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Taking afternoon teaWe have Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861), to thank for the ritual of afternoon tea, for it was she who created this delightful break in the day. At the time, she was one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, and the royal household would breakfast well, lunch lightly and serve a great dinner late in the evening. The large gap between the midday morsels and night-time feast meant the duchess often experienced a “sinking feeling” in the afternoon, so she asked one of her servants to bring her tea and cakes in her bodoir. She enjoyed it so much she called for it again and again. This custom is thought to have spread quickly through the grand houses surrounding St James’s Palace, and also to Fortnum & Mason’s Piccadilly store.
Loose leaves or tea bags ?The quality of loose tea is premium and loose leaves undoubtedly produce the best-flavoured brew. Tea bags are so readily available now that it’s hard to believe they were introduced only just over a century ago, in 1908, in New York. The little silk pouches were originally made as tea samplers and were a quick and easy way of making a cup of tea. From silk came gauze bags and eventually paper. The bags also became a more compact size so they were easier to package and they were filled with fannings, or dust (a smaller grade of tea) to fill them, for a quicker brew.
How to make the perfect brewTo get the very best from your high-quality Fortnum & Mason tea, it is well worth following a few well-tested rules on brewing, as recommended by the experts.
Tea leaf gradingOnce tea has been picked and has arrived at the warehouse to store, it is graded by the tea blender. This grading does not indicate the quality of the tea, merely the size of the leaf, which is then used by the tea blenders to compile the finished tea. The grades, variables of Pekoe and Souchong, are known as leaf grades, broken grades, fannings and dust grades. When tea is graded as broken, it means the leaf is in smaller pieces, while fannings are the bits of tea left over after processing and are used in tea bags. The dust grade is the lowest grade and are the smallest particles of the leaf produced during the sorting process.
Creating the perfect blendBlending tea is just like bringing together the best grape varieties to make the perfect bottle of wine. Skill and knowledge are, of course, key to the job. Tea tasters train their palates so they can blend a variety of leaves to make the perfect brew. By doing this they are also maintaining a consistent quality.
Black, oolong, green or white ?Tea comes from the evergreen bush, Camellia sinensis, and is manufactured into black, green, oolong or white tea, depending on how it is processed. The terroir – climate, soil and topography – are key in winemaking and similar conditions are essential in tea growing, too. Just like wine, the quality of the leaves depends on when and where they were picked, the climate, the soil conditions and the altitude of the plants. For the tea plant to flourish it needs temperatures of between 10-27⁰C, and up to 2 ⅟4 metres of rainfall per year, combined with elevations of between 300 – 2000 metres above sea level, slightly acidic soil and good drainage. The main tea producers are countries that offer these ideal growing conditions, including China, which produces a mixture of green and black tea; India, which cultivates mainly black tea; Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), which produces mainly black tea; Japan for green and Taiwan (Formosa) for green and oolong, a semi fermented or partially oxidised tea.