Henrietta Lovell is on a mission. She wants the British to reclaim their heritage. Tea. “You know I’m obsessed with tea, tea is everything to me,” she says the moment she arrives in Joe’s Café where we arrange to meet.
First things first: Henrietta Lovell is exactly how a person with such a name should be. Charming, posh, (but not too posh), enchanting and lovely. She’s also quite hyper. She doesn’t order tea herself – she’s been drinking it all day doing tastings – and has a Campari and soda instead. It’s been years since I met someone who drank Campari, I’m delighted.
She orders me a Jasmine blend, (“one of the finest in the range”) before launching into a history of British tea drinking. She speaks quickly, zealously, barely pausing for breath.
“So when we first started drinking tea it was the most expensive thing in the house, was kept under lock and key, it was a really valuable product and would have been centre stage every time you had it. And now with afternoon tea the tea is on the side – you forget about the tea.”
“Would that go with a fondant fancy?” she asks pointing at my cup.
Taken off guard I answer yes. But on reflection I realise that actually, no, I wouldn’t want a sweet dish to go with my sweet drink but something more savoury. “A light cucumber sandwich perhaps?” she suggests, and my first lesson is learnt.
Henrietta’s love affair with tea began in China. Working for the foreign office of a major multi-national she was regularly taken out for tea and discovered unknown varieties such as oolong.
“I would drink 6-8 cups of tea a day and I never knew white tea existed. It’s like Italian people drinking eight cups of Nescafe a day or French people thinking there was only Blue Nun.”
She’s not discriminatory, however. “There’s nothing wrong with any of those things [generic industrial tea bags] just that they’re only part of a spectrum.
“There’s so much more out there that we have no access too”.
And it’s access that she wants to bring about. The Rare Tea Company was founded in 2004 and its teas are now stocked in London’s finest restaurants, cafes and bars – including Joe’s Café where we meet. It’s not just the ethical sourcing of the rare teas that makes her approach different (she sources all the teas herself from China, Africa and India and pays her farmers 7-10 times the market rate), it’s the way we drink tea that she’s also determined to change.
And it’s not about swapping mugs for chintzy cups and saucers, quite the opposite in fact, it’s about paring the correct dishes with correct teas.
“Tea is every British person’s birth right, and afternoon tea has been usurped. It’s been usurped by the Ritz. When you go out for tea it’s always upsold with a glass of champagne – the tea isn’t the focus of the meal and that makes me so sad.
“It used to be delicate, romantic, social – it used to be an afternoon snack not over-fussy and pompous.”
Not only that, but tea used to be drunk as a cocktail too. Circa 1550, the original punch was green tea, lemon juice, sugar, gin or brandy, says Henrietta. “That was the original punch cocktail, the tea was used as a lengthener”. Her historical knowledge is impressive and fascinating. You sense that she could easily wander off down an intangible tangent but she doesn’t, instead always bringing her narrative back to the present day and to why tea is so engrained in our consciousness.
At Abergavenny she will be joined by Sam Galsworthy, founder of the gin distillery, Sipsmith. Sam’s mission isn’t far off Henrietta’s: he’s set about reintroducing traditional methods of distilling gin. At the castle they’ll be mixing their magic together, ready to quench punters’ thirst with tea and gin cocktails. They’ll also be doing talks. I highly recommend you attend. But beware, your morning brew will never taste the same again.
Afternoon Tea Revisited is a Tutored Tasting which takes place on Sunday 18 September at 3.00pm. Read more and book online now.