Merchant Profile: Lalani & Co.

Posted in: blog, on 14 Jun 2016

Nick Wyke
by Nick Wyke

Do you know your tea like you know your wine? According to Jameel Lalani, founder of Lalani & Co, it's time that you did...

Jameel Lalani is one of a small band of pioneers taking tea to the next level. His tea experience began aged just four on a family trip to Tunisia. The green tea with mint that he tasted was “sweet and approachable” to the young Jameel’s palate.

But as he grew up he began asking more questions about tea — about its provenance and seasonality — and fine-tuning his palate like a wine connoisseur.

“Tea is just like wine in many respects,” says Lalani, who serves tea in clear, stemless wine-style glasses designed by Austrian glassware maker Riedel. “Some are best drunk fresh while others improve with age.”

Knowing your tea is becoming a cultural habit, like fine wine has become.

Somewhere on a shelf in his lab-cum-kitchen in London’s Kings Cross he has a Chinese tea from 1995. But unlike wine the tea trade hasn’t developed such sophisticated levels of traceability, he explains. “Our white teas age brilliantly, but you wouldn’t want to drink our kabusecha, a shade-grown sencha green tea, after a couple of years.”

How to make the perfect cup of fine tea:

Always infuse the leaves at the correct temperature and time — see the label on the jars.

Lalani recommends a temperature kettle, which saves energy, and he sells antique timers made out of bobbins from old British cotton mills.

Do not allow the leaves to sit and over-infuse.

“Fine tea is best infused in fine infusionware which allows the leaves to express their flavour fully,” says Lalani. His fine-bone China Aurora vessel has been lovingly designed by ceramic artist Linda Bloomfield and is made in the traditional British potteries in Stoke on Trent.

Decant the tea into a stemless wine-style glass.

The ‘O’ shaped glass gives an accurate and even delivery to the nose and palate. A teacup flows more widely to the sides of the mouth and tongue which are not the best areas for detecting flavour.

Hold the glass to judge the temperature.

When you can hold it, it’s an ideal drinking temperature. Treat it like a fine wine: sip, aerate, appreciate the flavours and match up what you taste with the story of the tea.

The language of craft-batch luxury tea mimics that of wine with its talk about terroir, sommeliers and tasting etiquette. London may lack quality tea bars, says Lalani, but the city’s restaurants and hotels are improving their tea lists and tea pairings are becoming more common. Lalani provides the tea list at Burberry’s new restaurant, Thomas’s, at its flagship store on Regent Street, for example.

“There’s a lot of interest but a lack of knowledge currently. Knowing your tea is becoming a cultural habit, like fine wine has become.” Lalani describes his teas, which are packaged in dark glass jars (pouches were neither recyclable nor 100 per cent airtight) as his personal collection of exceptional teas. “It’s not about a ‘range’ or price point. It’s about the most extraordinary batches from different terroirs.” To be more exact - small-batch tea from picturesque, mainly organic gardens in India, Japan, Nepal and Taiwan. Lalani visits these verdant and fragrant outposts regularly.

“Above all we are looking for flavour quality — an extraordinary taste with a complexity that relates to style of region. Some of our latest batches are collaborations where we’ve gone to the garden and created new teas using our combined knowledge.” In a green tea, for example, he looks for umami and a vegetal spectrum with a nice smoothness and long finish. But he makes a point of always buying the tea in the UK where he can trust the water and knows its boiling point — water boils at different temperatures depending on altitude. Such delicate tea requires patience and careful handling.

“When you take the upgrade to fine tea, you’re choosing quality and experience over simple convenience,” says Lalani. “It takes a couple of minutes longer and a bit more skill in order to get a vastly superior flavour.”

So does he ever resort to a mug of ‘builders’’? “Never,” says Lalani adamantly. “After an upgrade you can’t turn back the clock. It’s the same with chocolate and coffee. But it’s good to see bigger producers teasing customers up to more adventurous styles of tea.”

Nick Wyke

Nick Wyke

Food Expert

Nick Wyke is a Times journalist and food writer responsible for developing a range of creative and interactive content from commissioning food and wine video series, building communities through social media, and organising live cookery hangouts. His work at Times Food across digital platforms has been shortlisted for the Guild of Food Writers New Media Award. He is passionate about colourful seasonal food cooked simply, inspired by Britain's booming food start-up scene and likes his G&T with lots of lime.

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