Discovering Tea – Plate Restaurant, Shoreditch.
The Afternoon Tea Academy takes place at Plate Restaurant at the Montcalm Hotel in Shoreditch. Seated on a mezzanine above a hotel lobby is an unusual venue for an afternoon tea experience, but the eats and tea pairing soon take one’s mind off the traffic passing by outside the floor to ceiling glass walls that overlook busy City Road and the Moorfields Eye Hospital.
Seated at marble-topped tables laid with chunky ceramic tea cups we were presented with a menu which included a tea pairing. This is such a good idea that I would not be surprised if other hotels offering afternoon teas start to do so too. After all, wine pairings have become very popular – one wine variety cannot suit all courses of a meal. Why should tea be a one size fits all? It wasn’t until I tasted the different teas and how they complimented the courses we were served that I realised what I have been missing out on.
At the Afternoon Tea Academy, the chef and tea expert had selected which tea we would drink with each of the three tiers that traditionally comprise an afternoon tea. Usually, the three tiers are presented at once – and one eats in whatever order one chooses, although I always start with the savoury sandwiches. At Plate, we were presented with each tier separately along with the tea pairing.
We began with a talk by Dan Silva, Managing Director of PMD Tea (P.M. David Silva and Sons), a third-generation family business. Over the past 10 years, the company has brought tea directly from the tea estates to luxury hotels and restaurants across the UK. Dan presented an informative explanation of how tea grows and is produced. It is hard to imagine 165 million cups of tea being drunk daily in the UK.
The quality of the tea we drink depends on the flora and fauna of the region in which it grows as well as the people who make the tea. Much of the tea we drink in the UK is a blend that is drawn from a variety of countries. As Dan pointed out, many of us choose our wine according to country, region and grape variety so why not the same when it comes to selecting the tea we drink?
Each tea has a unique flavour and characteristic. If we were to compare the tea from two neighbouring tea estates, grown at the same elevation, no two teas would taste the same.
London’s tea heritage dates back to the 17th century. China was the first country that produced tea and had the world’s monopoly. Three hundred years ago tea was an extremely expensive product and drinking tea became very fashionable amongst those who could afford it. China only sold its tea for gold and silver but the East India Company was selling its tea in Britain for cash. This created a huge deficit of their gold and silver reserves. They tried to resolve this problem by buying tea in exchange for opium which they grew on a vast scale In India and smuggled into China. In the South China Sea, they would load the vast chests of tea in exchange for the vast chests of opium. A trade war was brewing between China and the East India Company. When the Chinese Emperor found out about the opium that was being smuggled into the country, he cut off trade with Britain. The Opium Wars followed with Britain forcing China into signing trade agreements; five ports were opened along the coast of China. Britain’s source of tea supply continued.
The British realised they could not keep relying on China for their tea supply. In China tea was grown on family farms but the British wanted to grow tea on vast plantations and to mechanise the whole process. They set up a tea committee in India to investigate bringing the tea plant to India. Charles Alexander Bruce, who worked for the East India Company was sent to India to find areas to grow tea while Charles Gordon, was tasked with the job of going out to China to smuggle some seeds. Bruce set off into the area of Assam and while in the jungle of Assam he discovered the tea plant growing wild.
The botanical name for tea is Camellia Sinensis and there are two varieties of the tea plant. The first is Camellia sinensis sinensis which is known as China Jat. The other is Camellia sinensis assamica which is the Indian variety. Black and green tea can be made from both varieties. However, black tea from the assamica plant is thicker and stronger. It has more body and one can add milk to it.
At the Afternoon Tea Academy, we savoured the Indian variety. We began with sandwiches paired with a low grown Ceylon tea from Golden Garden Estate. It is hand-picked at sea level and hand sifted to extract the Golden ‘tip’. This was a thick, malty brew with a dark colour and a sweet finish – strong as I like a tea to be – and well able to withstand the robust flavours of the sandwich fillings.
I have been fortunate to experience many afternoon teas and can report that the Executive Chef at Plate, Matt Hill, has put together some of the best fillings I have yet eaten. To my surprise, we were not served dainty fingers of crustless bread (which are sometimes less fresh than one would like). These were huge – served on halved brioche type rolls with the flakiness of a croissant. Absolutely delicious. My only quibble, which I shared with the chef, was that after five halves of these I was already full. He assured me that under normal circumstances there will only be three varieties. This will be a case of less is more – more space for the other goodies up ahead.
