a nice cup of tea

Your comments on the last post have really got me thinking about many tea-related issues. . . Not least among these is the way that, unlike so many other British and Irish products, where tea is concerned brand loyalty is still strongly bound up with a sense of place. As the disturbing quantity of tea and tea-related kitchen wares might suggest above, I am a foolish devotee of Yorkshire Tea; Barry’s is apparently a Cork thing, in Belfast they like Nambarrie, in Newcastle, Ringtons. In Cumbria, you can still find Farrer’s “Lakeland Tea,” (delicious) Botham’s of Whitby makes “Resolution Tea” (also very good) and down the road in Musselburgh they blend Brodie’s “Famous Edinburgh Tea” which shamefully, despite almost a decade in this city, I’ve never tried. None of these teas are remotely fancy: they are ordinary everyday teas, all are available in convenient bag form; most seem to be tannin-rich, strong Indian blends; and all are, as I say, deeply associated with region. Without knowing much about this, I imagine these ‘regional’ branded teas must have begun to emerge when importers, merchants and blenders might also have had a chain of local shops and tea rooms, and began to market their own products – perhaps at the turn of the twentieth century. I think I now need to read much more about this. In the meantime, I realise that my local tea knowledge has a distinctly Northern flavour, so I would be really very grateful if those of you in the West Country, Wales, East Anglia, the Midlands, London and the South East could let me know of any existing regional teas that inspire brand loyalty among local communities in a similar manner to Barry’s, or to Yorkshire Tea. I shall then do a little research, and prepare a post, with a compendium of regional teas.

And just in case you were in any doubt at all that I LIKE TEA – bear in mind that this heartening image is the first thing I see when I open my eyes every morning. A good incentive to get up and put the kettle on.

It also occurred to me that many of you might be unaware of one of my favourite tea-related texts: George Orwell’s essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea”, which he published in the Evening Standard in 1946, and which I reproduce here for your amusement / edification. I love so many things about this essay – particularly the assumption that “a nice cup of tea” should make one feel “wiser, braver, and more optimistic.”At the height of rationing, “six teaspoons per pot” seems a bit excessive, and as Tom (or any other scientist) would tell you, the milk should definitely go in first so that it warms up slowly, and its proteins are not denatured. Otherwise, I find myself in general agreement with the remaining ten of Orwell’s “golden rules.”

(Orwell with a Nice Cup of Tea)

A Nice Cup of Tea

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the mainstays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

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. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connection with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilised the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

First published in The Evening Standard, January 12th, 1946