It's all in the bag

The latest esoteric style accessory - tea
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"This tea is cool. It's pungent, with spicy, sophisticated top- notes, but an afterbite like a dog on a postman's backside. The feeling is one of wellbeing: a purring pussycat by the fire, as comforting as a mother stroking your fevered brow."

This is the new way to talk about tea. It is borrowed from wine-makers and aromatherapy smell-speak and is used here to describe Roi des Earl Grey one - of the trendiest trophy teas to hit Britain. The tea is made by Mariage Freres - a French company now setting up its pitch at Dickins & Jones, London - and costs pounds 5.25 for a small 100g packet.

Workers' tea, the usual Indian stuff strong enough for a mouse to skate across, is giving way to an increasing diversity of expensive, esoteric, style-accessory teas and coffees. Now our tastebuds are tuned up so that we can call a wine "flinty" or a fragrance "transparent."

You find it most obviously in herbal teas. Twinings' latest range boasts the delicious "blackcurrant, ginseng and vanilla" and "elderflower, strawberry and rose". It's as if they serve as a drink, a medicine and an air freshener.

The French, with their perfumery expertise, are much better than us at fussing around with fragrant fashion teas. Mariage Freres boasts 450 tea blends, including "Fantasy Teas" which perform tricks in the cup: jasmine blossoms which come to life, orange peel which swells. Tea pots change hands at a shameless pounds 50, and their tea shops are so elegant and arty that they make ours look like Spar Shops.

Couture tea bags are the speciality of another Paris company, Betjeman and Barton. "We use muslin, no recycled bleached paper," confides David Bernstein, who imports the tea for his company Morel Brothers. "Pure unbleached cotton sewn individually, not thumped out. And our leaves aren't pulverised like the rest."

Though they look as pretty as pot-pourri in the cup, I confess the difference in taste isn't worth nearly pounds 5 for the pack.

The Tea Council point out that everyday tea bags are small miracles of geography, containing over 25 teas from around the world. "But ninety per cent of teas are dead", says Edward Bramah, founder of the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum, near London's Design Museum. He sells "orthodox" teas, meaning correctly picked, withered and fermented. Any tea can go wrong if it is picked when there is too much dew on the leaves, causing it to over-ferment or become dull and flat through over-firing.

Edward Bramah himself usually drinks a real Assam, which he says is "smooth and malty". A Ceylon should be "more flowery". One of the fashion words for tea-tasting is "brightness" in the cup, a characteristic colour of China and Kenyan tea.

The most passionate Real Tea campaigner is Anthony Wild, who revived the four hundred year-old name of the East India Company for his historical teas, and also sells pure coffee as drunk by Napoleon on the tiny island of St Helena.

Anthony discovered that we have been drinking the wrong Earl Grey for centuries.

The legend goes that Earl Grey was given the recipe after saving a Chinese mandarin's life in the 1790s. But this recipe, sold to Jackson's of Piccadilly for pounds 20, spiced itself up using bergamot, then unknown to the Chinese. The real secret ingredient is neroli oil, "with an aroma like a freshly peeled orange". His real orthodox tea is available through Past Times.

Purists should drink a particular tea in its season, and from a named estate, suggests mail order tea company Williamson and Magor. "I find that often in the trade, people offer single estate teas but they don't name the estate," complains Ron Knell, the Managing Director.

"We offer our own named estates. If you like a particular tea and want to follow it up, you want to know the name of the estate and the period it's been picked." Williamson and Magor's brochure is redolent with romance: elephants and tigers roam its plantations, and we are introduced to individual estate managers - though the really fashionable would want to specify the names of their personal tea-pickers too.

Tea bushes, like runner beans, have several flushes or growths of leaves. Second flush leaves are best for every tea except Darjeeling, whose prime first flush leaves, picked from mid March until the end of April, are described by devotees as "penetrating muscatel".

Then you should switch to Assam, at its best "bold, brisk, malty" character from mid May until early June. What next? Iced tea for the summer, perhaps.

Coffee is also dividing and multiplying its tastes, aromatherapising itself. "We're looking at flavoured Da Vinci syrups from America like vanilla and nuts to add to coffee," reports Waitrose's coffee buyer. "We're also selling ginger syrup in coffee shops: add to cappuccino and it's heaven."

The Ben and Jerry's of the coffee world is the Seattle Coffee Company, a British cafe and coffee chain whose coffee syrups include toasted marshmallow and cherry mocha.

"We're educating people into a whole different style of coffee," says regional manager Robert Ford. "You should treat coffee like wine. Our coffee comes in different strengths and whole, semi and skinny milk." Degrees of milkiness are so fine that they offer a latticino, half way between cappuccino and a caffe latte (an espresso with whipped milk and a cap of froth).

Seattle's secret is the best Arabica beans rather than the usual cheap, bitter Robusta and an usually long "full city roast", which gives "darker, richer, sweeter caramel tastes". Blends include the Windsor, which uses aged beans for an effect equivalent to an oak-casked wine. They also offer a couture coffee tasting course by mail, working up to the Sumatra Lintong, "an earthy flavour with chocolate overtones."

Still need the stuff intravenously? Tesco's have a lovely cappuccino for around a pound. It's not a drink. It's a bubble bath.

Mariage Freres: Dickins & Jones, 224 Regent Street, London W1 (0171- 734 7070). 55 blends stocked, mail order possible. For full list write to 91 rue Alexandre-Dumas, 75020 Paris, France or call 00 331 40 09 81 18; fax 00 331 40 09 88 15.

Betjeman & Barton tea can be bought from Morel Bros, Cobbett & Son. Call 0171-346 0046 for free brochure, including Savoy coffee.

Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum, The Clove Building, Maguire Street, Butler's Wharf, London SE1 (0171-378 0222). Cafe open 10-6 daily. Phone for mail order.

Williamson & Magor, 7 Portland Close, Townsend Industrial Estate, Houghton Regis, Dunstable, Beds, LU5 5AW. Call 01582 664440 for free mail order brochure which includes many pretty accessories.

East India Company tea is available through Past Times shops or call 01993 770440 for mail order.

Seattle Coffee Co, 3 Grosvenor Street, London W1X 9FA. Call 0171-495 5531 for free mail order brochure (coffee costs around pounds 3.90 for 8oz) and nearest national stockist.

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