I love cheese. And I love tea.
I’d go as far as saying they are very strong contenders indeed for the title of Kavey’s Favourite Food and Kavey’s Favourite Drink, especially if you take into account frequency of ingestion! (Of course – chocolate, mangoes, lamb and sweet liqueurs are in the running too)
I first heard of Henrietta Lovell’s (the lady behind the Rare Tea Co.) occasional cheese and tea tasting events last year. But each time a date and place was announced, I couldn’t make it, much to my disappointment. When, she tweeted about such a tasting to be held at Le Cave A Fromage in South Kensington, I booked a ticket immediately.
Hosted in the shop one cold January Thursday evening, we were talked through four pairings by Henrietta and Todd Bridge (Le Cave’s fromagier and GM).
At each place setting was a slate with cheeses and smoked meat, and a wine glass ready for the tea.
The pairings we tasted were:-
Whole Leaf China White + Comté Reserve
Whole Leaf Chinese Green + Montgomery’s Cheddar
Oolong + Clacbitou
Wild Rooibos + Smoked Venison
The Comté was a wonderfully rich 2 year old. The way maturation creates those lovely little salt crystals and nutty flavour makes this one of my favourite cheeses and there’s often some to be found in our fridge.
The Whole Leaf China White is a fresh, subtle tea. Henrietta told us about it’s place of origin in Fuding village, in the Fujian Mountains. Mr Che uses only first picking leaves, harvested during a very short season indeed, to ensure such high quality.
It’s a very refreshing tea but in truth, I felt it was overwhelmed by the sheer strength of flavour of the Comté. The cheese did, as Henrietta advised, bring out a more musty scent within the tea but I’m not sure it really complemented it.
Montgomery’s Cheddar is another cheese that I’ve purchased, though not nearly as often as the Comté. It’s a rich, buttery, cheddar, matured for 18 months and very fine indeed. Todd says, of this cheese: “When you taste it you taste the stone, the earth – the taste tells you where it has come from.”
The Whole Leaf Chinese Green is a wok fired green tea made from the second pickings from the same tea bushes as the China White. And as there is no electricity on the farm, everything is done by hand using age-old traditional methods. In this case, the tea is wok fired over charcoal. As with many green teas, there’s an underlying grassy flavour, though it’s much softer and more gentle than in some green teas.
Tasting the cheese and tea together softens the grassy nature of the tea further and also takes the edge of that tannin punch in the cheese.
Clacbitou is a rich, goats milk cheese from the Charolais area of Bourgogne. So called because it’s somewhat dry texture and sharp taste makes one suck one’s mouth to enduce the saliva glands, resulting in a kind of clacking sound!
The Oolong is one of my favourite Rare Tea offerings; known as Goddess of Mercy tea. It’s mellow golden colour echoes it’s rounded flavour and aromatic nature. And each brewing of the same leaves brings out different notes. In China, the saying goes that one gives the first infusion to one’s enemies, the second infusion to one’s (beloved) wife and the third one can keep for oneself!
Whilst the Clacbitou is not my favourite cheese of the night individually (though I certainly like it) I think this may be the most successful pairing. The lightly fermented taste of the tea seems to bring out a creaminess that’s not evident in the cheese when eaten on it’s own. And of course, the liquid itself adds moistness, which in itself makes the cheese seem richer.
With the last tea, we taste smoked venison rather than cheese.
But then again, Rooibos isn’t really a tea (camellia sinensis) at all. This “tea” from South Africa has become quite popular in the UK in recent years, and is known both by it’s original language name and the English translation to “red bush”. But what is usually available (both in South Africa and here in the UK) is a pale imitation of the real deal. And that’s because aspalathus linearis (which is actually a legume) thrives in the wilderness in the mountains of the Cedarburg. Commercial farmers aren’t so keen on farming up the sides of mountains so they’ve transplanted the bush to wide flat farmlands. What we call rooibos tea is actually an infusion of the oxidised leaves from this plant.
The slightly spicy, nutty flavour of rooibos is not usually to my taste, but I was willing to try, given Henrietta’s comments about how much better her properly wild supply is compared to the usual stuff. Unfortunately, I can see it’s the actual flavour of rooibos I dislike, high quality or otherwise. What I did appreciate was the conservation stance of the producer Henrietta had only just returned from visiting. He has created a wildlife conservation area to protect the biodiversity of the area and that ecosystem naturally includes rooibos.
Todd explained how they’d struggled to find a really good cheese match for the rooibos. So, given that the tea comes from a truly wild area – where there is little but “leopard poo, bush men, dirt, bucks and mountains” they figured it might work well with something from a similarly wild corner of Italy. The smoked venison was delicious. Lightly smoked and much more moist than many dried meats
In truth, whilst I enjoyed the evening very much (not least for the lovely company and entertaining hosts) I was not convinced about the pairings. I adore Henrietta’s teas but they are so delicate that their complex aromas and flavours are somewhat lost against the wonderful smack-in-the-gob impact of the cheeses.
I’d also say that, for 3 cheeses, a mouthful of smoked venison and 4 teas (even cheeses and teas as fine as these) that £25 per head seemed very expensive to me, though as they sold out, it’s perhaps simply a case of supply and demand.