Tea is engrained in our DNA and a hot cuppa will be brought out to sooth

Salmon hot smoked over tea, rice and sugar has become popular among creative chefs
Salmon hot smoked over tea, rice and sugar has become popular among creative chefs

Anybody over a certain age in this country will remember the iconic, catchy jingle for Punjana tea.

I can still see my brother whizzing about the house singing: “Pink pyjama tea, pink pyjama tea, savour the flavour, big tea flavour, pink pyjama tea!”

The Thompson family have been importing and blending teas since 1896. Robert Thompson started the company and his sons James and Tony took over in the post war years. The name Punjana was formed when James was walking past the Gillespie statue in Comber’s square and noticed an inscription referring to the Punjab. He thought this could be the basis for a great brand name given the quality of tea that came from India. His wife Lillias came up with the name Punjana. 

The company is currently run by the third generation of Thompsons, cousins Ross and David. They painstakingly source and blend tea, just as their forefathers did and only a Thompson has ever been responsible for choosing the tea and blending it.

Tea is a member of the camellia family and only the young tops of the bush are used. They source only the best quality tea from Kenya and the Assam region of north east India.

They’re also mindful of only obtaining tea from gardens where the workforce are treated fairly. The leaves are spread out and allowed to turn brown or oxidise - this is known as the fermentation process. Once they reach the desired stage they’re dried in a machine like a massive hair drier.

They’re then packed and shipped. The day of the wooden tea chest for transportation has gone and they’re now packed in foil lined bags for freshness. 

Ross and David taste samples every week. I visited their factory in Belfast last week and the tasting room is part laboratory, part history project with a little bit of magic thrown in. They sample hundreds of teas in specially designed cups - a separate China bowl is then topped with a cup of tea, “teeth” cut into the side of it, and placed sideways to make the best tasting elixir. The water shouldn’t be scalding hot for the best quality tea. To this day only someone with the last name Thompson has been responsible for blending the iconic tea.

Tea is engrained in our DNA in Northern Ireland and a pot of tea will be brought out to sooth, to celebrate, to pick us up. Lately though with a resurgence in serving afternoon tea, our national drink is now bang on trend.

Swanky hotels now have signature variations and place as much emphasis on the tea as they do on the pastries. Creative chefs have been using tea as an ingredient in desserts or to smoke fish and meats. I’ve added a recipe for teasmoked salmon this week – the fish is lightly cured and then hot smoked over tea, rice and sugar.

You do the same with duck, chicken or even quail at a fraction of the price it costs to buy ready smoked products.

An aromatic Earl Grey tea, flavoured with bergamot, adds fragrant citrus notes to desserts. I’ve included a recipe this week for shortcake infused with this tea and sandwiched with an egg nog buttercream - a splash of advocaat and a nip of nutmeg added to the fluffy mixture. It’s a bit of an upmarket custard cream!

Spiced chai tea has complex spicing and makes an aromatic base for a creamy pannacotta. The cream is infused with the spicy mixture and then set.