Rewind just twenty years and the question, “Which kind of tea do you like?” would probably have been answered with a brand of tea bag. At best, it may have elicited a response along the lines of alternative black teas such as Darjeeling, or the popular infusion Earl Grey. Even these now fairly commonplace teas were, in my youth, something of a speciality. It would be fair to say that many homes would not have been able to cater to such requests.
Indeed, the phrase in British English “Do you fancy a quick cup of tea?” can only be interpreted one way – blended, strong black tea, almost always from a tea bag and only served without milk by request; and usually to murmurs of surprise or even suspicion. About the only sense of individuality might come in the number of sugars one might take.
Fast forward to 2011 and, here in the UK, we find that tea has not been overlooked by the undeniable gastro-evolution presently occurring here in Great Britain – and one of the best bits of news is that it’s no longer the preserve of the big city chic. Every supermarket in the land has an aisle devoted to teas and coffees and the offering is becoming ever more varied.
Green tea in particular has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity. Not so much a renaissance, as by virtue of its shorter shelf life and the shear distances it needed to travel it was never the choice of tea in Europe – hardier, black teas were the only teas that would survive the trip and were therefore the only choice. Today, globalisation has been almost entirely positive on the tea industry and thanks to modern packing, transportation and storage techniques, geography is no longer a factor. The world of tea really has become a global village.
As the popularity of green tea continues to grow here in the west, the variety on offer increases and we are regularly treated to new and exciting tea offerings but “new” really is something of a misnomer. It is well known that Chinese civilisation is ancient and while tea consumption dates back mere centuries in Europe, it goes back millennia in the Far East.
One of the newest kids on the block for us is a finely milled green tea powder known as matcha – and even in Asia it’s one of the newer teas. While tea cultivation dates back to thousands of years, matcha in its current form it dates from around the time of the Norman conquest. Old and new are relative terms!
It’s later arrival than most other teas (where the leaves are strained off and just the brewed liquor is drunk) is no surprise when we consider that milling leaves and preparing a whole new category of tea, where the leaves themselves are drunk within the liquor, really was a major innovation.
Many people in this part of the world are now beginning to hear about this for the first time. Others may have consumed it one way or another without knowing it. And yet more of us have seen come across it and its ritualistic preparation without having realised it.
Grade is important when we consider how we’ll use the matcha. There are two distinct ways of preparing traditional matcha – thin and thick. As the name suggests, thin matcha is very watery. Thick matcha is a much stronger mix and a higher grade matcha makes more of a difference in a thick preparation. Also, some choose to depart from tradition and sweeten the matcha itself, or less controversially serve it with a sweet or candy on the side for after. Furthermore, matcha is becoming increasingly popular as a baking and general food ingredient with it being used to flavour dishes as varied as cakes, ice-cream and even pasta. In contrast to a neat cup of thick matcha, baking requires only the most affordable matcha. Another piece of good news for budding chefs keen to try matcha; it’s a great way of winning over all but the most ardent green tea detractors.