recipes: cooking with tea

The food-pairing trend may have started with wine and cheese, but in recent years has burgeoned into a full-blown industry, with events featuring products from whisky to kimchi. Tea pairing has become an increasingly popular alternative to alcoholic pairings, inspiring a tangential interest in culinary uses for tea.  At the forefront of this movement is French tea brand, Le Palais des Thés, which recently launched an online US store and has plans for a New York storefront in the coming years.  I sat down with Aurélie Bessière, president of the company’s American branch, to learn more.

I recently learned that tea was actually introduced into France more than thirty years before coffee and made popular by Cardinal Mazarin and Louis XIV.  Can you speak a bit about the French tea tradition?

The French tea tradition, introduced in the 17th century, was always less popular than coffee, but has grown. In France, we always look for the best quality and taste [in food], and it is the same with tea. We want to find the freshest and most interesting product available.

What distinguishes Le Palais des Thés from other French tea brands?

Le Palais des Thés was founded when my uncle, François-Xavier Delmas, first discovered a passion for tea. He opened the first store in Paris and quickly decided to go to the plantations in Asia to select the leaves himself, to pursue the best quality. This was and still is unusual, as tea companies tend to go through intermediaries. He then opened a tea school in Paris, the only institution of its kind in Europe. Students learn about blends, regions and crus, as well as tea ceremonies and food pairing. The most popular class is tea and cheese pairing – very French!

Have you noticed any difference in American tea culture vs. French tea culture?

We didn’t expect this, but in the US there are more male customers (30%) than in France (25%). What remains consistent is that our customers tend to be loyal tea drinkers and that the most popular teas are our signature creations (such as Thé du Hammam, Thé des Moines, and Thé des Lords) and grands crus (such as our Darjeeling first flushes and Korean Jukro.).

Has the growing interest in tea pairing affected your production style?

The growing interest in tea pairings has not changed our philosophy. Our focus is on quality and rarity first. Then, of course, we take an interest in how we can use the teas in cooking and pairings – we’re French after all! What is different is that we have begun to use the teas in more interesting ways, and we now provide suggestions for pairings.

In what ways have you collaborated with other culinary professionals to explore the tea pairing trend?

We have a history of collaborating with chefs in France, most notably on a tea-based cookbook, which is currently only available in French, but will be available in English in the future. We have also partnered with chefs for events. For example, in New York City, we organized a class with the French Culinary Institute and chef Melanie Franks about tea pairings and tea-based cooking. We are also the proud House Purveyor of tea for the James Beard Foundation for all events at their House in New York.

Aurélie also provided a recipe from La cuisine au thé (Cooking with Tea), the aforementioned French cookbook featuring products from Le Palais des Thés, so I could experience tea-based cooking first-hand.

The recipe I tested was for potato soup, featuring Thé du Tigre - an unusually fragrant, smoked tea from Taiwan that one friend remarked, “smells like bacon!” The soup itself was lighter and more elegant than I expected, with the tea imparting a pleasant, subtle layer of added flavor. I served it, as suggested, with Le Palais des Thés’ Grand Yunnan Imperial – a dark amber, smooth and lightly sweet black tea.

Potato Soup (translated from La cuisine au thé)

Serves 4.  20-40 mins of prep and cooking. Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 4 potatoes
  • 4 slices of uncured bacon
  • ½ cup of cream
  • 3 tsp of Thé du Tigre

Instructions:

  1. Cut the onion in large pieces.  Brown it in olive oil in a medium-sized pot.
  2. Chop the potatoes and add to the pot. Sprinkle tea into the pot as well.
  3. Add water to the pot, just above the level of the potatoes.
  4. While potatoes are cooking, prepare the bacon by frying it until crispy in a pan.  Once cooked, set the bacon aside on a plate lined with paper towel.
  5. Cook the potatoes until soft. Mash them, then pass the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or chinois.
  6. Return the strained soup to the pot.  Add cream, reserving a small about for decoration.
  7. Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Add a slice of bacon or crumbled bacon to the bottom of each soup bowl, then fill with soup.

To learn more about Le Palais des Thés, click here.

ordinary pleasures : café culture

As an undergraduate, I often spent my time in between classes at coffee shops on campus.  On occasion, I made genuine attempts at academic progress, but in truth, anyone trying to work was better off in the dorms or the library.  The coffee shop, in essence, was a not-so-subtle locale to see and be seen.  There I’d sit - staring at the same page, rereading the same line - hoping that my crush-of-the-moment would happen upon me nonchalantly reading Rilke.  (As if the average undergraduate male actually cared what the heck I was reading).

