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If tea is the new wine, I’ll lick chicken off a brick (Ben Spalding & the Rare Tea Company pairing)

If food is the new sex, can tea be the new wine? We all know our PG Tips from a “proper” tea, but can tea stand the test of fine dining- style pairing? Henrietta Lovell (AKA the “Tea Lady” from The Rare Tea Company) seems to think so and enlisted chef Ben Spalding, of Roganic fame, to prove it with a unique event in which 8 different teas and infusions were paired with 8 courses (the food looking like a “sneak preview” of Ben Spalding’s upcoming residence at John Salt- including his signature new dish “chicken on a brick” YES, seriously). Read on…

ben spalding tea lady 1

So, here I am, somebody grown in a country were the choice used to be “normal or decaffeinated” on one brand of tea (which you would only drink  as medicine for an upset stomach) , at a tea pairing. Although enthusiastic about bagging tickets for this one-off event (one lunch, one dinner serving- about 25 covers, goodnight and good luck), I was a tiny bit skeptical. For the price -which I’m clearly too posh to even mention- one (well, I) would expect not just top-notch fare (which you can have anyway at Ben Spalding most recent pop-up “Stripped Back”) but also some serious…how to put it…booze? Especially on the same day in which Rumstock was taking place at Street Fifteen.

I was not only not disappointed, but absolutely blown away by the lunch- with his unexpected turns, the highs and the lows- and by the pairings. To cut a long story short: Ben delivered some of his best imaginative but substantial cooking, the “Tea Lady” danced around pouring some mysteriously named tea based (and often alcohol- reinforced) drinks for some four hours.  Judging by the smiles all around (and there were some people with serious foodie credentials there- cue Gourmet Traveller) a blast was had by all. The atmosphere was at the same time informal (with Ben coming up to the table in his striped apron to tell us about the dishes,  always – very modestly- praising suppliers and ingredients quality rather than his own culinary prowess) and solemn, in that type of “worshiping the God of Flavour” way serious eaters have.

From here on, I feel I don’t really know how to write without making a fool of myself, so I’ll stick to pictures and descriptions. Get ready for some serious food porn eye candy!

P.S. for bigger and better pictures, head to my Pinterest board

ben spalding chef london

Bread: soured flatbread made from 26 month old starter; Rowanberry, blueberry & yoghurt loaf; orange marmalade ciabatta.

Butter: Patrik’s virgin butter with Himalayan salt; Patrik’s acidic butter with brown sugar; Orange marmalade mixed with Patrik’s butter.

The butter was the best I ever had in my life, different from every other. It comes from this guy Patrick in Sweden (as the website is Swedish only, after you’ve checked the yummy pictures you may want to check out his mostly-English tweets)

Nibbles: fermented mung beans with San Marzano seeds & potato crisps; cured salmon, lime cream & stonecrop; chicken & cranberry juice.

Drink: Oolong ale (Camden Pale Ale with a heady top of Oolong Tea)

1st serving: salad of Kent’s finest September fruit, vegetables & herbs with fresh cobnuts from my (Ben’s, not mine;) garden & soured cream with green peppercorns

Drink: White Silver Tip (12 hour cold-water infusion)

chicken on a brick ben spalding

2nd serving: “Chicken on a brick” & all a chicken eats (Kentish ranger chicken livers; sweetcorn kernels; cooked pearl barley; edible flowers; celeriac puree; red onion jam)

Drink: Green Geneva (Whole Leaf Green Tea & Bols Genevers), hot

ben spalding popup

3rd serving: lukewarm Razor clam & lemon verbena broth, raw carrot, snow peas, & white peaches (this was my least favourite and I couldn’t eat more than a spoonful- as you know I am very fussy with my fish and raw razor clams were just too fishy and overpowering for me)

Drink: Lemon Verbena and Cornish Mint

ben spalding dishes

4th serving: fried Macchiavelli egg yolk, rich mousse of aura potato, ox eye daisy leaves, Parsley & smoked watermelon

Drink: Wuyi Lapsang Suchong and Chase Potato Vodka

This was my favourite dish and pairing. I love eggs and I love simple, classic dishes with a twist- this one was outstanding- rich, with creamy mashed potatoes and the quirky touch of the smoked watermelon. It matched perfectly the deep smokiness of the Lapsang Suchong.

5th serving: Poached & grilled king oyster, beefsteak fungus, toasted almonds, crisp lettuce, dragon eggs & marinade flavoured with fish sauce

Drink: Malawi Pu’re (fermented tea) This pairing was incredible- you felt like walking in the woods when it rains, with all the hearty, slightly rotten smells filling the air.

ben spalding and team at work


6th serving: Plaice, ken’s young vegetables raw & cooked, Brazil nuts & light sauce made from brain biter

Drink: Ruinous Jasmine Silver Tip

30 day aged rump steak argan oil thai long beans

7th serving: Matured Beef rump from O’Shea’s served pink, sweet potato, thai long beans, kimchi, Red chief’s baked overnight & greasy roasting juices with argan oil

Drink: Emperor on Great King St. (Breakfast tea and Compass Box Great King Street Whisky)

8th serving: St Agur cheese, warm pineapple, damsons, black gold & rye crisp

Drink: The Iron Goddess of Mercy (Oolong tea- 4 infusions- hot)

ben spalding popup redhook

9th serving: Carina’s brown butter & cardamom pancake, sweetened lingonberries & jersey milk custard flavoured with messmor & linden leaves

Drink: English Manuka (herbal infusion from the manuka tree, more famous for Manuka honey)

10th servin: Iced lemon thyme, caramelised white chocolate, pine nut paste, oreo crumbs & muscat grapes

Drink: White Vespa Martini (White Silver Tip infused in Chase Vodka and Jasmine Silver Tip infused in Chase gin. Shaken.)

PETIT FOURS: Epoisse Macaroons; Indian mango with cucumber & sweet cream cheese; “Fragolina” grape

Drink: Rather Surprising Coffee: Coffee Cherry Tea (infusion from dried berries of the coffee plant), cold infused with Earl Grey.

The End.

True, this was a bit of a tour-de-force (my ideal Sunday lunch lasts less than three and a hal hours).  But Ben Spalding’s inventive cooking, the quality of ingredients and the well-designed tea matching (which didn’t leave me longing for any wine- quite a feat) made it a totally worthy experience which will be long remembered.

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