This month’s guru is Domini Hogg. Domini has fostered a passion for tea ever since she discovered all the many flavours it can offer while living in China. On her return she founded the Cambridge University Tea Society, which continues to hold weekly tasting sessions. After graduating and spending a further year living and working in China, she fell into a job training London’s top tea sommeliers, on behalf of luxury loose leaf tea supplier, Tea Palace. Below Domini briefs us on the subject of tea and gives some suggestions of unusual types of tea to try as well as many helpful links.
I first came across tea used in cooking seven years ago in Yunnan, a southern province of China which is home to the highest number of ethnic minorities. It is a beautiful province in the foothills of the Himalayas and famous for its tea, most notably its Pu’erh. Pu’erh, named after a central trading village on the old tea-horse route to Tibet, is an aged tea that at auction can fetch prices over £1 million for 2kg. Some of the best comes from ancient tea trees that can be centuries, even over a millennium old.
These tea auctions are clearly a world away from a box of PG Tips sitting on the shelf of your local supermarket and there are innumerable options in between. Indeed the extensive choice of different teas now available in the West can be quite daunting, particularly with their complicated Chinese and Indian names. It seems miraculous that one plant could produce such a diversity of flavours, yet when you put it into the perspective of a supermarket wine aisle, the flavours of tea are still under-represented by most stores in the West.
In fact tea isn’t just one plant, but two main varieties. Not the black tea plant and the green tea plant as the British Linnaean society originally thought, but a tea tree and a tea shrub. The tree is the camellia sinensis assamica. It grows in warmer more tropical climates such as Southern Yunnan in China and Assam in India, where trees can reach up to 30m with leaves much larger than the tea shrub. The tea shrub or camellia sinensis sinensis grows in more temperate climates throughout the rest of China and in higher altitude areas of Darjeeling in India. In addition to these two main types of tea plant, there are numerous cultivars (strains of the tea plant) that have been developed specially by tea growers to combine and enhance particular characteristics.
Tea is a very delicate plant, susceptible to both drought and flooding due to its shallow root system. It produces the most complex flavours when shielded from too much direct sunlight. The typical mountainous Chinese mist depicted in Chinese painting and seen on modern day postcards provides the perfect environment for the tea plant. There is a view that high altitude teas are higher quality, but this has less to do with the altitude than the fact that mist tends to gather high in the mountains which helps shield the tea from the sun. One premium Japanese tea is made by recreating and enhancing this effect using carefully controlled bamboo slats to reduce the amount of sunlight the tea leaves receive by 90% before harvesting. The leaves have to work harder to photosynthesise, producing more flavoursome amino acids and a rich green colour. The resulting tea is known as Gyokuro or ‘Jade Dewdrop’.
Leaves are harvested according to the type of tea they will produce. The youngest leaves and buds make the finest teas. You can tell the young, unopened leaves because they still have protective fine silver hair on their undersides. A highly prized white tea, known as Silver Needles, is made solely from these unopened buds picked from the first harvest of the year.
Differences in the manufacturing methods, which control oxidation levels in the tea, provide the basis for the main categories of tea: black, green, oolong, and white. Green and white are un-oxidised, black is fully oxidised and oolong is semi-oxidised. The levels of oxidation also affect the way they can be brewed. The unoxidised teas (green and white) will quickly turn bitter if brewed in boiling water and are best brewed in 60-80 degree water for a smoother finish.
The increasing interest in speciality tea in the UK has caused a number of London’s top chefs and cocktail masters to experiment with tea. One of the most popular teas used in cooking is the classically British Earl Grey blend, named after a former British prime minister, the 2nd Earl Grey. It is a blend characterised by its aroma and flavour of the citrus fruit, bergamot. Heston Blumenthal, for example cures his salmon in Earl Grey, while Hotel Chocolat and Rococo produce Earl Grey flavoured chocolates. A very simple way of impressing your dinner guests is to make Lavender Grey shortbread biscuits sprinkled with edible gold salt. The shortbread is made with Tea Palace Organic Lavender Grey, but could be made with any high quality loose leaf Earl Grey tea. You might want to offer these alongside a mandarin cheesecake. Follow the recipe given on January 1 post, but melt the butter first, and infuse two teaspoons of Lavender Grey in it for half an hour. Then pour through a sieve, allow the butter to cool and follow the recipe in the usual way.
Chefs using more unusual teas include the chef at Babington House , who smokes his trout in Lapsang Souchong, and Dominic Teague, the executive chef at One Aldwych who offered guests shots of a speciality black tea from Yunnan called Golden Monkey as a way of balancing the sweetness of his dessert.
If you are looking to experience the subtleties and complexities of tea for yourself, I would thoroughly recommend Postcard Teas’ Saturday tasting sessions in central London.