Stray Leaves Tea

Infused by Henrietta Lovell


Infused book cover

Infused is a delight to read. Particularly if you have even a passing interest in tea.

Henrietta, known as “The Rare Tea Lady”, found the perfect balance with this book. Firstly, it is just fun to read. Each chapter is very short, typically around three to four pages, making it easy to dip into. The prose is well written, and it benefits from what has been left out. There are no wasted words.

Secondly, there is a wealth of tea knowledge, across history, culture, farming, producing, sourcing, pairing, brewing and just enjoying tea. And finally, there are just some amazing stories and characters.

I tend to mostly drink Chinese teas, and there was things I learned from the pages of this book. Where I most enjoyed it, was in the regions I know the least about, such as across Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. I loved the stories of persuading chefs and restaurateurs to expand their tea knowledge, and how to pair tea with various foods. Definitely had hints of Kitchen Confidential here too.

Afternoon tea is covered by going all the way back to its origins, how it has evolved, and some of the ways it is enjoyed today. Some of the more modern interpretations have lost the essence of tea, and focus more on cake and champagne. Henrietta shares her story of working with hotels and restaurants to redress the omission of great tea. I loved reading the story, and am also deeply grateful for her work on educating the restaurant industry on great tea.

The book also covers a range of herbs, flowers and other things to make infusions from. This is something I knew very little about, and I appreciated the details. I know the difference between a pinnacle tea, and while reading, could imagine the difference from supermarket chamomile compared to one harvested at “the zenith of summer just as the flowers mature, is like drinking a meadow in full bloom”.

I’ve recently been fascinated by African tea, and here there are examples of travels to the tea fields:

My image of Africa as a scorched, desiccated place was undone. The red earth, rich in flora and fauna, was a revelation; you could drop any seed on Satemwa and it would grow. It’s a large farm, rolling through the Shire Highlands, employing around two thousand people and supporting the wider community of sixteen thousand.

Background of the business realities:

Tea is Malawi’s second-largest export, after tobacco. But today, the price Malawi tea gets at auction is often less than the cost of production. Only the giant industrial agri-businesses can comfortably produce cheap tea in large quantities on fully automated farms to bulk up big-brand teabags. They use seasonal labour, and very little of it; almost everything is mechanised and they have vast economies of scale.

And interesting details:

Interestingly, the best CTC grades are often bought by the poorest nations: in North Africa, Afghanistan and the Urals. In places where tea is drunk and life is hard, they drink the highest quality tea they can afford. Ironically, the British can afford the best but for the last seventy-odd years have mostly drunk the worst.

There is so much more across all aspects of tea. This includes explanations of how to brew many types of teas, and different uses of teas, such as pairing, cooking and cold infusions:

It is important to remember that these cold infusions pack quite a punch. Though they taste sweet, silky and elegant, they are laden with caffeine. All that time in the water has allowed the caffeine to fully dissolve. You can’t taste it, but it lies there quietly, ready to raise you up.

This risk of reading a book from a tea vendor, is that their teas fall short of the prose. After ordering a range of tea from the Rare Tea company, it has only further improved the experience with tastes to match stories.

I actually own two copies of Infused. I started reading the Kindle version, and when I mentioned how great it was, my wife asked me to stop. A few months later, I resumed reading the hardcover version, after unwrapping it Christmas morning. This is a book I’ll return to, and I’m grateful to have it on the shelf to leaf through.

Highly recommended!