Rare Tea Lady is always so warmly welcomed in the USA but the latest US reviews of her book Infused - Adventures in Tea have been incredibly kind.
These Are the Most Exclusive Teas in the World. Fancy a Cup?
Jay Cheshes, Wall Street Journal Magazine
Furnishing the high teas at Claridge's in London and other five-star dining rooms, the Rare Tea Company started 15 years ago in Henrietta Lovell's apartment. Inside their origin story (and the best teas they make).
Henrietta Lovell travels like an old-fashioned door-to-door salesman, toting a compact handled case stocked with the tools of her trade. Inside are loose-leaf teas, ethically grown and personally sourced from some of the world's most remote regions.
In the 15 years since Lovell launched her Rare Tea Company from her London apartment, her tasting case has helped earn her legions of fans among top hoteliers and chefs. Her teas are served at Claridge's and at the Chiltern Firehouse hotels in London, at Noma in Copenhagen, at Momofuku Ssäm Bar and The Modern in New York City and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York.
"In the beginning René [Redzepi] said, ‘I love what you do, I love your tea, but we don't sell any tea in Copenhagen. We're Danes. We serve coffee,' " recalls Lovell, 48, of the Noma chef. "That's what I heard in every restaurant. That was the norm back in 2004."
Lovell's poignant, impressionistic, occasionally laugh-out-loud memoir, Infused: Adventures in Tea, out in the U.S. in October, follows her struggles to build a new market among chefs for high-quality tea as she shakes off the "golden handcuffs" of a decade-plus career at a financial printing firm, launching her company just months before she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33.
"There was the possibility of adventures ahead," she writes, of her time undergoing treatment for her illness. "There was tea. That saved me. There were places to go."
Her far-flung tea adventures have brought her from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Shire Highlands of Malawi, with a few offbeat detours along the way. Lovell has served iced tea to VIPs at Coachella and tea punch to bartenders at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. She once brewed Chinese white peony while bobbing in a rigid inflatable boat in the Norwegian Arctic as Scotsman Roderick Sloan — Noma's shellfish supplier—dived deep for sea urchin.
"The message of my book," she says, "is take as much pleasure as possible from the things you can. You can have a really boring cup of tea, or you can have a really f—ing amazing one."
Time for Tea
Henrietta Lovell has scoured the globe in search of the finest nonexploitative loose-leaf teas, forging personal relationships with her farmers en route. Her Rare Tea Company stocks varieties for every occasion, including an English Breakfast blend she created especially for a Royal Air Force WWII veteran. These are a few of her favorite discoveries:
Sikkim first flush black tea, India: "I'm really excited by the Sikkim being sourced at the moment," says Lovell. "It's a terroir that's not famous because it's right beside Darjeeling. The neighboring state of Sikkim became 100 percent organic. They're producing amazing teas. I had never even considered going there until the farmer I was working with in Darjeeling [moved there]. ‘Sikkim first flush is so sublime,' he told me, ‘that you'll probably never go to Darjeeling again.' "
Malawi antlers white tea, Malawi: "The Malawi antlers is a world-class tea of such extraordinary flavor that you can't quite believe there's nothing else in it. You're drinking the tea and thinking, There's got to be a flavor in it, someone has to have tampered with it," she says.
Waikato oolong tea, New Zealand: "There's an entirely new tea terroir in New Zealand, set up with the help of Taiwanese growers using Taiwanese expertise. It's the new world of tea. It is expensive, because land and labor are insanely expensive [compared to China]. But that's what tea should be. Everybody who grows tea should be able to live a good life," Lovell says, adding: "It is a nice refreshing end to a meal—goes well with sweet dishes."
Silver tip white tea, China: "When I first found the white silver tip from Fujian province it was really esoteric, even in China. It used to be really sought after, but then it disappeared," she says. "It's so clean and light, so beautiful in the morning. It's the perfect way to start the day—not with a punch, it's more like a kiss. I do understand why people want a coffee, but I want white silver tip first."
If You Use Tea Bags, You'll Be in Hot Water With This Connoisseur
Simon Winchester, New York Times
Henrietta Lovell embarks on a lively world tour in search of boutique brews.
