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By Linda Villano ~ SerendipiTea


Certain culinary pairings are naturals, as if made for each other.  Think Wine & Cheese; Beer & Pretzels; Beans & Rice; Milk & Cookies. Tea & Chocolate belong in this “club” and what could be more fun than setting out to discover your own pairings in this area.  To begin, we’ll need a pen, pad, an assortment of teas, a variety of chocolates, plain crackers and a healthy imagination.


As with any culinary endeavor, one must first establish & hone a Flavor Memory.  To assist this process, it’s advisable to keep a notebook for tasting notes broken into broad categories with subcategories. When applying this practice to Tea, break into the broad categories of Pu-erh, Black, Oolong, Green & White, and then subcategories which would include Flavored/Blended/Scented Category for the broad tea categories listed above. Finally, you should consider adding a Tisane Category (caffeine-free items) which would include Herbs, Spices, Fruits, and Florals. If the notebook was to be used solely for Tea Tasting (rather than this Tea & Chocolate exercise), then it would be advisable to add subcategories representing Countries of Origin under each broad Tea Category.


When applying this practice to Chocolate, break into broad categories of Dark, Milk, and White (which is actually not chocolate but often grouped with chocolate), then break down Dark Chocolate further into subcategories which describe the following recognizable flavor characteristics: Citrus, Fruity, Floral, Earthy, Nutty, and Chocolaty. Notice that these flavor notes are readily recognizable in Tea as well, something that will be important when determining your pairings.  The depth of detail, including the addition of sub-categories will be determined by your comfort level & familiarity with both Tea and Chocolate.


When approaching the Tea & Chocolate pairing, the possibilities are endless so first narrow down the number of teas you will be pairing within each category and identify them on paper. Keep things simple and well organized. Focus on specific groupings using your basic tea tasting rules, for example work with White Tea first, then move along the color spectrum from light to dark, ending with Pu-erh.  Taste the tea independently of the chocolate carefully minding the general characteristics, aroma, flavor notes, and mouth-feel of each tea you plan to pair. Do the same with each of the chocolates independently of the tea.  Take your time, munch on a bit of plain cracker between each tasting to clear your palate, and take copious notes. But most importantly, enjoy the process.


The next step is more passive; it’s contemplation. Consider flavor combinations that already exist in the culinary world, for example at the breakfast table (toast & jam, grapefruit & honey), on the dessert cart (assorted cakes, puddings, crème brulee), at the bakery (doughnuts, pastries, savory biscuits) or even holiday meals (baked ham, mulled spice, gingerbread) & nights around the chocolate fondue pot (gorgeous arrays of fruit dipped in liquid chocolate).  Drawing upon flavor memories which are already in your mind’s “Catalog” will greatly assist in the creative process. Take a moment to jot down some of your favorites.


I use 3 approaches when deciding upon Tea & Chocolate pairings:


1. Complement

Search for flavors and characteristics that are different but complement each other.


For example, select a hearty Tea that takes milk well, such as Assam or an English Breakfast Blend and pair with a rich milk chocolate. From experience, you already know that the addition of Milk is welcome and Black Tea thoroughly enjoys a Chocolate partnering.


Gen Mai Cha, an extremely popular Japanese green tea blended with husked rice is a natural pairing with a Milk Chocolate or even White Chocolate.  Think of a Crunch Bar or even a morning bowl of Rice Crispies.


A Hojicha with warm toasty notes will work well with a “Fruity” Chocolate or even one which is Fruit-Filled; a pairing reminiscent of toast & jam.


Or, harkening back again to our breakfast table memories of Grapefruit & Honey this time, you might choose a Bai Hao Oolong rich in Honey notes & pair with a Dark Chocolate with crisp Citrus notes.


2. Enhance

Search for similar characteristics and notes in both the tea and chocolate that when paired will enhance each others’ flavor. 


For example select a Jasmine-scented Pouchong or lightly-oxidized Oolong with floral notes then pair with a Chocolate which reveals natural floral notes, such as Valrhona Guanaja dark chocolate.


