The Tea Squirrel interviews Italian tea sommelier Gabriella Lombardi
When I was little, before even learning to read, one of my favorite pastimes was to take books from my parents’ bookshelves and look at the photos or illustrations. Some of those books were beautifully illustrated cookbooks, some were travel photography books, some were gardening books. Those books and their photos and illustrations had me under a spell. I would spend hours lost in those books, fantasizing about those photos and illustrations.
I own a tea book that holds that same fascination for me. It’s Tea Sommelier by Gabriella Lombardi, a large format book with amazing photography, tea knowledge, tea recipes and pairings. When I received it as a Christmas gift from my husband last year, little did I know about the author. Gabriella is an Italian tea sommelier from Milan and the owner of tea shop / tea house Chà Tea Atelier. During my recent trip to Italy a month ago, I had the pleasure to meet her in person. If you’ve missed my post and photos from Milan, you can check them out here.
Anna: How did you become a tea lover?
Gabriella: I fell in love with tea while living in Granada, Spain, as a university student. In Granada’s Moorish neighborhood there were various “teterìas” (tea houses) serving blends like chai or Moroccan mint tea as well as pure unflavored teas, which were very rare back then in Italy.
Anna: That’s fascinating! Somehow I had never associated Spain with tea. What is your earliest memory as a tea lover?
Gabriella: I have some tea memories from childhood. My grandmother would brew Earl Grey tea from tea bags and serve it alongside her homemade cake.
Anna: That’s so sweet! I have fond memories of tea time with my grandmother too. What is your favorite tea?
Gabriella: I don’t have a specific favorite tea but in general, I prefer green teas from China and Japan and wulongs from China and Taiwan.
Anna: Is there a brewing method that you prefer over the others?
Gabriella: I like the Eastern brewing method (gaiwan or yixing teapot) with any tea. I even use it to brew Darjeeling first flush because I believe multiple short steeps are the best way to minimize astringency and get different aroma notes from each steep.
Anna: I do that too! I find that brewing Darjeeling in a gaiwan really gives you more control over the resulting brew. What is the one piece of tea ware or tea accessory you cannot do without?
Gabriella: I love Japanese kyusu teapots, those with a side handle. They are ergonomic and I find their design really sophisticated.
Anna: What would you recommend to tea newbies?
Gabriella: Go beyond first impressions. Many people claim they don’t like tea and I always reply by asking what tea exactly? There are so many teas, producing areas and processing methods, you couldn’t try them all in a lifetime! I believe everyone can find a tea that best suits their taste. I know it’s out there!
Anna: What is the most unusual tea-related thing that you have ever experienced?
Gabriella: The way tea is used in such an innovative way in cocktail mixology. During the second Italian edition of the Tea Masters Cup in the category Tea Mixology, I tried a dozen top notch tea cocktails. I’m always surprised by how versatile tea is, the way it is prepared or the way it is paired with food or used as a culinary or mixology ingredient.
Anna: I love using tea to mix cocktails! I’m glad it’s been gaining popularity in Italy too. What is the story behind Chà Tea Atelier?
Gabriella: I started Chà Tea Atelier in 2010 after quitting my day job to pursue my dream. I worked as a marketing manager in advertising and my job had become less and less exciting. So I decided to open the tea room I always looked for when traveling abroad. There was nothing like that here in Milan. Chà Tea Atelier is a specialty tea shop specializing in high quality pure teas. We have a small tea room too where you can taste our teas and where I hold tea tastings and tea tasting classes for tea lovers and tea professionals.
Anna: You were the change you wanted to see in the world. What an inspiring story! You are the author of the book Tea Sommelier. What led you to write the book?
Gabriella: My book Tea Sommelier is the result of a project I pursued with photographer Fabio Petroni and chef Giovanni Ruggieri, both passionate about new trends and experimenting with tea. In Asia tea is an all-day beverage and it is often served with a meal. We have confined tea to afternoon tea and in Italy to the afternoon snack (merenda) time but we are obsessed with wine and food pairings with our meals. I’ve always wondered why not offering a non-alcoholic alternative by pairing tea and food in restaurants.
Anna: I'm obsessed with tea and food pairings and I can’t wait to try all the pairings and sweet and savory tea recipes in your book. What are your next projects?
Gabriella: In the short term, I will be traveling to Hubei, China at the end of September. In the long term, I would love to write another book and travel more… It would be nice to have more time too!
Anna: You are tea sommelier and you hold courses for aspiring tea sommeliers. What are your courses like? What do your students learn?
Gabriella: I was the first in Europe to get the TAC TEA SOMMELIER® certification. I attended an online course with the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada. The course is divided into 8 segments (each segment is six weeks long) and there is a final exam at the end. The course deals in detail with the history and culture of tea, production areas, processing methods, botanical aspects of the tea plant, tea and food pairings, how to prepare a good cup of tea, traditional tea ceremonies from around the world, starting a tea business and what different tea professionals do. Now I am holding the very same course in Italian for the Italian tea association Protea Academy in partnership with the Tea and Herbal Association of Canada.
Anna: Do Italians appreciate tea?
Gabriella: At last, Italians are beginning to appreciate tea. Especially the younger generations, who are traveling a lot abroad to work or study, discover tea abroad and when they go back to Italy, they create a demand for it. That’s exactly what happened to me in the 90's. In Italy coffee is ingrained in our culture and has a long-standing tradition, tea is something new. And the younger generations don’t like to conform to what their parents like. People here in Milan are curious and it’s relatively easy to offer something new like matcha or pu er.
Anna: What are the current tea trends in Italy? What about Milan?
Gabriella: In Italy black tea dominates 80% of the market. Whereas in Milan green tea is trendy, especially Japanese green teas like sencha or matcha.
Anna: What would you recommend to tea lovers visiting Milan?
Gabriella: I think they should stop by at Chà Tea Atelier and say hi! I dream of a Milan travel guide which includes a Milan tea tour section but unfortunately we’re still far from it.
Thank you, Gabriella, for sharing your story and for telling us more about developments and trends that are taking shape on the Italian tea scene. Grazie!
Disclaimer: I was not paid to mention or review businesses, products or services mentioned in this blog post. This is my honest opinion.