Dining alone, the French gourmand unwrapped a broad white linen scarf that he draped over his head as the main course arrived. The scarf nearly touched the table but did not interfere with his meal. Onlookers surmised it reduced the everyday distractions of even a fine restaurant, but no one followed his example.
Dimming the lights and silencing all conversation produced the same effect during The World’s Rarest Teas – An Exclusive Tasting hosted by Kevin Gascoyne at this year’s World Tea Expo. Gascoyne, a professional taster and buyer, orchestrated impeccable table service synchronized to original background music to achieve a meditative ambiance at the inaugural event. Forty enthusiasts and professionals paid $100 each to taste a flight of six teas by acclaimed supplier Camellia Sinensis, of Montreal, Canada.
Gascoyne’s performance as sommelier, orchestral conductor and educator was understated. His quiet narration amplified the impact to the point that participants lingered in deep discussion for 90 minutes at the finish.
“It went over quite beautifully,” concludes Gascoyne, “many said they didn’t know what had hit them. They were still wondering what was going on hours after the tasting. One called it a euphoric experience.”
Like the others, I experienced an extraordinary flight of tea without speaking a word and without knowing a thing about the perfectly steeped teas poured into my porcelain fired clay cup.
“When we talk about rare teas, we intellectualize it too much. We rate these teas, repeat the backstory, evaluate the cultivar, discuss how expensive and difficult it was to produce,” observes Gascoyne. “The really exciting part is tasting. These teas are moments of near perfection, combining the activity in the garden, choices by garden management and the artisans to bring about this fantastic moment.”
“There is a difference between knowing about things and knowing things,” says Gascoyne. “We know things with our senses and physicality on a much deeper level than we know about them from our intellectual catalog,” he said.
Curation fails to describe the degree of preparation for this event. It was inspired by various tastings over the years, says Gascoyne, but well beyond anything he previously attempted.
“I’ve been mulling over different aspects for a long time. The tasting combines different concepts of hospitality, pairing, and tasting without information. During the last two years I found that I like to do tastings without information. Too much detail amounts to white noise.”
Once he identified the teas (which ranged in price from $1,000 to $11,500 per kilo) and secured sufficient quantities, Gascoyne hired sound designer and mixer Christian Olsen to compose individual scores inspired by each tea. Olsen’s expression, in music, perfectly embodies Gascoyne’s desire to enhance the sensory aspects by activating primitive regions of the brain. Sensory neurons associated with taste flood the brain in darkness, in silence, in the presence of soothing electronic sounds.
Olsen describes his compositions as electroacoustic, employing sound mass composition. It is experimental [and experiential] electronic music informed by extended field recording.
Rather than introduce the first tea, Gascoyne explained that after trying the tea Olsen composed “Sunlight” to accompany the tasting ― apt considering everyone’s initial sip was a yellow tea from Ming Shan, Sichuan, China.
His second score, “Leaf” was inspired by a Tai Ping Hou Kui Hou Keng (big twisted leaf green tea). The tasting ended with his composition “Euphoric.”
Every tea was measured to 10 grams and steeped in 400ml of carefully selected water. Kettles were calibrated to one-tenth of a degree, steeped tea was then transferred to serving pitchers in the hands of skilled sommeliers. Servers Delphine Gingras-Côté and Vincent Moreau were assisted by Frank Weber in filling the small clay cups 480 times in two hours. Once poured, the liquor was decanted into goblets by participants to evaluate color and viscosity by candlelight. Table linen and freshwater was made available to clean the palate and cup after each pouring. No sequence was repeated: the green showed best at a temperature of 80c for 2m30s, with 1min to cool, but the Darjeeling needed 90c and only 60s to steep with a 1min cool. The Puer was steeped at 95c, required a 1min rinse followed by a 2min steep with 2min to cool. There were 12 rounds of infusions perfectly timed.
“There was no dress rehearsal. Everything was done on a timeline and everything was right on track,” marveled Gascoyne. “All the teas were on time with four of us doing two infusions for each tea.”
The intent was to take people into a more immersive space, explore these fantastic leaves in a different way without the white noise of finding out what it is, he said. Shortly after the tasting concluded participants were emailed a description of each tea including the harvest details, the name of the artisan who crafted the tea, pricing and instructions on how the tea was prepared.
“Let’s get visceral…,” said an elated Gascoyne, who described his mission as helping others “learn to taste tea from the eyebrows down.”
Countdown to rapture
So how did it taste? Anticipation and the absence of conversation conveyed a sense of ritual. The subtle and appealing soundscape was meditative, making the experience unique. The tasting began with a very subtle, light flavored but rich tea that filled the mouth and throat. I was expecting a buttery white tea, but this yellow was so much more expansive. The green that followed “slowly introduced the sensation of flavor,” explains Gascoyne. “My third selection was a very energetic tea with vitality,” he said. The fourth tea in the flight, a competition Bai Hao oolong from Taiwan is so rare only 600 grams were produced. “It is full of flavor with three distinct bursts in the mouth,” explains Gascoyne. “This tea is not subtle. I wanted to blow the mind with flavor.”
The score “Root” next introduced a sheng Puer from Yunnan, China. “This was a deep, rooty Puer aged since the 1980s. Its earthy, vegetal flavor is soothing, calming. It grounded the experience and set the mood for the finale,” says Gascoyne.
He finished with a personal favorite from the Himalayas. Gascoyne has traveled to Darjeeling for decades where he has established a reputation as one of the most discerning buyers in the world: knowledgeable, fair in pricing and quick to recognize and praise what others miss.
“I wanted them to experience the euphoria of tasting a fresh Darjeeling from this spring, from a very small batch. The comforting vitality and pronounced muscatel help participants to step away from profile issues and into what the plant is doing.”
After dessert, the gourmand would explain that isolation in the restaurant enabled him to concentrate his focus and enhance the exquisite pleasure of each morsel. Each sensation was savored, every nuance noticed. He experienced no sensory overload, or fatigue. Said the gourmand: “too much is not enough.”
The Dial, A semi-monthly journal of literary criticism, discussion and information published from 1881 to 1918. Volume 16, edited by Francis Fisher Browne, p.185, January 1 to June 16, 1894.