Okay. Confession time. I’m a bit of a tea addict. And it’s long past the point where I will carefully pick choose the high grade stuff. When I need tea, I really need it. And more often than not, it’s the dirty, adulterated, “dust” you find in those little porous baggies. I don’t care. I need my hit.
At other times, when the raging need is quiescent, I happily rifle through my modest collection of ten or so teas picking and choosing to suit my mood. Feeling low? A cup of nutty Genmaicha to sooth and lift my mood. If I’m in a pondering mood, then silver tip white tea, so delicate and purifying, is the way to go.
And so, from my regular fix of builders tea, the colour of London brick, to a postprandial peppermint or jasmine green tea, I probably drink between six and ten cups a day. But y’know, I can stop any time I want. Honest.
With all this in mind, it was with some excitement that I scored an invite to a tea tasting in the Intercontinental’s Cookbook Cafe on poshest Park Lane. The the tasting itself was run by Tara Calcraft, founder of Tea Palace, who have created a a rather good tea list for the hotel.
There was a lot of interesting info about the provenance of the various teas as well as the processes involved in making black, green, oolong and white teas. To sum up, all teas come from the leaves of the same plant, camellia sinensis, which are dried and allowed to oxidise to various degrees. Black tea being the most oxidised, green and white teas the least. There’s more information on Tea Palace’s website, wikipedia and Fenandeznleluu’s blog.
Now what I knew was that tea bags were filled with tea dust, what I hadn’t realised was that the dust was an waste product from the processing of tea. It basically seems like my builders’ tea is made from sweepings off the floor. Still, I do love a good cuppa, even if it isn’t tip-top quality. As I said before, I am an addict.
On to the good stuff. I got to shove my nose right into some of the finest teas around,d ones I would not often come across. Darjeeling, yes I’ve had plenty. But first flush – the equivalent (I think) of a grand cru classe from Bordeaux? That I’ve never tried.
The first batch were the black teas: the aforementioned first flushand a regular Darjeeling, an Assam and a Ceylon. I thought the Darjeelings had been slightly over brewed as they came out a wee bit bitter, but I could taste the fine smooth flavour nonetheless.
But what surprised me was that I preferred the Assam. It was strong and supple, with a slight nutty spiciness . And while the flavour was strong, there was no bitter edge. Grade A stuff.
Next up was a batch of Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong. While it sounded like a torture device involving spikes, screws and razor sharp edges, it tasted appropriately divine. Gently nutty, it had a strong flavour without the maltiness of black tea or the grassy taste of greens. And a lingering sweet aftertaste.
The greens came from China and Japan. Again, a surprise for me. I thought I would go for the Japanese tea, but it was a Chinese sencha that really grabbed me. It was a full body massage in a cup. I could feel tendrils of sweet grassyness wending their way through my body after my first sip. And the taste lingered delightfully.
Other greens included a delicate White Monkey (so called as the tea merchant who first sold it claimed his monkey picked it and then sold it at a premium – did someone mention PG tips?), and a Japanese Bancha – crisp and tasty.
The white teas were heavily flavoured with rose and jasmine and were the only disappointment. They were interesting, but the aromatics completely overwhelmed the tea. I found the same with a pineapple and aloe vera green tea and a vanilla- laced black. But then again, as a hardcore addict, I don’t want my tea adulterated. I want to mainline the pure stuff (even its dirty dust) when I can.
The hotel’s chef has been put a lot of work into matching sandwiches and cakes with the different teas. No easy task, particularly with the flavoured teas like Earl Grey or the pineapply greens. The kitchens mixed aloe vera and bergamot into alchemical concoctions, but to no avail. They all, in the words of the chef, tasted vile.
And so it was back to tweaking the traditional cucumber sarnies, scones and cakes. Duck mayo was tasty, as was the scone – which instigated much chat over Cornish (jam then cream) vs Devonshire (cream then jam, those weird Devon folk) methods of eating your cream teas.
The cakes were tasty, but with teas this good, they were fighting a losing battle. The best of the food was a tea sorbet, refreshing and light, a good finish to an enlightening tasting.