When I first moved to America, I only bought Earl Grey tea at Fortnum & Mason in London. Not only did my habit cost far too much in airfares, the elegant tins of loose-leaf tea never failed to raise eyebrows among airport customs officials.
More than twenty years later, I'm still particular about my Earl Grey tea, but I can now buy many delectable blends without having to cross the pond.
Why all the fuss and bother?
Well, there are blends--and there are blends. Take Earl Grey tea, for example, named for the British Prime Minister Charles Grey who allegedly received the tea as a token gift for saving the life of an Indian prince.
The best Earl Grey tea blends come from using medium-to-large black tea leaves, with the addition of natural oil of bergamot. (Bergamot is a citrus fruit whose rind holds the oil.)
The character of the base black tea combined with the quantity and quality of the bergamot oil determine the individual characteristics of the blend. Sometimes the bergamot is synthetic or another type of flavoring is used.
The only way to know one blend from another is to sample a variety.
In the Far East, the art and practice of tea tasting is comparable to that of wine tasting in the West. There is the accompanying education, wares, equipment, ceremony and etiquette. There are those with sensitive palates and great expertise.
Professional tea tasters assess both the dry and infused/wet tealeaves, as well as the tea liquor/liquid, for color, odor, flavor and appearance. All the senses are employed, resulting in evocative words such as amber or mahogany to describe color; citrus or woodsy, aroma; bitter or sweet, taste; dusty or supple, touch. Even tannins are measured.
Like professional wine tasting, professional tea tasting is a serious business.
But it can also be fun.
Instead of a wine tasting party, throw a tea tasting party.
Explore several blends of the same tea, say of Earl Grey, or try a variety of different teas, such as Jasmine, Gunpowder and Lapsang Souchong.
I suggest using identical white porcelain teacups or tasting bowls as receptacles for easy comparison. Be sure to adhere to an individual blend's steeping instructions. Set out both dry and infused/wet tealeaves for further contemplation. Sip cool water to cleanse the palate between tastes (spitting out is not necessary, though a professional tea taster must to keep his bladder from bursting!) and keep notebooks and pencils handy.
Lastly, offer simple teacakes, breads and biscuits, so that after the final tasting, guests can pick their favorite blend and enjoy a cup, while they nibble on something light and compare their tasting notes.
To think, all this can happen without even boarding a plane!
This story first appeared in my column Tea Talk for Inns magazine.