Tea specialist Khurram Ali is sometimes obliged to taste up to 200 cups of tea
a day as part of his job helping to produce the world’s finest leaves. So the
last thing on his mind at these times is a tea break. “We prefer a glass of water
to cleanse the palate when we’re tasting at the height of the season,” he says.
“We’re making vital decisions about which teas to buy, so we try to hold
tastings in the morning when the palate is fresh and we avoid strong flavours like spices and mint.”
Ali is a Business Development Manager at Typhoo, whose boxes of tea bags have been a familiar sight on shop shelves for more than 100 years. Typhoo’s owner, Apeejay, is also one of the world’s leading suppliers of top-grade speciality teas, making tea for Harrods that has more in common with fine wines in terms of flavour than it does your everyday cuppa. And having been tracked down by Harrods’ tea buyer, Apeejay now works in partnership with Harrods to create single-estate teas, using leaves from a dedicated tea garden.
All tea, whether green, black or oolong, comes from a single plant species, Camellia sinensis, with two sub-varieties – sinensis and assamica – making up the vast bulk of production. Colour, flavour and strength are determined by growing conditions and how the leaves are processed. “Like wine, tea is affected by soil type, climate and altitude. Tea grown at 6,000ft in Darjeeling is completely different to tea grown in the tropical lowlands of Assam. As you go higher up you find more delicate floral flavours. Assam is much stronger and you really need to have it with milk.”
The influence of the environment is reflected in the different characteristics of Apeejay’s special range of three single-estate teas, which are exclusive to Harrods. These exquisite black teas are all grown in Assam, but each has its own distinct flavours reflecting the unique properties of the individual plantations. Tea plucked at Khobong Estate has a natural hint of raspberry. While the leaves from the Pengaree Estate are long and slender with golden tips that create a sweet malty flavour when brewed. And the Sessa Estate tea has a rich, full-bodied taste with a sweet flowery scent.
Tea is usually bought at auction or through brokers, but Harrods’ tea buyer deals directly with the estates to pick the very best of the crop using an exacting tasting process. First, the dry leaves are closely inspected to check they are intact and uniform, before the brewed “liquor” is assessed for colour, fragrance and flavour. Even the wet tea leaves are checked for aroma and texture. It’s a far cry from giving a tea bag a quick stir and a squeeze in a mug of hot water.
Apeejay is one of the largest producers of tea in India, with more than 50,000 acres of tea gardens in Assam. Leaves are harvested during four main growing seasons known as “flushes”, with leaves from the second flush at the end of May considered the best.
Teams of skilled pluckers start very early in the morning when it’s cooler and the tea’s delicate perfume is at its peak. They pick the youngest, most tender leaves and buds. “To see the pluckers at work is phenomenal,” says Ali. “They pluck just two leaves and a bud, so nimble fingers are very important, as is plucking at the right heights and choosing the right leaves so they will grow back.”
Transforming the green glossy leaves into tea fit for a teapot involves several steps, including withering, rolling and drying. The leaves are also fermented, which causes them to darken in colour. Green tea is barely fermented at all, while strong teas like Assam are oxidised for far longer.
The hard work and expertise of the tea gardens is only part of the story when it comes to making the ultimate brew. What you do with the leaves when you get them home is just as important.
Top tea-making tips include using soft water, which gives a fuller flavour, and making sure the water is at the right temperature. Boiling water is good for black teas, but it’s recommended that you let it cool slightly for green tea. Allowing three minutes for the tea to infuse properly makes all the difference. It’s a short time to wait when you consider the journey the leaves have made to get to your teapot.
Harrods single-estate teas are available from Food Halls,
Ground Floor; and harrods.com
Patrick McGuigan contributes to
Square Meal, The Spectator and Fine Food Digest
ASSAM, LYCHEE AND STRAWBERRY TEA Serves 4
8g of Assam Khobong tea leaves
200ml orange juice
2 tbsp honey
12 tinned lychees and 120ml of the juice
8 strawberries, sliced
4 lemon slices
1 Infuse the tea for 15 minutes in 500ml of boiled water, then strain. Allow the tea to cool, and set aside 100ml of it.
2 Mix the remaining 400ml of tea with the orange juice, honey and eight of
the lychees. Blend using a hand blender. Sieve through a fine-mesh strainer and set aside.
3 Pour this mixture among four glasses filled with plenty of ice. Add a sliced strawberry and a lychee to each glass, and garnish with a slice of lemon.
