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.
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)