Do we need to rediscover the real taste of tea?

The Rare Tea lady, Henrietta Lovell

The Rare Tea lady, Henrietta Lovell - Credit: Paul Winch-Furness / Photographe

Tea is our national drink but, according to some, a revolution is needed to take us back to the fine flavours we were forced to abandon in the Second World War. Sheena Grant puts the kettle on...

A tea estate in Sri Lanka

A tea estate in Sri Lanka - Credit: Archant

Pauline Fowler, that famous East End matriarch, knew the value of a nice cup of tea. So did novelist George Orwell, who wrote an essay on how to make the perfect cuppa, and Britain’s wartime government, which boosted home-front morale with posters and signs bearing the slogan: “When in doubt, brew up.”

Seventy years on, it’s advice that still holds good. Every day we Britons consume 165 million cups of tea. Tea-drinking is so much part of our national psyche that it’s become embedded in our language. Something may not be our “cup of tea”, a “storm in a teacup” or something we wouldn’t do it “for all the tea in China”. Only, these days, much of our tea actually comes from India, Africa and Sri Lanka, rather than China.

Even so, you’d think that, given all the above, us Brits know more than most about what it takes to make a nice cup of tea. Not so, says an increasing number of people. They argue that most of the tea we drink in Britain is industrial, poor-quality rubbish and advocate a return to the tea our forefathers enjoyed: grown for flavour, not volume, and brewed from a loose leaf, not a tea bag. For many of these people, ethics go hand in hand with quality. The tea they favour is produced with care ? for the environment and workers, as well as the end product.

All too often, says Ipswich-based campaigner Melissa Day, workers on tea estates supplying the mass market are living in poverty and hopelessness, often surviving on one US dollar a day. Melissa’s own family are some of those workers. She was adopted as a baby in Sri Lanka and grew up in East Anglia, but in 2009 traced her birth family, who were living on just such a tea estate. Since then she has helped her two brothers enrol on an education programme in Sri Lanka run by charity Tea Leaf Vision and is raising £12,000 to buy a bus to help its work.

As part of her campaign, Melissa got in touch with Henrietta Lovell, one of those arguing for a return to and appreciation of quality tea.

Henrietta used to work in corporate finance. Her job took her to China, where she discovered tea unlike anything she’d ever tasted before. “In China, people spend a bigger proportion of their income on tea than we do in the West. There are huge varieties of tea available,” she says. “It used to be like that here before the Second World War and rationing.”

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Back in Britain, Henrietta could find nothing comparable, so in 2004 she founded the Rare Tea Company, to source and supply the world’s best tea ? direct from farmers.

According to Henrietta, who is supplying one of Melissa’s fundraising events later this year, most of the tea Britons drink is the lowest grade, containing leaves from up to 60 different farms, ground up, mass produced, with little flavour. Most people, she says, don’t know any better because it’s the tea they’ve always drunk. But fine tea, she argues, is a revelation she wants more of us to know about. “We don’t think that all wine or all cheese is the same, so why do we think all tea is the same?” she asks. “In China I found flavours I’d never known before, from rich caramel sweetness to teas with malty depth. In your industrial grade tea-bag you don’t get that.”

In fact, according to Henrietta, much of what we think we know about tea and how to make it is wrong and can be traced back to wartime Britain, when tea was hard to come by and the government took over supply as it was so important to morale.

“They had to get what they could,” she says. “There was rationing and, because the tea was poorer quality, people had to be re-educated how to make it. That meant using boiling water. It’s an industrial product so the water had to be boiling to get rid of the strong, bitter flavours. With a quality tea the temperature shouldn’t be boiling. People knew that in Britain before the war.”

Before 1939, says Henrietta, the process of making a cup of tea was completely different to how we have gone about it since. The leaves would be brewed in a china pot and the infused tea poured off into another pot, while more infusions could be made with the leaves in the first pot. People spent a bigger proportion of their income on tea but what they bought went further.

But it’s not just wartime rationing to blame for our changed relationship with tea. For Henrietta, a second culprit is the tea-bag. In 1968, she says, 3% of Britons used them. Now, only 3% don’t. “Tea needs to swell and infuse. It can’t do that in a bag,” she says. “You can get many infusions from quality leaf tea. It will only cost you a couple of pence more a cup. Tea has become just a commodity. The priority appears to be to produce it cheaply. This has an effect on how much workers are paid and their conditions.”

The answer, says Henrietta, is buying direct from independent farms, as she does. “That way, you under-stand what the farmer needs and what you are buying. If the consumer doesn’t care where their tea comes from, there is no pressure for change. Consumers have to say they don’t want to support this dollar-a-day economy. I want people to appreciate tea and understand that if they trade up they will get incredible flavour. The best stuff costs a bit more but you get so much more from it. I want tea farms to thrive like vineyards. It is important people understand tea’s value ? how you grow it, process it and pack it has a huge effect on the end product. It needs a small revolution. Melissa is part of this revolution, where people are beginning to start to gain a new appreciation for tea.”

The Rare Tea Company is providing Sri Lankan tea at Melissa’s Strictly Tea Dance on October 11 at Arlingtons Brasserie, Ipswich. Email info@niroshini.com.

Melissa’s Fundraising diary

After being a guest on Lesley Dolphin’s BBC Radio Suffolk show, I was contacted by Enoch Kunarajah, who lives in Colchester. He said the interview made him recall his upbringing in Sri Lanka and he wanted to help my fundraising. He told me: “The tea plantation workers were historically brought in by the British Empire from India to work in tea estates. They were treated badly as they were considered the lowest in Sri Lankan society. When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 the tea estate workers were hard done by as they were neither Indian citizens nor accepted as Sri Lankans. Growing up, I saw the lack of medical and education provision in areas where they lived.

“When I heard Melissa’s story, I thought we should share it in our church. Melissa’s own journey reminds us to value life and make the most of it. Our hope is that young people will hear Melissa’s story and be motivated to make a difference.”

Enoch’s Maldon Road Chapel event took place on April 24 and was a great success, raising almost £100.

Meanwhile, I am now able to communicate with my brothers, Ashok and Arun, who are on an 11-month English Diploma Programme run by Tea Leaf Vision. After only three months on the course, my brothers can speak with me about very broad subjects. They recently took part in Tea Leaf Vision’s talent show ? watched by an audience of more than 400.

Tim Pare, Tea Leaf Vision founder, says: “When students join us, emotional health surveys reveal a high level of intent or actual self-harm (around 35-40%) and around 25% of students consider suicide, due to the education system having been structured to almost certainly ensure their failure. Our focus, alongside English and professional skills, is to support them to become resilient young people, capable of facing complex societal issues and able to help others do the same. The talent show is part of this process. Students of different ethnicities come together, building self-confidence and friendship. It is a foundation for the rest of the year and a stepping stone to a better life”.

My next fundraising event is a Quiz and Curry Night at Seckford Golf Club on June 18 at 7pm. For tickets, email info@niroshini.com

To donate, visit www.virginmoneygiving.com/Melissa-Day, or donate £10 through a Text Giving Service: text ABCD15 text to 70070.

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