With National Tea Day (April 21) on the way, we picked the brains of Master of Tea, Mark Richmond, owner of Nelson and Norfolk Tea.
What does it take to become a Master of Tea?
A: Well, there’s no professional qualification as such. I started out 30 years ago in London. Before university I worked on the tea counter at Fortnum and Mason and then Harrods. I went to college and came back to London taking a job at Whittard’s of Chelsea, joining as store manager and working up over many years. I then saw my perfect job advert – it was a tiny postage stamp ad in the Telegraph for a trainee tea taster in Yorkshire. I got it and moved to Yorkshire where I trained as a tea taster for a large private company. There I learnt the art of tea tasting, getting to know the origins and differences between them.
When I moved to Norfolk eight years ago I saw a niche for a specialist tea company. I thought I could create something superior which is why I started Norfolk and Nelson. That was five years ago, and now I ship all over the country and to all four corners of the globe.
How has the industry changed over the past three decades?
A: People are travelling and experiencing new tastes, which is having an effect. In this country around 90% of us drink tea on a daily basis, often using the traditional teabag but this side of the tea industry is in slight decline. Businesses like mine are growing because customers are wanting a good quality leaf tea, rather than a teabag plonked in a mug. People like the ceremony of taking time out of their day to sit down, have a lovely pot of tea and a bit of cake or nice biscuit- that’s what I do every afternoon in my tea barn. Just taking that 10 minutes makes you feel refreshed.
What’s the secret to making a good cuppa?
A: I use filtered water here in Norfolk to avoid the scumminess in the cup. Unfiltered water often masks the very subtle tastes of white tea and green tea because it’s quite calcified. You also must leave it to brew for at least three minutes. There have been lots of studies into brewing times but three minutes allows the tea leaves to infuse properly and for the goodness and antioxidants to be extracted. I wouldn’t brew for more than five minutes as it will become strong and bitter. That isn’t a nice mouthfeel and you just won’t enjoy it. Also, I say for loose leaf tea to add 1tsp of leaves per person, plus one for the pot. Whether you add milk or sugar is personal preference.
What’s best- loose leaf or teabags?
A: Leaf tea is a different grade. You have to respect the leaf and brewing time and can get wonderful results. But there are some fantastic teabags too – Yorkshire Tea and Devon Tea use some of the best leaves you can buy in the world.
Where does the best tea come from?
A; I like Indian and Kenyan teas. Indian Assam gives you the strength and guts of an English breakfast tea, while East African and Kenyan tea has wonderful flavour and brightness.
Cold fruit tea infusions are a rising trend- what do you make of them?
A: I really like the whole cold brew movement and actually one of my best sellers is a Blood Orange fruit tea. It has the most intense smell and people come back to me and say they’re nothing like the supermarket teabags they have. It’s great that brands like Twinings are starting to push cold brew because it means more people will try it. But mine are much more flavoursome. I use dried pieces of fruit with natural flavours in the loose teas and you just can’t mimic them in a paper teabag. Choose a quality infusion and you can’t go wrong. Brew the fruit teas with cold water and keep them in the fridge as a wonderful way to keep hydrated. You get nice flavours from them and they have no nasties. One I have is Norfolk Country Garden, it’s strawberry, blackberry, rhubarb and blackcurrant and that is really really fruity and makes a nice iced tea too.
Is tea and food pairing a thing?
A: Some people take it very seriously but I’m not a tea snob. I think tea is perfect just with a slice of cake! Ceylon tea and chocolate cake go really well together. Spiced teas work well with mince pies, Christmas cake or Simnel cake. And Earl Grey and lemon drizzle are lovely. You get the lemon and then the bergamot coming through- it’s a double delight.
What are the best biscuit for dunking – in your opinion?
A: It has to be a McVities digestive. But I’m also partial to a nice chocolate bourbon…although I’ve given up chocolate for Lent!
What are your top five favourite teas?
A: From my own brand I love the Norfolk Tea- it’s a good everyday tea blending African Ceylon and Assam from India. The Empire Breakfast is a really strong tea – that’s purely Assam. And I have Norfolk Fireside most afternoons. It’s a smoky Earl Grey with a bit of green tea, rose petals, smoked Lapsong Souchang and bergamot oil. It’s very fresh and one of my top sellers. Then there’s jasmine green tea. And, finally, I do like a fruit tea and my Blood Orange tea is very very refreshing. I cold brew it overnight, filter it and put it in a bottle in the fridge. It will last three to four days and is something nice to drink other than water.