Smell is probably the richest sense in terms of tasting. Food and drink have a smell, or rather a number of smells, which we perceive while tasting, especially if we practise retronasal olfaction by breathing air out through the nose while the substance is in the mouth. In the case of tea, there are many aromas. As we’ve done since childhood with naming colours (red, blue, yellow, etc.), we can categorise aromas too: vegetal, fruity, floral, marine, spicy, woody, undergrowth, buttery/milky, mineral, burnt, animal, and so on.
So the next time you drink tea, ask yourself whether its dominant aromas are floral, fruity, animal or marine, etc. Happy tastings!
Touch is one of our senses, and it plays a part in tea-drinking. In the mouth, we notice the temperature of the liquid, and also its texture, thanks to our sense of touch. A tea can create the impression of being oily or dry. Some Japanese teas or Taiwanese oolongs, for example, give the impression that the liquid in the mouth is almost creamy in texture. On the other hand, many teas create a sensation of dryness, which we call astringency. Astringency gives a tea its long finish in the mouth. There is no one ideal texture. It’s all about the balance between a tea’s aromas, flavours and texture.
When we eat or drink something, we pay attention to its appearance and colour, of course, but once it is in our mouth, we consider the flavour, texture and aroma.
There are five flavours, or taste elements: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and a fifth, lesser known taste, called umami. Tea does not naturally have a salty flavour, but all the other taste elements are present. A tea can have several flavours. Just as an orange is both sweet and sour, a pu erh can be both sweet and umami.
A visit to a tea plantation always includes a tasting. This one took place in the dedicated tasting room, with light coming in from outside. Sometimes though, tastings can take place outdoors if the factory is too small, or doesn’t have the right equipment. With a bit of luck you can enjoy magnificent scenery while swirling the liquor around in your mouth. Here, in Pathivara (Nepal), a lovely stone table is used for tastings.
If you’ve never cooked with tea, here’s a simple recipe to get you started: marbled eggs. It’s Easter, but we’re not talking chocolate. Instead, we’re using real eggs, so we’re sticking to the theme all the same. And of course, you can still use them for an Easter egg hunt for added fun!
Hard-boil your eggs, then place them in cold water. Gently crack the shell by tapping the egg lightly on all sides. Next, place the eggs into simmering water for 20 minutes along with 15g of Pu Erh Impérial (per 300 ml water), a stick of cinnamon, a tablespoon of soya sauce, two star anise and a pinch of salt. Then leave to cool. They can be kept, unpeeled, in the fridge for up to 48 hours.
When I tell people that I sometimes taste 50 or 100 teas a day, or even more, many are surprised, and ask: how can you try that many teas and still taste something?
In fact, it’s easier to taste 20 teas than just one, especially if they come from the same terroir, because as I move from one liquor to the next, comparing how long they linger in the mouth, their flavour and their aromatic profile, it becomes quite easy to form an opinion on each one. When you taste a single tea, you have to be a complete master of tasting techniques and have a solid knowledge of the typical characteristics of that type to be able to form a proper opinion.
In general, Japanese roasted teas work very well with food such as shellfish, pan-fried salmon and smoked fish, as well as desserts with red fruit or praline. They are also ideal at the end of a meal, even for coffee-lovers who appreciate their roasted aromas.
Here, Shiraore Kuki Hojicha stands up well to a Pont-l’Evêque. On contact with the cheese, it develops woody, burnt aromas as well as notes of cooked fruit. It’s a great combination.
The tea was infused for an hour in room-temperature water. It can then be kept in the fridge for 24 hours.
I’m often asked what the letters and words mean following the name of a tea. Let’s take the example of a first-flush Darjeeling, Singbulli DJ-12-SFTGFOP1-Clonal-Superb.
- Singbulli is the name of the plantation
- DJ12/19 means it’s the 12th harvest of the year 2019 (when you see EX12/19 instead of DJ12/19, EX stands for “extra”, meaning an additional batch, processed in addition to the main batch of the day)
- The letters SFTGFOP1 refer to the appearance of the dry leaf. The grade FTGFOP stands for “Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”. This means it’s a whole-leaf tea with plenty of tips, or buds. Over the years, the story has grown and the description has expanded. S means “Super”, and 1 means… Who knows? It’s a mystery!
Today, only Indian producers use the grade SFTGFOP1.
Next week I’ll tell you about the descriptions Clonal, Superb, Exotic and Delight!
Tea and cheese make ideal partners. To go with a Brie, whether it’s from Melun, Meaux, Nangis or Montereau, I recommend a Bancha Hojicha. The woody, roasted notes of this well-known Japanese toasted tea beautifully complement the flavours of the soft cheese. And if you prefer, you could infuse the tea for an hour in water at room temperature, instead of in hot water.
It’s not easy to find the right pairing. You need to taste lots of different teas, as in this photo, where I’m comparing Pu erh Impérial, Malawi Dark and Bancha Hojicha with three different Bries, after trying many others.
To create the ideal tasting conditions, you need quality tea, you have to pay attention to the quality and the temperature of the water, the brewing time and, of course, the recipient. Avoid large teapots, because they are detrimental to the quality of infusion. To get the very best out of your tea, including and above all the rarest teas of all, the material and the size of the recipient are essential. Here is an inspirational tasting session for the famous designer, Patrick Norguet. His goal is to understand my trade, to understand the imperatives and the expectations, so that, one day, he can create the ideal object for tasting tea. I am looking forward to it.