Given that we’re a very British perfumers, one would be really rather disappointed if we weren’t partial to a perfectly blended cup of afternoon tea. And who better to share a pot of loose leaf Earl Grey with than Ms Henrietta Lovell? The tea expert and Rare Tea Company founder trots the globe sourcing the very finest teas for some truly discerning restaurants and customers. It was only right, then, that she blended a pair of exclusive teas for two of the latest additions to our Portraits Collection: French fancy Monsieur Beauregard and the ever so English Countess Dorothea. Over an expertly brewed cup (don’t burn it, dear) we chatted 18th century “Scandal Water” etiquette and the artisanal tea revolution of the last decade.
Good afternoon, Henrietta. Starting at the beginning, when did you originally become involved in tea blending?
I got involved in tea when I was working in China, around the turn of the millennium. Remember the country was still very closed off at this point and it was only really just starting to open up. So this was the first time I’d been able to go to these strange, wonderful places in the mountains where people had been producing tea in the same way for thousands of years. And I thought, ‘I know what I’ll do, I’ll bring this amazing tea back to the UK and set up a tea company.’
Back then, there was no leaf tea on the market so it was quite crazy trying to sell British people leaf tea when there was only tea in bags. But little by little the chefs and sommeliers got excited about what I was doing. So I started off as a really small, online business for aficionados of tea around the world. People like Mark Hix and Heston Blumenthal were some of the first to embrace beautiful tea and then it spread from there.
And talk to us about your collaboration with Penhaligon’s?
For the Penhaligon’s teas, we talked about who the characters were and what they want. Monsieur Beauregard is rather an eccentric character. He’s not going to want anything ordinary. So he has a really crazy blend of teas: a really extraordinary, wonderful tea. It’s about the senses: sandalwood, cinnamon, lemon, and pepper. The jasmine is a top note, but his teas are all coming from China, this is the really important thing. They’re Chinese teas and all the tea in the world in 1830 came from China so he’s going to have these rare, exotic things.
To give you an example, I’ve got an original tea bill from my distant great-grandmother. She bought 3 lb of tea from China in 1712, but it cost her four pounds and 11 shillings in June 1712. For these people, it would have been precious. It was very precious and very sought-after and it was hard to get the good stuff. What we’ve done is we’ve got beautiful Chinese teas and blended them together because obviously Beauregard would want the best thing but he’d also be a little bit eccentric about how he uses it. You wouldn’t usually blend Chinese teas, you wouldn’t put Jasmine with oolong – it’s a crazy combination! But he’s a dandy, he’s got the best things and he’s put them together in an eccentric way.
And what about the Countess Dorothea?
She’s much, much more classic. She’s a stickler for the best. She’s got a lovely black Chinese tea. A very pure, very beautiful one. One of the points of difference is that we put Madagascan vanilla pods in there. We wanted something richer, more beautiful and more feminine and so we put in some real vanilla. At that time you wouldn’t have put milk in your tea, not if you were was a real stickler and a high class lady like Dorothea. People drank their tea black and they put it with rich, creamy food. The whole point was you had the sweetness of the cake which complemented the more botanic notes of the tea. I wanted a blend that would be delicious to people with or without milk and to have that real sense of creaminess even without milk. So we put vanilla in to help you understand the tea on its own.
When did tea etiquette in Britain become properly established?
Tea is coming into Britain at the end of the 17th century and in the 18th century it really becomes huge. By the end of the 1700s and into the early 1800s, tea is the most important thing to signify your wealth.
It was really expensive stuff which only aristocrats drank, it was so precious and more expensive than brandy, champagne, pretty much anything in your house. The butler had the key to the wine cellar but Dorothea would have kept the key to the tea chest herself. She wouldn’t have trusted anyone! It was far too valuable and expensive to trust the servants. Tea really signified your taste and your wealth so it was made very carefully. She would’ve had this beautiful black tea and she would have made it very carefully and got the temperature right and got the leaf to water ratio right. She probably made it herself in a small teapot with her friends – it certainly wouldn’t have been over brewed!
You might have had a few different teas, a pinch of this or a pinch of that or you might have had a blend made to show loyalty to a shop. It was the same with your tea as with your fragrance: you might have gone to Penhaligon’s and had your special perfume made that was exclusively yours.
Was it around that period when Afternoon Tea was established?
Everyone always drank tea in the afternoon because lunch was at one and dinner was at eight so there was this period in the middle where you get hungry. Because the servants eat at six you had no choice but wait. So in the 18th century, the slang for tea was "Scandal Water" because you would sit around gossiping with your afternoon tea. Men were involved as well and they were all just getting together to drink tea in the afternoon, to gossip, and to show they had leisure time and expensive tea and therefore expensive taste.
Later, the evening meal in working class families or even lower middle class families was called tea because that’s when you drank your tea: you came home from work, you had dinner and you had tea with it. Whereas aristocrats would drink wine with their dinner and have tea as a whole separate thing in the afternoon.
But really this idea of having scones and clotted cream as this formal meal was something that happened much later. It’s not to say that all those dishes didn’t exist, they just weren’t in that formula, with cake stands and all that food in the afternoon. That kind of Afternoon Tea starts to come in at The Ritz and places like that in the 1970s, but the original Afternoon Tea was something that was supposed to get you through until dinner: to set you up for cocktails. A little caffeine, a little bite to eat. Not a huge sugar fest!
But, traditionally, the tea was always the best you could afford. So if you were a coalminer’s wife you had a cheaper, darker tea and you may have put milk in it because it was really bitter. But if you were an aristocrat you would’ve bought very high quality, high end tea and you would have drunk it very carefully and looked after it. Everyone aspired to have the best tea they could, at a wedding or a special occasion, or if the vicar was coming round you would have bought a good tea and a good tea set.
When did tea drinking in England become all about the everyday builder’s stuff?
During the war, you’ve got U-boats all around the country, Germany’s trying to starve the British out and the government takes over supply. You can no longer go to the grocer and buy your beautiful tea because now you have to drink standard issue government tea. That went on throughout the 1950s as rationing continued. Then the supermarkets came in and they wanted to steal the trade from the grocer, so they made tea an everyday mainstay and put pressure on the producers to do it cheaper. That’s how you end up with builder’s tea with its flat, industrial flavour.
And now we’ve come full circle.
Exactly. The tea revolution has come back and everyone wants to have a tea programme in their hotel and every hotel and restaurant has beautiful teapots and great tea lists. All that had happened in the last 10 years and I’d say we were chiefly responsible for it! It means that tea isn’t feminised anymore. Young men are just as into it as women – like it was in the time of Monsieur Beauregard. Then, as now, it’s a sign of your good taste. You have the right stuff and something made for you that’s really extraordinary.