‘A Nice Cup of Tea’
Today I came across Christopher Hitchens’ typically brash and brilliant writing, this time praising the virtues of a well-prepared cup of tea. Awash in tea myself, I figured it a good idea to learn something from our English friends, tea connoisseurs if ever there were. Hitchens is updating a post-WWII article by Orwell, in which Orwell expounds the 11 rules of proper tea-making:
…tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.
…Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don’t trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.
And Orwell’s article is, as usual, worth the read:
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 area cutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden…These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized 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.
Certainly, Orwell’s discussion of adding milk to the tea clouds the issue a bit, as this is a distinctly English/Indian tradition. Otherwise, I think he hits on all the minutiae with precision. Points 5 and 6:
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.
I think this is a fun topic because I’m surrounded by tea as a way of life. True to the theory, Azerbaijanis take their teapot to the boiling kettle of water. And nobody really worries about the tea leaves. The rules of Azerbaijani tea-preparation are fewer (sans the milk and all), but no less precise. The first thing is to make sure that water is as hot as possible. I’m convinced that Azeris have found a level of boiling temperature that is higher than our standard conception of “boiling point”. From there, you pour your boiling water into the teapot with leaves at the ready, launched into a submerged swirl amidst the bubbling water. As the leaves dance and settle, you let them steep in the teapot for four-to-six minutes. Now here is the excitement: You have created a deep, dark, rich pot of tea that is probably too strong for a normal human being to taste alone. Instead, you add the steeped brew to your glass or teacup in an appropriate amount (usually less than half the cup), and then top it off with more beyond-boiling water. This creates the most impressively hot cup of tea I’ve ever had in my life. Admittedly, this sometimes leads to a weaker cup of tea, but that’s easily remedied by adding more of the teapot brew. After that, the steps stray radically from Orwell and Hitchens’ recommendations. Heaping spoons of sugar are added, or they are consumed in cube form, held between the teeth as your tea slips through them. I’m with the Englishmen on this one: a strong, bitter tea is well-drunk.
I count about six rules represented there, which I think is enough. For those unconverted in America, I strongly suggest you take on some recommendations from Orwell, Hitchens, and my Azeri community. Nobody is going to turn me away from coffee, but a scorching cup of strong tea is tough to beat.