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Would you like some sugar with that?

by on July 11th, 2014

Canton Tea Club Week 93: Keemun Special Gift Tea

The mere suggestion of drinking tea with sugar is anathema to most tea connoisseurs. The strength of the disapproval makes me think of those cartoons by H.M. Bateman, noted for his “The Man Who…” series of cartoons. These featured comically exaggerated reactions to minor and usually upper-class social gaffes, such as “The Man Who Lit His Cigar Before the Royal Toast”.  And yes, I am the man who ……. puts sugar in his First Flush Darjeeling!!!

H M bateman - The Discovery of a Dandelion at Wimbledon

H M bateman – The Discovery of a Dandelion at Wimbledon

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it appeals to the mischievous part of me that enjoys puncturing the pomposity of tea purists who like to feel a bit superior. And secondly, because I like the effect on the taste – we’re not talking about a spoonful, just a few grains. Not every time, just occasionally, for a change. A tiny amount of sugar enhances the flavour without making it sweet. I’m not expecting everyone to rush to try it, but it works for me. My first experience of First Flush Darjeeling was in Darjeeling, where they drink it fresh from the factory with milk and sugar, so I expect that’s a factor.  It’s a very different drink, and I enjoy it both ways. I mentioned this when giving a talk at Fortnum & Mason last year, and almost got marched off the premises as a result.

In fact, if you have experienced drinking tea outside the UK, you will be used to the idea of sugar being part of the experience. In India, Masala Chai without sugar is unthinkable, although plenty of people drink a watered-down version over here. It’s not unpleasant, but an altogether different drink. Sugar is a key part of Moroccan Mint tea, and just about any tea served in the Middle East.

In Kenya, it is served as a 50/50 mix of strong black tea and warm creamy milk, with sugar to taste. Fortunately they know me well enough to accept my preference to drink it black or with a dash of milk, but it has taken about twenty years for my eccentricity to be tolerated in that way. They find it harder to understand me avoiding sugar, and still think that’s just weird. Most visitors love the sweet milky version of course.

Closer to home, in East Frisia in Northern Germany the custom is to drink strong high quality Assam with a lump of sugar allowed to dissolve and cream poured over the surface. It’s delicious.

East Frisian Tea

East Frisian Tea

So I think we should relax about tea with sugar, as long as it enhances the taste experience rather than swamping it.


Adventures with sugar cane

Over the years I have worked on a number of projects with another tea obsessive named Danton. Probably the most memorable was setting up a very ‘Heath Robinson’ condensation plant in a tea factory in Kenya, capturing tea aromas as they escaped from the top of the dryers. After a few days we managed to get a few teaspoons worth of this precious nectar, which I then managed to spill over my lap in the jeep. We never bothered after that.

We were driving through the sugar belt in Malawi on another occasion, and got talking about sugar and tea while we were chewing on sugar cane (try to do that sometime). We wondered what would happen if instead of processing tea and sugar separately, we co-processed them  – in other words, minced up sugar cane and tea together and allowed the mixture to ferment (oxidise). It didn’t work out as we had hoped but the results were quite interesting.

This is similar in some ways to the Canton Fou Shou Mei  sugar fired black tea, which is dare I say a little more refined than what we came up with in Malawi.

Sugarcane Black Tea

Red cane sugar used in our Fu Shou Mei, or Sugarcane Black Tea


Tea flavoured sugar anyone?

You might have seen a brand of ‘Turkish Apple Tea’ on sale in specialist shops, which on inspection turn out to be lumps of flavoured sugar. This is not to be recommended.

However, I would recommend another way of flavouring sugar with tea, and that is to make a tea sorbet. I have done this a few times and think it works best when the tea has a natural dryness and intensity of flavour – we’re back to First Flush Darjeeling. If you can get the balance right, with a little lemon juice and zest, it tastes simply amazing. I urge you to try it – just find a generic sorbet recipe and experiment using strong FF Darjeeling instead of fruit juice. It works OK with other teas but they are often too bland to cut through the sugar.

And on the subject of tea-based desserts, Chai ice cream is a real winner too. So is lemon thyme ice cream, but that has less to do with tea.

So why not go and have a play, but don’t send me your recipes. This is not a cookery blog.

(Phil might not want to hear your recipes, but Alice, Shelley, Sophie and Louise would love to! Share them on our Facebook page).

  1. tomfreeman says:

    I love this week’s Keemun tea.  What is that distinctive Keemun taste?  It is so distinct yet somehow impossible to describe, because it is not like anything else.  Some flavours just don’t taste like anything else, so impossible really to compare or describe.  Well, for me anyway.  How would you describe the taste of strawberries or raspberries to someone who has never tasted them or even seen them?
    I remember the first time I tasted Keemun tea as a teenager.  Until then I had only drunk “English” tea, like PG Tips, Ty-Phoo, or the equivalent.  With milk and sugar of course!  Someone gave me some “China Tea” which had this intriguing subtle flavour that I had never tasted before.  That was Keemun tea, though I didn’t know it at the time.
    You can call Assam teas “malty” and Darjeeling teas as having a “muscatel” flavour.  Even some green teas you can describe as grassy or “nutty”.  But I can’t think of anything you could say which would convey that “China Tea” Keemun flavour.

  2. tomfreeman says:

    After reading this I decided to try Darjeeling First Flush with a bit of sugar, as recommended.  Yes, it’s good.  But my second cup was without sugar, and I really do prefer it that way.
    I agree re North African and Turkish tea.  I spent quite a bit of time in Turkey and you just have to have sugar the way they make tea.  I took a lot less than the locals, but still, it just doesn’t work with no sugar.  Same with N African mint tea.  I had some tea in a Lebanese restaurant recently – mint tea with rosewater and a bit of cardommon.  This too definitely needed sugar.
    btw re tea desserts, the Japanese and Chinese do a lot of great desserts and cakes based on Green Tea.  Green Tea ice cream is wonderful.  In Taiwan they had some lovely cakes and pastries, nothing like European cakes, with Green Tea flavour.