There’s something a bit special about a cup of tea, isn’t there. Even if you’re just switching the kettle on and grabbing a teabag, it’s the one thing we all know will make anything better. And if you’re doing things properly, there’s a little of the potion-master’s magic to the process – the measuring and timing and stirring, the pouring and the sipping. At Comins, they take their tea very seriously, sourcing from all over the world and serving each tea with a little of the ceremony of its home country. Human beings have been drinking tea for hundreds of years, so there’s an incredible weight of history and tradition to every cup, and the ritual of making it properly, with due respect for that tradition, is not only very soothing but also pretty fascinating. A few weeks ago, Comins invited me to join a Japanese green tea masterclass, and I was immediately intrigued – plus there was talk of Japanese-inspired patisserie, too, so the only possible answer was yes.
The masterclass was hosted by Kumiko Koga, whose grandfather founded Koga Chagyo Co. 80 years ago, for the purpose of growing and selling green tea from Japan’s yame region. Yame, on the southernmost island of Japan, is famous for its green tea, which has been grown there for over 600 years, and in particular for the variety of green tea known as gyokuro, one of Japan’s most special and exclusive tea varieties. Gyokuro makes up just 2% of the tea produced in the country but amazingly, accounts for 30% of its tea producers – mainly because it’s picked by hand and produced only in very small batches. It demands rather particular care whilst growing, in order to reach its full flavoursome potential – most crucially, gyokuro must be covered with a traditional roof of straw for around three weeks before harvest, in order to reduce the light that reaches the plant and thus encourage it to concentrate more amino acids in the tea leaves, contributing to gyokuro’s unique taste. Once the leaves have become lush, dark and shiny, only the freshest and newest leaves are carefully picked by hand.
|Kumiko carefully brews gyokuro for us to try|
As you might expect, gyokuro works out rather expensive after all that tender loving care, so it must be brewed very carefully to make sure none is wasted. First, boiling water must be cooled to just the right temperature – too hot and the tea will be bitter – so it’s poured first into a wide-mouthed jug, and then into the cups, which also serves to preheat them. Then the water is added very gently to the teapot (the importance of the leaves and the water meeting ‘quietly’ is a very Japanese concept) and infused for a couple of minutes. Finally, the tea is poured out a little at a time into small clay sipping cups – rather than pouring each cup in turn, the cups are poured in several stages, to make sure that each one contains tea from the beginning and end of the pour and thus ensure a perfectly even quality across all of them. Kumiko talked us through the whole process and carefully made a small cup of gyokuro for each of us to try – the flavour was unique and rather hard to describe. At first taste it seems like it’s going to be rather strong, but another sip and you realise it’s not a strong flavour, simply a distinct and powerful one, savoury and just a little salty (in Japan they say it recalls the flavour of nori, or edible seaweed). I’m not sure I’m entirely converted, but it was a real privilege to try something so special and unique. As Kumiko says, it’s a tea you drink deliberately, as a little special occasion all of its own, rather than for anything so mundane as to quench your thirst – a bit like a really good bottle of wine.
|Sencha ready for sipping|
Next, it was our turn to try a little brewing – this time with sencha, another famous Japanese green tea (but one that’s a little less pricey – which took the pressure off slightly). Carefully we filled the cups to warm them, and then observed the steam to judge the temperature of the water – when it’s fresh from the kettle, the steam will rise straight up, but as the water cools, the steam will swirl and rise slowly. You should also be able to pick the cup up in a bare hand, if the water has cooled to the right temperature.
Then we poured the water into the teapot (being sure to align the lid up neatly with the pot – the aesthetics of the ceremony are very important too) and infused for a minute, before pouring out in the same method as the gyokuro, a little bit into each cup at a time. The sencha was a little milder, I thought, and went particularly well with the patisserie which we were served at this point – supplied by Suzue Aoyama, a Japanese chef who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris, and who creates patisserie with an incredible fusion between Japanese and French flavours and techniques. My favourite were the matcha macarons (I’m not a big matcha drinker but I do love it in desserts – I highly recommend you try Comins’ white chocolate macha cookies) but I also loved the delicate, crumbly miso & sesame biscuits, which were perfectly balanced between sweet and savoury and just the thing with the slightly savoury tea.
|Miso & sesame biscuits, and matcha macarons|
I’m by no means a tea expert (I usually make it with teabags and I’ll confess, my favourite is rooibos, which isn’t even technically tea, it’s an infusion – Comins have taught me that distinction, amongst much else!) but I always enjoy learning something new at Comins. Tea is a fascinating subject with so much story and culture to it, and Comins run a whole selection of fantastic events that anyone who appreciates a cuppa will enjoy. It’s also a lovely place to pop in just for a little break in the day, and the staff are very friendly and knowledgeable, so that even if you’re not there for a class, you can still learn plenty. Whether you’re a tea aficionado or just an interested amateur, I highly recommend a visit to Comins Teahouse.