Here’s why you should be treating L’Espalier’s Cynthia Gold as your spirit animal of the tea persuasion: she is one of only a small handful of tea sommeliers in the world (badass), she makes a mean hot toddy (more badass), and she dropped a “Game of Thrones” reference in the first five minutes of our meeting (“Ned Stark was right!”) regarding the biting winds howling down Boylston Street.
“That’s one of the things I most look forward to with the cold weather,” she says, “that more and more people turn towards tea. Then we get a chance to win them over for enjoying it year-round.”
L’Espalier has always had afternoon tea on the weekends but when Gold took it under her wing two years ago, she made a few tweaks, updating and formalizing the selections. She also introduced Sunday Tastings; once a month, a theme is declared and guests taste through five different examples of tea adhering to that theme. It’s like a hard-core wine tasting, but you get to leave your pinky in the air the whole time and you don’t have to spit.
“Tea has that same complexity and ability to do everything that wine can,” she explains, popping up to sample from the cheese cart for an example. “The tannins and the astringency in tea have a major impact on mouth feel, just like they do in wine, but think about what the warmth of tea does. If you’re having cheese or chocolate, that takes it into another dimension.”
Gold, when you get down to it, is on a very polite mission to transform the way Boston drinks tea.
“In the East, tea is so much more a part of the culture, and it’s a part of everyday life. People greet their friends with tea, they’ll head into a business meeting with tea,” she says, deftly topping off her own cup from a classic white porcelain teapot. “We’re not at that point here. We have our own style of tea culture, but it’s just not as developed.”
Translation: we tend to associate tea with having a cold, in bed, where we drown it in honey or sugar. This is a bummer, because you miss most of tea’s range of subtle flavors when you’re hopped up on cold medicine.
“I just think there’s a need to get away from the hurried caffeine culture,” Gold continues. “Life is so chaotic and busy that you need a little time for yourself, and tea is so perfect for that.”
And there’s no need to go crazy — even though crumpets are tasty and Asian tea ceremonies are mesmerizing, just the act of steeping a cup of aromatic leaves can have the same effect.
Gold’s interest stems from her training as a chef. About 15 years ago, she was in the midst of opening a restaurant, doing all of the things that come with — obsessing over the menu, décor and wine list.
“I didn’t want anything mediocre, so I didn’t want to bring in tepid water and tea bags,” she says. “I wanted to learn a little bit about tea, just to be able to buy it intelligently.”
The plan backfired in the best way; rather than learn the bare minimum, Gold fell into a full-blown love affair. She was soon inspired to cook with tea, one of the few chefs on this side of the globe to be doing it at the time, leading curious tea industry bigwigs from all over to seek her out.
Flash forward to her first trip to Asia, where she spent the day on a small farm that produces Lung Ching Dragonwell, a delicate green tea.
“After spending the day in the fields, then wok-firing those leaves, when I got up and looked down at the tea that I had helped process, I totally lost it. It was the most incredible experience of my life,” she says. “Something in me changed in that moment, and tea was not a commodity anymore. It was this incredible living thing.”
And, even if you consider yourself a tea expert already, and you’ve been reading this nodding sagely, Gold has something for you too.
“It’s very important to me to always have something that, no matter how experienced a tea drinker is, I’m going to be able to show them something that they’ve never had before,” she says, pulling out bricks of aged tea, a special experimental batch someone sent her when it was a hairbreadths away from perfection. “It’s a challenge and it’s a rush to open someone’s eyes and show them something new.”