Talk of terroir and tannins usually has cheese connoisseurs thinking about wine to drink with their chosen wheel, but green tea also has unique pairing properties.
It was a fresh sencha and Japanese-style cheesecake that first alerted me to the possibility of pairing green tea with cheese. Something about the grassy, marine notes of the green tea worked with the rich but fluffy dairy dessert. On my palate they combined to trigger thoughts of cows peacefully grazing in meadows.
Until that point I had been introduced to tea and cheese pairings using oolongs and black tea, which makes sense given the deeper tannins in the darker brews. But what makes green tea and cheese work? While the tannin levels of green tea are quite high, they manifest differently to those in tea of greater oxidation. Besides which, there’s more to pairing a beverage with cheese than tannins.
Green tea can offer nuttiness, roasted notes, floral notes and fruity notes, all of which match well with cheese.
The principle of pairing food with any beverage starts with the foundation of flavour: aroma, taste, texture, intensity and length. You want to complement, contrast or enhance these elements of flavour using the tea and cheese, being careful to balance these traits and prevent the flavours from competing.
Different kinds of cheese—hard/soft, aged/fresh, strong/mild, just as a basic guide—will therefore work with different kinds of green tea. A delicate green tea might not be the best choice to pair with a smelly blue cheese, for example, because the intensity of the cheese will completely overwhelm anything the tea has to offer.
“The overall effect must also be more than the sum of its parts”, says tea and food pairing specialist Cheryl Teo of Flag & Spear Tea Hunters from Melbourne, Australia. “There needs to be an overlap in the tannins, the structure and the body to bring out a different dimension.”
She notes one thing tea has that wine doesn’t is a large temperature range. Whereas wine is usually room temperature or chilled, tea can be iced or close to boiling, which can change the texture of the cheese in your mouth as you consume it with a sip of tea.
Because their tannins manifest differently green and white teas additionally enjoy some advantages over their black tea counterparts (and red wine), they pair well with delicate cheeses like bocconcini in sometimes surprising ways. I’m not a big fan of longjing but with Fromage de Meaux, quite a salty cheese, the salt tempers the sharp grassiness of the tea and together they create a round, creamy mouthfeel. Cheryl says a recent highlight was pecorino with an ancient jasmine green tea.
There’s no right or wrong
One thing to remember is that green tea and cheese pairing is a relatively new concept so there are no set rules and there’s no right or wrong. Because everyone’s palate is different, take note of what you like and think works well based on what you taste.
If you want to experiment with tea and cheese at home, select 3-4 different teas and up to six cheeses across a range of flavours and textures, then pair them in every permutation. Cheryl recommends one tea at a time with each of the cheeses in turn, first tea then cheese, cheese then tea, followed by tea and cheese in the mouth together. Occasionally you’ll come across a pairing that works in one sequence but not another. Don’t forget to cleanse your palate in between and remember to take notes so you can use your findings at your next dinner party.
Even if you don’t get the pairings 100% matched, this delicious research should help you form signposts towards different teas or different cheeses. You might, for example, find that a particular pairing seems pretty good but might be amazing with a tea that has more sweet, floral notes.
Just because we don’t recommend milk with green tea doesn’t mean green tea is averse to pairing with dairy. After all, if the matcha latte works, why can’t green tea and cheese harmonise too?