Tea aficionados welcome the new tea revolution

By Frank Weber
December 23, 2014

Tea aficionados welcome the new tea revolution Tea may be picking up steam – no pun intended – but that steam now comes in many liquid as well as solid applications. Chefs and mixologists are finding creative and delicious new uses for this versatile ingredient.

Tea started its amazing journey some 5,000 years ago in the mountainous regions of Yunnan – China. It was used for medicinal purposes and coveted for its countless health benefits long before modern medicine delivered us more concrete evidence of its powerful phytochemicals and nutrients. Loaded with antioxidants, particular EGCG (Epigallocatechin gallate) – yes, quite a mouthful – tea has shown to be useful in the prevention of many diseases.

You might have heard all of this already. After all, the Canadian loose leaf tea revolution started around 15 years ago when the first premium tea boutiques began to surface. Since then, Canadians have learned to appreciate the varieties and health benefits found in the products sold in these specialty boutiques. Many of these stores boast well over 100 flavours and treasures, gathered from every remote corner of the globe.

Selection and quality improve

Now that we are seeing premium tea being available from every part of the world, restaurateurs have finally caught on to this, and it is much easier to find the quality loose leaf teas one has become accustomed to through the various retailers. So, just when it appears to be as good as it gets in terms of finding quality and variety, two more changes have appeared on the horizon.

First, major retailers (such as Sobey’s) and coffee chains (including Starbucks) are launching super premium teas in their stores. This might not seem like anything special. However, until recently, the finest teas were limited to specialty shops. This new approach might just change the way we purchase tea and with it bring better quality to mainstream retailers and quick-service coffee locations. Steps like these show us that “granny’s cup of tea” is no longer the norm, and we have finally traded the soggy old bag for premium, all natural, non GMO, gluten-free, kosher and organic gems. And why not indeed? Tea, after water, is still the most widely consumed and affordable beverage on the planet.

The second part of this “revolution” is one that excites me tremendously as a former chef and restaurant owner.

Multitasking abilities

Tea started its journey not only as a medicinal product, but also as sustenance, currency and eventually as a culinary treat for the wealthy. It took thousands of years for tea to become the staple beverage it is today.

The leaves of the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis) were boiled with ginger and spices, used as flavouring for food and pickled or eaten as salads. In Tibet, tea is still boiled with Yak butter for sustenance. I am happy to report that this tradition has resurfaced with a vengeance.

One of my personal favourite summer appetizers is tea-infused goat cheese. I use the larger cheese logs and marinate the slices overnight in “Honey Fig Tree,” a sweet and fruity herbal tea. I add some honey and orange segments to a very strong infusion. I then garnish the dish with oranges and rosemary and serve the cheese on a bed of sliced figs and micro greens.

Chefs and mixologists all over the world have re-invented the use for this amazing and incredibly versatile ingredient. I recently spoke with a few Toronto-area chefs and mixologists and asked them to share their favourite ideas:

  • Paul Boehmer from Boehmer Restaurant, likes to smoke quails over “Skinny  Woolong” – a concoction of Oolong tea, lime leaves and coconut. Boehmer stresses the importance of brining the quails, since they soak up the mixture of apple wood and tea smoke more efficiently.
  • Chris McDonald at Cava has been making the most delicious chocolate bark with crushed leaves of creamy Earl Grey for years. The secret of his success lies in the combination of tea and the use of sea salt with the chocolate. The proper tempering of the tea infused chocolate is very important here.
  • Christopher Palick, the executive chef at L-eat catering and Paese restaurants, makes a divine combination of Ahi tuna and “Shanghai Sunrise” — a  green rooibos tea with dragon fruit, pineapple, mate and lapacho. Pailick uses the acid in the pineapples to cure the fish and the juice to infuse the flavours of the tea.
  • Chris Brown, at Citizens Catering (The Barn at Wychwood in Toronto) started using the South African rooibos tea in his dishes some time ago. He gently poaches Steelhead trout in a bath of the tea, together with juniper berries and orange zest. Brown enjoys using rooibos because its herbaceous sweetness imparts a distinct fruity element and enhances the depth of flavour. He garnishes his dish with preserved wild leeks and lemon crema.
  • Michael Tremblay, the only certified sake sommelier I know, currently has his second home at Ki on Bay Street in Toronto. Michael highlights “Sleepyhead,” an herbal blend of chamomile, lemongrass, rose hip and orange blossoms. He makes a strong and sweet infusion, using simple syrup. Naturally, his match of choice is a clean and crisp sake from Kyoto. He loves the silky texture of these sakes as a perfect companion to the refreshing tea. Garnished with a stalk of lemongrass, this is a perfect addition to the summer backyard party.
  • Nishan Nepulongoda, an award-winning mixologist at Blowfish Restaurant uses Lapsang Souchong. This tea is smoked over pine amber and is reminiscent of the soothing scent of a campfire. Nepulongoda makes a base by infusing the tea with ginger and maple syrup. He teams it up with Bombay Sapphire Gin, sweet vermouth and lime juice. He completes his aperitif with rosemary and maple bitters.

As it has throughout history, tea continues to delight, nourish, soothe, excite and stimulate our body and senses. It continues to bring pleasure to us in ways few other foods and drinks are able to. I hope you, too, feel stimulated after you read this article, to think “outside the pot” and make tea part of your culinary journey.

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About the author

Frank Weber is the owner of Toronto-based importer and wholesaler Tea Squared. Frank had been a pioneer in the Canadian tea industry and is currently working with chefs and mixologists all over the country on a compilation of tea infused recipes. If you would like to contribute to the knowledge base, please contact info@teasquared.ca. For more information visit www.teasquared.ca.

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