In Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, bergamot is harvested from November to February from trees that each produce between 80 and 120 kilos of fruit per year. This citrus fruit, widely used in perfumery, gives the famous Earl Grey tea its citrus notes. Bergamot is grown in all the valleys in the region (pictured here: San Carlo valley), which offer breathtaking views of the Ionian Sea or the Strait of Messina.
There are attempts to grow Camelia sinensis in many countries, including France. On the banks of the Blavet, near Hennebont (Morbihan), Denis and Weizi are pioneers. They planted eight tea bushes 17 years ago, for their own consumption. They now have 30,000 from 15 different cultivars. Their production is still limited (20 kg per year) but is set to double over the next few years. Denis and Weizi’s enthusiasm is inspiring others to grow tea, and in addition to supplying nearly 20,000 tea plants a year to hobby growers, they are supporting them and forming a strong community.
So, it’s January, it’s cold outside, what tea should you be drinking? I recommend a dark tea (not to be confused with black tea), especially after that holiday period when the chances are you’ve overindulged. Because this deep, rich tea has been reputed for centuries for its digestive properties. Note, however, that this type of tea, also known as pu’er or pu-erh, undergoes post-fermentation. As such, expect your cup to develop aromas of moss, mushrooms, undergrowth, wet straw, along with notes of vanilla and liquorice as well as leather and other musky flavours. This incredible tea is simply perfect for this time of year and is good for us too. Let me know what you think!
Palais des Thés makes a number of commitments to its customers including having a good knowledge of each growing region, knowing where and how tea is made, by whom and in what conditions. If one wants to give the best advice, to introduce people to tea in the best possible way, it is essential to understand how to choose tea, how to taste it and how to convey one’s sensory impressions. What motivates my colleagues is to be able to share their passion and help others appreciate tea. They are experts, enthusiasts and guides. They are tea sommeliers through and through.
During a recent interview, a journalist remarked that Palais des Thés had created two new professions, something I’d never really considered before. It’s quite unusual to create a new type of job; I don’t know if many companies have had this experience. At Palais des Thés we have two roles that didn’t exist before us: tea researcher and tea sommelier. There are now two tea researchers on our team and we get contacted by many applicants who want to join us. And thanks to our diploma programme, 26 people can now call themselves a tea sommelier, which is to tea what the sommelier is to wine.
Sri Lanka’s tea plantations are among the most beautiful in the world, but that is not always reflected in the quality. You have to learn not to be influenced by landscapes. The best teas on the island are in the south, in a less mountainous region. Here, west of Nuwara Eliya, you won’t enjoy a remarkable tea, but the views are magnificent.
If there is one type of tea that could be described as being in “confinement”, which is our term for “lockdown” or “shelter in place” here in France, it is shade-grown teas. The best known of these is Pu Erh.
These teas generally go into confinement by being shaded for one to two months, although it can be longer. And when it comes to “deconfinement”, when you lift off the covers under which the harvested leaves have been gently fermenting, you are greeted with wonderful, powerful bouquets. In the cup, these teas develop magnificent aromas of undergrowth, cellars, mushrooms, sought-after animal notes that often evoke stables, and spices. Here’s to your “deconfinement”, whenever that may be.
It’s no mean feat to obtain a Tea Sommelier diploma. First, the candidate must answer 24 open questions in just an hour. Then they must prepare, in front of three examiners, a tasting of six teas from among 22. The leaves placed in front of the applicant have no written indication of their type, colour or origin. Then they must perform a task chosen at random: prepare a matcha tea correctly, serve tea in a kyusu, or serve a pu erh using the gong fu method. That’s what this esteemed exam consists of, meaning that those who obtain the diploma are true experts! Here, I’m meeting some of them, with my assistant watching on. Bénédicte has infused a few premium teas, which we are discussing.
Working together is good; sharing good times is even better. Yesterday was the Tea Sommeliers day, which I devote to the people who have obtained their precious diploma. The aim of the day is to spend a good time together, with tea, food and treats for the senses.
We began by tasting the entire selection of first-flush Darjeelings, which I have just completed, before joining Nathaly from L’Esprit-Cuisine for a meal of food and tea pairings. With Nathaly – a remarkable, positive and passionate teacher – we prepared an onglet of Aubrac beef with crème à l’anguille, flavoured with Bourgeons de Yunnan Premium tea. It was delicious, and we ate it accompanied by the same tea. This followed a fresh herb soup served with a Taiwan Si Ji Chun, and was followed by a delicious streusel, chocolate and black sesame biscuit served with the famous Jukro from South Korea.
In the afternoon we returned to the tasting room, where our tea sommeliers discovered a few rare teas, tasted blind of course, before we all decided together whether they merited being called “premium” teas. Among the curiosities we tasted were a goishicha from Japan, a compressed dark tea from Hunan, little tea balls from Sri Lanka, a tea from the Nainital region of India, and a black tea from Colombia!
On this blog you follow me on my search for teas and at my tasting sessions, and I thank you. Sometimes I also talk about pairings of teas and food, and I should also tell you about the tastings I’ve enjoyed so much in the company of chefs and tasters of other quality products such as chocolate and oil.
But I have another mission, which is to share knowledge. I’ve learnt everything I know about tea from farmers and planters: every trip, everyone I meet, every tea I taste, throughout the year. I’ve been learning for 30 years and I know just enough to understand that I’ll never have time to completely get to grips with the subject. One lifetime is not enough, not nearly enough, to learn everything there is to know about tea. Since the start of our Palais des Thés story, and quite quickly with the Tea School, sharing knowledge has come to play an important role in our company. Today we’ve passed a very important milestone. With the help of my knowledgeable entourage, I’ve developed a practical and theoretical exam that will recognise, promote and encourage the best tea experts. So far, five people have been awarded this Tea Sommelier certification. Here I am with two of them, Nathanaëlle, our store manager in Marseille, and Manuela, a sales advisor in Paris, both of whom have accompanied me on a trip to Darjeeling. Well done to these two!