The Tea Races were first held in Georgian Britain in 1866, when the fastest of the clipper ships would race against one another in order to bring back the very freshest tea leaves from Foochow in China, a journey of 14 000 miles. In those days tea was the preserve of the wealthy, upper classes, and freshness was prized above all else. In 1870 the British clipper Lahloo won the Tea Race, bringing approximately, in today’s currency, £1 million (500 tons) worth of tea leaves to London. The British Tea Council describes this exciting feat thus:
“The vessels thundered down through the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean, then raced to round the southern-most tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. Then it was north across the vast Atlantic, past the Azores, through the English Channel and into the Thames estuary, from where they would be towed down the Thames by tugs.”
A cheering crowd would welcome the incoming sailors and their cargo at the harbour and the whole affair became a celebratory festival of Britain’s most popular drink, tea having overtaken ale and gin.
One of the men who sailed on the great Lahloo was a gentleman by the name of George Hockaday, who subsequently set up a tea shop in London. One hundred and forty years later, and living in an era when 120 million cups of tea are consumed in Britain each day, I am sitting with his great, great grand-daughter, Kate Gover, in the tea room and shop she has just opened in Bristol’s salubrious Clifton village.
“This has always been my dream,” she tells me. “Seven years ago my husband Neil and I moved to Bristol from London, and I remember walking through King’s Road in Clifton and thinking that I wanted to set up a tea room and shop here.”
For the last two years Kate has been a wholesaler and online tea merchant at www.lahlootea.co.uk, but her vision aimed at a higher platform. She used the experience gained in those two years, as well as a previous career in the hospitality business, to format her new venture. As we sit in the very peaceful interior of her chic emporium you come to respect the courage, hard work and enthusiasm that has brought her here.
Unlike many tea rooms, Lahloo Pantry is very modern, chic, simple and minimalist in its design. There are many references across history and styles, juxtaposed and layered with ingenuity and flair. The narrative of heritage and tradition sits parallel with the excitement of modernity and discovery.
There are wooden floors, red metal tea pots, metal tea caddies, aluminium chairs and white walls. Bright splashes of red punctuate the otherwise neutral vision and you will see nods to both the Oriental reverence for tea ceremonies as well as cool and trendy Parisian café culture. On the first floor there is a tea shop, where staff can talk you through the 38 types of tea that are sold here. A glass partitioned staircase takes you down into a very tranquil basement tea room, with wooden crate rack shelving and a door that leads into the patio seating area. On the ground floor is the main tea counter, where you can look at the different cakes and biscuits that are on sale.
There is also a kitchen downstairs, where Chefs Chantal and James prepare Ottolenghi style lunches of tarts, soups, savoury scones and salads. Staff are uniformed and referred to as “infusionists”: Kate trains each and every single one herself to be completely knowledgeable about the teas they are serving, the particular tastes and qualities they impart and provide excellent customer service.
“I was really certain about the sort of tea room I wanted to establish,” Kate tells me, “because so often I would visit another tea room and be really disappointed. I wanted to create a calm, clean, urban space, somewhere you could go to talk, think and relax. Tea is steeped in British history and tradition, and I think everyone should take just half an hour out of their day to enjoy the taste, fragrance and renewing qualities of really good quality tea.”
She is equally selective about the tea growers she chooses to work with. When she first established Lahloo Tea she sought the specialist advice of another tea buyer, to ensure that tea was only sourced from the very best, small, artisanal tea gardens.
“The very words “plantations” imply vast acreage and negative connotations. We are working with small estates and tea gardens, some too small to buy into the whole Fairtrade system, but they are growers that really understand how to grow the very best tea.”
Kate explains how, just like wine, despite the derivative plant being always the same, Camellia Sinensis, the properties of tea depend greatly on “terroir”. Aspect, climate (both macro and micro), altitude and soil all have a great impact on the end result, as have the skill and care of the growers. Kate told me,
“The depth of flavour of a really good cup of tea is dependent on so many different factors. Price certainly does not necessarily guarantee quality. There can be a great deal of snobbery attached to tea drinking, but really it does all come down to personal taste. In the future we are going to run tea tasting courses so that we can teach people all about our selection and show them how to make a consistently good cup of tea. It is through education and greater understanding that we can convey our message.”
She chooses four of her very favourite teas for me to buy and try at home and tells me when and how to drink them:
Breakfast: Yunnan Cloud, a really rich, spicy and peppery tea, young buds, excellent for waking up in the morning.
Lunch: Mr. Shao’s Mao Jian, a green Chinese tea that tastes clean, fresh and healthy and goes very well with a light lunch.
Afternoon: White Whisper from Kenya’s Rift Valley, high in antioxidants, tastes of baked autumn fruits and honey, lifting and refreshing properties.
Evening:Mulberry tea, sweet and fruity, lots of calcium, excellent for good health.
We chat about technology in her business, and the role of social media in what Lahloo Tea has achieved cannot be overestimated: Kate has a new website planned and is active every day on both Facebook and Twitter:
“There is no doubt that it is so much easier now to shout about your business without magazines and PR. The personal nature of what we are doing here can be conveyed to a very large audience. I believe that customers are very tired of large, corporate, branded coffee chains that dominate our high streets. They do not want the dust and dregs that pass for supermarket tea. Nor do they want to sit in loud, identikit spaces where they are served by indifferent staff.”
I ask Kate what Mr. George Hockaday would think now, if he were to walk through her shiny door, and see his descendant at the helm of such a wonderful tea room “ship”.
She throws her head back momentarily and laughs.
“I really don’t know. He would probably be quite shocked as to how little attention most people give to their tea in the 21st Century. But I think he would also be proud. Proud that we are celebrating really wonderful tea every day.”
12 Kings Road
Bristol BS8 4AB
Telephone: 0117 329 2029
Website: www.lahloopantry.co.uk www.lahlootea.co.uk
Follow the team on Twitter: @lahlootea and @teaadventures