Most of us think we know about drinking tea with food. After all, we have tea at breakfast, and tea plus cake and sandwiches is what afternoon tea is all about: grand hotels like Brown’s in Piccadilly serve an excellent selection with theirs. But this isn’t the way tea and food are paired in the Far East: in China, you drink it with savoury dishes at every meal; ditto Japan. And in those countries tea is taken as seriously as wine is here, with the grandest vintages and terroirs priced like fine wines.
Now things are changing. The notion of treating tea with as much seriousness as wine when it comes to food pairing is taking off with the arrival in London of two grand emporiums. TWG, a ten-year-old tea company with a range of 800 teas, opened here earlier this year, with its headquarters in Leicester Square and another branch opposite Harrods. And this month Mariage Frères, the very grand Parisian tea store with a range of more than 1,000 teas, opens in Covent Garden. (Fear not: if you don’t live in London you can order online.) The comparisons with wine are striking: some teas are prized for their freshness, others for age. There are white teas, yellow teas, green teas, blue, black and red teas.
What these companies bring to the tea party, besides a dizzying range of single-estate teas and highly flavoured novelty blends, are their own café-restaurants in which you not only drink tea with your food, but the menu itself incorporates tea in the food.
In TWG, matcha is used in the salt that goes with the matchstick fries; there are tea leaves in the bread rolls (delicious); and the mesclun salad is served with a green- tea vinaigrette. Meatballs go with tagliatelle infused with Lapsang Souchong. Mariage Frères was the first in Europe to use tea as a constituent element in cooking: in 1860, the co-founder Henri Mariage used it to flavour a chocolate dessert, the Chocolat des Mandarins.
In some dishes the tea flavouring is so subtle as to be hard to detect. But in others, there’s a discernible affinity between the tea and the dish. For instance, Pu-erh tea — very fashionable for its health benefits — is interesting in that it ages beautifully (I had the 2000 vintage) and is low in theine so you can drink it late at night without being kept awake. It has a notably mellow, subtly earthy flavour, which TWG uses in mushroom soup or in a truffle croque — a grand toasted sandwich with a truffle béchamel. In fact, the company’s co-founder Maranda Barnes suggests it would go nicely with a ripe brie.
So for beginners, what are the basics of tea and food combining? What’s the equivalent of the rule about white wine with fish, red with meat? TWG suggests these simple principles. Seafood goes best with green and white teas, with the umami flavour of green tea accentuating the sweetness of seafood. For red or fatty meats and heavier or richer dishes, blue tea (Oolong) or black tea work best. Both white and green tea work well with light dishes such as white meats and salads. White tea has a delicate taste and contains a huge amount of antioxidant, and green tea has notes of fresh grass to bring out the flavour of light dishes. With desserts, try sweeter, fruitier teas.
But for its part, Mariage Frères eschews any firm rules. The company’s catering director, Charly Charey-ron, suggests with fish a Japanese green tea or a New Zealand blue or a first-flush Darjeeling. For shellfish, he would go for a white Chinese tea or a blue Formosa or a second-flush Darjeeling. With a John Dory, he’d recommend Pu-erh. He would pair meat with a white Nepalese tea or a green Burmese or a black Formosa. For a roast, he’d probably opt for a blue tea, but with blander pork, a light and scented one. He suggests white peony tea with a ripe stilton. an interesting pairing. For dessert, perhaps Rooibos — the sweetish, red South African tea. And with chocolate he suggests a slightly smoky tea. This isn’t meant to confuse, but to give an idea of the sheer range of possibilities in tea and food pairing.
Obviously, it takes a while to educate your palate. Ask advice: both TWG and Mariage Frères are awash with experts to guide tea novices and can give advice by email. Go to the stores if you can, to smell and taste. Granted, if you have friends coming to dinner, they may not take kindly to getting tea when they’re expecting Pinot Noir (though for non-drinkers, tea has to be better than elderflower cordial). But stick with it. The cup that cheers but does not inebriate has much to offer at every time of day, with every meal. Try it.