Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Real High Tea Challenge: Tea transformed

I have a family connection with Sri Lanka's tea trade. In the 1910s, my birth mother's father was the manager of a tea estate in what was then Ceylon. After the first world war he and my grandmother Kathleen, who lived in Tewkesbury, began writing to each other. He visited her in England and they became engaged. Then she sailed out to Colombo, married him on the dockside and went up to the estate with him. My mother was born there in 1920. She used to feed buns to the working elephants from her nursery window.
         I grew up drinking the usual strong, milky New Zealand tea, but I took to drinking mine black and lightly brewed when I was living in Albania.  Back in New Zealand, I was delighted when, in 1988, the new firm of Dilmah chose New Zealand as its test market for its single origin, unblended, ethically produced teas. I've been happily drinking their range ever since.
          To raise the profile of fine tea, in 2007 they came up with the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, involving 27 of Sri Lanka's top culinary teams. Then they broadened it out to become a Global Challenge, inviting teams around the world to reinvent the traditional high tea for the 21st century.
In 2013 Wellington’s Museum Art Hotel beat 13 other teams to win the first New Zealand round. This July they went to Sri Lanka for the grand final, involving 21 teams (with 710 people) from 15 countries.
Leading the Museum Art Hotel team were Hippopotamus Restaurant's head chef Laurent Loudeac and maitre d’ Camille Furminieux. “When we won in 2013 the final seemed a long way off”, said Camille, “and this March the chef got married – so we started working on our entry in April!” 
In Sri Lanka they had two days to prepare, and on 1 July they had half an hour to set up and just 35 minutes to serve the entire menu to the four judges (including our own Simon Gault). When I asked Laurent if there were any crises, he frowned slightly and said no, of course not. 
On the day, their execution was flawless. But watching the spectacular effects some other teams came up with, they thought they had no hope of winning.  They were wrong.
Their clearly focused theme was the meeting of the five senses, all of them involved in tea tasting. It was shown off perfectly by their elegant French degustation-inspired menu of three savoury and three sweet courses. Created from fine New Zealand ingredients with tea-derived enhancements, and paired throughout with stunning teas or tea-based drinks, it won them the supreme award.

On 18 August they recreated their winning entry for 50 lucky people at Hippopotamus, and I was there on behalf of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers. From the duck tortellini in Ceylon ginger, honey and mint tea broth to the crêpes Suzette with mulled Medda Watte tea, it was the most exquisite sequence of food and drink I’ve ever experienced. 

Here's the menu:
Silver Jubilee Ceylon Ginger, Honey and Mint tea consommé
          Confit duck leg tortellini
Palate cleanser: Silver Jubilee Aromatic Earl Grey tea
Vivid Gentle Minty Green Lady cocktail
          Clevedon buffalo milk feta espuma, macadamia nougatine and fresh cucumber
Ran Watte Single Region Ceylon tea
          Ora King Salmon sashimi "my way"
Silver Jubilee Ceylon tea
          Strawberry mille-feuille and tea syrup
Media Watte Single Region Ceylon mulled tea
          Poire Belle-Hélène
Silver Jubilee Almond-infused Ceylon Pekoe Digestive tea
          Traditional crêpe Suzette
You can see all the recipes here

If I had to choose a favourite course, it would be the beautifully airy, smooth feta espuma (created with a siphon), with its contrasting tiny shards of crunchy nougatine and cucumber curls, its richness offset by the one true cocktail they served - the Vivid Gentle Green Lady, made from Lighthouse gin, Gentle Minty Green tea, fresh mint leaves, cucumber and a dash of Ch’i water. Tea will never be the same...

Proceeds from the Wellington event went to the new culinary training school for young underprivileged Sri Lankans. Funded by Dilmah’s MTF Foundation, it was opened by Simon Gault and other chefs on 5 July. Back home, at the Hospice Vintners' Brunch, a trip for two to Wellington to stay at the hotel and attend the High Tea was put up for auction and raised $2300 for Hospice.

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