Or, select a Pai Mu Tan (White Peony Tea), which has subtle nutty notes and pair with a Dark Chocolate Praline.


An Earl Grey paired with a Dark Chocolate with Citrus notes or a Citrus-Filled Chocolate is another example of picking up on like flavor notes that will enhance each other. For the record, Earl Grey, which happily takes milk, will pair beautifully with Milk Chocolate as well. An illustration of how Tea does not like to be pigeon-holed & will keep us delightedly engaged in the pairing process, always surprising us with new discoveries.


3. Contrast or Agitate

Select flavors and characteristics that “agitate” each other.  In this category, I like to make unlikely pairings which would initially seem unnatural, such as Lapsang Souchong with a Pineapple Filled Dark Chocolate. Lapsang Souchong is often described as having a “meaty” or “cooked ham” taste. Often, a baked ham is made with pineapple bits.  This pairing is a clear example of drawing from existing culinary practice.


Along the same lines, try Lapsang Souchong with a Spicy Chocolate, nutmeg or clove specifically.


Fresh Cut Grass & Milk seems an unlikely combination. Yet, Matcha is often used in Milk Chocolate Truffles and other Milk-based Café beverages. A very successful tasty pairing. Try Matcha paired with White Chocolate as well.


Spices & Milk might at first seem unlikely, but when we consider Masala Chai (strong Black Tea blended with Mixed Spices) is traditionally simmered directly in Milk then the pairing with Milk Chocolate is a natural.


Pu-erh, dark, smooth earthy Tea, pairs beautifully with a Light Chocolate with Floral Notes.  Seemingly unusual, but think of your garden.  What better association is there than the experience of pruning your flower beds with the smell of rich earth underfoot on a sunny day?


One important point to keep in mind is that Less is More. There is a wise saying that suggests one should whisper to get another’s attention; the same concept applies to food & pairing.  If too much is going on in the mouth & the nose is being bombarded by intense aromas, processing is difficult.  Select a dominant flavor and make it your sole focus.  There will, of course, be many other experiential layers occurring involving taste, texture, and melting point, so keeping it simple on the outset and the result will be a most satisfying experience.  This is especially important when working with Flavored Tea and Filled Chocolates.


Flavored teas pair extremely well with straight chocolates which reveal notes that are compatible with the flavoring in the tea, i.e. Citrus Flavoring with Citrus Notes; Fruit Flavoring with Fruit Notes; Floral Scenting with Floral Notes. The alternate is true as well; when pairing a flavored or filled chocolate, seek a tea which is not flavored but naturally reveals similar flavor notes to the filling in the chocolate.  Incorporate this concept when using all 3 pairing suggestions mentioned earlier: Complement; Enhance; Agitate. Yet keep in mind that, as with all things in Tea & in life, there are always exceptions to “rules”.


Since you are most likely working with Loose Leaf Tea do consider selecting good quality chocolate for the pairing so as to maintain a consistent quality experience. Following are a few manufacturers that will only bring happiness to chocolate lovers: Amadei, Christopher Norman, Kee’s Chocolate, La Maison du Chocolat, Michel Richart, Romanicos, Scharffen Berger, Tcho, Theo, Valrhona, and Vosges. There are also quite a number of fine chocolate manufacturers using tea as an ingredient in their chocolate creations. Have a look around for inspiration & by all means, remember that tasting is the most important part of the process!


Many different opinions exist when approaching Culinary Pairings, yet there are no hard-fast rules. Hopefully the above suggestions will inspire a wellspring of Tea & Chocolate pairings. The recommendations are based on nearly 15 years of experience, however being open to new ideas & suggestions is key to keeping things fresh & exciting.  Nothing is set in stone & just because a certain tea is paired with a certain chocolate doesn’t mean your journey is over….that very same tea will most likely enjoy other, very different chocolate partners. Again, the possibilities are endless. Remember, as Lu Yu famously stated, “In the end, goodness is for the mouth to decide”, ultimately, that being your mouth.



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REFERENCES: Article by Linda Villano ~ SerendipiTea - September 2009 - www.serendipitea.com

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