Tea & Cheese

The Whole Leaf

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Tea is transformational on so many levels. But for the sake of satisfying a growling hunger, let’s focus on how we let a steep slip into the delicious moments of our day. Before jumping ahead to whisking tea into a favorite recipe, it’s best we start with pairings to understand how tea has a place at the table. As we have learned with wine, what we choose to pour into our glass and place next to our plate matters. Our taste buds navigate between each gulp and bite, and sometimes, just sometimes, the flavors begin to dance with one another rather than competing for our attention. But let’s skip the main meal and jump backwards to happy hour and talk about cheese served alongside your favorite tea.

Consider the pairing of tea and cheese to be a deconstructed latte (if you fancy adding milk to your tea). A splash of milk may have been lovingly stirred into your morning robust black tea blend or your masala chai could have been simmered in milk on the stove. We seek out lattes for their richness and comforting sensations. But rather than steep tea into the milk, we have a chance to play with dairy delights that have been nurtured, aged, pushed, and shaped to achieve complex flavors that simple milk can’t bring to the table.

The earthy, nutty elements of the gruyère complement the roasted, earthy notes of the oolong, ultimately letting the sweet notes that they both share shine.

Before you begin to sharpen your cheese knives, note that there is an art to finding the perfect pairing. To just dip your toes in the edible adventure, opt for robust black teas and rich, creamy, soft cheeses for a familiar latte flavor. And when you’re ready to commit to a cheesy adventure, build a board of your favorite wedges and brew a few pots of favorite teas to see what tickles your taste buds. For a simple strategy, try to pair teas and cheese that are in season (think first flush Japanese greens with a fresh spring cheese). Or lean on your local cheese shop and share the flavor profile of the tea with your cheese monger in exchange for their wedge recommendations (they are often asked to do so with wine and beer).

For a sure bet that will hook you on this notion of a modern happy hour, unwrap a wedge of gruèyre to pair with a red hood oolong. Also known as red robe or da hong pao, this roasted Chinese oolong steeps to reveal a delicate, roasted charcoal aroma and smooth earthy and woodsy tastes with a hint of sweetness (think cooked brown sugar). Gruyère, the Swiss cheese known for melting richly into sauces or on a simple piece of toast, effortlessly melts onto your taste buds a few sips into the pairing experience. Savor how the semi-hard, dense, and crystallized texture of the gruyère gives way to the heat from the tea on your palate. The earthy, nutty elements of the gruyère complement the roasted, earthy notes of the oolong, ultimately letting the sweet notes that they both share shine (think brown sugar-roasted fruit). Several sips and bites later, your senses may dance about and believe you’re drinking a sweetened cup of rich, earthy milk.

Unlike chilled or room temperature wine or beer, the warmth of tea allows the cheese to melt and coat your palate for richer flavors. Keep in mind that the experience needs to build over time. Start by sipping the tea several times to let the complex tastes build on your palate. Nibble a few bites of cheese, letting the dairy coat your tongue, and then alternate between the two to notice how the cheese or tea begins to change. And of course, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can always dip the cheese in the tea to quickly heat up the melting marvel.

—Story and photos by Alexis Siemons, tea writer and consultant. She writes about her steeped adventures at teaspoonsandpetals.com.