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.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

BBC Tea Programme

This week's Radio 4 Food Programme is about tea! Download from here until next Sunday.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

On Having an Amateur Palate

Today I tried to do my first formalised tasting, setting out my three oolongs, cups, some notes, advice from various websites and a pile of books to refer to in the kitchen. My hope was that after some elegant sips and taking some shatteringly perceptive notes, I would retire to the laptop to publish my opinions to general acclaim. Did I expect light to shine down from heaven as I swirled tea in my mouth? Probably.
Not surprisingly, it didn't go as planned.

Having set out a tasting notes sheet, with spaces for "dry leaf appearance" and "wet leaf smell" etc... I prepared a very lovely Phoenix Oolong from Ming Cha. I had tried the tea before and I knew I liked it, and so I thought I would have lots to tastes to describe in my notebook. I felt ready with all sorts of professional sounding words like "woody", "malty" and my favourite tea word, "brisk".
In the event however, I sipped and came up completely blank. I sipped again, sniffed the tea some more. Nothing. I sipped once more, swirled, thought, and sipped again. I knew I was tasting something delicious, but just as I was trying to find the words, the taste would disappear leaving me groping for vocabulary and experience I just don't have. This experience of tasting was so ephemeral and my inability to communicate what I was tasting, even to myself, was very frustrating.

After thirty minutes the kitchen table was a mess, my notebook was mostly empty except for comments like "nice" and "mmm...biscuity". My best note of the evening was a hesitant "citrusy(?)". Not so much light beaming down from heaven, rather a small candle flickering uncertainly in the next room.

Eventually I gave up, realising that I was unlikely to get very far on my talent as it stood and so I went upstairs to soothe myself by reading teablogs by people who know what they are doing.

Having spent my life so far studying literature and then working with books, I can talk about books for hours and feel confident enough to defend my opinions, or to accept when I'm wrong.

Tea is a whole other matter. Though every tea person I have had the good fortune to meet has been incredibly kind and supportive of my efforts, I'm finding it difficult to be patient with myself.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Tea: Aromas and Flavours Around the World by Lydia Gautier

Firstly, this is a beautiful book. Even you had no interest in tea, you would be seduced by the quality of Jean-Francois Mallet's photographs. In fact, I sometimes found it hard to concentrate on the text since the images were so distracting. Indeed, who needs to read about the effects of tea on the assimilation of iron when you can lose yourself in the endless greens of a Malaysian tea plantation?

The text however is seductive in its own way, providing a wealth of concrete, technical information often lacking in books about tea in English. It is useful to remember Lydia Gautier is a founder of Paris's Ecole du Thé and is an agricultural engineer so her interest in tea is as far from the "afternoon tea and scones brigade" as can be. She writes about tea as others would about wine. She writes in the foreward that "my relationship with tea began some years ago once my palate had become educated to the taste of wine. I then discovered a richness and variety of aromatic qualities in tea comparable with those to be found in great wine types."
Throughout the book she uses terms such as "grand cru" and "terroir" to describe and class different teas.
Coupled with a wealth of quite specialist information (you get the composition of a fresh tea leaf and the chemical composition of theine) the book can be enjoyed on two levels; as a beautiful cookery/travel book, or as a tea tasting manual.

The book is divided into five parts. The first, A History of Tea, explores where tea originated and how different traditions have developed around the world. Much of this information is available elsewhere and Gautier doesn't make any controversial statements or assumptions. It is in part two, Alchemy of Tea, that the text develops as Gautier's background becomes apparent as she explores issues of climate, altitude, latitude and soil in some detail.

You'll still need to go to wine books for the real detail on terroir and its effects, but Gautier outlines the main points. (Incidentally, July's edition of Decanter magazine has an excellent article on terroir and brings up many of the controversies about the concept.)

Part three, Tea Tasting, is my favourite section. Gautier writes with true passion about experiencing the aromas and flavours of tea, and assumes the reader shares that passion.

"The flavour of tea is a complex perception obtained by combining the taste sensations perceived on the tongue (taste), the aromas perceived via the olfactory and thermal sensations perceived in the mouth (touch). All this sensory information reaches the brain without our really being able to distinguish it, which is what makes the tasting experience so magical."

