If I knew then what I know now, I could have avoided nine melancholy months of sipping sparkling water while hovering over the cheeseboard. I would have spent my pregnancy instead wowing friends and family with my non-alcoholic tea and cheese pairings. BYOT instead of BYOB, and not a lime wedge in sight.
It was only after my son was born that I ventured beyond Red Rose. Exploring the world of loose leaf has opened my eyes to the diversity of bouquets, flavours and styles of tea. A recent article about pairing tea and cheese in Culture magazine, written by Boston-based tea sommelier Cynthia Gold, sealed the deal.
“Every tea drinker knows that rich Devonshire cream and a fresh scone with full-bodied black tea is an ideal pairing. As are cream cheese-based tea sandwiches served with a Darjeeling or an Earl Grey. Few of us question why these tea and cheese flavours work so well together, yet we often stop there in exploring this category of satisfying tandem tastes,” Ms. Gold wrote.
I contacted her to ask why cheese and tea pairings appear to be a fairly recent trend (more tea and cheese events seem to be popping up). She explained that the tea-growing regions of the world are not typically cheese-producing or even cheese-consuming regions, so tea and cheese don’t seem a natural match (unlike, say, cheese and wine from the same area). Yet in the realm of taste, texture and aromatics, Ms. Gold finds cheese and tea to be ideal supportive partners.
If you are comfortable thinking about wine and cheese pairings, the transition to tea is not that difficult. Even the tasting terminology overlaps. “All of the same rules of thumb come into play,” Ms. Gold says. “Tannins balance richness or sweetness, salt balances sweetness etc.”
One tactile difference between an alcoholic pairing and one with tea is the warmth of the liquid. “The voluptuous nature of a high fat content cheese and the warmth of the tea is quite seductive,” she says.
Armed with these basics, I was ready to take the plunge and set up my first tea and cheese party. We tried four specific pairings suggested by Ms. Gold. No milk, no sugar. I had to adapt her specific choices to what was currently available at the Tea Emporium, my local tea store, but the style of tea and region were the same. If you’re using loose leaf tea for first time, ask at the shop about steeping time and temperature. My rookie mistake was oversteeping the green tea, which can make it bitter.
Délice de Bourgogne and a first flush Darjeeling
A triple cream cheese such as Délice (which has butterfat content of 75 per cent or more) put us smack dab in Devonshire cream territory. “First flush” signifies a Darjeeling that is harvested in the spring and is very delicate, perfumed and slightly astringent.
The verdict: The gentle but fragrant tea bridged the fatty, somewhat savoury finish of the cheese, leaving a subtle, delicate balance of soft flavour on the palate.
Aged raw milk Gruyère (two-year) and Lung Ching Dragonwell
Dragonwell has a nutty quality that matches that of Gruyère. Its astringency balances the dairy fat, and the slight sweetness works well against the salt of the cheese.
The verdict: This tea seamlessly melded with the flavours of the Gruyère and softened the sharper notes of the aged cheese. This is perhaps my favourite pairing.
Alex Farm premium smooth cheddar (six-year) and Keemun Hao Ya
Keemun is a full-bodied, earthy black tea that is said to have a fruity, Burgundy-like character.
The verdict: I found this tea complex but subtle in its bouquet. The robust character of the Keemun worked to round out the sweet, sharp tang of the cheddar. The tea’s melting warmth was particularly enjoyable with this smooth, dense cheese. Try as a grilled cheese combo.
Valdeon Spanish blue and Lapsang Souchong
This black tea is smoked with pine needles and can be an acquired taste.
The verdict: When paired with the Valdeon, a powerful blue, it was like two puzzle pieces came together. Ms. Gold refers to the match as a “remarkable counterpoint,” and it was. A total impress-your-foodie-friends pairing.
This experience was eye-opening for me. Finding your perfect cheese-tea match may rival the comfort of chicken noodle soup. And best of all, no one will bat an eyelash if you take a swig of Lung Ching Dragonwell before noon.
Tea sommelier Cynthia Gold offers these suggestions:
Soft, mild, creamy cheeses
Pair with bright and crisp black teas – look for an astringent first flush Darjeeling or a clean, fresh green tea such as Japanese sencha.
Pair with slightly sweet and floral teas, such as an oolong or the earthier Keemun. With an intensely salty cheese such as Stilton, try sipping some aromatic Earl Grey. A sweet, fruity black tea such as Chinese lychee congee also works to balance salt.
Aim for nutty, full-flavoured teas with decent tannins such as Keemun or Ceylon. Try Dragonwell green tea for an opposites-attract approach.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.