Restaurants are not only adding rare blends to their drinks menus but creating new dishes infused with that most British of drinks. Something big, discovers Sybil Kapoor, is brewing in the world of tea

The subject of tea always makes me nervous. Tea fans, like wine buffs, tend to have firm views on their subject and like to use terms such as FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) and SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) when discussing the niceties of different leaf grades. In case you are interested, FOP refers to the highest grade of tea where the bud and first leaf of each shoot is used, and SFTGFOP is the best of this grade.

The subject of tea always makes me nervous. Tea fans, like wine buffs, tend to have firm views on their subject and like to use terms such as FOP (Flowery Orange Pekoe) and SFTGFOP (Special Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) when discussing the niceties of different leaf grades. In case you are interested, FOP refers to the highest grade of tea where the bud and first leaf of each shoot is used, and SFTGFOP is the best of this grade.

In recent months, increasing numbers of different teas have been appearing on the smartest menus - and not just as a drink, but often used to flavour food too. Not any old teas, but rare and unusual blends such as the dark 35-year-old Lu TieBing (Puer) from Yunnan, China, or the finest green Gyokuro from Japan.

Clearly, if we wish to retain our foodie savoir faire, we're going to have to educate our palates in such matters as the difference between the first and second flush of leaf pickings, never mind the season, soil, picking time and drying methods, all of which affect the taste of tea.

The first thing to know is that tea is divided into three main categories: green (unfermented), oolong (semi-fermented), and black (fermented). Green teas are picked and dried immediately to prevent oxidisation and inactivate the enzymes, whereas the leaves of black teas are wilted, bruised by rolling, and allowed to ferment slightly to ensure that they oxidise and develop a more complex flavour. Oolong teas are made from large-leafed teas that have been semi-fermented. White teas are made predominantly from the sun-dried downy tips of the unopened leaf bud.

Until recently, fashionistas have been drinking the occasional cup of green along with caffeine-free fresh herbal infusions. However, in 2002, Pierre Gagnaire and Morad Mazouz opened The Parlour at Sketch on London's Conduit Street. It has proved the perfect environment for elegantly coiffed women to sip jasmine tea or Pai Mu Tan, a Chinese white tea. In true French style, the waiters use bottled Evian water rather than the aqua Londinium. They measure its temperature with scientific accuracy, before pouring it on to the tea leaves and allowing it to brew in a delicate pot. (Green tea should be infused at a lower temperature than black tea. Tea bags are definitely out.)

Then, earlier this year, Alan Yau, of London's hip Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, opened Yauatcha. Well known for its dim sum, the restaurant also houses a beautiful modern interpretation of a tea house on the ground floor.

"The tea idea came from the concept of the restaurant itself. I wanted to do a restaurant dedicated to dim sum and, in Cantonese, eating dim sum is referred to as 'yum chai' which means 'heaven tea'," he explains. "I have created somewhere where you can drink teas, not just from China, but from Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka." The venue is a fusion of a funky Taiwanese tea house, where you can drink tea smoothies, and a British minimalist approach to oriental tea-drinking.

And instead of following the traditional approach of buying through tea brokers, Yau buys direct from each chosen country. "It has not always been easy to find the quality we want, but we've found tea masters in each country who help write the tea list and buy the tea. For them, tea is an art form," he says.

Suddenly, Soho's elite can select their tea from an extensive menu that includes seasonal High Mountain Oolong from Taiwan; Silver Needle Pekoe from Fujian and Orchid Pao Chung Cha. By Christmas they will be able to buy the tea leaves to take home but for now, such shoppers will have to peruse Fortnum & Mason instead, where they can find delicate Jasmine Dragon Pearls and wonderful single- estate teas such as Golden Broken Orange Pekoe from Milima in Kenya.

Once a trend is set, it doesn't take long for others to pick it up. Chefs, in particular, are very sensitive to such matters, and you will find tea now slipping into a surprising number of dishes. Shane Osborn, for example, gives recipes for tea-smoked salmon and haddock in his new book Starters, while Stephane Sucheta, the pastry chef at Yauatcha, is busy infusing it into cakes, such as his Assam Praline. And L'Artisan du Chocolate - the chocolatiers who add weird and wonderful distillates such as oak and leather to their ganache for chef Heston Blumenthal - infuse their own choccies with various teas, including Earl Grey, Lapsang Souchong and Jasmine. Clearly, tea is going to become the next fashionable ingredient for every cook.

Tea-smoked prawn salad

Tea smoking imbues food with an intense, smoky taste. It also generates a vast amount of smoke, so shut all doors, turn on the extractor fan and open any kitchen windows.

Serves 4

50g/2oz Demerara sugar
A small pinch of salt
2tsp sunflower oil
450g/141/2oz shelled prawns
100g/31/2oz rice
70g/3oz Lapsang
Souchong tea
Juice of one lime

For the salad

1 tbsp sugar
1/4tsp chilli flakes
2tbsp white-wine vinegar
Half a cucumber, sliced
2 bunches of watercress
2 little gem lettuces
4 spring onions, sliced
2 limes, halved

In a bowl, mix together the sugar, salt and oil. Clean the prawns by running a knife down the length of their backs and removing their digestive cord. Rinse, and dry. Thread them on skewers and rub in the sugar mix. Chill for 30 minutes.