But a true café - that European or Europhilic wonder of the world - resembles neither the collegiate coffee shop (a slightly less commercial variant of your local Starbucks) nor a silent study hall.  It has a character all its own - charmingly unchanging despite generations of regulars, who ultimately leave it high-and-dry after an intense stint of unflinching fidelity.  It’s a quiet, yet buzzing corner of the world, best suited to the grad student, youthful researcher or urban creative - thinkers entrenched in their own ideals and interests, both incensed and mellowed by the fog of sleepless nights.

Which brings me to the subject of sustenance.  Some café creatures seem to live on black coffee alone.  Others drift towards cigarettes or café crèmes.  But my favorite cafés are those who provide a little something more to chew on (as endless hours of reading seem to have a way of cultivating oral fixations).

In Paris, my café of choice was the Café Maure at the Grand Mosquée de Paris.  Built in the years following World War I, La Grande Mosquée remains the only official mosque in Paris, despite the significant growth of the capital’s Muslim population.  The mosque itself is typically closed to all but the faithful, but on the corner of Rue Daubeton and Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, a Moorish archway invites the curious in - to sip sweet mint tea, smoke hookah or nibble on honey-laden pastries under the shade of fig trees. There I would spend many an afternoon, induling in Kaab el Ghazal (half-moon pastries perfumed with orange flower water) and reading French philosophy).

Back in New York, there’s no shortage of cafés worth frequenting in the city, but unlike Paris, those worth lingering in are a bit harder to come by.  Morningside Heights' Hungarian Pastry Shop is one of these rare gems, located just outside the thumping heart of Columbia’s main campus.

The leaner (and thriftier) among us will rave about Hungarian's free refills, but my indulgence of choice is their baklava – honey soaked and nutty as the day is long, somehow simultaneously flaky and densely chewy. (When I worked at Columbia, the walk home past Hungarian was treacherous.  The only thing that saved me from poverty-by-pastry was the fact that the desserts are not quite viewable from the window).  And with an ambiance fitting of an old Woody Allen film (or Love Story, if the protagonists had attended Columbia), there’s enough 1970s flair to sustain the whole neighborhood’s charm.

True, it can be hard to find a seat here – but in warmer months the sculpture garden at St. John the Divine (just across the street) is an enviable extension of HP’s café culture.  At worst, if it’s too cold or crowded to stay, they’ll wrap you up a snack in an old-timey paper box with striped pastry string.  An adorable consolation prize for your efforts.

catch of the day: bellocq tea atelier

There is something about the art of craftsmanship - an elusive je ne sais quoi or mysterious familiarity - that seems almost a memory of things we once wanted, but had somehow forgotten.  In the face of this exceptional attention to detail, we are mesmerized, lured in by the sense of purpose in each word, scent, symbol or flavor. Occasionally, a small company offers us the opportunity to own a modern memento of this dying culture of cultivated skill and taste.  Such is the case with Bellocq Tea Atelier.

I first discovered Bellocq on a chilly Sunday at the New Amsterdam Market.  As a frequent NAMarketer, the new arrival or return of season-sensitive purveyors is always an exciting occasion, so I eagerly wandered over to check out their wares.

The first thing that struck me was the gorgeous design of the Bellocq tea canisters and paper packets - not to mention the "accessible luxury" vibe of the whole set-up (artfully crafted by former Martha Stewart Living stylist - and Bellocq co-owner - Heidi Johannsen Stewart).

As if this visual enticement weren't enough, the very knowledgeable "tea sommelier" (a name I gave him, but he humbly dismissed), Ravi Kroesen, graciously and enthusiastically answered my varied tea questions (tea blends vs. single estate teas, boiling temperature of water, etc.) - all while serving me the most delicious Afghani Chai.  Needless to say, I was hooked.

The happiest news of all is that Bellocq, (already available at the Bellocq tasting room in Greenpoint, at the New Amsterdam Market, and a number of other specialty stores) will soon be available at the very convenient Haven's Kitchen, opening winter 2011 near Union Square.  In the meantime, I will be actively dwindling down my already over-sized tea collection, in anticipation of (much) better teas to come.