At long last we get to the subject of how to make and serve tea as the British do—bearing in mind that we’ve established that there are many variations and everyone thinks their way is best. The authors of the blog and accompanying book “Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down” (see Featured Book and Featured Links) tell us the technical term for this is “projected tea enjoyment”: everybody thinks other people will like tea the way they like it, and if others don’t prefer it that way, they ought to.
The following, therefore, is meant to entertain rather than to prescribe. And it’s only part of the story; there’ll be one more post after this one to finish the subject of tea—for now.
Making and Serving Tea
First, choose your tea. At a formal tea guests usually have a choice of two; you may have seen this in costume dramas in which hostesses ask their guests “India or China?”, having a pot of each standing by. Indian tea is the default; if offering a China tea (always “China tea”, not “Chinese tea” here) likely choices include gunpowder tea and lapsang souchong. Or in a break with tradition the second option might be something like Earl Grey instead.
You keep your tea in a caddy—where else would you keep it?—which these days means a pretty, or at least a serviceable, tin. In years past a tea caddy locked and the lady of the house kept the only key, because—as I learned on a visit to Jane Austen’s house—tea was expensive and it was thought that servants might be tempted to pilfer. A lady of my acquaintance tells me that a proper tea caddy had compartments for different teas and a bowl for mixing them; the lady who kept the key blended the tea herself. She prepared the cups herself, too, pouring each one and adding whatever each guest prefered, then handing them off to a parlourmaid who would take each cup to the guest for whom it had been made. One good thing about this procedure was that no one said, as some British people do when having tea informally, “Shall I be mother?” It’s a twee expression—to my ear, anyway—meaning “Shall I pour?”
Indian tea is the default; it’s certainly the most widely chosen for breakfast, for afternoon tea, for friends who drop by, and for consoling victims in a crisis. (I mentioned the restorative properties of tea in a previous post, but since then I’ve learned that the British considered tea crucial to morale during the second world war, so the Lyon’s chain of tea shops dispensed free tea from camouflaged caravans (US: campers) to bombed-out families and rescue workers. Jumping forward to last month when my mother-in-law visited from the US and fell on uneven pavement in London, I can report that two Good Samaritans came to her rescue, each independently telling her she needed “a cup of tea, love”, one adding “that’ll settle you”.)
Have decided on the type of tea, will you choose tea bags or loose tea? Loose tea requires either a tea ball (a little cage that lets water through but keeps the tea leaves in), a device to strain out the leaves as you pour, or a liking for damp vegetation at the end of your drink. Of course, if you believe you have the gift of reading fortunes in tea leaves, you’ll want to be sure the leaves do get into the cup.
A fashion for tessomancy (reading tea leaves) in Victorian times has left us any number of lists of symbols and their meanings. I have never encountered tea leaves in the shape of a dog (friendship) or a pirate (adventure), but perhaps I lack concentration—in which case my fault would be revealed when my tea leaves fell into the shape of a feather. Victorian matrons must have had great powers of observation to be able to distinguish an tea-leaf eagle (strength) from a tea-leaf vulture (theft). And if they did find such a bird—or a pirate, should he have a parrot—would they have counted that as finding feathers as well? It must have been quite a skilled occupation.
If you don’t want leaves in your cup and you have no tea ball, you may find a tea strainer or a mote spoon useful. A shallow mote spoon used to be a standard way of skimming errant leaves from the top of the tea after it was poured into the cup. It could do double-duty as a caddy spoon, too, if you didn’t have one—a spoon for dipping tea out of the caddy and conveying it to the pot. Note that either container or spoon could be called a caddy just to add to the confusio— fun.
Like most people, I’m happy for the tea leaves to stay in the tea bag. While some here will tell you that the contents of tea bags are leftovers or “floor sweepings” that’s unlikely, if for no other reason that most tea is sold in tea bags and sweepings from the production of loose tea couldn’t possibly account for it all. Tea bags are definitely the less elegant but are generally the more practical choice, whether you like yours rectangular, pyramidal (though these are really usually tetrahedral), round, or—the latest thing here—with a drawstring, so that you can squeeze the water out without having to touch the damp tea bag. Until I encountered the drawstring version I’d never used tea bags that came with instruction diagrams.
The first tea bags were made of silk by an American importer who sent them to customers as samples of his merchandise. At least one British author says the importer intended the consumer to open the silk bag and pour the tea into the pot, but the “clueless Americans” didn’t know any better, and dunked the whole bag. If so, then great credit must be given to clueless Americans.
The staple tea at our house is Tesco’s Finest, a blend of Indian teas, but my cupboard (US: cabinet) is full of different tea bags: some bought, some received as gifts, some left behind by visitors, and lots and lots of free samples. Everybody seems to want me to buy their tea: Twinings, Tetley, Numi, or Yorkshire Tea. That last one is made especially for hard water areas and, let me tell you, we may be hundreds of miles fromYorkshire, but if the water here were any harder we’d have to chip off chunks and suck them to get a drink.
Britons generally concur that it’s best to use one tea bag or one teaspoon of loose tea per person plus one extra, often called “one for the pot”. The correct temperature for the water is debated, however. Some maintain it should be just shy of the boiling point, and others that keeping the temperature right up at boiling is so crucial that they warm the pot by rinsing it with boiling water before they fill it, lest the cooling effect of the ceramic result in a suboptimal cup of tea. I can’t tell the difference, and I don’t bother warming the pot.
Nor do I generally use a tea cosy, a device to keep the tea warm while it steeps. For everyday use, tea cosy-favouring households generally have something knitted or crocheted by a family member. Except for the slits for handle and spout these look very much like woolly hats (presumably why Dobby the house elf wears one on his head in the Harry Potter books), often complete with pompoms on the tops. Manufactured tea cosies are sewn using two pieces of quilted fabric (see photos), and you commonly find them in souvenir shops and museum shops. My tea cosy is more of a curiousity piece, definitely one of a kind; a friend found it in a charity shop and gave it to me, apparently thinking I was the kind of person who really needed an elaborately embroidered, appliqued, and quilted velvet creation with “M. C. Aged 80” worked into it. I confess I’d love to know who M. C. was and who made her this extraordinary tea cosy. Or did she make it herself, signing her initials and age the way girls do when making samplers?
Now that you’re all set with your tea, your teapot, and your tea cosy, I’m afraid I have to leave you to your own devices until the next post. You certainly can’t pour the water now; by the time I upload my final post in this series the tea would be stone cold.