Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is tea pairing pretentious?

I ask the question because I was surprised to see this remark pop up again and again in the comments to this article: 'Tea Sommeliers are the hot new thing in food pairing'. Wine and food pairing doesn't seem to raise eyebrows anymore, so why should tea? So, here are a few thoughts on the subject.

It's exactly 10 years that I wrote a first article (in French) on the subject of tea sommeliers. So, this concept is not new for me, but I still find it interesting and not sufficiently explored. In Europe and America, there are very few tea friendly restaurants. This is despite the fact that wine consumption is going down. Sometimes it's due to the need of staying sober to drive, or because of religious beliefs, or because it's less socially accepted to drink during lunch break when you're working. So, tea is a potential alternative for all those who don't want wine with their food, but would like a drink that underlines the taste of the meal.

Wine for a cheese pairing
I find it odd to criticize tea and food pairing, because we all do food pairing! When you choose not to mix mustard with strawberry jam on your bread, you are doing food pairing! You know that there are some combinations that go well and others that don't. The same principle applies to tea and food pairing. Don't consider tea just as a beverage to quench your thirst or to clear your mouth. Now, you consider the tea like a sauce for the food, or like the sip of wine you take while you're still chewing on your food. Your goal is not simply to add two wonderful aromas but to combine them and obtain a perfect mix where 1 + 1 = 3 or more!

This summer, I had the opportunity to eat at one of Strasbourg's best restaurant, the Buerehiesel. So, I brought my Yong Lung Hung Shui Oolong along, because I had to drive 20 miles after the dinner and couldn't drink wine. The discovery menu was exquisite and I particularly liked these frog legs with chervil. The reduced gravy had hints of caviar! And the roasted notes of the Hung Shui gave depth and length to the taste in my mouth. This felt glorious.

"Pretentious: attempting to impress by affecting greater importance than it actually possesses."

Most people in Europe or America, when they think of tea, it's tea bags that come to mind first. And I have to agree that it IS very pretentious to attempt to pair CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl) tea bags with haute cuisine! Tea bags are worthy of fast food and have nothing to do with fine dining.

Top quality tea leaves, on the other hand, are made with the same care, skill and devotion as butter poached Nova Scotia lobster or braised asparagus with black truffle!

It's a rightful choice to pair top food with great quality tea. And there's nothing pretentious in aiming to well prepare, serve and pair aged Menghai puerh or a finely roasted Dong Ding Oolong in a top restaurant. And the fact that so few restaurants do it should be viewed as a wonderful opportunity to innovate!


Varat Phong said...

Hello Stephane,

I enjoyed your article.

Associating tea bags with food pairings as pretentious is interesting but I can see how this view could be formed. I have never really thought that a pot of Twinning Earl Grey with scones could be seen as pretentious. Personally for me, I see tea bags as being on a par with table wine and table wine gets paired all the time.

I agree with your views that pairing tea with food can definitely increase the enjoyment for both. It adds a new dimension to tea and could be a way to attract newcomers to this fine beverage, especially with the growing number of foodies seeking new experiences out there.

I have to say I do a food pairing with my tea quite often. The proof is in the link below :)


Best, Varat

Stephane said...

Hello Varat,

Thanks for your comment and the link to the food pairings you have experienced.


Tea Maven said...

Hi Staphane,

Thanks for your article. As a confirmed tea lover, and new tearoom owner, I must say that I have a bit of mixed feelings about your title.

I enjoy pairing teas and food at the Tea Tastings I host at my restaurants, but comments about tea bags gave me pause. Modern day tea bags and tea pyramids are not your Grandmother's old Lipton tea bag (ugh!) Much work has been done in the tea world to keep the flavor and quality in packaged teas. You should investigate more of them.

I sell and serve both packaged and loose leaf teas in my salon, and there are avid enthusiasts on both sides of the coin. Let's give people a choice without making them feel somehow inferior.

Vive le the!

Stephane said...

Hi Tea Maven,

I fully agree with you that the quality of certain tea bags has considerably improved in recent years. What's most important is what is inside the bag. In Taiwan, some old tea shops even put aged Baozhong in their bags!

That's why I specifically referred to CTC tea bags, ie bags with the very low quality leaves. And I further illustrated these bags with a picture with tea bags sold in a supermarket. This is where these low cost, low quality bags are sold.

I commend you for giving your customers a broad choice of quality at your tea salon. I gave a training to salon owners in Prag this summer and plan to write an article about the thoughts and feedback that were exchanged that day.

Vive le thé!

SéréniTHÉ said...

"So, tea is a potential alternative for all those who don't want wine with their food,"
Not drinking during the meal is also an alternative and a good one… we took this bad habit because we eat too much or to salty. Eventually after the meal, a good tea… but even then, I prefer to digest a little bit and wait some time. Tea is a dessert and a vine in itself and deserve it's one time. Well, just a point of view…

Stephane said...

Merci SéréniTHé,

You make a good point that there are drinks that make you eat more, which leads some people to overeating and overweight. This, I believe, is particularly a problem with iced beverages, because the cold numbs the stomach and it forgets to tell your brain that it's full. This problem is compounded when you have an iced soft drink with lots of sugar.
However, hot tea doesn't seem to lead to overweight, quite the contrary. See
'this article in French. That being said, I seldom drink tea during my meals and I don't eat when I brew gongfucha, but when do have tea with a meal then I like to find one that pairs well with the food.

Samantha Ramirez said...


I'm really glad i found your article it's you made excelents point regarding food pairing

Regards from Venezuela j