But which fillings will the chef choose? Each one was delicious. A judicious addition of herbs to each filling lifted them all out of the ordinary. Beetroot hummus with feta cheese and smoked pepper was pretty in pink and it was so good to have a sandwich that is up to date rather than the rather boring egg and cress which is old fashioned in my view. I actively dislike cucumber sandwiches so imagine my surprise when this cucumber sandwich was utterly lovely. A thin ribbon of cucumber had been salted and the addition of mint and crème fraîche elevated it into a refreshing foil for the rich pastry of the brioche. I thought I would just have a polite nibble, but I polished it all off.
Roast breast of chicken with bacon and basil pesto mayonnaise was simply excellent and so summery. I could eat a bowl of that filling. Chapel and Swan smoked salmon and dill cream cheese was a lovely classic albeit lifted aloft by the brioche. It was like eating a smoked salmon croissant which happens to be an excellent brunch meal. There was a generous layering of salmon. In fact, all the sandwiches were plumply filled.
The final sandwich – peppered beef pastrami with gherkin and mustard mayo was fabulous too. I rarely eat meat, but this filling was worth it. A lovely peppery flavour contrasting with the mustard mayo.
I wish that Matt had been around to make my school lunch sandwiches when I was a child. What a different experience that would have been.
The second pot of tea was completely different from the first. This time around we had a high grown Ceylon tea from Inverness Estate which was founded by Scottish pioneer planters during the tea boom of the late 1800s. This estate produces a large leafy tea that is rare amongst the tea plantations of Ceylon’s western slopes. It presented with a rosy note and a citrus finish, much lighter than the first tea and a good flavour to cut through the richness of the jam and clotted cream that were served with the scones.
Two scones baked with buttermilk were served with jam and cream. The buttermilk gave the scones a good flavour, but I would have preferred some fluffiness in my scones. This is a very difficult course to get right because people have such divergent views about how they like their scones. I was raised with large fluffy ones and so that is what I always hope for, but often scones served at afternoon teas are the smaller, denser variety. I am sure these have a devoted following too.
By the time the pastries and cakes are served, I am usually far too full to appreciate these jewels in the crown of the Afternoon Tea. It is a difficult conundrum because the chef wants customers to feel spoilt and cossetted and yet I often feel that by this stage I am on an endurance course. Once again less is more and although we sampled five cakes, the regular Afternoon Tea Academy will showcase a couple less.
The tea offering was a revelation to me as I tasted it before I knew it was a variant of Lady Grey. I had a bad experience with an Earl Grey tea in my youth and have been unable to drink it or Lady Grey ever since. This tea, a blended Single Origin Ceylon Tea with the name of Planters’ Mistress, was akin to a light citrusy Lady Grey. It is an Earl Grey base to which is added a natural bergamot oil plus lemon and orange peel. The key difference to many other brands of Earl Grey tea (black tea with added bergamot oil) is the use of natural bergamot oil, unlike the artificial oil which is heavily scented. I have had to revise previous prejudices and will seek this delicate tea out for its citrusy flavour which is a perfect foil for the sweet cakes.
First up on the cake tier was a white chocolate and olive oil macaron. My partner did not care much for this but as I could – and have – happily eat olive oil ice cream, this worked for me. The macaron was light as it should be and redolent with a grassy olive oil which contrasted with the white chocolate that oozed lushness.
A very pretty pastry was the crispy choux with Valrhona milk chocolate, passion fruit and hazelnut which is one for the chocolate lovers.
A raspberry and frangipane tart was probably my least favourite of the cake tier while the rhubarb and custard mille-feuille hit the spot. The pasty was crisp yet melting in the mouth, the rhubarb the right side of tart with a custard that was not overly sweet. It looked very pretty too.
My absolute favourite was the spiced apple crumble cake which was generously spiced with cinnamon and was moist and lovely. I have eaten some terrific apple cakes in Holland so was not surprised to discover that the pastry chef is Dutch. She has nailed this cake.
The next Afternoon Tea Academy takes place on 13 July from 12 – 2 pm, £49 per person. Book online at www.platelondon.com/reservations
Plate Restaurant and Bar
151-157 City Road
T: 0203 8373102
Plate Restaurant also offers an excellent food menu. For more information, please check our review of the dinner menu at Plate