Time for Tea?
There is a great variety of tea service in London. Many speciality coffeeshops serve much lower quality tea than the coffee they serve and not every cafe puts in the effort to learn how to present tea at its best in terms of dosage, water temperature, steep time etc. I think that’s a shame as tea is a drink with a long history in London and great potential as a speciality drink. It could be argued that coffeeshops can’t put the same focus on transparent and ethical sourcing and quality on every aspect of what they do: furniture? Crockery? Baked goods? Tea? Milk? Avocados (as discussed in the latest copy of Standart magazine)? Or can they?
Obviously sourcing premium tea means charging a lot more. There’s a huge difference between a tea bag tea, a fairly inexpensive monsoon Darjeeling and a first flush Darjeeling picked a few weeks into the season at altitude. But then why not have a ‘wine list’ approach to tea…or even coffee? What do I mean? Well, in a discussion recently it was suggested that most restaurants have a wine list that ranges between an inexpensive table wine and wines costing considerable amounts of money. Why can’t cafes do that with tea? Have less expensive teas for those who want that and bring in some high quality speciality teas and sell them at a premium – customers will appreciate them and maybe realise they can get 4 or 5 infusions from some teas by refilling with hot water, making them better value than they might seem. The same ‘wine list’ approach can be taken with premium coffees too but at least tea usually has a much longer shelf life than roast coffee.
There is the staff training element too: teas have to be made with water at specific temperatures, be dosed carefully and ideally made in a small pot which is drained in one go and later refilled. Cafes have to invest in crockery to brew and serve tea in too. In terms of training, London’s two highest end speciality tea companies both work hard to liaise with cafes to ensure their teas are best presented. Postcard from Mayfair and Lalani & Co both operate at the high end of the speciality tea market. Both work directly with small farms (gardens), often having an input into how the tea is produced. Postcard pioneered provenance back in 2008 when they became the first tea company in the world to put the maker’s name and location on all their teas. In previous London’s Best Coffee articles, we have highlighted the quality of service of Postcard Teas at Prufrock in particular where staff tea knowledge was extensive and teas were a delught. Recently we enjoyed a cold brewed Darjeeling there, brewed by Kaori. One of our previous articles praised the tea service at Lyles, Prufrock, Curators and Timberyard. The second praised Story, Association, Continental Stores, Craving Coffee and Saint Espresso.
Hot weather suits tea, either hot or perhaps cold brewed by either pouring infused tea over ice or by infusing tea leaves in cold water overnight in the fridge.
Recently we caught up with Jameel and Mederic from Lalani & Co to taste some superb first flush 2016 Darjeeling teas. The first had floral aromatics and tropical fruit notes – from the highest peaks of Gopaldhara garden at 6500 feet. Attention to detail is such that Lalani & Co do not buy tea picked in the initial weeks of the season but from a couple of weeks in, when the pickers reach the higher altitudes. The second Darjeeling we tried was the Paila Khety from an organic tea garden called Makaibari. The packaging features the tiger who lives on the estate. Makaibari was the first certified organic tea garden in Darjeeling with great focus placed on biodiversity.
Gardens themselves can be strapped for cash. Sometimes buyers push down the price placing even more importance on the prices the gardens can get for premium tea. Drought, for example, intensifies the flavour but less tea is produced. The tea garden’s biodynamic approach contrasts with what can become a monoculture on some tea plantations. This was a stunning tea with florals at the beginning, sweet fruit and intense maple notes and a long finish. We also tried a pair of very unusual teas: an Oolong from Japan (of all places) and a refreshing white tea from Kenya where the Lalani & Co team worked closely with the Kenyan producers to develop this. It was the kind of tea we could imagine supping on all day.
White tea is picked and naturally dried at a low temperature and is light green with a tinge of brown. Avoid any white tea which appears yellow, this has been ‘faked’. As with all the teas we tried, this was bud only tea and downy hairs on the tea leaves glistened in the cup.
We asked Lalani & Co and Postcard Teas to recommend where best, currently, to drink their teas. Jonathan from Postcard recommended Fera (at Claridges) - an upscale eatery in an art deco space, the cutting edge bar and restaurant Clove Club in Shoreditch and Ellory (serving seasonal dishes in an airy, negihbourhood restaurant and wine bar) in Hackney as doing some of the more interesting restaurant tea service at present. They also recommend their shop in Mayfair where you can sit down and try all their teas individually or as a set tasting on a Saturday. They are at 9 Dering St, London W1S 1AG.
Jameel from Lalani & Co recommended The Modern Pantry on Finsbury Square - described as probably the most gastronomic afternoon tea in London. They have a five course tasting afternoon tea at the Finsbury Square branch. They have a five course tasting afternoon tea with paired teas. Pre-booking is required. The Clerkenwell branch has a short seasonal tea list and is a great place to pop in for tea. They employ a full time barista on staff. In addition, Jameel recommends Ealing’s WA Café for high quality matcha drinks alongside quality Japanese patisserie, Fitzrovia’s Rawligion for matcha done perfectly in a Japanese style using alkaline water. Pitch Coffee serves western-style long matcha and even fine leaf tea from a stand in Fulham Broadway.
Also, Jameel highly rates the tea service at Burberry on Regent Street. They have a short list of five teas that are served exactly according to Lalani & Co's specifications and staff keep an eye out to reinfuse the leaves. Saint Espresso often have a high quality guest tea and serve tea at the correct temperature and with the correct infusion time in Lalani and Co's British made Aurora teapot as do Curators Coffee Gallery.
Given London’s long history with tea – isn’t it time we saw the drink elevated to a higher speciality status in more places in London?