Tea and Cheese Pairing with Sarah Cowell

Each year Sarah Cowell spends time on tea farms, absorbing wisdom from tea masters and finding inspiration from the cultures of Taiwan, Korea and Japan. Developing her craft as a tea sommelier at restaurants such as Vue de Monde and Storm in a Teacup, Sarah took the time to educate us on all things tea & cheese, just before jetting off to Vermont to commence a five month study of herbs and herbalism. We are pleased to share her wealth of cheese and tea pairing knowledge this month in our industry feature.

When I suggest that tea pairs fabulously with cheese, the looks I receive are rather incredulous. But after many years of introducing myself as a tea specialist and educator, I am well used to the odd raised eyebrow.

In Australia, we tend to drink tea with sweets or desserts, so the idea of drinking tea with a savoury dish is quite foreign to many of us. In much of Asia however, where they (traditionally) have not laced their tea with milk and sugar, the custom of drinking tea with savoury food is quite normal. You may have even experienced this with a pot of Jasmine tea served at Yum Cha, or green tea offered alongside your sushi at a Japanese restaurant.

When I worked as tea sommelier at Vue de Monde I always recommended tea to those not drinking alcohol, as it complements the food much better than the default orange juice or lemon, lime and bitters. Those that were game enough to try the tea pairing were always surprised and delighted by the experience.

The exciting thing about cheese and tea pairing is that it is such uncharted territory. In fact, specialty tea is also still largely unknown in Australia. Now, we aren’t talking your flavoured or blended Earl Grey or English Breakfast tea adulterated with milk and sugar here. Specialty tea is that which is grown and artisanally produced to showcase the varietal, terroir and craftsmanship. It is usually single origin, nuanced and complex in its flavour profile and incredibly delicious! With thousands of different specialty teas to choose from, the possibilities of pairing it with cheese are endless.

Why does it work? Well, similarly to wine, tea ‘cuts through’ the richness of the cheese and offers flavour notes that may dance well with those of the cheese. Many teas have tannins that work in the same way as do those in wine. The one difference with tea is that it introduces a temperature factor when pairing; its warmth seems to draw out or accentuate the luscious fat character in the cheese.

Where to start? A good starting point is to think about what wine would pair well with the cheese. Rich bold teas – blacks, oolongs and pu’erhs - are needed to stand up to robust cheeses, while softer green teas pair well with more delicate cheeses, without overpowering them.

Let’s look at a few pairings:

  • Holy Goat Ash covered Chevre + Jasmine Green tea. This is an example of an unexpectedly wonderful contrasting pairing. The Jasmine floral notes danced above the soft lemony acid in the cheese, evocative of a spring meadow. A good quality natural Jasmine is important here.

  • Aged Gruyere + Genmaicha. Genmaicha is a Japanese green tea with mixed with roasted rice grains. It has a delicious toasty flavour that picks up on the slight nutty tones in the cheese. If you can’t find genmaicha, an authentic sencha (Japanese or Australia grown) works well too; the sweet grassiness of the sencha is a lovely contrast to the Gruyere’s nuttiness.

  • Blue Cheese + Lap Sang Sou Chong. The smoky notes in this sweet Chinese black tea swirl wonderfully around the bitey, saltiness of the blue. If you can’t get hold of a Lap Sang Sou Chong, a good quality smoky Russian Caravan will work as well.

  • Triple Cream + Darjeeling. Darjeeling is known as the ‘champagne of teas’ and is hence a perfect accompaniment to a luscious triple cream. Pairing elegantly together, this bright and uplifting tea lightly cuts through the richness of the cheese and cleanses the palate. An early harvested First Flush Darjeeling will have brighter citrusy notes and a later harvest or Second Flush may present more muscatel characteristics.

How to prepare a tea and cheese pairing?

Selection

You’ll first want to select your cheeses. About 2-3 will suffice otherwise your palate may become overwhelmed. Choose different styles of cheese for contrast.

Decide the order of pairing; from lightest to strongest cheese.

Now select your teas. Ensure they are good quality, loose leaf teas.

Preparation

If you decide to brew all teas at once you’ll need sufficient teapots and dexterity! Otherwise, enjoy one tea and cheese pairing at a time – this will also help ensure the tea doesn’t go cold.

Tasting

Smell the brewed tea, then the cheese. Take a sip of the tea and notice the mouth-feel and flavour profile. Now taste the cheese, followed by the tea again. Enjoy how the two present as individuals, then in their marriage on the palate!

Tips on Sourcing Good Tea

Buy a small amount of the best you can afford from a small company as you’ll usually find an owner behind it who cares about the tea! If buying locally, check that the tea is stored well (away from air & light) and looks fresh and vibrant. The more the owner knows about the tea, the more care they have usually taken to source quality leaf.

Again, if buying online, check that the company is forthcoming about themselves and their care in sourcing quality tea and provides sufficient information about the tea. If the website is just about discounts and not about the company or tea itself, they are unlikely to have taken care to source good tea.

Look for unflavoured single origin tea for pairing. A good quality tea will have exceptional characteristics and flavour profile of its own, without needing an added (and often artificial) flavouring.

Luckily Australia has some fantastic boutique tea companies run by people passionate about sourcing quality teas. Some of these include Somage Fine Foods, Storm in a Teacup, and Tea and Sympathy.

Contact Sarah Cowell for Tea Tasting experiences, Tea and Cheese Pairing and Tea Ceremonies www.teasense.com.au

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