Ratan Mondal: My Story

I've been a tea taster for the past 10 years. I began making ceramics in Calcutta, and I started a small tea room so that people could try drinking out of my pottery. I have very good friends and family in Darjeeling, so I was getting the tea from there—and that was how I came into the tea industry. I always want things to be better and better, so within three years I had become a tea taster. When I taste the tea, it's not like in a special room, in a special chair, at a particular time. When my mind says taste the tea, if it's 10 o'clock at night, first thing in the morning—that is the time for the tasting.

I came to Britain on a scholarship to attend the business innovation centre at Sunderland University—they are famous for their ceramics there too. In the meantime I kept on thinking about tea. I came down to London and worked at a lot of things—I used to be a cleaner in big restaurants and bars. But during that time I learnt so many things—what British people like in their tea, the colour, the texture, how to speak to people. As a cleaner, I was thinking all the time that I should do something for myself—I wanted to be my own boss.

I had been to Borough Market around four to five times before applying, and suddenly it came just like a bolt to my life. You can't imagine—this is a place where I can express myself, and bring my tea directly to the people. It's a very friendly market. It is like a synthesiser—there is a rhythm to it, a harmony. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down. In the morning everybody is coming, people are laughing, gradually the rhythm is going up, then after two or three hours everybody is busy buying, and then the energy goes slowly down. You can hear the sound of them opening the tables at the start, and closing the tables at the end of the day—it's a very good sound.

My product has changed since I started here. I used to taste around 60 types of first flush tea to choose one, and now I am tasting 100 to 130, which means the product is getting better and better. It's a big industry, and the tea buying market is growing. I have to taste all of these teas within three days, and tell them immediately that I want to order 200 cases. There are a lot of importers round the world and they recruit tea tasters in Calcutta—they are my competition.

When you buy Darjeeling tea in tea bags, it cannot be proper tea. Proper tea is something different—you cannot keep tea inside bags, proper tea is loose. Let the tea leaves play inside your cups, then you will get the flavour. Don't confiscate it into bags.