Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

Tea and Terroir

Newly opened in Soho.
Photo courtesy of Palais des Thes
Not too long ago, I attended a fascinating tasting at the newly opened U.S. flagship of the French tea company Palais des Thés.  The Prince Street shop opened hot on the heels of the brand’s first foray into the U.S. on the Upper West Side. Leading the tasting was company founder François-Xavier Delmas, who, it turns out, is a treasure trove of knowledge on all things tea from cultivating to tasting.

Tea brewing is an exacting art, Delmas explained, so it’s important to follow brewing directions to the letter, or number, in this case. Filtered water is best, and when a tea calls for a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it won’t cut it to heat water to 110 degrees and then cool it. Water shouldn’t be reheated, either, since boiling depletes the water’s oxygen, which is not restored upon cooling or reheating. The bitterness sometimes detectable in tea is not a negative, we learned, as long as it is balanced with acidity.
Aurelie Bessiere, who with her husband Cy heads the company's
U.S. expansion, left, and Delmas.

Delmas suggests using an electric kettle with temperature settings, noting that in some tea-drinking countries, it’s an art to be able to detect hot water temperature by different sized bubbles forming on the water’s surface. I love the descriptions born of this pre-electric-kettle method because they’re the kind you won’t forget:“shrimp eyes” and “fish eyes” are two such descriptors.

We learned that color does not necessarily indicate quality, as there are beautiful “white” teas (a delicate mix of immature buds and leaves, steamed lightly and unfermented) that are nearly colorless, and that smell is more important than taste when judging tea. Tea tasters swish and slurp tea much as wine tasters do, as the tea liquor must be aerated in order for the full spectrum of its tastes to register on the palate. Delmas also suggests that tea drinkers lean forward slightly when drinking tea, as bitterness is detected at the back of the tongue. Once again, as I noted in this tea-related post, the parallels between tea and wine are striking.

Darjeeling and Bao Zhong grand crus
Photo by Alex Kotlik Photography
Among the 200 or so different varieties Palais des Thés offers are 15 grand crus teas, which are grown in small batches on single estates and distinguished by their extraordinary quality, balance and harmony. We tasted two grand crus: Darjeeling Puttabong “Muscatel,” a limited edition second flush (“flush” refers to which harvest of the new season the leaves hail from) of a rich copper color that was astringent then fruity and woody on the palate, and a first flush 1999 Bao Zhong “antique” tea from Taiwan.

Delmas noted that more recently, the idea of single cépages, or varietals, has taken hold. He is especially interested in understanding which prized tea characteristics are attributable to terroir (the unique characteristics of the soil in which the tea bushes are cultivated) and which from cépage. Happily, tea exchanges are underway between tea research centers in Indian, China and Japan. In one, Delmas notes, “Japan is trying to produce ‘Japanese teas’ in China.” Other exchanges involve experimenting with different cultivars and propagation by cutting, seed exchanges and comparing disease fighting and organic growing methods.

Tea cuisine: tea leaves and katsuobushi (shaved dried skipjack).
Photo courtesy of Palais des Thes
You can get an even more detailed education in tea by reading Delmas’s charming and informative book Chercheur de Thé: Discovering Tea, a collection of the first year’s worth of his blog posts. Thanks to this book, I now know how my beautiful tea canister covered in Japanese cherry wood was made, about the turbulent movement to create a separate state in Darjeeling, the ongoing belief in yeti in Nepal (some of them are quite short, less than a meter tall!) and unusual dishes such as the one above from Asahina, Shizuoka Prefecture, made with wet tea leaves, katsuobushi (shaved dried and fermented skipjack) and soy sauce. Delmas, a sympathetic and open-hearted traveler, pronounces it “absolutely delicious.”

Palais des Thés
156 Prince Street (between W. Broadway and Thompson St.)
New York, NY 10012

194 Columbus Ave. (between 68th and 69th Sts.)
New York, NY 10023

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