WHAT do the credit crunch, European leveraged capital markets and looseleaf tea have in common? The answer is Ajit Madan, who left his job at Societe Generale when the credit crunch rendered his slice of the pie a mere shadow of its former self, to follow his entrepreneurial dreams. “It was a part of the market that crated in the financial crash,” he says over jars of herbs and tea in the shop he now owns with his sister, Lubna, a homeopath. “It was a €70bn market that went down to €2bn. There were no more international deals – no more challenges.”
His sister had already started the ball rolling with the Camellia’s Tea House (named after the tea species used to produce Chinese tea). Tea had played a poignant role in both their lives, recalling childhood visits to their grandmother in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (India). When Ajit’s golden opportunity for change arose in 2009, he decided to enter the business. “I thought there was a gap in the market for tea,” he says. “So I financed the setting up of the shop and our blending studio.”
That’s right: blending studio. This is not your average tea business. Ajit claims that Camellia’s stocks the largest selection of herbal tea in Europe, though that claim did not sit well with City A.M.’s German photographer, who says his country’s shops outdo it in range.
But it hardly matters. What is unique about Camellia’s – and responsible, one imagines, for its sales doubling year on year – is the bespoke element, the mixing and matching of leaves and fruit and flowers to create “remedy” teas as well as those enjoyable for being delicate and delicious. So appealing is the product and concept that the likes of the Burj al Arab hotel, Dubai’s most aggressive answer to the question of what money can buy, has nabbed Camellia’s tea for its spa. The shop has also, oddly, become a favourite among Japanese pop stars.
In the blending studio, which is in Wandsworth, Lubna creates tea and “herbal infusions” for a wide range of ailments – rather like a beneficent witch, whose “double double toil and trouble” results in brews for everything from bad digestion to menstrual cramps.
I’m neither a tea lover nor a believer in the science-busting powers claimed by homeopathists. But an hour spent sniffing and tasting in the tea shop showed me how tea – done right – is damn hard not to love. The scents are intoxicating: jars wafting with aromas of tobacco, fruit, flowers, hay, oats, lemon, orange.
Tea as a whole is also an impressive substance, not dissimilar to wine in its complexity. There are 1,500 types, according to the UK Tea Council, with a Premier Cru-style “first flush” category (the buds that come from the top of the bushes).
Facing the shop’s rows of labelled jars, I lead with my nose. Sniffing and tilting and staring into the potpurri-esque heaps, I opt for a range of both “tea” (defined by containing black or white tea) and tisanes (herbal infusions). White peonie proves a good base; but my favourite is the Chinese white tea with dried apricot and marigold flowers, which smells of a fruit salad.
The “happy tummy” tea is good too, and certainly soothing for my ravaged post-holiday belly, settling it with star anise, peppermint, rosehips and liquorice.
Then I get to make my own blend and, popping in spoonfuls of liquorice (which I love), ginger, black tea, orange peel and star anise into a jar, I feel like a child with a chemistry set. Mixed up and brewed, it tastes rather good. Indeed, far more pleasant than anything likely to be produced with a bunsen burner and test tubes.
12 Kingly Court, London W1B 5PW. Tel: 020 7734 9939, www.camelliasteahouse.com