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Tea-tasting – a beginner’s guide

20 July 2018

There’s a world of exotic teas out there.Jane Pettigrew shows you how to choose the right one to suit your food and mood.

Tea tasting

What are different teas like?

Chinese green teas, such as Dragon Well or Jade Tips, have a sweet, mellow, aroma and taste that reminds you of young green spring vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and peapods, and sometimes creamy hazelnuts.

Japanese green teas, such as Sencha and Bancha, are more intense and often remind you of the seaside with their marine hints of seaweed and salty, ozone-rich air.

Green teas often have quite savoury notes, so don’t be surprised if you detect suggestions of fish, seafood or even roast chicken or lamb in the flavour profile.

White Silver Needle and White Peony teas are much lighter, more delicate and velvety smooth, hinting at almonds and white fruits such as slightly under-ripe pears or melon.

Jade oolongs are green and floral with whispers of hyacinth, orchid and lily of the valley.

Dark oolongs, such as Cassia Oolong and Phoenix Honey Orchid, are deliciously roasty, with layered hints of ripe plums and apricots, dates, molasses and dark chocolate.

Assam, Keemun, and Yunnan – the more familiar black teas – can be rich and malty with traces of warm wood, raisins, caramelised sugar and roasted nuts.

Darjeelings are light and delicate with honey notes and suggestions of ripe grapes, fresh-cut grass and mountain flowers.

Ceylon teas are vibrant, assertive and breathe reminders of citrus fruits, pine wood and spices.

Which tea goes with which food?

Just as we choose wines to enhance a particular meal, selecting different teas to drink with particular foods can make both the tea and the food more interesting and enjoyable. It helps to follow a few basic guidelines:

Stronger, richer foods pair well with stronger, more assertive teas.

Lighter, more delicate foods marry successfully with lighter, more subtle teas.

Sweet foods, such as those we tuck into at afternoon tea, need the balance of more powerful black or dark oolong teas.

Savoury dishes such as fish, chicken, rice, noodles and salads marry well with green teas.

To discover what works for you, it’s really just a question of trying different combinations and gradually developing an understanding of how the different aromas and flavours work together. Here are some ideas to try:

White teas are so gentle, light and subtle that they are easily overwhelmed by strong food flavours, but try pairing them with very light fish dishes, plain white meats, cucumber sandwiches on white bread, risotto and very mild cheeses such as ricotta or mozzarella.

Chinese green teas are very versatile and balance well with seafood, fish, crab cakes, chicken and other white meats, salads, pasta dishes with vegetable sauces, most vegetable dishes, cheese such as goat’s cheese and cheddar, and even with quite spicy foods. They are also good with simple fruit salads.

Japanese Sencha green tea is excellent with smoked salmon, sushi, sashimi, seafood, rice dishes, eggs, most vegetables, brie and soft goat’s cheese, and is also surprisingly good with milk chocolate.

Jade Oolongs, which are very green and floral, pair successfully with rice dishes, vegetables, seafood and lighter meats such as chicken. They are wonderful with milk chocolate, shortbread, crème brûlée, almost all fresh fruit, fruit compotes, and nutty, honeyed pastries such as baklava.

The darker, toasty oolongs, such as Wuyi or Phoenix Oolongs, pair deliciously with smoked salmon, grilled meats, spicy foods, strong cheeses and are also goodwith dark chocolate, rich spicy fruit cakes and rich chocolate cakes.

Robust black teas, such as Assam, Yunnan, Keemun and Ceylon, are perfect partners for heavy red meats, ham, bacon, rich pasta dishes with meat sauces, spicy foods, breakfast pastries, honeyed desserts and cakes, chocolate cakes and puddings, fruit cakes and other traditional tea-time treats.

Lighter, more subtle Darjeelings are wonderful with grilled fish, soft cheeses, strawberries and other summer fruits.

Smoky Lapsang Souchong is a natural partner for all smoked foods and red meats, and is a good foil for cheddar cheese, dark bitter chocolate and lemony desserts.

Spicy Chai is a great winter warmer with baked goods, honeyed pastries such as pistachio or walnut baklava, chocolate, and sweet spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon.

And Earl Grey, the world’s favourite flavoured tea, is wonderful with almost anything made with lemon or other citrus fruits, with macaroons, breakfast pastries, chocolate and rich, spicy fruit cakes.

When trying some of these exciting pairings, the idea is to take a sip of tea, then a bite of the food, then another sip of tea and see how the flavours work together – or clash – in the mouth. Tasting tea and food together like this will make you think of tea as so much more than just an everyday cuppa.

How to brew different types of tea

To get the best flavour from different types of tea, it’s important to prepare them carefully.

Start by filtering the tap water to remove limescale, chlorine, dissolved heavy metals and other pollutants that have a negative effect on tea aroma, colour and flavour. Bring the water to the correct temperature to suit the tea – near boiling for black, 70˚-75˚C for green, 80˚C for white, 85˚-90˚C for oolong – and steep for long enough to draw out the flavour of the tea but not so long that the brew becomes bitter and unpleasant.

The leaves and leaf buds of the tea plant (the Camellia sinensis) contain ingredients that naturally taste bitter and, if too much of those components are drawn out into the tea liquor, it will taste unpleasant and leave a strong, bitter taste in the back of the mouth. The two most powerfully bitter ingredients are caffeine and polyphenols (the naturally occurring micronutrients that deliver antioxidants into our bodies and help to protect us against age-related diseases). It’s ironic that these good things in tea taste bitter, and the hotter the water and the longer the brew, the more of these bitter components are drawn out of the leaves into the water.

So the trick, when brewing, is to infuse the tea just long enough and hot enough to infuse a balance of the beneficial properties and gentler tea flavours, but not the bitterness that spoils the taste. Get the water temperature and the steep-time right and your favourite teas will deliver an amazing range of wonderful flavours.

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Twinings tea journey

We have eight pairs of tickets to to give away to Possibilities members who’d like to take a Twinings tea journey. At its flagship store in London, you’ll learn the secret to the perfect cuppa, try a tea cocktail and enjoy some tea-themed canapés. To enter our ballot, go to The ballot closes in October 2018.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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