Given that China and Japan, two of the world’s three most prestigious tea-growing nations, do not have long traditions of dairy consumption in their population’s diets (although that seems to be changing as Westernization is taking hold), I set out to be deliciously subversive and pair some of the teas from those countries with cheese, leading to pleasantly surprising results. By contrast, India, the third of that tea-producing triumvirate, has a well-established tradition of using dairy products in its cuisine, marked by a generous use of clarified butter, dairy-enriched sauces dating back to the Moghul empire, delicate paneer cheese for all manner of non-vegetarian Indian specialties, milk-based desserts, and of course, in the beverage realm, the ubiquitous masala chai, which combines bold-flavored tea with milk and spices.
Tempted by the thought that wine wasn’t the only beverage that could harmonize with cheese, I chose eight teas to pair with six cheeses: choosing five teas from mainland China (White tea, Dragonwell green, Ti Quan Yin oolong, an English Breakfast made exclusively from Keemun, and a subtly smoky Lapsang Souchong); one from Japan (Sencha); and two from India (Arya Darjeeling and Mokalbari Assam). The cheeses represented the three major categories: two based on sheep’s milk (fresh ricotta and Sardinian Pecorino), two based on cow’s milk (a Fontina called Brindisi from Oregon’s Willamette Valley Cheese Company and Fromage d’ Affinois, a 60% butterfat wonder from France), and two based on goat’s milk (one mild and soft, Pyramide from France, and the other a pungent and Spanish variety called Monte Enebro, with its flattened cylindrical shape).
I chose to taste each tea with each cheese and above and beyond the theine buzz, here are some observations from the 48 pairings:
* Drinking the white tea at 170 degrees F. provided enough heat to accentuate the sweet cream notes of the ricotta, making it yielding on the tongue and mouth filling with its fresh dairy personality.
* The floral, somewhat rose-scented warmth of the white tea, when consumed cool, harmonized beautifully with the buttery quality of the Sardinian Pecorino.
* Slightly cooled after brewing, the Ti Quan Yin oolong brought out the lemony notes in the Monte Enebro (Spanish goat cheese), softening some of the cheese’s aggressive barnyard aroma.
* With its sweet orchidy essence, this same tea was a fitting partner to the decadently rich Fromage d’Affinois, with its creamy mellow melting quality.
* The Assam’s malty character was a nice foil for the Brindisi Fontina, which softened the tannins in the tea, setting up the palate for just one more bite of room-temperature Pyramide.
* With its almost caramel-like sweetness, the Fontina also stood up nicely to the smokiness in the Lapsang Souchong, leaving me wishing to explore whether smoked cheeses and smoked tea would prove to be too much of a good thing.
* Proving to be unflattering to any of the cheeses, the Japanese Sencha, born from a formerly non-dairy-consuming country, did not betray its heritage and would be best consumed with noodle dishes, seafood, and sushi, if sake were off-limits.
Hardly the last word on pairings of the brewed leaf and milk’s leap into immortality, this tasting poses as many questions as it answers about how tea and cheeses can enhance each other when tasted in tandem; I hope you’re inspired to dig in and explore.