In Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” novels, protagonist Arthur Dent is a sort of everyman—or at least an every-Englishman—in extraordinary circumstances. Ripped from this green and pleasant land and sent travelling around the galaxy, he felt he could almost take it all in his stride if he just had a nice cup of tea.
So he asked the Nutri-Matic machine, creator of food for the space traveler, to make him a cup of tea but the Nutri-Matic didn’t know how. Arthur explained:
He told the Nutri-Matic about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon. He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun. He told it about silver teapots. He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn. He told it about putting in the milk before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded. He even told it (briefly) about the history of the East India Company.
“So that’s it, is it?” said the Nutri-Matic when he had finished.
“Yes,” said Arthur, “that is what I want.”
The problem of how to make tea proved so complex that the Nutri-Matic linked circuits with the ship’s computer; it took all their combined resources to make tea, which meant that for the duration vital functions like, say, steering weren’t available, and the crew almost died. And so we see that tea is a serious business.
As of part 4 of this series we’d got to the point (British English doesn’t use gotten) at which you had the tea leaves in the warmed (or unwarmed) pot with the water of whatever temperature you favour and the whole thing swaddled (or not) in a tea cosy. What’s next?
Well, there’s the contentious issue of how long you let the tea steep—if steeping is the right word.
After listening for almost twelve years when British people talk about tea, this is my understanding:
1) Brewing tea generally refers to the entire process of making tea.
2) Steeping is what the leaves do in the pot between the time you pour the water in and the time you pour the tea out.
3) Boiling covers only those situations in which the tea and the water boil over a burner on the hob (US: stovetop), and is pretty much confined to descriptions of making Indian chai.
4) Infusing is confusing. It refers to each steeping of the leaves, so if you refresh the pot (adding more water for a second round of tea from the same leaves) you’re making a second infusion. But it’s also the term usually chosen to describe making herbal or medicinal teas.
5) Some people use brewing, steeping, and infusing interchangeably anyway.
6) No matter which term you use, someone will be available to tell you that you are wrong.
That brings us to the vexed question of steeping time, which must have given the Nutri-Matic real trouble. How long you wait before pouring the tea depends on such factors as the type of tea, the hardness of the water, and how strong you like it; you could write a Ph.D. dissertation (UK: PhD thesis) on the problem, and no doubt someone already has. The good hostess of yesteryear whose acquaintance you made in Part 4 of this series would probably have made strong tea and diluted it with hot water from a kettle for anyone who preferred weaker tea; a fancy kettle—even sometimes a silver one—over a small burner would have been standing by, an ordinary part of her tea set. These days when you get a pot of tea at a tea shop you’re often given a second pot of hot water for diluting the tea once it’s poured or for refreshing the pot.
Will you put anything into your tea? I grew up drinking tea with lemon, but I’ve learned to prefer it the British way, with milk. This is the norm, and if you don’t want milk in your tea, you may get it anyway if you don’t speak up quickly, especially if whoever pours favors putting the milk in first (MIF), before the tea, a la Arthur Dent. The milk in last method (MIL) allows more time to fend off an unwanted dairy garnish. I didn’t make up those acronyms, by the way; do a Google search on either MIL or MIF with the word tea and you’ll see that they’re widely used and that the issue of whether the milk goes in first or last is discussed endlessly. Some families can be so dogmatic on the subject that suitors from the opposing camp may be considered inappropriate mates for the next generation.
(Some families are similarly dogmatic in the use of tea towels after you’ve finished your tea and washed the dishes; to rinse or not to rinse is another divisive issue. I was amazed to see people hand off dishes to be dried with soap suds on them, but it’s done all over the country by all kinds of people. When I asked friends they told me that marriages had failed over whether to rinse dishes, and it would be better if I didn’t bring up the subject.)
Some MIF drinkers will tell you that putting milk in first shows good breeding (though no one knows why that should be) and some that MIF ensures that the hot tea won’t crack delicate teacups (though china is sturdy stuff, and if you’re worried, a metal spoon in the cup is a good defense against cracked crockery). MIL drinkers feel that they can’t know how much milk they want until they see how strong the tea is. People of either opinion, if of a scientific turn of mind, may harangue you with talk of the denaturing of proteins .
Just as some people can tell (as I’ve mentioned) when a cup of tea has been made from twice-boiled water, some say they can tell by tasting whether their cuppa was created with MIL or MIF. One study determined that while the denaturing of milk proteins does occur differently depending upon whether you pour the milk into the tea or vice versa, it made no difference to the taste of the drink among the tea drinkers tested.
On the subject of sugar I’ve found no difference between American and British preferences except in vocabulary. You may have run across characters in British books asking “One lump or two?” or, if you read a different sort of book, plucky girls giving sugar lumps to their ponies. I was a bit disappointed to find that a sugar lump is only a sugar cube. People rarely say that here anyway, the conversation being shortened these days to “Sugar?” “Two, please.” If you serve sugar lumps/ cubes you need sugar tongs unless your guests don’t mind using their fingers; the cubes can be almost impossible to get out of some sugar bowls using a spoon.
And that, together with the four previous articles in the series, is pretty much the end of the story (except for biscuits and cakes, scones and crumpets, meringues and strawberries, but I’ll leave those later, to give people a break from tea-themed posts), and a long story it has been, involving all kinds of paraphernalia. Adding it all up, to serve a proper tea you need a teapot—or two if you’re going to offer both Indian and China tea—but that’s barely the start. Cups and saucers, spoons, milk jug (they don’t use the word pitcher here) and sugar bowl are obvious. You’ll need another pot for hot water (burner optional), and the caddy for the tea, with caddy spoon. Add a plate for lemon slices, and a tea cosy if you want. You may need sugar tongs, and you may want straining apparatus: mote spoon, tea strainer or tea ball.
But there’s one item found in tea sets here that I’ve not yet mentioned: a vessel called, with Anglo-Saxon bluntness, the slop bowl. It doesn’t sound like something that belongs on the table with bone china cups and silver spoons, but none of the tea drinkers and tea servers I’ve spoken to found anything odd about the name. (Of course you don’t have to use the stereotypical bone china and silver and most people don’t, but I’m assuming that if you’re drinking tea from big earthenware mugs, pouring milk straight from the bottle and sugar from the paper bag you bought it in, you aren’t going to worry much about the inappropriate nature of the word slop.) Such a bowl serves as the receptacle for the water used to warm the pot, for tea gone cold when the drinker wants a fresh cup, or for the tea leaves after they’ve been read. There are euphemisms—ort bowl and waste bowl sound better to me—but slop bowl it usually is.
Given that I don’t have a tea set (with or without slop bowl), I was surprised while writing this to realize that except for sugar tongs I could probably manage to put on a fancy tea party with the equipment I already have on hand—not that I’ve ever felt the need to. I didn’t mean to acquire a tea set; it’s all pieces I collected over the years, and of course they wouldn’t match. Still I’ve got everything I need—except, alas, a parlourmaid to hand the cups around.
Arthur Dent had no tea leaves and no tea set, all he had was a Nutri-Matic and the computer resources of the most sophisticated space ship ever built, but these did eventually produce a perfect cup of tea. But as Arthur Dent’s situation and his instructions to the Nutri-Matic show, we’re not just talking about a beverage, but of comfort, reassurance, history, tradition, and ritual. I rather think the name for that might be religion.