Tea history and culture, with tea sommelier Cynthia Gold

Cynthia Gold is one of the few tea sommeliers in the world. Boston Park Plaza’s Swan’s Café is the venue through which Cynthia presents not only afternoon tea and tastings, but cocktails and tea cuisine highlighting the amazing versatility and variety of tea. After many trips to China, India, and Sri Lanka, Cynthia brought the beauty of the tea industry to the United States. According to her bio, Cynthia views tea culture “as the antithesis of coffee culture, which through her eyes represents the culture of hurry and haste.” Tea, by contrast, teaches us to slow down and enjoy time savoring the experience and the people with whom we share it.

Tea has two distinct mainstream personalities: English and Asian. The Middle East also has a rich tea culture, employing samovars (a tea boiler/warmer of Russian origin) to keep the tea flowing throughout the day. The genesis of tea as we know it originated in Asia, but the British took a different approach. Both cultures, however, held tea in high esteem with ornate preparations and ceremonies. Now tisanes, rooibos, and signature blends add more depth to the culture of tea, offering a dizzying array of options for the tea enthusiast. Thankfully, a tea sommelier can help tea drinkers find their own tea personality.


Interview with Cynthia Gold, part 1: 
Tea History and Culture

Q: Tea has come a very long way since its humble beginnings. From its use as a medicinal beverage, status symbol, and beverage, what helped tea’s rapid growth throughout the East and into Europe?
As you mentioned, tea was initially revered for its medicinal properties, although it was particularly appreciated by the Buddhist Monks for its ability to be both invigorating and relaxing at the same time. It was seen as a great aid to meditation. In fact it was via the Buddhist monks that it first moved from China to Japan. The powdered form of tea and the whisking method of preparation seen in the Japanese tea ceremony Cha-no-ya is based on the form and method of tea preparation in China that first moved to Japan. It wasn’t until many years later that steeping and straining leaves as opposed to grinding and whisking the tea came into vogue.

Q: Black and green teas are often known as the only “true” teas, based on oxidation from the Camellia sinensis plant. What, then, of white and rooibos teas? White tea, like yellow, Oolong or Pu-erh are equally ‘true’ teas as they are from the same plant. It is simply the path those leaves take after harvest (as well as when and how they are harvested) that determine the style of tea. Rooibos is part of the world of herbal infusions, or Tisanes. Like mint, chamomile, honeybush, mate and an endless list of botanicals that can be enjoyed as beverages, they are not tea.

Q: Black teas have a wide range of flavours, from mild darjeeling and oolong to pungent pu-erh and Yunnan. What part of these distinct tastes come from where the tea is grown, versus how leaves are processed?
Technically, oolong (partially oxidized and Pu-erh (aged and fermented) are not black teas. But for all teas, the major differentiator is processing, then within that, a myriad of more subtle and exciting differences are from seasonality and terroir.

Q: Do you have any personal favourites? 
I love good examples of all styles of true tea and can be very fickle. Depending on what I am pairing it with, the season or even my mood I can be drawn in vastly different directions. I suppose if I had to pick a favorite though, it would be Oolongs, especially low oxidation Oolongs. The complex layering of textures, flavors and aromatics of a well-made Oolong are to die for!

Q: While not actually tea, herbal infusions and tisanes are wildly popular in the US. Do they have any similar benefits to real teas? 
It somewhat depends on which of the many health benefits of teas you are looking at. There are definitely overlaps in the health benefits of teas and certain botanicals, and in fact they can often be found blended with true tea, but an almost endless list of possibilities of what can be ingested as an herbal infusion prevents defining those benefits as a group. Each herbal or herbal blend needs to be looked at individually.

Q: You hold afternoon tea at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. Is this a traditional English afternoon tea, or something more unique? What teas do you like to serve? What foods do you like to pair with your teas?
The Park Plaza’s Afternoon Tea program is based on tradition, but we feel in no way limited by this. For instance, you will find the expected linens, silver and fine china, but no traditional tea program has ever before started with a white port infused with tea leaves and flower petals. Tea cuisine (cooking with tea) runs through our meal. For instance, two of our favorite tea sandwiches (which we serve canapé style rather than in the traditional format) are our tea cured salmon and our tea and spice rubbed pork tenderloin with mango chutney. We finish our Afternoon tea with an unexpected (by all but our regulars) tea infused crème brulee. Far from traditional!

