Food / Wine
Cheese and Tea Evening at La Cave à Fromage
Ever thought of marrying cheese and tea? What a funny idea would you say. Not really my cup of tea?
Well think again. I was recently invited to review this very new concept at La Cave à Fromage in South Kensington. Todd Bridge, a 30 something South African, general manager of La Cave à Fromage and Henrietta Lovell, a fascinating young woman, founder of the Rare Tea Company, were to be our hosts for the evening.
The first time Henrietta met Eric Charriaux, one of two owners of La Cave à Fromage, they both quickly became aware of the fact that they both had the same enthusiasm and love for the products they sold. They decided to put their minds together and came up with this new concept of 'cheese and tea evenings'. Yes, you heard right, ‘Cheese and Tea Evenings’. If, like me, you still remember the good old cheese and wine parties you might ask yourself why would anyone want to mess with that fail-proof formula.
So I could not help but ask Henrietta.
Eric Charriaux and Amnon Paldi
Henrietta believes that many people assume that all tea is the same. It mostly comes hidden in a bag, to be dunked in a mug of boiling water and doused with milk and sugar. But that tea bag is a blend of around sixty industrially produced black teas. They come from across the world; mostly from India, Sri Lanka and Africa, the former colonial countries where a great number of the tea gardens are still run by large British companies such as Unilever (Unilever being the largest in the world). They blend teas to create a uniform, standard flavour. It tastes the same every time, it is like a glass of blended whisky or a bottle of Piat d’Or or the same little portion of ‘Vache Qui Rit’.
But just as there are lovingly produced single malt whiskies, or small wine producers or cheeses lovingly prepared by farmers, there are also skilfully grown and picked single-estate teas. All tea - white, green and black - comes from the same plant: the Camellia sinensis bush, a camelia species which puts all its energy into its leaves rather than the flowers. It is the different varieties, terrains, growing conditions and, finally, production methods that create the all the many teas.
Did you know that Chinese people spend a bigger percentage of their income on tea than we spend on alcohol? Some teas are very expensive indeed, reaching many hundreds of pounds for only a few grams. As such, doing business in China inevitably also means having to know your teas.
So, clearly Henrietta thinks there is more to tea than a sachet of your favourite PG tips…
Henrietta continued to explain her logic to me:
To her, tea is like wine: it comes from the earth, it contains tannin and its quality constantly changes according to the weather and the soil it grows on (sun, rain, soil). Why should the similarities end there? If one is a perfect match for cheese, surely the other must be too… Hey, we also put milk in our tea don’t we?
Being French, I could not even begin to think why on earth someone would want to do that. Surely wine was the only drink to have with food. At that point, I remembered that it had taken some time and encouragement for me to swap my usual robust red wine to a more subtle white to accompany my cheese and I loved it. But to go for tea? What a silly idea! Or was it…
In front of me sat a small slate with three cheeses and what looked like a dried meat of some sort.
The first cup of tea was promptly poured. A China White whole leaf tea to go with a Comté Reserve - traditional hard cheese and the only one made with calves rennet and U/P milk. At first my brain had to come to terms with the idea of having tea with my cheese. Tea is of course something so subtle and this cheese was everything but subtle. It was lovely and dry and mature. As a result, I could not distinguish the subtleties this tea had to offer.
But with the second cup, my brain had moved into second gear and already, it became easier to appreciate the finer qualities that the tea displayed. The tea I was drinking was traditional wok-fired green tea. A Montgomery Cheddar, a smooth 18-month matured cheddar from the heart of Somerset had been selected to accompany it.
I could feel the milk from the cheese attaching itself to the tannin from the tea but this was still too over powering for the tea to come through with great presence.
I had to wait until the third tea, an oolong, delicately balanced between green and black tea - Eric had picked a Clacbitou, a rich goat cheese from burgundy - to start appreciating the virtues of marrying cheese and tea together.
The red earth it grows on
What really did it for me that evening, however, was the South African wild rooibos (pronounced /ˈrɔɪbɒs/, like "roy-bos"), Afrikaans for "red bush"; paired with the smoked venison. Both had a strong smokey flavour which complemented each other rather than one over powering the other. As I was drinking it, there was something so special about it. It felt earthy and primal. I could practically see the African bush it had come from and the meat could have been from there too. I absolutely loved it.
What you should know about the rooibosh: As red as the earth is the rooibos tea bush, wild-harvested for unknown millennia by the Khoi San Bushmen, who’s red-toned skin matches the surroundings. Slaves later consumed the rooibos tea beverage after Europeans forcibly acquired the land. In the last five years, rooibos consumption has expanded internationally, where it is prized for its sweet and refreshing flavor, lack of caffeine, and its high mineral content.
Today, there are only two Black-owned smallholder rooibos producers in the world. The two companies are owned and run by descendants of the original Khoi San Bushmen, who were otherwise largely killed.
As the evening drew to a close, I realised that, despite my initial scepticism, I had actually enjoyed the whole experience; and although I will most probably continue to drink wine with my cheese, I certainly learnt a lot about tea and about Chinese culture.
As for people who are keen to find a non-alcoholic alternative to go with their cheese, no hesitation, go for rare teas.
La Cave à Fromage