I’ll start with a confession: I used to look down on flavoured teas. If the leaves are of high quality, why add anything else to them, I thought. But then I discovered several examples that made me reconsider my prejudices and realise that the additional aromas can in fact highlight the complexities of Camellia sinensis leaves, revealing different nuances. A hint of osmanthus, for instance, can make certain types of oolongs seem sweeter, while rose softens the smoky edges of black teas. It makes for a different but no less enjoyable experience than drinking a cup of unadorned grand cru blend.
Some of the most interesting combinations are of tea and flowers. Scent science explains why such pairings have become classics – tea leaves and blossoms such as gardenia, violet, rose or osmanthus have a number of fragrant compounds in common. When blended, the complementary aromas create affinities that enrich the taste of tea as well as its fragrance.
Consider jasmine tea. French company Palais des Thés’ Perles de Jasmin (€32 for 100g) is created by arranging fresh flowers of Jasminum sambac in layers over lightly oxidised tea leaves. The flowers are changed several times, until their aroma imbues the tea; then the leaves are rolled into small pearls to both conserve the perfume and enhance the beauty of the tea ritual. Watching the leaves unfurl slowly in the cup as they release their heady scent is a delight in itself.
Another classical floral tea is osmanthus oolong. Osmanthus is also called Chinese olive tree, and its tiny flowers are so richly scented that they preserve their fragrance even when dried. They can be brewed on their own into a tisane, but the most memorable way is to pair them with oolong. To make oolong, tea undergoes a process of oxidation that transforms the aromas from grassy to floral. What is even more fascinating is how many osmanthus-like facets develop as the leaves ferment. One of my floral favourites, Ten Ren’s Osmanthus Supreme ($90 for 300g), showcases the natural affinity between oolong and the blossoms of a “10-mile fragrance” tree.
Rose and tea is a duo I discovered when a friend recommended adding a few drops of rosewater to my cup of English Breakfast. Without changing the taste of the tea dramatically, it lent such a bright, luminous aroma that I was tempted to dab it on my wrists. Again, fragrance chemistry provides an explanation for this fortuitous discovery – black tea contains compounds known as beta-damascones, which are aroma molecules with nuances of apples, late summer roses and red wine. As the name suggests, they were originally discovered in Rosa damascena, a varietal used in perfumery. (To experience their dazzling effect in fragrance, try Guerlain’s Nahema – £102 for 100ml EDP – a composition for which the description “voluptuous” is an understatement.)
Fortnum & Mason’s Rose Pouchong tea (£12.50 for 125g) is an excellent blend to enjoy both tea and roses. It has the deep colour of chestnut honey and a velvety, sweet flavour. To brew a cup is to understand why for the Tang dynasty Chinese poets, tea drinking was equivalent to the contemplation of beauty.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.