Yes, we have long been aware that wine and cheese can have a splendid marriage together but have you ever explored pairing different Japanese teas with cheese?
The thought of pairing Japanese teas with cheese may seem at first foreign or bizarre to you. After all, they originate from different parts of the world! But when one thinks about the wide variety of terroir of tea, the tannins, the flavorful notes (astringency, umami, vegetal notes, etc.), the seasonality, and the aging process of some teas, there is a realization that, yes! Tea and cheese pairings have many similarities with wine and cheese. One must take into consideration the fine balance and contrasts between sweet and salty, astringency and fat, pairing X to Y.
Freshly brewed tea also has a unique element that is missing in wine. While wine is often enjoyed at room temperature or refrigerated, tea is generally enjoyed warm, which has potential to elicit the sensations of melting in the mouth, mingling the cheese with the tea, bringing about flavors (and even the so-called elusive “third flavors”) across one’s palate. For those who do not do too well with the astringency of some Japanese teas, the cheese may even remove some of the astringency, bringing out more of the creamy and mellow notes…
First, since I am no cheese expert, I would like to share with you what some other people have discovered about Japanese tea and cheese pairings so that I may provide a brief overview of some (un)common pairings that have been shared. Then, I will share with you our personal discoveries of our most recent Japanese tea and cheese pairings, specifically focusing on goat cheese types as that is what is available in the area where I currently reside (i.e., Southern France). To note, my digestive system personally does better with goat cheese so exploring these pairings was more accessible to me on a regional and personal level.
What Others have Discovered
1. The Classic Combination: Japanese Sencha with Fresh Goat Cheeses
The umami and sweetness of a Japanese sencha along with its crisp and refined grassy flavors pair quite nicely with a fresh, tangy goat cheese. With this classic combination, the sencha has the ability to spotlight the underlying notes of grass or wildflower, at the same time taming the saltiness of the goat cheese.
Goats from Obubu Tea Farms in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture. While some tea farms have goats who help with the weeding of their tea farms, I have yet to meet a tea farmer who also makes goat cheese... Given the classic sencha and goat cheese pairing, it may be a good idea though, no? Photo from Obubu Tea Farms.
Not a fan of goat cheese? An alternative pairing that many people seemed to recommend/enjoy with the classic sencha was to pair with a triple-crème cheese (basically, soft creamy cheeses). For example, it appears that the Brie Fermier also has the ability to bring out the tropical notes in a sencha or gyokuro and the melty texture in your mouth from the cheese is of course, an added bonus!
2. The Soft Touch Combination: Roasted Japanese Teas with Camembert, Brie, Pont-l’Eveque, even Saint-Marcellin
While these double-/triple-cream cheeses seem to also go well with a sencha (see above), it seems that many people have been pairing soft cow cheeses with roasted Japanese teas, with the most common one being a hojicha. Just within the hojicha realm, there are a wide array of options from the lighter roasts to the heavier and smokey types. Other examples of roasted Japanese tea possibilities include (but are not limited to) kyobancha and sannen-bancha. While it may not be easy to get the right pairing at first, it’s definitely a combination that is worth trying with different types of roasted teas!
Additional Tips for Enjoying Roasted Teas: While roasted Japanese teas pair wonderfully with traditional Japanese desserts, they are also often paired with foods such as pan-fried salmon and smoked fish, as well as desserts such as chocolate and praline. Because of the low caffeine content, they are also suitable to enjoy with the evening aperitifs or at the end of a meal (i.e., even after dinner).
3. Some Courageous and Surprising Pairings
Matcha & Washed Rind Cheese (cow's milk): Matcha with the Époisses de Bourgogne. Both the matcha and the cheese are quite intense (i.e., both have strong characteristics) to create a savoury course all on their own. The combined texture of the matcha and softness of the cheese was noted to be blissful in the mouth, with the matcha helping to refresh the palate. Adding a salty wheat cracker to the cheese was recommended to enhance this pairing.
Here is a past Cheese and Japanese tea pairing event that may be fun to read about!: NYC event held in 2016: French Cheese Board x Nippon Cha (SoHo District).
Our Discoveries: Japanese Tea and Goat Cheese Pairing Explorations from Southern France
1. Figuette and Gyokuro Combination
We found this little dollop of creamy fresh goat cheese, often called a figuette (it is a small fig-shaped cheese) and tried pairing it with a gyokuro. To be honest, we were looking forward to trying it with a Yabukita cultivar sencha but it turned out that we were out of the classic sencha! So, we tried it with Kuma Tea Garden’s traditional Saemidori Gyokuro (from 2020 harvest).
This cute, petite portion of figuette cheese is made from raw goat's milk and ages from approximately 1-3 weeks. Sometimes, it's covered with paprika, ash, or herbs de Provence to give it a more decorative look. The flavors tend to be sweet and lactic, and the texture is thick, dense, and creamy.