It was in Calcutta, 40 years ago, a steaming hot Friday monsoon morning, and I had come down from my newspaper's office in Delhi to write about the industrial tea trade. I was at the headquarters of Macneill and Magor, a tea giant of the time, whose red brick godowns lined the banks of the Hooghly River. I had a breakfast-time appointment with the company spokesman, a genial Anglo-Indian named Pearson Surita, a man possessed of an accent so plummy that on the side he did cricket commentaries for All-India Radio.
The elevator creaked us up to the penthouse, with its fine view of the Maidan. Pearson sat me down by his desk, then promptly called the bearer and demanded two pink gins. But it wasn't even 8 o'clock, I protested. "Don't worry, old boy," Pearson replied. "It's Poets Day." Puzzled, I sipped timidly at my gin while Pearson threw his down in one gulp, then called the departing bearer. Another two, he demanded. I yowled still more forcefully. It was early morning. Pink gin? "Don't be silly," he repeated. "It's Poets Day."
What poet? I ventured — Yeats? Auden? Tagore (who was, after all, a Bengali). "Damn fool," Pearson said to me genially, though by now he had turned bright red and was sweating majestically. "Poets Day here in Calcutta. Stands for ‘Piss Off Early, Tomorrow's Saturday.'"
To Pearson, tea was merely a commodity, something that came in large chests, consisting in the main of dried black twigs, crushed by brass engine rollers after being picked in goodness knows how many dozens of estates far away in Assam and Meghalaya and Upper Burma, where the pickers lived in execrable conditions and were paid a pittance. And the customers at the other end: philistine Britons, mainly, who drank the stuff with sugar and milk and let it stew in the pot for hours. No, tea was just a job, and a job that paid nicely, though Pearson would rather have gin. He really didn't care about tea.
The worst sin in Lovell's book? Using a tea bag.
But Henrietta Lovell most certainly does, and these days publicly decries those people, and those industries, whose cavalier attitude to this most divine of nectars and the Camellia strains from which it is made is, in her view, little short of sacrilege. So she is now on a holy mission to educate us all so that we can know the difference between a pu'er and an oolong, between a rooibos and a Darjeeling, and why it matters, greatly.
Lovell is a hearty, galumphing Briton of good pedigree and even better connections who once worked in corporate finance in New York. But on a whim, 15 years ago, she chucked that career to start the Rare Tea Company in London and has since devoted her life to advancing the cause of leaf tea (and to denouncing that epitome of foulness known as the tea bag). More important, she busies herself promoting those farmers around the world who grow tea and tend to it with the care and compassion that so ancient and elemental a beverage deserves and rightly demands. Her visits over a decade and a half to these faraway rural geniuses are what "Infused: Adventures in Tea" is about.
I had initially thought the book might be little more than an extended advertisement for Lovell's business. But then I found myself quite caught up in her infectious enthusiasm as she ventured — twice defeating her own cancer, which tried in vain to slow her down — out into the world in search of the green tea hills in China, Japan and India, of course, but also in Malawi, Nepal and South Africa. On occasion, her style can be a little exhausting, with her bursts of Pete Wells-ian polychrome, but one can excuse her. This is a love letter, after all.
I read the book in one contented go on a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong, where I had a few hours' wait before moving on to New York. Nowadays, it's surprisingly tricky to find a good loose-tea store in Hong Kong's vast Starbucksian airport. But it was a long layover and eventually I winkled out the shoe box of Fook Ming Tong, tucked away on an upper floor, and handed over a not insubstantial wad of folding money for a package of Lovell's most highly recommended ambrosia: white silver tip tea from Fujian Province in southeastern China. Once home, I found myself a graduated-temperature electric kettle, as also suggested, heated fresh water to 75 degrees Celsius and infused three grams of the unprocessed leaves for 90 seconds flat. I then poured the pale and steaming liquid into two fine china cups and took them upstairs.
One careful sip, then two, then a bold draining — whereupon my wife and I declared this tea to be quite sublime, perfect, entirely unlike anything we'd ever tasted before. An impeccably caffeine-loaded, faintly perfumed start to the day. And far, far better and more efficacious in inducing wakefulness and good cheer than ever was gin, pink or otherwise, most especially when taken before breakfast.
