Everybody who has ever received a Diwali/Christmas/New Year hamper would have received a carton of Twining’s teabags in it. It is something of a silent revolution, and not unlike carrying coals to Newcastle, but that’s a fact that both Stephen Twining and Georgina Durnford would stoutly deny!
You see, much of the tea that is bought by Twinings Pvt Ltd comes from India: Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiris. The trick is in the blending, however, and that’s where blenders and tasters come in to the picture. Georgina Durnford has been a taster with Twinings for nine years and helps look after the teas of Mombassa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Jakarta and Colombo. Once the teas have been bought in auctions, they are blended by the small, tightly knit tasting team at Twinings. Being a small team may have its advantages, but Georgina and the team do have to taste prodigious amounts of tea: upto 600 cups a week!
One of the teas that she favours the most is jasmine pearls of China. She is fortunate enough to have actually seen layers of Chinese tea and jasmine buds in mountainous heaps before the buds are picked out and discarded: an inordinate amount of labour by anyone’s standards.
Georgina Durnford accompanied Stephen Twining on what turned out to be their first trip to India. Twining is the tenth descendant of Thomas Twining, who founded the eponymous company 306 years ago. “The original shop still stands on the Strand, though it is not large by any means. You could touch both walls if you stretched your arms sideways.” Twining famously held his first lesson on tea at the age of eight, when his geography teacher at school requested him to talk to his classmates on India’s largest export. Tea, naturally, was second nature to him, but he was pained to see how little his classmates knew about the subject.
Twining can talk endlessly about his product and not be impatient, tired or bored. He told me about the superior quality of the material for Twining’s teabags. Apparently, they are not made of bleached material because of environmental concerns and the material is perfectly neutral in taste. Contrast that to some teabags whose papery aftertaste drowns out the taste of the tea inside them! English Breakfast tea was developed in the 1930s, when artery-clogging breakfasts were the norm: kippers, kedgeree and bacon. The blend called English Breakfast was developed so as to hold its own amidst the strong flavours. “Rather like a slap on the face with a wet fish,” remarks Twining, poker faced.
He has a theory about almost everything, does Stephen Twining, a youthful 48 years old (Georgina too looks seriously underage to be working at a job, so put it down to the polyphenols of all that tea). His version of why there is so much masala tea in India is because of the way that tea is cooked for long periods on a saucepan. Adding a strong flavour will cancel the bitterness that is sure to ensue. And lo and behond, Twinings has a “Cha blend”, or what you and I know as masala chai. Apparently very popular in the US, together with something called pumpkin cha, flavoured with …. Ah well, there’s no accounting for tastes.
Box: All you need is boiling water to be put into a cup. Dip the tea bag into the water and wait for three minutes. In that duration, all the colour AND flavour will have been transferred to the water. Do not jiggle the tea bag for a few seconds and then discard it. That way, all you will get is the colour of the tea, but none of the flavour.