Laura Cartledge discovers a revolution is brewing in Lewes.
Recent years have seen a coffee revolution. Fresh-ground, newfangled roasting machines and artisan blends have not only overtaken the classic flat white, in Pauline Maniere’s opinion tea also has catching up to do.
“I worked in restaurants and cafes for five years and in that time coffee got really exciting, but tea was left behind,” she recalls. “The selection was quite limited and I thought if I did something one day it would be tea.”
Pauline’s passion stems from the little tea shop in her hometown in France that her mum used to visit at the weekend.
So when she moved to England nine years ago – a country which arguably fuels itself with a brew – she found herself underwhelmed.
“I was astonished to find it was all about builder’s tea, whereas in France we have more fruit teas and herbal teas,” she explains. “It was very different.”
About five years ago Pauline decided to do something about it.
“It is quite difficult because it is grown so far away from where we are,” admits Pauline, “but three years of research has allowed me to meet amazing people, like tea masters in London, and that let me get in touch with farmers.”
The result, in 2014, was VRAC – the Lewes-based ethical tea shop.
With a focus on quality, fair-trade and natural farming, Pauline timed it perfectly as people were changing the way they thought and shopped, paying more attention to what they were consuming.
“It is so important for me to know where it has come from, who picked it, if they were paid correctly,” she enthuses.
The seasonal selection sees more than 30 loose teas available, sourced from small estates and around the world, a process Pauline clearly loves.
“I think it is the most exciting part of my job, looking for the tea,” she confesses. “Locally I like to spend time looking for the flowers and herbs.
“I think people are surprised, they know about green teas and herbal teas, but there is so much more.”
This includes the part it can play in wellbeing.
As drink-based health trends, such as cold pressed juices and infused water, have taken off so has the interest in the properties of tea – and the fact it can do more than cure a long day.
“I do get some medical questions, people say I have heavy legs or digestion issues,” she agrees. “I have read a lot about it all, people know of herbal medicine but that has mostly disappeared.
“There used to be shops where you could get herbs for every ache and pain.”
Despite the business still being relatively new, it seems to be going from strength to strength, so what has been Pauline’s highlight so far?
“Just recently I have done a tea tasting where I made 120 cups, being able to sit back and see all these people drinking the tea, I thought this is a result,” she beams. “And the feedback was great.”
The event saw Pauline paired with Kate Henry, a contestant on series five of The Great British Bake off, in a workshop pairing the classic tea and cake.
“We randomly met through someone who knew both of us,” recalls Pauline. “We met in a cafe two months ago and got on really well.
“We had the idea of doing a modern take on an afternoon tea and it was so fun, the
music was fun, it was no granny party,” she laughs, “there was no vintage crockery.”
As much as her work sounds interesting, with days spent ‘mixing and playing and tasting’, it is not just about enjoying a cuppa as there is an art to the blends which Pauline confesses doesn’t always go to plan.
“Sometimes you do have blends in your mind and you know the flavours individually but they might not come across,” she says. “If you can taste each thing that is exciting, you get the layers.”
However, especially for newbies to proper tea, Pauline admits there is nothing better than keeping it simple.
“The whole leaf from one place is when you can tell the difference, it is about quality,” she reveals.
“When they see the teas and how big the leaves are compared to what you get in teabags, people realise.”
For more information about VRAC, visit www.vractea.co.uk
Pauline. Picture: Robbins Photographic
For more features like this visit etcmag.net