Today, all across Britain, we will collectively clink china and down 165 million cups of tea. We do this every single day of the year (that’s 62 billion cups annually - it is the most popular drink in the world, after water) but the difference is that this particular Friday is National Tea Day.
Tea rooms, hotels and cafes around the country are holding special events. Brews everywhere are being heated and poured, social media campaigns are underway and a festival is going on at Kensington Roof Gardens, a stone’s throw from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's residence (who no doubt will be enjoying a pot themselves).
But at each of these get-togethers, look closely, and, in amongst the platters of cakes and cucumber sandwiches, you may spot a surprising slab of Stilton or sliver of Manchego.
The reason is alarming. According to experts, cheese is fast-becoming one of the most popular accompaniments for a brew.
“The question should not be why, but why not?” says Rishi Raaj Deb, a master blender for Twinings with 23 years of experience. “It is the most logical thing in the world.”
There's much more versatility to tea - it's the chameleon of beverages
The reasons for the success of this unlikely pairing are, apparently, myriad. The creaminess of cheese and the bitterness of tea are natural bedfellows, one tempering the other. Like wine, tea leaves deliver varying degrees of astringency and tannin content, and the range of flavours is huge.
Temperature is another factor. “When you have a hot drink with cheese it cleanses your palette and brings out new depths, what some call the ‘third flavour’,” says Deb.
It's little wonder that sales of after-dinner teas at smart restaurants are soaring, as we choose to forego a large glass of red for soothing infusions. And think of how many dinner parties you've been to where the tea drawer, opened at dessert, looks like the botanical larder of a herbologist.
Online, cheese and tea tasting events are booming. In New York, Rachel Safko, a writer and tea specialist, hosts private ‘tea and cheese soirees’ for $500 through the luxury experience firm IfOnly.
In Forbes, she recently wrote: “Most people, in my experience, think of tea as a drink for rainy days, grandmas, or as a little sister to coffee. All of the above can be true, but there's much more versatility to tea - it's the chameleon of beverages."
To test the theory, and help you draw gasps at your next tea party, I consulted Deb on the merits of matching a steaming cuppa with your cheeseboard.
Spicy Chai and Vacherin
Vacherin, a cow's milk cheese made in France and Switzerland, is soft and creamy. You might be used to enjoying it with a sauvignon but Deb favours Chai tea. “On a cold day a spicy Chai compliments the Vacherin with its cinnamon, clove and cardamom flavours, leaving an even richer feeling in the mouth.”
Deb's tasting guidelines are invariably to either “go for complimentary flavours or the complete opposite”. In this case, the zingy complexity of Chai cuts pleasingly through the full-bodied richness and saltiness, of Vacherin. It’s a classic case of opposites attract.
Earl Grey and English Brie
Despite what some armchair connoisseurs will tell you, it is OK to have milk in tea. “Assam, Kenyan and Earl Grey are all designed to be taken with milk,” says Deb. And when cheese-pairing, the extra dose of dairy only pulls the two substances closer together.
“Earl Grey is a very citrusy tea, full of flavour. The bergamot is an orange taste. A good cheese for it would be a salty, gooey English Brie. The Earl Grey cuts through the creaminess without overpowering it.”
English Breakfast and Black Bomber Cheddar
The hint is in the name. Black Bomber is not a subtle cheese. Matching the fabulously punchy extra mature oak-smoked cheddar like-for-like with a strong English breakfast tea is a sensory assault.
“You have smoke versus smoke, which is complimentary,” explains Deb. “Both taste hard and lively. It is a wake-you-up cup of tea and a strong, robust cheese.” Take it down a notch by adding a liberal slosh of milk to your mug.
Red Leicester chilli and stilton with Oolong
Chinese Oolong is a work of art. It takes at least 48 hours to make, in an exhausting process that includes withering the plant under strong sun, oxidising it and then curling, twisting and compacting the leaves in muslin bags. The result is a “very light, fragrant tea. It has some grassiness but more depth and floral notes than a green tea.”
Deb pairs it with a chilli-infused Red Leicester because Oolong’s natural sweetness lessens the bite. The subtleties are lost on me, although the Oolong is comforting against the creamy texture. For maximum taste, Deb advises leaving tea for a minimum of three minutes before drinking. As a nation he deplores our impatient under- brewing. On average we wait less than 40 seconds before enjoying it, missing out entire layers of flavour.
Darjeeling and Comté
Another thing tea and cheese have in common is the critical role played by terroir. This is the ways in which the climate, topography, soil type and other environmental factors in the region where it is produced, impact the taste - something also considered important in wine.
Comté, a high-quality French mountain cheese, is a good example, as the cows come from a specific region. “It has a smooth texture with a creamy, fruity and nutty finish,” says Deb. “A second flush Darjeeling [one that has been left to mature before the leaves are picked] compliments it best, offering a great base for the cheese's depth of flavour with its well-balanced astringency and bitterness.”
Fruit teas and Wensleydale
“Wensleydale is the workhorse of the cheeseboard,” says Deb, stopping to admonish me for following a bite too quickly with a slurp of tea. “It’s about tasting and making use of all five senses. You have to let it linger for a bit.” We agree 10 seconds is about right.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Wensleydale with cranberries goes magnificently with a raspberry and strawberry tea. The combination is super sweet but fine for summer picnics. Deb then pulls out a mango and ginger flavoured Wensleydale and I recoil. But nibbled alongside and a brew of root ginger it slips down easily.
Green tea and goats’ cheese
Deb is confident that green teas go with almost everything. “They are light, herbaceous and fragrant.” I am less convinced, but a cup does go strangely well with rosemary-infused goat’s cheese. Both have a certain grassiness. “You get the rosemary, the saltiness of the cheese,” says Debs, mid-taste sensation. “Then the green tea cuts through and you get a subtle, smoother third flavour that lingers and then dies.”
The nineteenth century wit, Sydney Smith, once said, “Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist?”. I might not have expected it but, after today, it’s just possible I’d go so far as to say the same for a steaming brew with a cheeseboard next to it.
Twinings are offering 3 for 2 teas on National Tea Day with the online promo code TEADAY. Visit their tea emporium at 216 Strand, London WC2R 1AP.