Mix together the tea and rice and tip into a wok with a steam rack and lid. Put the rack in place, cover and set over a high heat. After 10 minutes smoke will seep out. Remove the prawns from the marinade. Acting quickly, place them on the rack and reseal. Smoke for three minutes then set aside.

Heat some oil in a frying pan and briefly sear the prawns. Tip into a bowl and toss in the juice of a lime. Leave to cool.

Place a tablespoon of sugar and the chilli flakes in a bowl. Add a tablespoon of boiling water and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Leave for five minutes then mix in the vinegar.

Place the salad ingredients in a bowl. Dress and divide between four plates. Add the prawns and the lime wedges and serve as a starter.

Roast quail with aromatic pilaf

A fragrant Earl Grey tea is used here to add a subtle bitter note to the dish. Watercress salad is a great accompaniment.

Serves 4

For the aromatic pilaf

2tsp Earl Grey tea leaves 40g/13/4oz sultanas 2tsp of olive oil 3 shallots, finely sliced 3 cardamoms 2 cloves 20g/3/4oz pine nuts 300g/10oz Basmati wild rice 600ml/20fl oz chicken stock 3tbsp chopped parsley

For the roast quail

8 oven-ready quail
Juice of one lemon
A handful of thyme sprigs
50g/2oz butter
Salt and black pepper

Pour 100ml (31/2fl oz) boiling water on to the tea. Leave to brew, strain and add the sultanas. Leave for two hours.

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/ Gas 6. Place the quail in a roasting tray. Rub them in lemon juice and thyme. Smear on the butter and season.

Heat some oil in a pan and fry the shallots, cardamoms and cloves for about five minutes.

Add the pine nuts and fry lightly, then mix in the rice. Sauté for two minutes, then add the stock and drained sultanas. Season, cover and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is tender.

Roast the quail for 25 minutes, basting occasionally. Remove from the oven and allow to rest. Mix the parsley into the rice and serve with the quail and their buttery, lemon juices.

Green tea autumn fruit salad

Serves 4

3tsp green tea leaves
85g/31/4oz sugar
Finely pared zest of 1 lemon
Juice of half a lemon
2 apples, finely sliced
225g/71/2oz grapes, halved
150g/5oz blackberries
150g/5oz raspberries

Bring some water up to just below boiling point, then pour 100ml (31/2oz) over the tea. Leave to infuse for three minutes and strain. Return the leaves to their bowl and pour on a further 100ml water. Infuse for three minutes and strain.

Place a further 100ml water in a pan with the sugar and lemon zest. Bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Simmer gently for 10 minutes until it forms a syrup. Strain into the tea in the bowl.

Meanwhile, pour the lemon juice into a separate bowl and toss the apple in it. Tip into the warm tea syrup. Once it is tepid, mix in the fruit and serve.

Brews of the world

Darjeeling Perfect for any recipe that requires a fine, classical tea taste. It comes in many forms, from the light-green first flush through to black, and includes the delicate white Darjeeling, pictured, which is made from the sun-dried downy tips of the leaves. Try infusing the leaves direct into hot milk with sugar and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. The resulting drink - masala chai - can be transformed into ice-cream, bread-and-butter pudding or crème caramel.

Japanese green tea This has an exquisite fresh, grassy taste, due no doubt to the fact that the finest, such as Gyokura (Precious Dew), are grown under reed mats for 20 days in April before picking to produce thicker, softer, bright-green leaves. These are then steamed, rolled and dried to capture their fresh taste. They need only be infused for two minutes in freshly boiled water that has cooled to 70°C. The second infusion is the best. Try mixing with a mild citrus sugar syrup to make a sorbet, jelly or a dressing for a fruit salad.

Finest Lung Ching Green (Dragon Well) This should be infused at a temperature of 90°C for two to three minutes before using in much the same way as Japanese green tea. It makes a delicious aromatic syrup for rum babas and other such puddings.

Jasmine tea This can be used in most recipes, as its floral flavour will imbue both creamy puddings such as panna cotta, and ices, syrups and jellies with a delicious fragrance. Take care to match it with delicate, light flavours such as lychees or pomelos. Jasmine tea is made from spring-picked green tea leaves that are then placed close by or layered with fresh jasmine flowers up to seven times until the tea is suitably perfumed. Sometimes the tea leaves are rolled into tiny Dragon Pearls that unfurl in the pot.

Golden Broken Orange Pekoe A tea produced on the Milima Estate in east Kenya. It has a gorgeous, smooth, rich taste that makes it ideally suited for wintery, spiced foods. Creamy puddings such as crème brûlé and floating islands (infuse the latter's custard with Milima tea and orange zest) work very well with this as well as compotes of dried peaches or figs.

Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1, tel: 08453 001 707; Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick Street London W1, tel: 020 7494 8888