For the enthusiastic drinker of tea, the Fortnum's tea counter is the beginning of a tasting adventure.
A visit to the tea counter at Fortnum & Mason is a revelation to anyone who might think of themselves as a keen tea-drinker. There are plenty of recognisable teas – Breakfast and Afternoon blends, Earl Grey and Lapsang Souchong, Assam, Ceylon and Darjeeling. So far, so familiar. But surrounding these well-known brews are names that few of us have heard of, let alone tasted: Goomtee First Flush, Imperial Chun Mei and the delightfully named Snow Dragon, to name but a few.
It is surprising in this nation of tea-drinkers that the choice that Fortnum’s offers is so unusual. In the average café, we rarely expect to be offered much more than English Breakfast and Earl Grey. Offer us a wine list, however, and we will expect a huge range – different countries, grape varieties, colours, flavours, vintages. Yet the near-infinite varieties of tea that we could try seem to have passed most of us by. Which is why the sight of Fortnum’s tea counter is such a joy - and the beginning of an adventure.
Just as all of the world’s wines are made from the same fruit, tea is made from the leaves of just one plant, Camellia sinensis, but this fact doesn’t even hint at the enormous variety that a single plant can produce.
Just as all of the world’s wines are made from the same fruit, tea is made from the leaves of just one plant, Camellia sinensis, but this fact doesn’t even hint at the enormous variety that a single plant can produce. The same rules apply as to wine – different countries and regions produce many different drinks; the way the tea is picked, dried, and processed and the weather conditions in which it grows all combine to create thousands of entirely different cups of tea. Perhaps our tendency to drink the same tea every day is simply because the average shop stocks a very limited range of tea, certainly compared to wine. But that brings us back to Fortnum’s.
Fortnum’s can claim some gravitas in the tea world – around 300 years of experience. Tea was the first comestible that Fortnum’s sold, and many of its tea blends, which are all specially made for the company, are more than a century old and are a history lesson in themselves, from the Queen Anne blend in honour of its first patron to Fortnum’s Earl Grey Classic, beloved by the prime ministerial Earl himself.
Tea was the first comestible that Fortnum’s sold, and many of its tea blends, which are all specially made for the company, are more than a century old and are a history lesson in themselves.
But despite all this, Darren Williams, Fortnum’s tea buyer, knows that he cannot rest on the store’s laurels. History is all very well, but there are always new teas out there, growing all over the world, waiting to be discovered and tasted. A true tea enthusiast would never stop searching - for who knows what new region or fresh harvest will yield an entirely different flavour? So as well as maintaining the quality of Fortnum’s famous blends, Darren’s job is to search the tea plantations of the world to ensure that Fortnum’s range is as broad as it can be, from everyday teas for all palates to exceptionally rare and delicate teas that one would probably save for a special occasion, rather like a bottle of vintage champagne. It is an ongoing effort – every year’s crop can be different, so has to be tasted afresh. And there are always new crops to be tried, to ensure that Fortnum’s range includes the best tea from every region. As a result, the tea counter can now offer around 75 different teas - and the range is always changing and growing.
Innovation is as important to Darren as quality. One area that he is pioneering is the importation of delicate white teas that, until recently, were little known outside China; although they were enjoyed there for centuries, their modern manufacture only began in the late eighteenth century. The leaves are picked in spring, from the first crop of the new season, making them much sought after.
A true tea enthusiast would never stop searching - for who knows what new region or fresh harvest will yield an entirely different flavour?
Other recent arrivals include teas from the Chinese province of Yunnan, which, says Darren, have a malty, almost spicy flavour and make a great alternative to Assam. Then there is Nepal Jun Chiyabari Green, a light, mellow liquor with hints of Darjeeling; Dancong Oolong tea, famous for its floral fragrance and long sweet aftertaste, and Tai Ping Hou Kui from China, an unusual tea that yields only a few kilos per day and which, legend has it, was originally picked by monkeys. Tasting of wild flowers, it is just one of many exceptional teas that Darren has discovered across the world and brought home to Piccadilly.
But to find the greatest novelty in the range, Darren didn’t have to cross the world – he only had to go as far as the Tregothnan estate in Cornwall. It took seven years of research and experimentation by the estate’s manager, Jonathon Jones, but Cornwall’s unique microclimate eventually overcame the usual obstacles to growing tea in our cold country and the estate now produces a tonne a year. The tea is similar to Darjeeling and is the first crop of tea ever to be grown in England, so it was pretty much essential that Fortnum’s should stock it. After centuries of acquiring teas from every corner of the globe, it is only fitting that Fortnum’s can at last put an exquisite English tea at the centre of its collection.
A selection of around 75 teas – blends, single-estate and rare teas - are available for tasting with afternoon tea in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason. Any tea sold on the tea counter can be tasted in any of our restaurants on request – please ask your waiter or waitress.To experience the full range of Fortnum's teas, please browse through the Tea section of our website, or visit the Tea Counter at our Piccadilly store, where our tea experts will be happy to guide you through our huge range and help you to find the perfect tea for your needs.