The family never discusses how to make tea.
Twas not always thus, as we used to say in the days when making tea was not only an art, but crowded the columns of Letters to the Editor with endless nitpickings about the proper way to brew it.
I’ve heard tales about Australian bushmen breaking all the rules using a “billy can” and drinking from enamelled mugs, of all things, to deliver one of the nicest preparations imaginable. Though I do think it unlikely, as improbable as that yarn about a swagman, a jumbuck, and a billabong – whatever those things are.
Eric Blair (Mr Orwell) back in 1945 listed his eleven rules to make the perfect cup of tea.
I must say I agree with all of them – except rule number one: “First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea.” To which he almost condescendingly adds “China tea has virtues which are not to be despised…” Well, pardon me. Excuse me for being a Chinese teapot – you know, made in China, the country you and your Indian colleagues stole the original tea plants from.
Overlooking his preliminary slander, shall we move on with rules two to eleven?
“Tea should be made in small quantities, that is, in a teapot.” No argument from this quarter.
“The teapot should be warmed beforehand.” Eric quaintly says to warm me NOT by swilling some hot water within, but put me on a “fob.” Though I’m sure most of you have a fuel stove constantly fired, for wealthy households an electric hot plates will do nicely. But do watch my glaze, please.
“The tea should be strong.” He does well to point out a little-known fact, that tea-drinkers like their tea stronger as they they get older. The same applies with alcohol, I’ve heard.
Now it gets interesting, controversial even.
“The tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, no muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea.” If the tea is not loose in the pot, Mr Blair exclaims, it never infuses properly. Someone should tell the teabag manufacturers. Grinding the tea into dust before enclosing it in a tiny baglet does not infusing facilitate.
“One should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about.” Now listen, Blair, you’ve stepped well over the line here. In my household the pot (well, the electric jug) is brought to my station. I NEVER visit the jug. This is a dance that dates back to an ancestral family feud wherein my father called the cauldron black, and it replied in kind. The “electric jug” (yet but a mere kettle, a pale imitation however) has some dim perception of this, which perhaps explains his racist air. By the way, Mr Blair’s explanation for this ritual was to ensure the tea leaves were hit with scalding hot water. Poor things.
“After making the tea, stir it or give the tea pot a good shake.” Okay.
“One should drink out of a good breakfast cup – that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type.” Wonderful rule. You will note I too am cylindrical, for much the same reason. Mr Blair makes the commonsense remark that non-cylindrical containers not only hold less but as the level falls the remaining liquid cools too quickly. Not to mention the silly things tip over more easily, and that includes conceited round-bottomed teapots, always falling about like drunkards. Furthermore, have you ever seen a bucket or a water tank with a rounded bottom? “And the tea is half cold before one has well started on it.” Absolutely!
“Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea.” This will need some explaining for the modern generation. Cream and milk issue as a single compound from an animal called “cow” (or “goat,” should you reside in Persia or Mesopotamia, the dark continent of Alkebulan, or the Amerigo precincts of the Incas). They are not separate products, but are departed at the dairy processor in order to double profit. Homogenised milk (par for the course nowadays, such that children have never seen cream floating at the top of a glass bottle of milk. I’m fairly certain children have never seen a glass bottle either) is, I’m told, homogenised after a “specified” percentage of milk fat is removed. Namely, the Cream. But I digress.
Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable.
Too true, Mr Blair. All too true.
“Lastly, tea – unless one is drinking it in the Russian style – should be drunk without sugar.” I’m not entirely sure if by “Russian style” Mr Blair means “should be drunk drunk” or “should be drunk sweetened.” Whichever, he’s clearly decrying the use of a sugar.
In my household, mater and pater adhere to Xylitol as a sweetener and sugar is banned, being half fructose, which is a bodily toxin that the liver cannot metabolise. High-sugar diets (refined foods in addition to straight sugar, or honey) can cause cirrhosis of the liver. Did you know? I’m a mine of such information, having spent so many years wrapped in magazine and newspaper print. One barbarian household even used pages torn out of Encyclopaedia Britannica, to my everlasting gratitude.
I’m not going to tell the house masters that tea must be consumed unsweetened. That would crush them, considering the trouble they went to acquiring that absurdly-priced Xylitol. So, as a pragmatist, I endorse sweetening tea. Unless you, like Eric, object, in which case it’s a crime indeed.
A wonderful concluding tip of my own, and vastly more important than all of Eric’s combined. Do not, under any circumstance, use tap water. The fluoride controversy aside, your heavily chlorinated water supplies in this country are an anathema to the purity, delicacy, subtlety, and fragrance of properly made tea. Even to badly made tea, which gives you a measure of the misdemeanour.
Final comment then, having “wet” your appetite, and before letting you dash off to put on the kettle.
It genuinely saddens me, a tear to the spout so to speak, when one of the masters’ uncouth offspring grabs a cup, inserts teabags, fills it from the tap, and delivers it to the beastly microwave. Apart from the barbarity of such a manoeuvre, that microwave is a nasty piece of work and a mean little shit.