4 Finally, add 25ml of the reserved black tea on top of each of the lychee tea mixtures, and serve.
Villeroy & Boch “Cascara” glass £12.50; Alessi “Glass Family” tumblers £20 for a set of 4; Raynaud “Verdures” bread and butter plate £42.95; Ladurée macaroons £1.60 each
FLOATING ISLAND WITH TEA, CINNAMON AND VANILLA CUSTARD Serves 4
70g caster sugar
2 eggs, separated
400–600ml full-fat milk
3g of Assam Gold Rush tea leaves
1 vanilla pod
1 small cinnamon stick
8 tbsp of crème fraîche
Cinnamon powder to serve
1 Add 30g of the sugar and a few pinches of salt to the egg whites, and whisk until stiff.
2 Heat 300ml of the milk with 20g of the sugar in a pan until nearly boiling, then simmer over a low heat.
3 Use two spoons to make eight 4cm balls of meringue; poach four at a time in the milk. After 2 minutes, turn them over and poach for 2 minutes more, then place them on a baking sheet lined with kitchen paper. Repeat for the last four.
4 Strain the milk and add the tea leaves. Infuse for 15 minutes, then strain. Add more milk to top up to 400ml.
5 Whisk the egg yolks. When pale, add the remaining 20g of sugar and whisk until incorporated. Add the tea/milk mixture in a thin stream while whisking.
6 Transfer the mixture to a pan, and add the vanilla pod and cinnamon stick. Heat gently until the custard thickens. Set aside to cool. When cool, mix one third of the custard with the crème fraîche.
7 Divide the rest of the custard among four dishes, then pour the crème fraîche mixture on top. Place two meringues on top of each, sprinkle with cinnamon powder, and serve.
Assam Khobong £5 per 100g; Assam Gold Rush £5.50 per 100g; Jasper Conran for Wedgwood “Chinoiserie” teacups £22.50 each and saucers £19 each; Alexandre Turpault napkin £24.95; Villeroy & Boch “Ella Gold” teaspoon £9.95
TEA-SIMMERED PORK WITH PICKLED CUCUMBER, MELON, MINT AND CORIANDER Serves 4
For the pork
800g pork loin, fat removed
15g of Assam Khobong tea leaves
200ml soy sauce
50ml rice wine vinegar
15g ginger (roughly a golf-ball size)
6 tbsp demerara sugar
For the salad dressing
Juice of 2 limes
6 tsp demerara sugar
1 red chilli, finely chopped
4 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
2 tsp honey
For the salad
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and sliced
2 sticks of celery, sliced
3 tbsp of mint, finely chopped
3 tbsp of coriander, finely chopped
¼ Galia or other green melon, thinly sliced
1 Roll up the pork with cooking string.
2 Wrap up the tea leaves in a small piece of muslin, and tie with string to make a tea bag.
3 In a medium saucepan, cook the soy sauce, mirin, vinegar, ginger and sugar until the sugar has dissolved
4 Place the meat in a pan, cover with 1–2cm of water, and cook over a high heat. Once boiling, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, add the tea bag, and cook uncovered for 90 minutes.
5 Transfer the meat to the soy sauce mixture and cook for a further 15–20 minutes, turning occasionally. Set aside.
6 For the salad dressing, mix all the ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
7 In a bowl, sprinkle a few pinches of salt over the cucumber and celery, and leave for 30 minutes, mixing occasionally. Drain, squeezing out as much water as possible.
8 Add the mint, coriander and melon, and toss lightly. Dress the salad, and serve with the thinly sliced pork.
Raynaud “Verdures” dinner plate £79.95
TEA-SMOKED MACKEREL WITH JERSEY ROYAL POTATO SALAD Serves 4
For the mackerel
4 x 120g mackerel fillets
10g of Assam Gold Rush tea leaves
4 tbsp basmati rice
4 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds
Peel of 1 orange
2 bay leaves
For the potato salad
½ small yellow onion, sliced
500g Jersey Royal or new potatoes
2 heads of gem lettuce
4 tbsp mild horseradish
4 tbsp crème fraîche
4 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Lemon wedges to serve
Note: You will need a large wok with a tight-fitting lid, and a small metal cooking rack that fits into the wok
1 Sprinkle sea salt on the flesh sides of the fish fillets; leave for 10 minutes.
2 Line the bottom of the wok with three or more sheets of aluminium foil at different angles. Mix the tea, rice, sugar, fennel seeds, orange peel and bay leaves, and place on the foil. Put the metal rack on top of the mixture.
3 Place the wok on a high heat until the mixture starts smoking. Put the fish fillets on the rack, skin side down, and fold them up tightly in the foil. Cook on a medium to high heat for 7 minutes. Put the lid on the wok, then remove from the heat; leave for 5 minutes.
4 For the potato salad, soak the onion in water for 15 minutes. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible, then set aside. Boil the potatoes in salted water for about 15 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold running water. Drain again and pat dry.
5 Mix the horseradish, crème fraîche and parsley, and toss with the potatoes.
6 Divide the lettuce among four plates. Place the potato salad on the lettuce, and top with the sliced mackerel. Serve with the lemon wedges.
Jasper Conran for Wedgwood “Chinoiserie” 18cm bowl £30 and 23cm plate £32.50; Saint-Louis “Apollo” hock £276
Recipes SEIKO HATFIELD
Photographer JONATHAN GREGSON
Prop stylist EMILY SELLERS