Tea tasting with Tea Sommelier Cynthia Gold of L’Espalier

"The Destruction of the Tea at Boston Harbor." Nathanial Currier, lithograph, 1846.

The world of tea is far vaster than we previously imagined. This was the conclusion that Trevor and I reached last Sunday after enjoying our holiday present to ourselves: a tea tasting at the acclaimed L’Espalier restaurant in Boston. Organized and hosted as part of a monthly series by accomplished Tea Sommelier Cynthia Gold, the event was dedicated to the 239th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party (known in its day simply as “the destruction of the tea”). On the menu were five teas – all of which were of the tea varieties that were dumped by the chest into Boston Harbor – and one colonial tea punch. We were tickled to learn that the record of which teas and how many thousands of pounds of each were on board the ship has survived, and it was quite the treat to try their present day incarnations.

Equal parts history lesson and tea tasting/pairing exercise, the event was a perfect combination of delicious fun and tea education. Over the course of two hours, Chef Gold wove together thoughtfully researched historical trivia, detailed notes on each tea, and advice on pairing tea with food.

The teas were, in order:

  • China Green Young Hyson, Anhui Province (fun fact #1: It was George Washington’s favorite.)
  • Fishhouse Punch, A Colonial Tea Punch
  • Gunpowder Green
  • Bohea Black, Wuyishan China (fun fact #2: It was Benjamin Franklin’s favorite.)
  • China Black Congou, Anhui Province
  • Lapsang Souchong

Three of the teas (Gunpowder Green, Bohea Black, and China Black Congou) were also paired with food inspired by colonial New England menus. While the tea, freshly steeped and served in glass stemware, stood out for its simplicity, there was more than enough sugar for an entire holiday season in the form of no fewer than seven distinct desserts. Especially noteworthy were the Brulee Indian Pudding with vanilla Chantilly cream, rum raisin scone, and squash macaròns.

My favorite of the teas was the China Green Young Hyson. A light, smooth, ever-so-slightly grassy green tea harvested “before the rains” in the Anhui province of China, it tasted of the gentle warmth of spring. Trevor and I both agreed that it was a paragon of subtle-tea. [wink] All of the teas, however, taught us something new about the flavor of properly stored and prepared tea as well as our own preferences.

The event menu and Chef Gold’s presentation got me thinking more about pairing tea and chocolate, which is something that I see often in bonbons but less in pairing events like those that involve chocolate and wine or, with growing popularity, chocolate and beer. Many chocolatiers prepare truffles, barks, and bars that bring together dark chocolate and Earl Grey, white chocolate and green tea, or chocolate and chai spices. And even though I tend to eat chocolate on its own, without accompaniment, I would welcome pairings that bring together excellent, well prepared teas with sophisticated, well made bar chocolate. The China Green Young Hyson’s spring-like quality and the gentle handling it receives in harvest and preparation reminded me immediately of Pacari Chocolate’s organic and biodynamic 70% Raw bar. One could also imagine a contrasting pairing of a smoky, meaty Lapsang Souchong with a chocolate bar like Patric Chocolate’s 70% Rio Caribe Superior that tastes of nuts and dried fruit, for example. Or a matched pairing of a jasmine-scented tea with a bar that has delicate, floral notes – the limited edition Rogue Chocolatier Piura bar of my taste memory dreams would be divine. The chocolate decadence cake with matcha sablé that we tasted this Sunday was a start, though muddied by an unremarkable cocoa powder.

Chef Gold’s recommendation for an online tea retail shop: Upton Tea, which also happens to be based in Holliston, MA, just west of Boston. We rushed home to order holiday gifts for some of our favorite tea lovers. I also spent a contented evening reading Chef Gold’s superlative book Culinary Tea, which provides a wonderfully clear introduction to the world of fine tea and over 150 creative recipes for using tea in cooking.

In short, I highly recommend attending a tea tasting at L’Espalier. Trevor and I plan to return soon ourselves. More on the related worlds of chocolate and tea to come.

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    Bittersweet Notes is an open source research project on chocolate, culture, and the politics of food. I invite you to join me as I explore the story of chocolate and the life stories of those involved with chocolate at its many stages of production and consumption.

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