Tea is a great substitute for wine: what goes well with trout?

Photo from the book 'Tee, the sober cousin of wine'.

A business lunch at Bridges restaurant in Amsterdam. Three men, white wine. At the table next door, Mariëlla Erkens unpacks her bag: two carafes, strainers, two bottles and a jar with something that seems to come out of the pond. They are tea leaves, Erkens left them in to show how beautiful they are. In cold soft water they have released their taste, color and smell. Erkens only has to add hot water to the sieved extract. Lesson 1: “You can have any tea you want, as long as you use soft, clean water.” Tap water is almost never that. “Spa Reine does. And water purifiers that work with reverse osmosis make the best tea water.”

Now it immediately sounds like Erkens is a tea snob. What she is not – she emphasizes. She has nothing against supermarket tea, bags are fine too. But when you know that tea consists of 99.9 percent water, you understand why she attaches so much importance to this.

It is ‘dry January’, the month in which tens of thousands of Dutch people do not drink alcohol for a while and often struggle with the question: what do they do? Especially with food, where we see wine not only as a supplement, but sometimes even as indispensable for the taste. Such a waste of that delicious food not to drink wine with it.

An excellent month for ‘tea sommelier’ Mariëlla Erkens (1960) to show that tea is a fully-fledged substitute for wine at the table. She wrote a book about it Tea, the sober cousin of wine† That, unlike other books on tea, shows how the flavors of tea can be compared to wine and can be combined with different dishes. A Gewürztraminer is replaced by Taiwanese ‘Bao Zhong’ oolong, for tempranillo she chooses black assam as a counterpart. This way the whole wine cellar comes along. And so tea looks more like wine without alcohol than water with a taste.

Erkens makes a distinction between real tea, from Camelia sinensis, and infusions and herbal drinks, such as rooibos or verveine. Erkens does use these plants and herbs as ingredients in, for example, cocktails, but uses the narrow definition when accompanying dishes – which offers at least as much choice as wine.

To analyze and combine the flavours, smells and ‘mouth feel’ of tea, Erkens falls back on the theories of Peter Klosse, the chef who obtained his PhD on the interaction between flavors of wine and dishes. Because tea can also taste like chewing tobacco or spruce, be ripe or fresh and give an ‘astringent’ or ‘filming’ mouthfeel. “More subtle than wine. But like wine, tea can enhance and change the flavors of a dish.”

An amuse-bouche is served. A boiled carrot with Japanese sprinkles and a tartlet with Dutch shrimps. Erkens pours a white tea, ‘white moonlight’, into a wine glass. It cleans the mouth and neutralizes the taste – even the untrained taster will notice – and turns out to go well with such a light appetizer. In a wine glass, the white tea even resembles Viognier.

Mariëlla Erkens tells how, after running a restaurant in Brazil for five years, she followed a ‘food pairing with tea’ workshop back in the Netherlands in 2010. “As if I saw the Virgin Mary appear.” It was a revelation that tea could be so exciting and refined, and lift dishes in such a way. “Why does no one know this?” She was already a cook, now she decided to train as a tea sommelier.

Since that time, Erkens has seen the interest in tea grow – more and more specialized shops attract a larger audience, there is a Dutch tea plantation, tea workshops are popular. Erkens’ current partner, who looked at it with a sideways eye when they first met, now drinks tea a few days a week instead of wine with dinner.

Apricot and hay

Anyone who is somewhat at home in the wine vocabulary will also recognize the language of the wine sommelier. “A little dried fruit, apricot, hay, caramel, ripe and filming…”, says Erkens about the white tea. The superficial tea drinker may not recognize them. “But you can learn that. If you practice naming what you taste, after a while you suddenly taste walnut, or even more precisely: walnut shells.”

Cheers. Tinkling glasses. Funny what that does to your brain. Because what do you miss when you miss wine, except for the alcohol? “Not only the taste, but also the atmosphere, the experience. When you think of tea, you think of fishing with a bag in a large mug. I almost always use a wine glass with dinner – except maybe with a stew.”

Hotchpotch. She’s got something to do with that. When you think of a tea sommelier, you think of refined tea-food combinations, of complicated desserts. Not directly on stew or pasta. “But you can drink tea with anything!”

This becomes apparent when sauerkraut is served with the pike-perch later on. The lessons from gastronomy are just as useful for the humble home cook. “Sour is the hardest, harder than bitter. With black tea, your teeth immediately curl up.” The Taiwanese ‘Roasted Bao Zhong’ oolong on the table can handle the acid well, we taste. “An earl gray from the supermarket goes well with the sauerkraut stew at home.”

In her book, Erkens gives three suggestions for each recipe: supermarket tea, medium and high segment. For example, you can drink simple black English Breakfast tea with pumpkin with mushrooms and gorgonzola, but also something that sounds like a premier cru: Menghai gong ting 2010 Shu Pu erh. A fermented tea from the Chinese province of Yunnan, the region that is to tea what Bordeaux is to wine. The longer the tea can mature, the more complex and softer the taste. “Chinese parents often buy exclusive Pu erh when a child is born. Because of the increase in value, they can pay for the study later on.”

No matter how simple or complex the flavors of a dish, there is always a tea to go with it. “And the great thing for chefs is that taste effects are often more in the spotlight with tea. Alcohol and the acids in wine can also mask a lot. With tea, flavors remain clear and pure, everything starts and ends with the dish.”

The nice thing for home is that tea, if canned properly, has a long shelf life. “People think an ounce of tea for 10 euros is expensive, but you get 10 liters of tea out of it.” Building a tea collection is a lot cheaper than building a wine collection.

The cliché is correct, Erkens has to conclude, women are more interested in tea than men. “Although young men, in their twenties, do go all the way.” It may well be the advanced coffee culture that paved the way for tea as a serious drink. Tea doesn’t have to be synonymous with witty sayings on tea labels and synthetic fruit flavors. Tea can be just as complex and interesting to gourmets as specialty coffees. Or like wine.

Hip lemonade, but tea is difficult

“The catering industry is trailing behind it,” says Erkens. The wine sommeliers she speaks to are not always enthusiastic. Unfamiliarity plays a role. They don’t take tea (or the sommelier) very seriously, or see it as a threat to wine sales. “While you can make relatively much more margin on tea. And tea can also be served alongside wine.”

It’s crazy, Erkens thinks, that restaurants do offer hip lemonades, mocktails and kombuchas, but tea, which you can drink with everything all evening, but find it difficult. Or just not that interesting.

We get lightly smoked trout. And langoustine with dashi broth. Erkens enjoys with her eyes closed. The Japanese sencha fukamushi, a refreshing green tea, seems to sweeten the langoustine, but finds them more exciting with the trout. The oolong gets more depth with the langoustine. For example, the flavors of food and drinks work both ways.

Between the starter and the pike-perch and deer, Erkens again pours the white tea to prepare the papillae for the pike-perch and deer that follow.

At the end of the lunch Erkens asks the waitress what she actually thought of the tea she was brought to the kitchen. “I especially liked that oolong,” she says. “Almost a little nutty.” Erkens looks satisfied and makes a triumphant gesture. “Great that you taste that!” Mission accomplished. Another soul for the tea won.

Mariëlle Erkens, Thee, wine’s sober cousin, self-published (theesommelier.me), 35 euros

Correction January 21, 2020: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a Thai ‘Bao Zhong’ oolong was being served. This tea is from Taiwan, not Thailand. This has been corrected above.

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