sources the finest teas directly from farmers around the world. It’s the secret spot where founder Henrietta Lovell has created bespoke blends for clients, including world-renowned tastemakers and chefs René Redzepi and Angela Hartnett and top establishments such as Claridge’s and Chateau Marmont.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be a Michelin-starred chef or a five-star residence to get your hands on one of Lovell’s custom-made blends (£5,000 for the initial blending, plus a three-month supply) as she creates bespoke brews for individuals too. Three one-on-one sessions are typically required. “It’s like a wine tasting,” she says. “You can’t always do it in one session, because your palate gets full and your tastes and desires change throughout the day.” For non-London-based tea aficionados – which include clients from Los Angeles and China – Lovell can fly out to meet them.
The initial meeting is about creating an individual flavour profile. “There is a lot of talking and listening – and tea-making throughout. I judge clients’ reactions and ask them to try and explain them. Sometimes it can be hard to articulate,” says Lovell. In addition to pinning down flavours, she also susses out texture and mouth-feel preferences, plus any special requests. One professional athlete, for example, wanted as many antioxidants as possible in something that was fresh, rehydrating and delicious.
Lovell then creates a range of blends for the client to sample. With more than a decade’s experience, she admits that she generally already knows what their perfect blend is, but she still presents around 10 variations to further fine-tune the recipes. “The variations accentuate one note or another,” she says. “I see what clients respond to, positively or negatively, and make sure I haven’t gone way off theme.”
The blending process itself is an art. Clients wanting a more smoky note, for example, might see Lovell reach for a smoked lapsang from China’s Wuyishan region – where the leaf originates. They might get a hand-rolled leaf that’s crafted over charcoal (all her sourced leaves are handcrafted or hand-rolled). A sweeter-seeking palate could get a dose of leaves that were picked in early spring, which have retained more sugars from winter.
Each season, all blends will need to be carefully tweaked to maintain their exact flavour profile. Lovell keeps a running inventory of all the varietals and flavours from the farmers, numbering around 20, that she works with across the world, from China to Cornwall, all of whom she has personally visited.
For Lovell, bespoke teas are merely a return to a time when such indulgences were the norm. “Tea caddies in the UK of the 18th century had two parts, with a bowl in the middle for blending, and you would blend the tea yourself, depending on the time of day or how you were feeling,” she says.