“She’s going to blow!”
The gentlemen may have found it amusing. I did not. We had often stopped at this particular place for a pot of tea mid-afternoon and it was always a pleasant pause beside the fire of the old coaching inn. It had been bad enough when they stopped serving pieces of fudge with the tea, but you can understand the economics of that. What I couldn’t understand was the move away from teapots.
The first time I spotted this aberration, I was too shocked to voice my disapproval…for at least a minute. The waiter brought out the customary tray with cups, saucers and the usual accoutrements…. but the tea was in things that looked like mini-cafetières. A novel idea… but it was all for show, wasn’t it? The tea would still brew in the glass contraptions.
Not so. It was not to be allowed to do so. With a deft plunge, the brewing process was stopped in its tracks, the tea poured, and the contraptions removed before I had time to protest.
This was almost as bad as the lukewarm water that is served with a tea-bag on the side…but not quite. It only got worse from there…
Most people are aware of the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It was a protest against those in charge of tea and the wider implications of how that beverage was delivered that led directly to the American Revolution. Well, much more of this, and it will happen here too. And I’ll be holding the banner.
I am not, by and large, a tea drinker these days. Coffee is my usual tipple and as long as it is strong, full of flavour and caffeine, I’m not too fussy how, where or in what it is brewed. From the IV infusion to the tiny espresso; providing it is decent coffee, I am happy.
Tea, on the other hand, is not so much a drink as an institution. Especially to a Yorkshire lass. There are only two types of tea that are acceptable… none of your fancy fruit or herbal things, none of your Earl Grey perfumed with bergamot… they have their place and can be delightful. But not when you want a proper cuppa.
Growing up in the north, there were, as I said, only two types of tea and both began with black tea leaves. The first is served in huge mugs. This is known outside of my home county as ‘builders’ tea’. In the north, it needs no such picturesque description. It is a beverage strong enough to fell a team of builders. In my childhood, tea was something I associated with great-granny; there was always a pot of the stuff stewing beside the black-leaded range. Most of what didn’t get drunk went on great-granny’s hair… which, incidentally, stayed black until she was in her nineties. The tea-leaves were given to the hydrangeas to preserve their colour. The inside of the tea-pot was encrusted with a permanent layer of tanin and when you had a cup of tea from that pot, you knew about it.
The second type of tea was completely different. It was still the same rich mahogany colour… the strength varied little… and always had a vague hint of the orange peel that was placed in the tea caddy to keep the leaves in perfect condition. There were several tea caddys; one, the chinoiserie tin that everyone had, lived in the larder and was used daily. The other, more elaborate caddys, lived on the big mahogany dresser and were relics of a time when tea was even more of a ritual than in my youth.
The difference was in the way it was once-brewed, never stewed. It was made in the other pot and served in the best bone-china cups and saucers, usually with the ‘apostle spoons’ nestling beside the cup. It would have the starring role in afternoon tea and was as much a ritual as the cha no yu.
The table, laid with starched, white linens, held small sandwiches and huge scones, fresh from the oven. Probably a slab of fruit cake with cheese (you can’t have one without the other) and possibly something else…often granny’s feather-iced coffee-cake. The china sparkled, the sugar came in cubes with silver tongs and the milk in its own china jug. Everything matched… except the teapot, a great earthenware affair in shades of brown, swaddled in a knitted tea-cosy to keep it warm.
These are my memories. This was my education…my induction into the mysteries of the tea-table. This was tea as it ought to be.
Our next visit to the coaching inn elicited a sigh of relief. There had obviously been some mistake on our previous visit. A new tea-boy, perhaps… a lack of teapots… an attempt to go upmarket that had been abandoned in favour of common sense. Whatever it was, when the waiter brought the tea… still sans fudge…. it once again came in teapots. I smiled, I thanked the waiter, I lifted the lid of the teapot to stir the tea, encouraging the leaves to release their aromatic essence…
There was no tea in the tea. Not a leaf, not even a tea bag. I looked at my companions…
I was not amused.
Now, a pot of tea is a Great British Institution. You cannot even contemplate any attempt to run the country without tea. But the true beauty of tea is as both a perfect, unassailable right and rite of individuality and self-expression. Everyone takes it differently… everyone has their own vision of perfection. Yet it all stems from a humble leaf. A pot of tea (and it always comes with a pot of hot water for the necessary adjustments) is the one beverage that can be relied upon to adjust itself to your tastes and requirements. And yet this Great British Institution is being undermined.
Why? Economics? If the inn wanted to save a few pennies, why not offer cups of tea, instead of pots? Why dirty four teapots to serve a bland, pre-determined beverage that robs us each of us of choice and self expression?
Or is that the point? Yet another avenue to force us into a placid conformity that accepts the pap it is offered without complaint? Striking at the very roots of our national beverage, this lack of tea in tea has me questioning what exactly we are being served… instant tea? Is it even tea at all… fake tea?
And being British, we smile sweetly and do not complain. Yet another institution that is being insidiously whittled away in order to edge us into mindless compliance?
I know, it is a small thing… just a pot of tea. But is that all it is? It would be bad enough on its own, but added to the regimentation our societies are adopting, the Orwellian Big Brother nanny-ism, aligned with the large percentage of mindless oblivion that is fed to us via the media and it makes you wonder…
Is this just a minor blip or part of the move herding us towards sheepledom?
Therefore, I believe that someone must stand up for the humble pot of tea and state their unwillingness to let it disappear into the mists of memory. And, as an outright act of rebellion (and in the hope that a certain, nameless establishment might take note), I hereby offer you…
…how to make a pot of tea….properly
1. Boil some water… pour it into the pot to begin warming it. You can warm the cups too while you are there.
2. Run the tap and get fresh water… getting oxygen in the water helps the flavour. Don’t ask me why, but it does. Never boil the water for tea-making more than once, for the same reason… keep the oxygen in there. Put water on to boil.
3. When the water is almost boiling, empty the now-warm teapot and add one heaped teaspoon of tea leaves per person… and a generous ‘one for the pot’. You can use tea bags… if you must.
4. When the water boils, pour it immediately over the tea leaves. Tea needs heat to release its full flavour. Stir and wrap in something warm and wooly… then wait… this is crucial… wait. At least five minutes.
5. Pour cold milk, if you take milk at all, into the cups before straining the tea into the cup. You can add hot water to weaken the tea, if that is your preference…it takes all sorts… but at least start with something decently brewed! (If you are using a tea bag in a mug, the same steps apply, but only add milk after the tea has brewed.)