Afternoon Tea Food Pairing

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January 7, 2012 by bethanjthomas

For the last five years, I’ve trained the afternoon tea staff at some of Britain’s best tea institutions – the Savoy, the Fat Duck, Browns Hotel, The Langham, Gordon Ramsay restaurants.  One of the questions repeatedly asked is which teas go well with which foods.

It’s a logical question given the fact that I am constantly pointing out the similarities between tea and wine in most other senses, however on this specific point, I’m not sure that they are that alike.  In most countries where tea is taken very seriously – I’m thinking of China and Japan in particular, tea would always be savoured alone.  At the most it will be served with a light snack.  Fresh tomatos and melon will sometimes accompany a pot of oolong or green tea in the tea houses of Sichuan, and a green tea infused white chocolate might be given to a drinker after a bowl of gyokuro in the hills of Uji.  But this is the limit of the connection between tea and food.  It therefore appears that accompanying tea with a huge amount of food is a uniquely Western tradition.

Why do we do it?  Well, as I mentioned in a previous blog, it links to the 18th century British monarch Queen Ann.  My favourite of our royals, for her tendency towards lesbian love affairs and morbid obesity.  She is believed to have taken to drinking tea with sandwiches and cakes in the afternoon to sate her appetite.  I don’t expect she had any pretensions about savouring her cup of cha, but instead was heading straight for the buttered bread and heavy scones.

Queen Ann - British monarch and inventor of afternoon tea

Queen Ann - British monarch, lesbian and inventor of afternoon tea

But she started a trend of over indulgence which persists to this day.  A wonderful experience to be sure, but can the amazing variety of foods that make up afternoon tea really be paired with teas?

In an effort to discover the answer to this conundrum, I have been baking copious amounts of scones and trying them with various brews.  It’s been a hardship.

First off, I would say ignore herbal infusions entirely.  Their aromatic fragrance and sweet taste are fantastic after dinner, but unless you have an insatiable sweet tooth, the combination of sweet jam or macaroon with their heady aroma, will most likely lead to a disasterous feeling of nausea.

Green tea, white tea and floral oolongs (such as yellow gold oolong or a floral tieguanyin) should be sipped when you begin with the sandwiches.  Refreshing your pallet as you nip between cucumber, roast beef and smoked salmon, these teas are fantastic at quenching the thirst that will be enduced from starchy bread.

Only a strong black tea could take on these bad boy scones

Only a strong black tea could take on these bad boy scones

They do less well up against the imposing scones with clotted cream and jams though.  Too light to hold their own, you should move immediately to a full bodied, rich black tea.  I personally would go for something with a rounded flavour and drink it without milk – this helps combat the sweetness of the cakes.  Russian Caravan, Yunnan Gold or a classic Assam work perfectly.  The tannins that they contain are offset by the sweetness of the cakes and jam, and you’ll be able to taste them even when confronted with a cacophany of other flavours.

All the best afternoon tea houses or hotels will always offer to change your tea half way through your sitting, so I’d recommend following this rule at home.

Or alternatively, enjoy your tea alone and savour the cup itself.  It’s up to you!


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