When I learned to taste wine — sampling different versions of the a variety of a wine side-by-side, glasses lined up in a row with a scribbled pad of notes alongside — I learned to taste ANYTHING. An essential principle was at work: the simplest way to learn the flavor possibilities of a food or beverage is to compare versions of it side-by-side in one sitting, whether it be chocolate (how does Valhrona 70% cacao stack up to Scharfenberger?); ham (how does prosciuto di Parma compare with San Daniele or a Spanish serrano?), or even colas: Coke Pepsi, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi?) In a side-by-side tasting, the flavors and textures of one sample illuminate those of another.
When I wanted to understand the flavor profiles of Darjeeling tea, I set up my own private tasting.
My favorite tea purveyor, Upton Tea Imports, sells sample-size packets of all its teas. After reading descriptions of the season’s Darjeelings in their catalogue I ordered samples of the ones that interested me. When they arrived, I set about to create a tasting, using basic scientific testing principles. I set out a series of vessels, filled each with 2 teaspoons of loose tea, and steeped them each in 1 cup of water that had been brought to a boil and allowed to cool down for 30 seconds. Each tea was steeped for 3 minutes, then strained into a clean vessel (the vessels were identical because the shape and size of the cup or glass can affect how we perceive flavors). Then I started tasting the teas.
As I tasted each tea, I jotted notes on a post-it and stuck it on the sample’s package. After tasting 9 teas, my palate began to get ‘blind’; it needed a rest. I returned an hour or so later to taste the teas again. Tasting them slightly cooled would reveal flavors somewhat differently. Gradually, I not only got to know the range of flavors typical of Darjeeling teas, but I got to know my own preferences, the balance of astringency I preferred, particular floral notes…
I stored my collection of active samples — along with clips for sealing the packages, post-it notes and a pen — in a Chanel box paper artist Matthew Sporzynsky had given with a gift. Over the course of several days, I would taste some of the teas again, continueing to notate my findings.
When I taught cooking classes to novice cooks, the first thing I did was teach them to taste the everyday ingredients they would be working with, so they’d know the difference between heavy cream, creme fraiche, sour cream, low fat sour cream; an organic cultered butter and vin ordinaire Land o’ Lakes; cooking chocolate (taste Hershey’s semi-sweet chocolate chips and Valhrona side by side and you’ll GET why the cake made with Valhrona will blow everyone out of the water); olive oils and so on. It not only gives you an understanding of each ingredient, it anchors a palette of flavors and textures in your mind because you’ve experienced them for yourself.