As school kids, we’re often taught about the four seasons–they seem to arrive right on time with clear markers: snow, flowers, sun, and leaves. I’m still amazed, sometimes, that life doesn’t usually happen like that. Spring in New York has been all over the map this year–from a scorching Easter Sunday to cold, torrential rains in May. But somehow the flowers keep coming, with lilacs and roses in bloom across the city.
I hosted a tasting at the Brooklyn Kitchen yesterday in their cozy, new library area, showcasing a few of my favorite tea and cheese pairings across the spectrum from light to dark. (Wine lovers might think Champagne and Brie to Epoisses and red Burgundy.) These are all pairings I love and have had at home, sometimes standing at my kitchen counter making school lunch or mixing up baby food. I like to serve tea to others the way I drink it myself–you could call it a modified, relaxed version of the Chinese gong fu cha method. One of the wisest things I learned from Pierra over several visits to the Fang Gourmet tea shop in Flushing, Queens, is that gong fu cha (otherwise known as Chinese tea ceremony) isn’t really meant to be a formal ceremony at all, despite the many steps and utensils involved. It’s more about one’s inner feeling–being grounded, and elevating the spirit by making (and drinking) tea. It isn’t exactly Instagram-able, as you might say. What matters most is absorbing the tradition and breathing life into it by making it your own.
The mercurial spring weather inspired me to make some last-minute menu changes and lighten up the tasting roster a bit. Tea and cheese are both essentially botanical: tea comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, after all, and you can sometimes taste the herbs, flowers or shrubs that goats, sheep and cows may have been eating via the milk of well-crafted artisanal cheeses. I was grateful for the presence of my guests–their curiosity and willingness to share what they smelled and tasted in the pairings–from gardenia to plum and apricot or wet earth. This is the essence of tasting to me–experiencing core flavors and scents, getting a real sense of terroir, and seeing what happens when everything comes together. It’s a form of poetry.
Why not consider giving these combos a shot this spring? Many of these cheeses are available at boutique shops in New York, including the Brooklyn Kitchen and the newly opened Monger’s Palate. If you don’t live in New York, you should be able to find approximations since these are all pretty classical pairings–make friends with your local cheesemonger. I recommend tasting each tea and cheese on its own, followed by a tiny sip of tea, a bit of cheese, then more tea. Go for it.
Japanese green and goat cheese: Kettl Uji No Sato Sencha with Vermont Creamery Bonne Bouche. A real amuse bouche–think early spring, after rain. Why it works: this young, tangy Loire Valley-style goat cheese with ash rind rounds out the slight bitterness of the delicate Japanese green, bringing its sweet, silky, vegetal nature center stage.
Taiwanese high mountain oolong with raw sheep’s milk Manchego. The Rishi Li Shan oolong I used is no longer available. (Remember that tea is a highly seasonal, limited quantity sort of thing and can sell out just as easily as flowers come and go.) Try a Flowery Jin Xuan with Corcuera Manchego. Oolongs tend to be among the most perfume-like teas and can evoke whole worlds of fruit and flowers. Less highly oxidized ones like this light oolong call up lilac, orchid and/or gardenia and often have a creaminess to them that pairs exquisitely with raw sheep’s milk cheeses such as this Manchego. You might even taste a hint of the shrubs munched on by sheep in the Spanish countryside. A full-on spring-garden-in-bloom pairing. Also delicious with a light rose jam.
First flush Darjeeling with triple cream: Absolutely classic pairing–the darling of British afternoon tea and very definition of pleasant astringency–the thing that makes your mouth pucker. This first-pick-of-the-season Margaret’s Hope from Bellocq Tea Atelier is a natural match for the crowd-pleasing Nettle Meadow Kunik, a herbaceous Brie-like masterpiece that gets some of its spring-like oomph from the high-quality herbs and leaves eaten by cows and goats at New York’s Nettle Meadow. The rounded creaminess of this wheel softens the Darjeeling’s astringency and brings its bright, lemony flavors to light.
Traditional Assam with knockout cheddar: It hardly gets more British than this, except the tea’s from a terrific Detroit-based company and the cheese hails from an Iowa farm. The robust, malty, wake-you-up bang of the Assam from Joseph Wesley Tea stands up to this super-tangy cheddar; its bright, citrusy notes also draw out the fruitiness of the Milton Creamery Prairie Breeze cheddar. Yes, this cheese somehow tastes like pineapple, and it’s delicious. A sunny duo.
Puerh with gouda: This classic puerh from Rishi brews as dark as black coffee, and has a smooth rounded cocoa flavor without the funky, barnyard notes you might find in other Puerhs–it’s a blend. It’s also a luxe partner to the very rich 18-month old grand cru gouda from Stompetoren (Holland). Think chocolate and caramel via tea and cheese. Grab this gouda at the Brooklyn Kitchen while it’s still in stock, or buy a ticket to the lowlands.
Teapot image from card by Meera Lee Patel http://www.meeralee.com