LONDON — In a country where most households have an electric kettle and where a “nice cup of tea, dear” is the national comfort food, people are surprisingly undemanding when it comes to their daily brew. Most English will settle for supermarket blends in bags. As for traditional teatime, with crumpets, sultana scones and egg and cress sandwiches, well, that’s just for grannies and tourists.

Or is it?

Tara Calcraft wants to change young Londoners’ approach to tea drinking. Last month, the former retail marketing consultant opened Tea Palace, an emporium in Westbourne Grove. It offers 150 types of teas and infusions, from the pea-shaped balls of leaves hand-wrapped by village elders in China, to a rare Japanese green tea mixed with puffed rice, to white teas grown in China’s Fujian province that are picked only a few weeks each year.

“Tea prices went up after World War II, so the quality of the tea in England went down,” explains Calcraft over a cup of white peony tea. “It got progressively worse, and never really improved. What’s in the average tea bag now is pretty bad — it’s a blend of 15 to 30 different kinds of tea, and the lowest grade of leaf.”

Calcraft says she loves introducing her customers — who include Stella McCartney and Kate Moss — to different teas. She makes them smell the leaves and the blends, all of which are stored in tin caddies that sit on polished walnut shelves behind the counter. The walls are covered in handmade wallpaper with a doily-inspired print, windows are decked in white muslin curtains and the chandeliers are made from hundreds of small, mother-of-pearl discs.

“I’m not out to woo people away from coffee. I just want people to reassess their approach to tea,” she says, clearly taken with the romance of hunting for perfect leaves.

“There’s something rather magical about the men picking the leaves in China, or watching village elders hand-tying or twisting the leaves,” she says. Calcraft also gets a buzz from sourcing teas from Japan. “Less than 2 percent of Japanese tea is actually available for export. The Japanese drink the rest.”

This story first appeared in the June 27, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Calcraft carries Gyokuro Asahi, one of the rarest Japanese teas available, which is grown under special bamboo shades that create dappled light for the leaves.

Despite the exotic options from far-flung places, Tea Palace’s bestsellers include Earl Grey — Calcraft carries nine varieties — and peppermint green tea.

Next to the tea counter is a restaurant where Calcraft serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea (of course) and weekend brunch. The eatery bakes its own scones, tarts and crumpets, and everything — including the tea — is served on white Wedgwood china.

Calcraft says she’s convinced tea drinking will become increasingly popular as people pay more attention to their health. “Coffee drinkers are like a lot of smokers. They’re not ready to give up entirely, but they are aware they shouldn’t be drinking so much during the day. Tea has much less caffeine, and gives people an alternative to their afternoon fix.”

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