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Culinary experts are turning the concept of high tea on its head, putting the focus on the tea rather than just the food, and in the process they're creating lamb chops and caviar infused with Earl Grey and Assam flavours.
A high tea is no longer about munching uber-slim cucumber sandwiches and creamy scones over a cup of Darjeeling or Earl Grey. The flavour of tea can suffuse everything from the macaroons to the lamb chops.
At a high tea event at Radisson Blu Plaza in Hyderabad recently, guests were treated to Earl Grey tea caviar made in an abracadabra molecular gastronomy live demo by chefs. Rounds of flavoured Moroccan Mint and Rose French Vanilla tea were followed by rosehip and hibiscus macaroons and green tea cakes. But, the vegetarian caviar served in elegant wine glasses was certainly the highlight of the afternoon.
High tea, usually equated with the food - cucumber, salmon or chicken sandwiches, scones and pastries - served rather than the brew, is being turned on its head with the tea taking centre stage. Historically, high tea was a heavy late-evening meal, while afternoon tea was a dainty affair of lace doilies, delicate sandwiches, bone china and, of course, tea.
Dilhan Fernando, managing partner of Sri Lankan brand Dilmah Tea, amongst the world's top five brands, is one of the pioneers of tea gastronomy. Fernando says he started "seriously thinking of innovating on tea gastronomy in 1999, the thinking being that if tea can be had after a meal, why shouldn't it be had with the meal? Of course, when I say tea, I mean the real tea, made in the traditional way, hand-picked, withered, rolled, fermented and baked."
Thus started the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge in 2007 as an exploration of contemporary high tea, where hospitality and culinary professionals from across the globe are challenged to create original high tea recipes and inspired pairings that bring out the best in both tea and food. "The idea was to put back tea in high tea. The winning recipes, which use Dilmah tea as an essential ingredient, are endorsed by restaurateurs like Australia's Peter Kuruvita," says Fernando.
The techniques are elaborate too. The basic principle of spherification in molecular gastronomy is used to create tea caviar. Swaminandan, executive chef Radisson Blu, says, "Sodium alginate is added to an Earl Grey tea decoction. It is vacuum-packed and left aside for 12 hours to form a viscous substance, which is taken in a syringe and dropped in a continuous motion in a calcium chloride bath to form the caviar. So that the bitterness of the calcium chloride doesn't permeate the semi-permeable membrane, it has to be taken out of the bath within 15 to 20 seconds, washed gently in water and voila!"
Entire menus are being planned around tea. Chef Gaurav Chakraborty, executive chef at Novotel Hyderabad Airport, who takes the occasional maverick route to menu planning says, "For a French consulate conference of expats with the French ambassador recently, I had a high tea which used tea in all the food served. " Apart from cool teas like Cointreau ice tea and green tea and litchi cooler, he served small bites like Earl Grey chicken sandwiches (artichoke and cheese for vegetarians ) with a mayo filling infused with earl grey tea liqueur. Desert was Darjeeling tea and currant cake, chamomile poached pears, jasmine tea brulee, Assam tea brulee and green tea cheese cake. "The chamomile pears and creme brulees were especially relished," he says. It may sound simple, but infusing flavour into the food without compromising on the taste can be tricky. "You have to be careful to choose a tea whose flavour and aroma can withstand the process of cooking," says Swaminandan. "Add it either as a decoction poured over the finished dish or as a marinade to get the flavour. At our tea gastronomy dinner, themed around different Sri Lankan terroirs, we chose Prince of Kandy tea infusion in main dishes - Prince of Kandy Tea Marinated New Zealand Lamb Chops - as it has a delicate flavour despite being a black Ceylon tea. Green tea, because of its neutral taste and astringency is preferred, so we had Ceylon Young Hyson Green Tea Salmon with Keta Caviar and Sour Cream."
Stronger teas are chosen when the flavour has to stand out. "For making my creme brulee, for instance, I couldn't use a light tea as the recipe involves milk and egg yolk. So I chose an Assam tea to get the right brown hue. Green tea goes well in milder desserts, like cheesecake," says Chakraborty.
These aren't just tea-time antics. "Tea is packed with healthy flavonoids and anti-oxidants. It retains its healthy properties whether you have it as a hot brew or use it as a flavouring ingredient in food. To infuse the tea flavour in food is a skill that needs to be perfected, " says food entrepreneur Vidhi Sinha.
Dilhan concludes, "Presentation becomes paramount as appreciation of fine tea is first by the eye, followed by the nose, and then the palate. The process becomes more discerning when you go looking for the flavour of tea in food. "
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