Thursday, 28 June 2007

Tasting by Dina Cheney

I could barely sit still with excitement when I first found this book thinking I had finally found a book that would talk me through the basics of tasting and serve as a manual for my own explorations. To an extent I found what I was looking for.
Dina Cheney, a cookery writer and tasting host, writes about wine, chocolate, cheese, honey, tea, extra virgin olive oil, cured meats, balsamic vinegar, apples, and beer.

The basic premise of the book is to serve as a guide to hosting a tasting event with friends (the American title of the book is Tasting Club) so there is an emphasis on how to organise a tasting with sample menus and recipes for accompaniments.
Each chapter follows roughly the same format: Know your Subject, Choose your Accompaniments, Menu, Recipes, Organise your Tasting, Learn you Palate, Tasting Grid, Glossary.

Reading a chapter on something I knew nothing about such as balsamic vinegar or apples, I found it incredibly interesting and I felt the familiar excitement of being introduced to something new. However, when I was reading her chapter on tea I encountered problems.

Some of the information comes across as a bit light - It is necessary to tell us that our tea bowls should be "ideally matching" or that the tea tasting should be located near the kitchen "that way, you won't have to run back and forth with the teapot".
She goes on to say about tea grading that "since leaf characteristics don't always correlate to quality, you can pretty much ignore these designations; they're extremely confusing, even for tea aficionados."
I would like to hear what others think about that statement, because I have never heard that before. Similarly, in her tea chart she lists teas such as Keemun, Darjeeling and Assam and also a tea called Formosa: ("Opt for Fancy, Fanciest or Extra Choice Grades"). Does she mean Oolong?

Also, her information about water goes against what I've read in other books. She recommends heating the water to boiling point for black and oolong teas, and then letting it cool for about 5 minutes for green, yellow and white teas. I feel like this is basic information at best.
I have been astounded by the lengths some tea experts go to explain the importance of water temperature in brewing tea. I wouldn’t expect that level of detail in this book, but to a little more exactness would have been welcome.
Similarly, it is dismaying to see a note of less than 50 words on how to prepare matcha when when countless fat volumes have been devoted solely to the subtleties of the Japanese tea ceremony.

As a book on tea, I am doubtful of its value to established tea tasters. However, as a primer on tasting and in particular as a guide to hosting a tasting evening it is worth getting because the author writes with real enthusiasm and a keen interest.

I'm still on the look out for a book about tea tasting that covers the principles of tasting as well as the principles of tasting tea in particular and includes some serious notes on different varieties. While wine tasters are spoilt for choice on this subject, tea tasters are not.
I still feel the best way forward is to adapt information from wine tasting books. The first few chapters of Jancis Robinson’s Wine Tasting Workbook are particularly useful since she offers lucid information about the mechanics of tasting. Chloe Doutre Roussel’s book The Chocolate Connoisseur is also very informative about the discipline of taking tasting notes.


Nikhil said...

Sounds like a good read - thanks for the review!

She's right about tea grades being a trifle confusing, although I'm not sure I would blithely ignore them! SFTGFOP1, etc. are primarily used to indicate leaf size (appearance) and not flavor. Some of the best tasting teas can be from smaller, broken leaves, IMHO. So use the leaf grades as important designators of appearance and judge the leaf accordingly, but don't use them to pre-judge the tea.

Just my 2 cents! Good stuff! Btw, Dina Cheney is not in any way related to a certain Vice President, is she? :)

francofinn said...

Thanks for the comment, and especially the note about tea grades, I'll keep that in mind.

I was wondering about the relation to the VP myself- but I don't think she is. ;)
Finally got a copy of Green Gold - i'll let you know what i think asap - I hope you are still enjoying it.