THE PERFECT INFUSION

Fortnum & Mason tea buyer Ottilie Cunningham talks about the luxury grocer’s longstanding association with the finest aromatic teas from around the world

25 September, 2020

Making time for a cup of tea is a pastime that spans cultures, continents and centuries. It is, for many, a daily ritual that remains a welcome constant – a chance to pause for a moment while savouring an aromatic brew of your favourite variety. And nowhere is as closely associated with sourcing the finest teas from around the world than Fortnum & Mason.

Since 1707, when black bohea was first sold at Fortnum & Mason, to the mid-1830s, when Fortnums was among the first to successfully bid for the new Indian teas that had arrived on British shores, it has always strived to supply its customers with the finest teas from around the world. ‘We have always been pioneers in tea, going back through the archives,’ says Ottilie Cunningham, tea buyer at Fortnums.

Today, the variety of teas offered by Fortnum & Mason has grown considerably, but it is the exceptional range of rare and single-origin blends that really sets it apart. ‘The teas we choose to list are dependent on the best quality, but we also choose ones that have an interesting story,’ says Cunningham. ‘We work with everyone from small family-run gardens through to large multi-national companies around the world, and everyone we buy from is a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership. We have one garden in Assam called Dikom, which has a plethora of biodiversity. During a visit there, we noticed the whole of one section of the tea garden was alive with yellow butterflies, so we called the tea Golden Butterfly. All of the teas have lovely names.’

Each infusion brings out something different in the tea

‘Assam teas are grown in the sultry weather conditions of the Brahmaputra River, and are classically malty in flavour with honeyed tones,’ Cunningham explains, adding, ‘The most important thing when growing tea is terroir. As with wine, the flavour of tea is totally reliant on where it’s grown. There’s a region in Sri Lanka called Uva, in the high-country where there is a very desiccating wind, which gives this tea its particular unique character. A camellia sinensis [tea plant] likes a humid atmosphere but it doesn’t like to get its feet wet. We harvest it when it is shooting, and on the equator – in Kenya or Indonesia, for example – it has enough sun to do that all year round. The further you move away from the equator, the more seasonal the tea becomes.’

As well as working with tea growers closer to home (‘We work with a few growers in the UK, including at Tregothnan in Cornwall, to help them tailor what they are producing to us’), Cunningham says some of the finest teas come from surprising places. ‘I found out there was a Taiwanese man called Vincent growing tea in New Zealand. He discovered some camellia (cousins to the tea plant), and decided to grow tea there. At his Zealong Estate, he produces some of the most exquisite oolong tea. Oolong is a semi-oxidised tea, so it’s effectively like the rosè of tea.  We stock two, the aromatic and the pure oolong.’

‘The pure oolong is my favourite,’ says Cunningham. ‘It’s extraordinary because it’s very fresh and it has mineral characteristics to it but it also has this really creamy note. It’s incredibly complex in the mouth. And the lovely thing about oolongs and green teas is you can brew the leaves several times. If you are traditionally taking a tea ceremony in China or Taiwan, they will pour hot water onto the leaves and immediately throw that away. It’s the second and third infusions that are really savoured. Each infusion brings out something different in the tea.’

For visitors to Fortnum & Mason, the afternoon tea is something of an institution; an elevated version of the daily tea ritual that many of us enjoy. ‘We have put a wide variety of teas onto the menu for our afternoon teas, so that people who wouldn’t normally try something different have the opportunity to do that,’ says Cunningham. ‘I mean, you could just come in and have a cup of Royal Tea, which, quite frankly, is absolutely delicious with an afternoon tea, but the staff here know the teas, are very knowledgeable and can make recommendations based on people’s personal tastes.’

‘The state of the world is a little bit different at the moment but we are a place where people love to come for tea, so we have a huge range that will appeal to everybody,’ says Cunningham. Fortnum & Mason’s new range of teas, in particular, are especially relevant for those looking to reconnect with the senses and find a moment of calm and reflection. ‘We’ve recently launched a beautiful range of Botanical Infusions, which have all been blended with wellbeing in mind, such as our Grace, Repose and Tempo teas. Repose has quite a lot of mint and fennel in it so it’s great as a digestif, while Tempo, as the name suggests, is much more uplifting and enlivening.’

Three hundred years may have passed since the very first tea was sold at Fortnum’s but the luxury store’s goal to offer customers the finest and the most rare teas from across the globe has remained. ‘Tea has been enjoying quite a renaissance recently, people are really discovering it,’ says Cunningham. ‘Fortnum & Mason has a historic association with tea, so it’s important for us to continue to pioneer the best tea for our customers’ enjoyment.’

Visit Fortnum & Mason at The Royal Exchange to discover its wide range of fine teas for yourself, or book an afternoon tea experience at The Fortnum’s Bar & Restaurant, within our magnificent central courtyard.

Visit The Royal Exchange this autumn to rediscover the joy of sensory experiences within our welcoming boutiques and eateries. Read about our Reconnect campaign here and let us know how you are reconnecting with the world on Instagram @theroyalexchange and Twitter @rexshopper #Reconnect 

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