Ever since my days as a bookish, library-going teenager with a weakness for British big-house novels, lapsang souchong tea has been on my list of Important Grown-Up Flavours To Try. With its fairly high price and strong aristocratic associations, it remains a pretty sharp class signifier, but that’s not what drew me to the idea of it. It’s the fact that it has always seemed to be the tea of choice for writers; women and men of letters; people with things to say.
It’s the tea that literary ladies in books always insist upon having, either first thing in the morning, from a teacloth-lined tray whilst sitting up in bed, or last thing at night, carefully brewed in a special teapot and prepared with some kind of special ritual that conveyed a subtle yet no doubt intoxicating intimacy for those offered a cup in the glow of the firelight.
Churchill was a lapsang souchong fan, and Sherlock Holmes’ character was often described to be so too, despite the fact that the tea name doesn’t actually appear in the books, apparently. But I can understand why the association might stick – with its famously unusual taste, exotic history and relatively obscure profile, it’s a tea that tells you something about the drinker; intentionally so or otherwise.
Even before I tried it, it had a pretty strong aura about it. But when I finally brewed a cup, having picked up a box the other day as I was passing one of the specialist food stores on Holland Park Avenue, I’ll admit that I was a little taken aback by the flavour. In fact, it took me a couple of cups before I properly warmed to it, as it’s so incredibly smoky, much smokier than you’re expecting, even if you know your pub quiz trivia about how it’s ordinary, lesser quality black tea that has been smoked over pinewood in the Chinese province of Fujian. It’s like the peatiest whiskey you could imagine, or the flavour that everything has when you cook over a campfire, non-cooked food included.
It tastes like long ago, but not just your memories – it’s like a collective ‘long ago and far away’. It tastes like the start of a story, when everyone’s getting settled and the fire’s just been stoked.
With its heavily smoked notes and rich, rounded flavour profile, I wondered if the tea’s intense tarry taste would impart the same effect as smoking, and decided to try infusing the flavour into chicken breast fillets by poaching them in a flavoured broth with a lapsang souchong teabag or two.
The technique worked a treat, making for tender, lightly smoked, clean tasting chicken fillets that were delicious served with a little of their broth, some plain steamed rice and a crunchy, herby, zesty vaguely Vietnamese style green salad. The recipe would be perfect for a simple supper some dark evening when you’re hosting book club or just having friends over for a catch up by candlelight.
LAPSANG SOUCHONG POACHED CHICKEN FILLETS
Serves three as part of a meal with rice, salad or stir fried veg and other accompaniments; increase the quantities as required
2 large free-range chicken breast fillets
1 tin of coconut milk
200ml strong chicken stock, plus more if required
2 spring onions, trimmed & chopped
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, sliced
1-2 lapsang souchong teabags
Half a tablespoon of pink peppercorns
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of sesame oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled & sliced
Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan, topping up with more chicken stock as required until the chicken breasts are covered with liquid. Cook over a medium heat for 25 minutes or so, or until the chicken fillets are completely cooked through. When the chicken fillets are cooked, taste the broth and see if it needs any more seasoning. If it does, add another teabag to the pot along with a small pinch of salt or more soy sauce and cook for a few minutes. Once ready, slice the chicken breasts and spoon a generous amount of the broth over them before serving. Delicious served with chopped salted peanuts, lime zest, sesame seed, steamed rice and a punchy salad or stir fry.
Note: Given the similarity with the flavour profiles found in Scottish whiskies, cold brewed lapsang souchong tea would be a good addition to both cocktails and mocktails. Let me know if you have any ideas and I’ll post them here!