The globetrotter who shows us that tea is an adventure
Bill Addison, Los Angeles Times
If anyone can dislodge narrow notions about tea — that it's nothing more than a palliative you drink for a cold, or a beverage steeped from a Lipton bag on a rainy afternoon, or an esoteric or boring subject in general — it's Henrietta Lovell. Fifteen years ago, she left a finance job in New York and founded Rare Tea Company in London. She aimed to start a revolution: Lose the teabag and discover what a cup of the great stuff, in its many forms, can really taste like.
Last month Lovell published her memoir, "Infused: Adventures in Tea." She'll be speaking about it on Sunday, Nov. 3, at Chinatown's Now Serving cookbook store at 6 p.m.
The book's preface outlines her life: She journeys the world almost ceaselessly, visiting small farms in China, Taiwan, India and Africa that make extraordinary teas, and then working with top-flight restaurants in many countries to introduce those teas to discerning diners using exacting brewing methods. She weaves in fundamental instruction on the primary teas made from the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant — white, green, oolong, black (or red), pu'erh — and there's a final chapter on the mechanics behind a fantastic cup of tea.
But just as Lovell often shares evocative stories to help her clients connect with the teas she sells, she understands a book on the topic needs to go further than instructions and exploits. She plumbs deeper meanings, from her own life and beyond. This is a chronicle of someone who chose to give herself over to the pursuit of a Big Life, with the triumphs and sacrifices that choice brings.
Her father's death from cancer propels her to start her own business, to shape her identity as the Tea Lady. Her own grave health crises almost become dares: How badly do you want this? What is the personal cost in leading a professional revolution?
Levity carries many of her narratives. Maybe it's my recent binge-watching of "Fleabag" (both seasons) but I felt keenly attuned to Lovell's incisive, sometimes slyly racy British humor. It gives her travelogues wit and context:
"[T]here was a spiced omelette waiting for me and a cup of teabag tea. I passed the teabag back to the man, shook my head and scrunched up my face. He looked at me blankly. Peering into his shed, I could see a fridge full of beer, a kettle, a hotplate, a computer, a stereo with speakers and a hipsterish siphon coffee contraption. We were deep inside Taiwanese tea country and I had a very good cup of coffee. We could have been in Shoreditch."
She doesn't sugarcoat the bitter edges of tea's history, including clear-eyed discussions of how colonialism and class define Britain's relationship with the beverage. In tracing the evolution of afternoon tea traditions, she acknowledges the World War II-era mentality that cemented tea as a symbol of stiff-upper-lip stoicism. As a culinary insurgent and businessperson she notes, "To some people it can seem like a kind of betrayal to aspire to having fine food or good tea. It's as if by choosing something better they might be getting above themselves and losing touch with those wonderfully egalitarian times when everyone was in it together."
And then, in the way that a full life keeps moving, we're with her at the Chateau Marmont, partying with Anthony Bourdain and making tea-infused cocktails. (It's here she finds her peace with the American love of iced tea, mastering a technique for cold-brewing that she shares.) There's fun chef name-dropping too; for example, the tale of a boozy, tea-drunk dinner with Fergus Henderson, who's bringing his world-famous restaurant St. John to Los Angeles soon.
Speaking of L.A., our city has a relatively nascent tea scene, as I've written about previously. If Lovell's memoir inspires your thirst, Chinatown has a new tea shop called Steep. It's an ideal place to sit and read over a bowl of lu rou fan (Taiwan's staple of braised pork over rice), or to venture into the ceremony of gong fu cha with a $20 setup of Jin Xuan, or Taiwanese "milk tea," that includes two pastries.
I finished the book at home, drinking the last of the Da Hong Pao — an oolong, prized for its wallops of stone fruit and minerality, grown among the Wuyi Mountains of China's Fujian province — that I bought at Lovell's store during a 2015 trip to London. As a careerist (and tea obsessive) who's also embraced bouts of endless travel, I swallowed hard at a line in her dead-honest postscript: "I'm not sure what will become of me, if I will find a modicum of measure." The quest for balance can be its own turbulent adventure.