What is the strangest thing that you have smuggled across Customs and Border Protection? Chewing gum into Singapore? Sobrasada from Majorca? Well, let me tell you about the time that my mother smuggled three Camellia Sinensis tea saplings all the way from China. These were to supposed to keep the family in ready tea supply for perpetuity but sadly the British weather had other plans.
Clearly we are quite obsessed with tea, but the beautiful thing about tea is the obsession it inspires across the world. Widely believed to have originated in China, it comes as no surprise that its status in Chinese culture is particularly significant. Owing to its bitter taste, discoverers took it for medicine, along with other “bitter vegetables” such as chicory and sowthistle. “Big Red Robe”, a type of Oolong tea, was even christened after its healing properties – when the Empress Dowager was cured with brew from its leaves, the emperor decorated the bushes with his red robes. Over time, tea usage changed from medicinal, to ceremonial, to pedestrian. Today, it is both a drink for officious and ordinary times.
Da Hong Pao. Photo credit: A Lux
It was only until the 17th century that tea hit British shores, initially peddled under the dubious name of “China-water”. Hard now to imagine this island nation without it – is there anything more quintessentially British than Builders’ Brew? These days, you can even buy tea grown in Scotland.
In recent years, interest in other varieties has developed, perhaps stoked by a combination of scientific evidence and clever marketing. Now elevated to the halcyon heights of a “super food”, tea is commonly pitched as a stress-relieving, fat busting, anti-oxidant super brew. Aside from the 6 official types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-er), retailers have unleashed their creativity to bring us everything from Opium Smoke to Pandan Chiffon and a whole host of similarly Willy Wonka-esque blends in between. The proliferation of choice has also been stoked by the emergence of artisan tea boutiques, who work hard to source more obscure teas and support small scale farmers from around the world.
Canton Tea Co is one such tea boutique, focusing on artisan, small and ethical tea growers based in China and Taiwan.
On 22 November, they partnered with the newly opened Sushi and Robata Grill at the Kensington branch of Wholefoods to host a 7 course supper featuring Japanese food paired and (mostly) Chinese tea. Each dish was served with a specially selected tea, and the tea was also incorporated as a base ingredient in each dish. Yes it’s true – the pairing menu concept shows no sign of abating…Having said that, experiencing a foreign interpretation of traditional Chinese tea culture was educational and refreshing. Any destressing/ cholesterol inhibiting/ antioxidant properties obviously provided added peace of mind.
Canton Jasmine Pearls, rich and gold.
Our menu for the evening was prepared by Masa Tanaka, Executive Chef at Sushi and Robata:
7 Tasting Plates Matched with Canton Teas
English Breakfast Jelly in Tomato & Tomato Carpaccio with Japanese Green Tea Dressing and Alfalfa Sprout
Canton Jasmine Pearls
Mackerel Sashimi cured with Genmaicha
Jasmine Cha Wan Mu Shi (steamed savory custard)
Canton Dragon Well
Prawn and Broccoli Tempura in Green Tea Batter and with Matcha Sea Salt
Canton Triple Mint
Salt Baked Hojicha Duck Leg
Canton Chocolate Tea
Sencha Smoked Scallops
Canton Big Red Robe
Ice Cream Tempura with Earl Grey Ice Cream
English Breakfast Jelly in Tomato and Tomato Carpaccio
Prawn tempura with matcha sea salt
Needless to say, the food was oishii. Pairing food with tea was also a bit of a revelation – there is nothing like finishing a 7 course meal still feeling light as air.
All of the teas we tasted were familiar to me, excepting the Chocolate tea. I later learned that this blend was specially created for the Chesterfield Hotel (who put on a Willy Wonka themed afternoon tea, go figure), using a combination of Yunnan black tea and Indian Assam. The gourmand notes came from the addition of Madagascan vanilla and Peruvian Cocao Nibs. An utter olfactory marvel, one could happily inhale its scent all day…and more marvelous still that the chocolate matched excellently with the smoky brined duck. Douze points!
Brined duck in preparation
Sencha smoked scallops, masquerading as pearl nuggets
Purists would perhaps find this free-handedness with tea drinking a little insulting – why dilute your enjoyment of prize tea by mixing it with food, and rushing back and forth between so many different types? Greedy.
Then again, they are missing out on the marvellous way in which culture and traditions are continually reinvented over time. This constant re-inventing of cultures is a wonderful thing, and what ultimately preserves it. In this case, tea culture traveled from East to West, and is now returning under a new guise.
The tension between the need to innovate and a desire to preserve is perpetual, but isn’t it exciting when we make waves?
And to end with some wisdom –
Top tips for tea brewing:
- Tea bags are easy, but please don’t deprive yourself of the deliciousness of loose leaf
- Once you’ve chosen your preferred loose leaf blend, such as this, you can reuse your loose leaf tea 2-3 times
- Don’t use boiling water. I usually turn the kettle off before it reaches the rolling boil. This saves energy and also saves your tea from being destroyed by heat and from turning too bitter
- Use a tea pot with a removable tea leaf holder, so you can remove the leaves after about 3 minutes. Any longer and you’re making tannin soup.
And what about sake? Want to chat about that?
About Canton Tea Co
Canton Tea was founded in 2007 in London by Jennifer Wood. For years she had been unwittingly drinking some of the most expensive green tea in the world, a Pouchong given to her each spring by a tea-farmer friend in Taiwan.
It was the love of this tea that inspired the business. After a career as a copywriter in brand design, she wanted to create a company around the authentic pleasure of handmade tea.
Edgar Thoemmes, a natural entrepreneur with a gift for technology and a highly developed taste for fine tea, soon joined Jennifer. They set out to source the very best teas in the world, travelling to tea farms, meeting the producers and learning about tea. The learning never stops.
Over the years Canton Tea has developed partnerships with the best, most experienced artisans and tea professionals. From Jennifer’s kitchen table, we’ve grown to become one of the UK’s top specialist tea companies with over 120 teas. We now supply Five Star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, cool cafes, high-end delis, John Lewis, Harrods and thousands of discerning web customers worldwide.