Unsurprisingly, she has collaborated with Chloe Doutre-Roussel, known for her book "The Chocolate Connoisseur". They form part of a group of people taking very seriously issues of taste and the "fight for quality" in France and abroad. This is tea tasting as gastronomy.
It is in this section that you'll also find the characteristics described of 32 teas Gautier considers "grand cru" and images of a tea taster in action.
Part four, the Subtle Affinities of Tea, describes how the flavours of tea can be married with other foods and Gautier presents several recipes that use tea to enhance a dish.
Its fascinating reading (and looking) and I think well worth the hefty price tag.

Other reviews of the books are here and here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

A Tea Lover's Companion by Jane Pettigrew

This was the first book I bought when I first became interested in tea and as a first step in understanding the huge range of teas currently available it is invaluable. As well as discussing the history of tea and its manufacture and classification, the authors describe all the major and minor tea producing nations and provide a thorough guide to their main teas. The character of 80 teas are described in some detail, and brewing advice is provided along with colour photographs of both dry and wet leaves and their infusion.
An example of Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson engaging writing style can be seen in the following description of Jade Rings:
"These rings are made in Guanshan by meticulously hand-rolling silvery-white, green tea shoots into small rings. Character: When infused, the little rings open up to create a magnificent cup of tea. The flavour from these early spring buds is subtle, sweet and classic."
and of Longjing (Dragon Well or Lung Ching),
"This tea is named after the village where it grows in Zhejiang province. The best grade is made from one new bud and one new leaf; it is not rolled or shaped but left in its natural, neatly pointed form. Character: The buds point upwards while brewing and release a clear, light yellowy-green colour. The clean well-balanced aroma suggests freshly cut grass and toasted chestnuts. The flavour is mellow with a bittersweet-savoury finish."

My only criticism is that once you start tasting tea seriously and start exploring the 1000s of teas available you'll long for greater depth of information on a greater range of teas. However, it does pack a huge amount of information into less than 200 pages and I frequently refer to it whenever I need clarification on any point of history, manufacture or classification.

Jane Pettigrew runs a regular tea masterclass in London. Her new book "The Connoisseur's Guide to Tea: Discover the World's Most Exquisite Tea Leaves" was published in February 2007.
Bruce Richardson runs Elmwood Inn Fine Teas and the website lists many of his articles about tea.

Char, Winchester

My first encounter with Winchester's wonderful tea and coffee shop Char was when I stumbled in by chance in February this year. I was astounded to find such a well-stocked shop in a market town. Their range includes 9 oolongs including Wuyi Great Red Cloak, a good selection of green teas, and a very thorough selection of black teas and single estate Darjeelings, Ceylons and Assams. They also stock Georgian teas. Their range of "connoisseur teas" including Snow Dragon, Dragon Well, Green Curve, Silver Needles, White Pearl, and Wenshan Boazhong.
Each tea is packaged in silver pouches with brief but evocative notes about the tea and brewing information but some more information about the estates the teas are sourced from would be welcome, as would dates on the 1st and 2nd flush Darjeelings.
The shop also stocks a range of tea-making accessories.

Char: Original Teas and Coffees
156 High Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 9BA
Tel: 01962 868 760
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00 to 17:30

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Tea-Licious

Nothing like coming back from a literary festival to two newly delivered parcels of tea on my doorstep.
I thought I would order some staples from Jing Tea having exhausted my budget for expensive teas for this month. I received packets of Moroccan mint, Earl Grey and their superb Jasmine Pearls. Even just opening up the bags is an experience since the fragrance of the teas is intoxicating.
At first, I considered their Earl Grey to be very good, but no better or worse than the Tea Palace's Earl Grey Blue Flowers. However, after further sips, I've decided it's actually pleasingly robust but with an engaging delicate flavour that is not immediately apparent. This subtlety definitely lifts it above an ordinary cuppa.
Their Jasmine Pearls, a favourite of the Guardian's Nikki Duffy, is something anyone who loves tea should have on their shelf to reach for in times of crisis, or for whenever a pause is needed in the day. Her description of a "deep but delicate flavour" is exactly right, and the tea never fails to astound me.
As yet, I haven't tried their Moroccan Mint but i suspect it will be a world away from the polo-flavoured dust you get in most tea bags.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

White Plum





Just a reminder of how beautiful tea leaves can be made to look. This is a tea called White Plum from Nothing But Tea. It's a very delicate tasting white tea with a smoky fragrance.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

L'Ecole du The

L'Ecole du The in Paris has sold out of all its courses, so i'll have to wait until September before I can get sipping with the Parisians. Oh, the frustration!