Canadians love tea. We each drink more than 200 cups a year on average, says Shabnam Weber, president of the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada.
But if tea is something you associate with a morning cup of Earl Grey, and you usually pair a glass of wine with your cheese, it’s time to think again.
Tea has more in common with wine than you might imagine. Just as there are many varieties of white and red wines, there are white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu’erh teas, all created from the same plant using different processing techniques.
And just like wine, the taste of tea is influenced by its terroir, the “sense of place” or growing conditions such as climate and soil. This makes tea a versatile beverage for pairing with many different types of food, especially if you are avoiding alcohol for health, cultural or personal reasons.
Robert Wemischner, a Los Angeles-based pastry chef and cookbook author with a special interest in pairing tea with food, says if you’d like to get more into tea pairings, it may help to think of white, green, and lighter oolong teas as being similar to white wines, while darker oolong, black and pu’erh teas are more like red wines.
But for him, tea is far more than a substitute for alcohol. “I like the flavour of these teas with these foods that are beautifully harmonious, and I’m not even thinking about wine,” he says.
He considers the tasting notes of different teas, often pairing teas with foods that have flavours of similar strength and character.
How to taste tea and cheese together
When it comes to enjoying tea and cheese, try a sip of the tea by itself, then a bite of cheese, then try both together at the same time. The flavours may enhance or contrast with each other. Sometimes, the combination may bring out entirely novel flavours. If you are trying multiple teas and cheeses, I recommend going from lightest to darkest (in the order listed below) to avoid dulling the palate.
If you want something sweet and simple:
White tea is made from the youngest leaves and buds at the start of the season. Its delicate, floral, peachy flavour complements fresh, soft cheeses such as ricotta and burrata.
Look for: DAVIDsTEA’s Bai Hao Yin Zhen, which is delightful with Bella Casara’s award-winning ricotta. You can also often find freshly made ricotta at Italian markets and delis (or you can make your own). For extra sweetness, add a drizzle of honey.
If you prefer something refreshing:
One of Wemischner’s favourite pairings is green tea with soft, fresh goat cheese. Steamed green teas tend to have grassy, herbal notes that enhance the “spring-like flavour and barnyard funk” of goat cheese, he says.
Look for: A Japanese or Korean green tea such as the Sejak tea from Soocha Tea, which pairs well with fresh, soft goat cheeses such as Salt Spring Island Cheese’s Flower Chèvre.
If you’re seeking a luxurious treat:
Darjeeling is a black tea from India that is called the “champagne of teas” because of its quality and its muscatel grape character. The buttery and floral brew is exquisite with creamy cheeses such as brie and camembert, as the fat from the cheese softens the tea’s astringency.
Look for: The Naked Leaf’s Organic Darjeeling, which brings out beautiful nutty notes from Agropur’s L’Extra Camembert. Brie Paysan is another tasty option.
Related: Masala Chai Recipe
If you’re looking for a traditional combination:
Try a bagged English Breakfast tea from the grocery store with aged cheddar. (Although many tea experts consider loose-leaf tea to be more flavourful, please don’t think that only specialty loose-leaf teas can be paired with food.)
English Breakfast is typically a blend of black teas from Assam, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Its sweet, malty notes and rich body bring out toasty flavours from the salty cheddar.
Look for: Tetley’s English Breakfast and Twinings’ English Breakfast, which are popular supermarket brands. If you prefer a loose-leaf blend, Tea with Tracie’s Morning Hustle and Denman Island Tea Company’s Canadian Breakfast (also available in bags) are delicious with aged cheddar such as Ile-aux-Grues. Balderson Extra Old Cheddar is available in many grocery stores.
Related: London Fog Icebox Cookies
If you’re feeling adventurous:
Lapsang Souchong is a Chinese black tea that has been smoked over pine needles or pinewood. People either love it or hate it. The tea has a campfire smell and taste, often with a hint of spice. A savoury blue cheese is the perfect partner to stand up to Lapsang Souchong’s distinct flavour.
Look for: The Westholme Tea Company’s Lapsang Souchong, which partners perfectly with many wonderful Canadian blue cheeses, including Bleu Bénédictin.
Remember, everyone has different tastes, and there is no single perfect pairing. The International Tea Masters Association’s flavour wheel can help you develop your ability to identify different flavours. Have fun experimenting!
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