From left to right: Maria, Alexandra, Alexei, Tatiana, Nicholas II, Olga, Anastasia, 1911
It all started with an email. From a German tea company peddling a new product; a variation on the ubiquitous tea-bag. "Please send me the Earl Grey flavour" I said. The tea arrived, along with a demand that it should not be taken with milk. I found this slightly irritating. The English (surely one of the world's greatest nations of tea drinkers?) have always taken their tea with milk, it's what we do, it's ingrained in our culture- and since the 18th century too. I sent them an email pointing this out and was told that this was 'sacrilege'. This irritated me even more. Look, I wouldn't dream of adding milk to say, my smoky, delicate Lapsang Souchong, but Earl Grey which should, by my book, be a mixture of Indian and China teas flavoured with orange and bergamot, has enough punch to take it. And I wouldn't dream of lecturing Germans on how to pickle sauerkraut.
Anyway, the tea arrived and we tasted it. Mrs Aitch took it into the office and gave it to the boys to try out. There was a general consensus: "Doesn't taste of anything"... "Slightly Bitter"..."Where's the Bergamot?"... "This ain't Earl Grey"... "Dishwater". Nope. I'm afraid this particular tea failed to hit the mark. It seemed, also, to have been made entirely from Indian or Ceylon teas, which didn't seem quite right to me, failing to capture the true spirit of Earl Grey, the very essence of the cult.
The search for the perfect Earl Grey continued for a few months, and then suddenly, yesterday, bingo!- I think I found it. It's "Anastasia" Earl Grey tea from Kusmi of Paris. It's horribly expensive. I paid ten pounds for a small cardboard pack of tea bags. Beautifully made, dinky little muslin bags, mind you- but tea bags.
Kusmi tea has a distinguished history. The company was founded by Pavel Michailovitch Kousmichoff in St Peterbsurg in 1867, relocating to Paris after the Russian Revolution in 1917. I'm a sucker for packaging, and by golly, the Kusmi tea company does this extremely well, evoking images of lost Tsars, displaced Russian aristos, samovars and night-time rides in troikas to remote dachas in the Russian steppes. The blurb says:
Since 1867, Kusmi Tea has been creating exclusive blends and classic teas in baroque and colourful packaging faithful to the original labels. Distributed all over the world, Kusmi Tea gives endless enjoyment and gustative treasures to connoisseurs and neophytes with its inimitable aromas and flavours.
And for once, the hype is true. Fabulous citrusy, floral smells hit you the moment you discard the wrapping. And Mein Gott, this tea is truly, deeply delicious. Utterly delicious. Clean and fresh with a decent hit, masses of marmalade, bergamot and floral flavours going on, with subtle and very slight caramalised sugary hints- and a delicious orangey after-taste that stays in the back of your mouth for several minutes. This tea would be marvellous on a hot English afternoon in late June, served with a a plate of properly made cucumber sandwiches. With milk.