As to the tea, we have a diverse tea menu to appeal to a wide variety of palettes and recommend to our guests that they consider trying several throughout their meal. As an upgrade, by appointment, a tea tasting can be a part of their Afternoon Tea experience, and then I can show the guests some incredibly rare and special teas as well as pairing precisely.

Q: What teas are most requested by your clientele? 
Our most popular tea is the ‘Park Plaza 80th Anniversary Blend’ which is a blend of 4 black teas, 2 green teas and a hint of citrus and jasmine.

Q: You have taken tea beyond an afternoon tradition, using tea in cooking and cocktails (recipe for Keemun Cream below). Is this new, uncharted territory? Have you tried a tea version of tiramisu (tea-ramisu!) yet?
Actually, tea was ingested as food from early on in its history. It is definitely not uncharted territory, but I am taking it in directions not envisioned by its early practitioners. I have a new book coming out in September from Running Press/Perseus Books called Culinary Tea. Not only does it include over 150 recipes, but it goes into how and why you pair teas and food within a recipe or externally, and there is also a chapter on the history of cooking with tea which is actually quite varied and extensive.

Interesting that you should ask that. I just did a Tea-ramisu recipe a couple of weeks ago using the teas of a west coast based company called Shangri-la Teas. That recipe will be one of a number that they supply to their customers to give them new perspectives into the enormous culinary potential of fine teas in general, and their specific blends in these cases.

Q: You have a deep passion for tea. What drew you in? And what excites you about tea?
Wow, that’s not a quick answer… As you know, I’m a chef. I was opening a new restaurant many years ago. I decided that if I was going to put so much effort into my menu, how could I consider offering mediocre beverages to accompany my food? And that included the tea program. I enjoyed tea, and even though I didn’t know a lot about it, I refused to follow the tepid water and tea bag approach that was ubiquitous in most restaurants in this country. I started to read and taste what I could to learn, enough to put together a good tea list. That first tea list was considered exceptional for its time, but when I look back at it now, I think it was pretty bad!

As I continued to learn about tea, my purchasing improved, but the pivotal point my becoming inspired by tea as an ingredient. At that time, I was one of the first people in the country cooking with tea, so it brought some people from the tea industry into my restaurant. Not only did I meet my mentor then, Helen Gustafson of Chez Panisse (who did not hold the title, but I consider the first ever Tea Sommelier), but I met an incredible number of other people who were very generous in sharing their knowledge with me. I also received my first invitation to go to source, which in this case was China. Thanks to Helen as well as Norwood Pratt and Roy Fong, I soon found myself on a small tea farm in Hanzhou China harvesting baskets of tea leaves and then taking them through their wither period and then finally wok firing. We were producing Lung Ching, Dragonwell Green Tea. When I got up from my wok after a very long day, and realized what I had just been so privileged to experience….taking the leaves from the fields to the final finished stage…I lost it! I literally became week kneed and started to cry. It was the most emotionally charged experience of my life, and it literally changed my life. It sounds very clichéd, but at that moment, tea became a part of my soul and I have never looked at it the same way again.

I have been fortunate to visit a wide variety of tea farms, gardens and estates since then in many different countries. Each time is an honor, and an incredible learning experience, but nothing can compare to that first time. I am completely and totally obsessed with tea now.

The Boston Park Plaza features Afternoon Tea every Friday – Sunday from 3:00pm – 5:00pm in the Grand Lobby. Afternoon Tea tastings, with Cynthia Gold (by appointment only), are also available. Reservations recommended; call 617-654-1906.



Recipe from Cynthia’s recipe files. This rich tea cocktail is more earthy and complex and has more depth than the straight Irish Cream.

1 part Keemun infused vodka
2 parts Bailey’s Irish Cream
whipped cream for garnish
Blend with ice the Keemun Tea infused vodka and
Bailey’s Irish Cream Liquor.
Garnish with whipped cream that has been whipped to a light
Chantilly cream and spiced with a hint of cinnamon and clove.

Infused Vodka:
1 liter Grey Goose French vodka
1 t whole clove
1 t cracked black pepper
1/3 cup of Keemun Hao Ya A tea

Place 1 liter of vodka in non-reactive container. Add cloves, pepper and 1/3 cup of whole leaf black tea, preferably a good quality Chinese Keemun like a Hao Ya A. If that tea is not available, you can substitute with another full bodied rich whole leaf black tea such as a good Nilgiri or Assam. Taste periodically until proper strength is achieved. Probably around 45 minutes to an hour. Strain multiple times through cheesecloth or coffee filters until completely clear. Store at room temperature.

[ This article first appeared on Examiner.com. ]


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