T hey looked and smelled like perfumed rabbit droppings.
Somewhat sceptically, but following Andrew Gadsden’s advice to the letter, I popped six of them into a mug.
The kettle boiled and was left for two minutes. Then the water was tipped into the mug and the six little balls exploded into life.
Five minutes later and the room was scented with jasmine. The tea it created was both refreshing and soothing. Those same leaves lasted for another four mugs without losing their impact.
They were jasmine pearls, a white tea from China, one of the most exclusive and sought-after in the world, and a 125g pouch will set you back £30.
Of course, Jasmine Pearl is at the very highest end of the market. Andrew will sell you, and does by the sackload, a large tin of English Breakfast loose leaf (‘our biggest seller by a long way’) for £8.
Those Chinese pearls are among dozens of teas being sold by tea merchant and blender Andrew from unit 119 in the Victory Business Centre at Fratton, Portsmouth.
It’s not the kind of industry you expect to find behind the bland door or, indeed, in Portsmouth.
Beyond it though it is anything but nondescript. It’s everything you would hope to find in a tea blender’s emporium. The senses are almost overwhelmed by the subtle aromas of leaves from China, India, Kenya, Japan, Nepal and Vietnam.
Samples of each are stored in large, venerable tin tea caddies. Elsewhere, walls are lined with rows of beautiful old wooden glass-fronted cabinets displaying the dried petals of flowers used to add aroma and eye candy to the tea.
Apart from the jasmine, there are marigold, rose, cornflower and orange petals.
Andrew, 35, comes to the boil with enthusiasm as he shows you around the All About Tea business he created from scratch in his Southsea flat just four years ago.
‘I was a navigating officer in the Royal Navy and I sailed the seven seas on behalf of the Queen, but then came the time for me to leave. I was 30.
‘I was born in Bexhill-on-Sea but I’d bought a property in Portsmouth so that when I wasn’t away I had a base to come home to.
‘From a very young age I had two ambitions – the first was to start my own business, the second was to join the Royal Navy.
‘I think one of the reasons I left the navy was because I realised there was limited scope for setting my own path. I knew I wanted to set up a business but I did not know what that was going to be and I decided to give myself a period of time to consider my options.’
We are sitting at a desk in his office surrounded by loose tea and maps showing the estates of Assam and Darjeeling. He sips from a mug of coffee. ‘I always start the day with tea and drink it in the afternoons, but I have to have a couple of mugs of coffee in the morning,’ he says without a hint of irony.
‘I had always been keen on tea. When I was seven my mother was given a variety pack of 12 teas. I had never known anything other than normal loose leaf tea, so experimenting with those different flavours from around the world really opened all my senses to the possibilities of tea.
‘Growing up I constantly had a mug of tea in my hand and my oldest friends from school or university say they are not at all surprised that I ended up as a tea merchant. Friends from the navy remember me always having a mug of tea on the bridge.’
Andrew’s first intention had been to open the first tea lounge in Southsea – a venue where you could choose your cuppa from dozens of teas on display and from where he could sell his tea to caterers.
‘When that fell through I was still determined to do something in tea so I thought about selling through a website.
‘The dot com bubble had burst and the internet was no longer the flavour of the month, but I still thought I could make selling tea via a website work.’
So he learned how to build a website and then, with a bit of help from friends, designed allabouttea.co.uk and supplies teas by the tonne all over the country. He now employs 10 people.
As we tour his packing room he picks up labels for a blend he is about to produce.
It’s called Bucklebury Tea named after Kate Middleton’s home village in Berkshire. Another business opportunity on the back of the royal wedding.
Behind him is a fully-working, 150-year-old, cast iron tea blending machine.
In a side office is a marvellous Heath Robinsonesque contraption that makes his tea bags. Tea bags? Really?
‘Of course. You have to. And very good bags they are too,’ says Andrew, handling a large roll of paper full of tiny perforations.
‘Ninety-seven per cent of the tea we drink in this country comes in bags. It’s what people want and like, and who am I to argue with the British public?’
What he really hopes people will like is a new tea he is launching towards the end of the summer – Portsmouth Tea.
‘It will bear no resemblance to Bucklebury.’
Andrew adds: ‘Why not? It will be distinctive, just like the people of this city who, I think, deserve their own tea.
‘It will be something of which they can be proud.
‘It will be a proper Pompey cuppa, a blend of African and Indian teas, stronger and better than, say, Yorkshire Tea because that’s what I think Portsmouth people like.’
But what about the difficulties of trying to establish a new business in the depths of a recession?
‘I’m lucky,’ says Andrew.
‘Tea is a product which captures the imagination.
‘When people talk about tea they are usually in a good mood.
‘There’s all this talk at the moment about austerity chic and I think buying quality tea falls into this category.
‘The simple things in life have suddenly become very fashionable and tea is one of those simple things, one of life’s simple pleasures.
‘And it’s not expensive. You can drink the best tea in the world for a few pence.
‘Tea is deeply rooted in the British psyche – the ceremony of it all, the warming of the pot, the cosy, taking the time in an increasingly busy world to make a pot or a cup.
‘That moment when you have your first cup in the morning is something very special which means a lot to people.
‘Make yourself a good cup of tea and suddenly the world seems a better place.’