Good loose-leaf tea can be surprisingly hard to come by. Here’s my guide to the best brews available...
There’s a whisper of smoky caramel and a lot of sweet malt. I’m also getting the gentlest crackle of flavour that’s somewhere between the taste of water chestnuts and the smell of certain kinds of iron pans when they get hot. This isn’t sounding like a very appetising wine, I realise, so it’s just as well that it’s not one. It’s tea – specifically Lost Malawi, a loose-leaf, single estate, English Breakfast style from Henrietta Lovell’s Rare Tea Co (£7 for 50g, Waitrose). It’s beautiful.
Tea is the golden elixir without which I can barely get through my day. Up to a point, I’m pernickety: I like the pot to be properly warmed, have no time for those little net bags, and have a serious failure of good humour when it comes to teas with coloured bits of flowers in them – please, just take them away and put them in the same corner of hell as foul-smelling bath bombs. Yet, considering that tea can be just as pleasingly fragrant and complex as good wine, I don’t take enough time to make and appreciate it.
It feels such a luxury to reach for one of my tins of loose-leaf tea, and make it properly. But it’s surprisingly difficult to find good, as opposed to novelty, loose-leaf tea – proper tea with a delicate flavour, a nip of tannin and a bite of heat. When you do find good tea, it doesn’t come cheap, so I was grateful for Henrietta’s tip that good leaves can be re-infused at least twice, so long as you empty your teapot between infusions – the leaves ‘become bitter if left steeping’. I buy loose-leaf tea from the Rare Tea Co (the silver tip white tea is also delicious; £7.50 for 25g, Waitrose), Fortnum & Mason (yes, I know, but I loved the – sadly discontinued – Empire blend, and the Jubilee blend is pretty good too) and occasionally dip into teas from Mariage Frères in Marylebone.
As with wine, whether I’m drinking bag or loose-leaf tea, I sometimes tweak what goes in the mug according to mood and what I might be eating. With hot cross buns, I like a strong, malty English breakfast blend (heavy on the assam). With cakes or biscuits scented with lemon or orange zest, try citrussy Lady Grey or Earl Grey (Twinings make the best bags, but look to the Rare Tea Co again for a very clean loose-leaf version made with pure bergamot oil). With a delicate sponge or plain madeira cake, you could try a delicate, brisk darjeeling. With a carrot cake with cream cheese or white chocolate frosting, I’d go for a blend again, but I’d lighten up the stodgy mouthful with one that had more of the freshness of darjeeling than the richness of assam. Twinings’ English Afternoon is a good idea here.
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Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her book, The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta), is out now.