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.
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.
Part of my job is to introduce the incredible variety of flavours among teas to current and future chefs. This is the flipside of my work out in the fields with the farmers. On the one hand I select premium teas; on the other, I help chefs understand how to use them. There are teas of different colours, different origins and also of different varieties. These differences create the range and variety in the gastronomic qualities of tea. You have to taste them to understand, which is what I’m doing here with Bryan Esposito, pastry chef at the Collectionneur Hotel in Paris and former pastry chef at the Westminster Hotel. Introducing someone to the great range in the flavours of teas also means explaining the best way to obtain the liquor for the intended use. The amount of tea used, and the time and method of infusion, will differ depending on whether you want a liquor to be consumed as it is or used in a recipe. It is interesting to experiment with different aspects of the infusion method, including cold infusion, which opens the way to many uses in the kitchen. It goes without saying that I’m looking forward to tasting Bryan’s new creations!
This week I had the immense pleasure of tasting a fine selection of premium teas with Anne-Sophie Pic and her team of sommeliers. Anne-Sophie is such a kind and considerate person and treated me like royalty in Valence. She is eager to learn and so generous with her time, especially considering she’s the only French woman to hold three Michelin stars. She listens attentively and asks plenty of questions. Together, we tasted teas infused, both hot and cold. Our tastings took us to Darjeeling and Japan via Nepal, South Korea, Viêt Nam and even Africa. We talked about ways to use tea in cooking, and possible pairings between teas and dishes. It was incredible to contribute, however modestly, to her inspiration! And what a treat to share an unforgettable meal with her afterwards, an explosion of textures, flavours and aromas. Thank you Anne-Sophie.
The use of an aroma cup offers a unique tasting experience. It allows you to focus on olfaction – the smell. As soon as it has been filled, the aroma cup is emptied into the tasting cup. The former retains the tea’s aromas thanks to its tall, narrow shape. You lift it to your nostrils and try to distinguish each note left by the liquor. A few minutes later, you taste the tea itself, by which time it will be at the perfect temperature.
My first trip to Malawi was just over three years ago. Until then, nobody had sold tea from that country in France, and I’m delighted to have found some very good teas there, which have been well received among tea enthusiasts. In a few days’ time I will be back in the far south of this magnificent country to see teas being made, including a dark tea and a smoked tea, and to taste them with Alex and his team. I will take some teas from other countries with me, which is something else I like to do in my work: encourage producers’ curiosity by getting them to try teas made by other people, not so they can copy them, but to inspire them and to connect them, through the tasting, with other farmers who have equally precious expertise.
Named “Meilleur Sommelier de France” (“Best Sommelier of France”), Manuel Peyrondet is also interested in tea. He came to taste some premium teas with me, prepared at room temperature, meaning they were steeped for exactly an hour in water at 20°C. We talked about tea and food pairings, accompanied by Vanessa Zochetti, who was interviewing us for the next issue of Bruits de Palais. Tasting tea with a sommelier, especially Manuel, who used to be a sommelier at the Hotel George V, as well as the head sommelier at Taillevent, then at the Royal-Monceau, is a unique experience. In the world of fine food and drink, we often live in our bubble, focusing on our specialist product: wine for Manuel, tea for me. It’s really strange to move outside this world, to focus on how we respond to different textures, aromas and flavours. It leads to particularly enriching discussions.
And for those who don’t just drink tea, Manuel runs a wine club, which is an excellent way to build up a collection and attend tastings: www.chaisdoeuvre.com
(photo: Emmanuel Fradin)
It’s true that preparing tea consists simply of placing tea leaves in contact with water, an encounter that produces a delicate, fragrant drink. The process can be more or less simple, more or less delicate. In China, in the space of barely 20 years, preparing tea using the gong fu method, which is slow and controlled, has become incredibly popular. It is often young women who perform the task. They are always elegant, and every movement is carried out with precision. We can admire their agile fingers that trace beautiful smooth arcs in the air before depositing a few drops of the precious nectar into your tiny cup.
When we taste tea, we pay attention to the leaves at every stage. Of course we are interested in the liquor, which we drink, and we also examine the dried leaves: are they whole or broken? Do they contain buds? What colour are the leaves? Are they all similar? Lastly, the infused leaves can tell us a great deal. We smell them, and press them, as Nirananda Acharya is doing here. Often, the smell of the wet leaves can tell us as much about the tea as drinking the liquor itself. The wet leaves inform us about every stage of the processing. We can pick up on the slightest defect, or on the contrary, we can revel in the wonderful bouquet.
The Tea School provides training for Palais des Thés employees to ensure their knowledge and expertise is as good as possible. The school also offers courses for members of the public who want to learn about tea and the best way to drink it, and lastly, it trains food professionals. Recently, these have included teams from the Ritz and Bristol hotels in Paris. In this way, maîtres d’hôtel and sommeliers learn about tea, and many are passionate about the subject. Some have built up their knowledge over a long period, while others are thirsty to learn. This is how we prepare the tasting session – this one took place at the Institut Paul Bocuse a few days ago. There are three tasting sets per participant, to taste three premium teas (Jade Oolong by Mrs Ming, Dong Ding Antique, Pu Erh Menghai XO Milésime 1999). In addition, five teas were infused in cold water and served in stemmed glasses: Ryogôchi Saemidori Shicnha Ichibancha 2017, Kagoshima Benifuki by Mr Kumada, Népal Kanchenjunga Gold Récolte Tardive, Satemwa Dark and Enjin Jukro from Korea. The leaves are examined in little dishes. However, we do not label the teas – I like people to taste them blind and if possible I hide the tea colour, without saying what type of tea it is, so that students can keep their minds clear and not form preconceptions. This is a refined approach to tea. It is about awakening the senses, describing a texture and a flavour, and recognising aromas. My dream is to initiate new people into this vocation so that one day they can become a tea sommelier!