When you’re travelling, you sometimes have to boil water to purify it. For tea, that’s obviously not ideal, especially as some teas need to be infused at 50°, 70° or 80°C. Here is a simple method to reach the correct water temperature for your tea (this will be marked on the packaging of any decent tea merchant). When your water has boiled, pour it into a recipient. The water temperature will drop by 9°C. Then pour it into another; it will drop by 9°C again. And so on.
Drinking and tasting tea with people who specialise in a different product is fascinating. Whether your work revolves around tea, chocolate, olive oil, wine or any other fine ingredient, the tasting techniques are the same. But the experience differs in that each substance has its own range of aromas, textures and flavours. We’re like musicians who play different parts but all share a love of music.
I was lucky enough to receive a visit from Frédéric Bau. Frédéric is one of the great pastry chefs, as well as the founder of the Valrhona School and the Creative Director of Valrhona. Together, we tasted eight premium teas, infused at room temperature.
It was a wonderful opportunity to share our impressions and talk about our passions.
I’m often asked what my favourite tea is, and the question always makes me nervous. Each time I have to think about what to say. Someone who doesn’t know much about tea might say they like a certain type of tea, and someone else might name a different type. But when you have the incredible and very special opportunity to taste the best teas in the world throughout the year, like a top sommelier drinking wine, how is it possible to name just one?
When you’ve tasted so many teas of each type, they become part of you. You get to know them from every angle, you discover their unique characteristics, their point of equilibrium, their harmony. You’re the best placed to appreciate them. This applies whether it’s a lightly oxidised Taiwanese Oolong, a First-Flush Darjeeling, an Oriental Beauty, a Japanese Ichibancha, a new-season Chinese green tea, a hand-rolled Nepalese tea, a black Chinese tea such as a Qimen or a Yunnan, a Rock tea or a Phoenix tea, a dark tea from China, Africa or elsewhere, a Mao Cha plucked from hundred-year-old trees or a Gao Shan Cha, to name just a few. You’re the best placed to appreciate them and the worst placed to pick just one.
So if you meet me, please be kind and don’t ask me to name my favourite tea. Instead, ask me what I love about this tea, or that tea, ask me about the feelings they evoke. Talk to me about the great variety of sensory and emotional responses instead of restricting me to a few.
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.
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!