A new kind of expert has arrived in Piccadilly – the Fortnum’s ‘tearista’, a highly trained tea taster who can offer every customer a glimpse into the fascinating world of tea.
Afternoon tea at any smart establishment always includes a choice of tea: Earl Grey, Breakfast Blend, a dash of Darjeeling perhaps. But at Fortnum & Mason, ‘a choice of tea’ is almost an understatement, as the lavish afternoon tea menu offers upwards of 75 different teas, from its own historic blends to rare, single-estate teas sourced from tea gardens across the globe. With so much choice available, it seemed a shame for each customer to taste only one kind of tea with their scones and cake. So when the plans were being drawn up for the new Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, Fortnum’s included a new member of staff – the tearista.
Fortnum’s tea experts
The key task of each tearista is to offer a simple introductory tasting of four different teas as an enjoyable adjunct to your afternoon tea experience. The idea is not to intrude on your conversation but to add a little something to the experience that makes the most of Fortnum’s tea expertise. After all, afternoon tea at Fortnum’s is not just about the cake; it is very much about the pleasures of tea itself.
‘It’s a very compact, accessible and inviting introduction to the world of tea,’ explains Peiyi Lei, the resident tea taster at the Salon. ‘We’re not trying to be too complicated; the aim is to add an extra and enjoyable element to your afternoon tea.’
The tasting session
Each table-side tasting is short, taking less than 10 minutes – with more than 250 seats available in the Salon every day, there’s no time for the staff to dawdle – but during the session you will have the undivided attention of your tearista. As most people linger over their tea for a couple of hours, the tasting barely requires even a break in the conversation.
If a customer is keen to try the tasting, the tearista brings to the table a tea-stand on which they place a wooden tray carrying four tea-tasting cups, four bowls and a milk jug. Each cup contains a different tea – for example, white, green, oolong and black – to show the considerable range that tea can encompass.
While the teas are brewing for a precisely measured amount of time, the tearista will explain what each one is, where it is from and any other interesting information about it, such as the shape of the leaf or the way in which it is picked or dried. Once the teas have brewed they are poured out into the bowls, and the leaves are placed on the upturned lids so that the customer can see the difference in the shape, size and colour of the leaves, as well as the colour of each liquor (the brewed tea).
The tearista offers each bowl to each person in turn to take in the aroma, and explains the taste pattern so that the customer knows what to expect. Then they will be invited to taste it, using a separate tasting spoon.
The teas to be tasted vary each week, depending on several factors such as the season and the menu. ‘We will also include the latest arrivals to our counter,’ says Peiyi, ‘so when the First Flush Darjeeling arrives, for example, it would be included in the tasting.’ If you take a liking to any one of the teas, you can ask for a pot of it to be brought to the table – or you can take a caddy of it home after your meal, which can be brought to your table and added to the bill.
A perfect cup
The high level of service offered by the tearistas is typical of the Tea Salon ethos. All the staff, not just the tearistas, are trained to guide you towards the right choice of tea and they are constantly on hand to ensure that the tea is brewed correctly, that it stays hot and fresh and is replaced if it is not to your taste or has cooled while you are eating. For example, a waiter might discreetly approach your table and touch the teapot to see if it is still hot enough. If it is, he will quietly glide away without disturbing you; only if it is cooling will he ask if you would like it refreshed. You can then choose a fresh pot of the same tea or ask for a different tea altogether. Peiyi recommends that you make the most of the extensive choice and try more than one tea. ‘It’s nice to change teas at some point in the meal,’ she explains; ‘Something substantial is ideal for the sandwiches and scones, but then you might enjoy something lighter and more refreshing to accompany the cakes and patisserie.’
Attention to detail
Other details of the new Tea Salon include warming drawers to warm the empty teapots, water boilers that heat to different temperatures to suit each tea and colour-coded timers to ensure each tea brews for the right length of time. That said, every customer is treated individually. ‘We take our tea very seriously and brew it the correct way,’ says Peiyi, ‘but if someone wants their tea made in a particular way, of course we will do that for them, without question.’ The tearistas are also on hand to conduct tasting sessions in Fortnum’s new Tasting Room, which can host sessions for small groups interested in expanding their knowledge of tea – or of anything else that Fortnum’s sells, for that matter.
As a keen tea enthusiast, Peiyi has found the perfect place in which to share her expertise. ‘I really enjoy this part of the job,’ she says. ‘I’ve worked in various hotels around London, but this surpasses some of the grandest places that serve tea. It’s a much more bespoke service than you’ll find elsewhere. And there’s such an enormous choice of really good-quality teas. I think it’s unique.’