The figuette and gyokuro combination was not a bad combination but we felt the figuette we tried presented more acidity than the umami of the tea could balance. We enjoyed it more with a dollop of blueberry jam (it is actually recommended to be served with honey or something like thyme syrup which will enhance its sweetness) to ease the acidity of the cheese. We’re excited to try this tangy figuette with a deep steamed sencha, which has that magic combination of robust but soft and umami with shibumi (astringency).
Additional tasting: To the far left of the photo above is a bûche, which are like little logs of cheese that can become covered in a cute fuzzy black mold and then sometimes collapse as the aging process advances and the flavors become deeper and more complex. We previously tried one of these which was just too strong for our taste but the one in the photo above was creamy and smooth, quite pleasant with the umami of the gyokuro. If you do want to experiment with a stronger cheese, try with a little bread, maybe even a hearty country bread rather than your standard baguette, and then perhaps a dollop of fig confiture can further tame the flavor.
2. Woodsy Combination: Chestnut Leaf Aged Chevre and Kyobancha
The roastiness of a kyobancha complements the woodsy mellow taste of the chestnut leaf aged chevre. We first tried the chestnut leaf aged chevre with the makibi kancha firewood green tea from Tea Farm Mitocha (which is full of steamed winter tea leaves). We felt the kancha may have been a bit too sweet and delicate for the cheese. However, we were able to enjoy this pairing more when we put the cheese on top of a rice cracker.
In contrast, the stronger smokiness and roastiness of the kyobancha did a very nice job of complementing the chestnut chevre. Other roasty and aged teas that could go well with this cheese may be the aged sannen-bancha or even a batabatacha. There’s always more adventuring to be done!
Chestnut leaf aged chevre paired with Azuma Tea Garden’s Kyobancha. The matching leaves also gives this pairing a comforting artistic resemblance.
3. A Difficult Cheese to Pair - the Tomme
Lastly, one of our favorite cheeses, an aged and compressed tomme, meaning a cylinder of cheese about 10cm high with a 20cm diameter. The aging and compression produces something almost similar to a parmesan, although a little smoother and softer, although it does tend to crumble or fracture rather than cleanly cut. We like the occasional crystalized bits, which are fun to find in your mouth! However, it turns out this is a difficult cheese to work with, in terms of pairing with a Japanese tea...
The tomme cheese with Kunitomo Tea Garden's Riguricha Iwakura, handpicked Kamairicha.
We personally felt a kamaricha could stand up with this cheese. We’ve actually been enjoying an atypical kamaricha, the Riguricha Iwakura – The Stone Throw, from Kunitomo Tea Garden which shows some Taiwanese influence and is almost like an oolong. It's hand-picked, hand processed by pan firing and from wild plants, so the flavor is unique, like the cheese. The flavor is smooth but robust, but not strong enough to go stand next to the strong body and mouthfeel of the cheese.
Then, we tried pairing the tomme with tea farmer Uejima-sans' aged three year bancha, and while this was a better combination it was still not the perfect combination. Perhaps because the tomme cheese seems to have so much to express, next time we’ll try it with a stronger smoked tea. The one we have in mind is the Yakushima Cedar smoked hojicha or one of the smoked black teas from Kaneroku Matsumoto Tea Garden (which we do not have at home right now…ouf!).
Some Suggestions to Delight in Tea and Cheese Pairings
Is there a specific sequence of tasting my tea and cheese?
Sandwich Approach: Taking a sip of the tea first is often recommended to appreciate its organoleptic characteristics. Then, followed by a cheese bite and while the flavor notes of the cheese are still present in your mouth, take another sip of the tea (*Some people refer to this as sandwiching because the cheese comes in-between the tea sips).
Some prefer tasting the cheese first, followed by tea. Main take away is to experiment with the sequencing and go with your preference.
Remember… there is no right or wrong pairing!
While for us, various goat cheeses are readily available in Southern France, we do not always have the perfect Japanese teas to go with them. During our tea and cheese tasting sessions, we found ourselves saying, “Oh! This cheese would go better with XYZ tea!” So, this initial exploration has now motivated us to keep exploring this uncharted territory.
One of the wonderful things about both tea and cheese is to appreciate the influence of season, terroir and techniques of processing. Presumably many of you have experienced the unique sensation of a fresh shincha, but maybe fewer a fresh cheese from fresh spring grass in the mountains. Like the tea, a cheese from spring mountain grass carries something fresh and essential and presents you with a unique and fleeting multi-sensory experience. We are especially looking forward to the fresh spring goat cheeses when the first flush shinchas will also become available.
Bon dégustation! (Have a nice tasting!)
Special thanks to Jimmy Burridge for exploring enthusiastically in the Japanese tea and cheese pairings and helping out with the photos.