For those who wish to try spring – or first-flush – teas, here are some tips. Darjeelings harvested in March and April develop sustained floral notes accompanied by a touch of astringency and bitterness. For brioche and floral aromas combined, try Nepalese first-flush teas, which are harvested from the start of April. Those who enjoy chestnut, mineral and vegetal notes would do well with new-season Chinese teas (the rarest and most sought-after and therefore the most expensive are those known as pre-Qingming teas, harvested before Chinese Tomb-Sweeping Day which takes place at the beginning of April). Lastly, for fans of iodine, cut grass and steamed vegetable notes, Japanese Ichibanchas are a pure delight. They are harvested between the end of April and the middle of May. Of course I haven’t covered them all here, and there are other countries to discover, but if we are talking about springtime and nature reawakening, and if you want teas that evoke gardens and rising sap, these are the ones I think of first.
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!
First-flush Darjeelings are the most difficult teas to buy, because production is not organised like it is elsewhere. In Darjeeling, they pick the leaves from the same plants every seven to 10 days, and as plantations are divided into around 10 plots, it means they are constantly harvesting. As soon as the leaves are picked, they are processed; this batch is then sold as one lot. This means that each of the region’s 80 plantations produce a tea every day, and those are just the whole-leaf teas – the best, of course. These plantations do not mix the leaves from one day with those from the next day. The result is that six times a week for around six weeks, each of the 87 plantations puts a tea up for sale. This totals around 3,000 different batches of first-flush – or spring – Darjeelings to taste. Quality can vary considerably from one batch to another. Even when they come from the same plantation, one tea can be 100 times better than another, if you want to quantify those differences.
Of course you cannot rely wholly on the name of a garden, or on a variety; that would be too simple. Only blind tasting allows you to judge a tea’s quality. This must be done quickly, very quickly, because although there are not many of us who receive these samples – only around 30 buyers in the world – sometimes a very good tea can sell just 30 minutes after the few grams of the sample have been received. So you need to work quickly while remaining calm and focused. But these teas that come from the roof of the world are generally worth the effort. They are the first teas of the season; they have a lovely spring freshness and incomparable floral, zesty aromas.
If we want staff working in hotels and restaurants to offer quality teas in the future, we need to train young people who are starting out in their careers. Reims Academy and Palais des Thés have joined forces to develop a certification course in “tea knowledge and service”. First, we trained tutors in several hospitality colleges, who then educated their students. Last week, in Reims, it was time for the exams and awarding of certificates. Congratulations to all of the students who passed. I hope it encourages them to continue to find out more about tea, and make their future customers happy.