“There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson – transcendentalist (25 May, 1803 – 27 April, 1882)
THERE is a perception that the British are obsessed with tea. It’s true.
Once one cup of strong English Breakfast tea (bag still in, a dash of milk and absolutely no sugar) is done, it’s time to think about the next.
The kettle’s forever on. Its whistle is music to my ears for it means I’ll soon be sitting with a cup of delight. It has to be hotter than the sun with the steam rising up from it like solar flares.
Whatever way you take tea, it’s a mainstay of British culture.
There is nothing that can’t be solved with a good old brew.
It’s part of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality.
The mantra Keep Calm and Carry On was emblazoned on one of three posters created by the British government’s Ministry of Information as war broke out in 1939.
The others read, ‘Freedom Is In Peril, Defend It With All Your Might,’ and ‘Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory.’
It’s the stiff upper lip demeanour Brits are famed for.
Whenever I fell over as a child and grazed my knees, I would get hugs, kisses and a nice hot cup of tea.
Somehow everything would be right with the world again and I would soon head back out to play, my wounds forgotten.
Tea, along with laughter, is the best medicine.
In Britain, whenever you return home from a hard day’s work, an afternoon stroll or from a night out on the tiles, from anywhere or anything, you put the kettle on.
It’s the first thing a Brit does once they go through their front door.
When a friend comes to visit often they will call you when they’re about five minutes away asking you to, “Stick the kettle on will you?”
It’s part of the culture; it’s a way of life.
Tea was introduced to the British Isles via the coffee houses of the 17th century.
It was 355 years ago that Thomas Garway, who owned two London coffee houses popular with writers, journalists, doctors and scientists, offered tea to his punters.
He sold both cups of tea and leaves so they could make their own brews at home.
A few years later he took out a broadsheet advert extolling the virtues of tea at “making the body active and lusty” and “preserving perfect health until extreme old age.”
By 1700 hundreds of coffee houses were selling tea.
Pub landlords were annoyed because people were favouring tea over ale and liquor and the government were miffed because they depended on revenue from taxes on alcohol.
But by 1750 it was established as the nation’s favourite drink.
One of our greatest authors and journalists, George Orwell, even wrote an essay in 1946 giving step by step instructions on how to make that perfect cuppa.
Entitled A Nice Cup of Tea and appearing in the Evening Standard, Orwell lists eleven “golden rules” on how to make “the perfect cup of tea”.
Here is how Orwell liked his tea, and I can’t help but agree with him:
“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 Britannia-ware 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 realised 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.”
Many of my friends are obsessed with coffee, and although I partake in a cup very occasionally I find it diametrically different to tea.
For me, coffee is like a storm in a teacup. It gees you up, gets you going, sets you off like a spinning top.
Tea represents meditation in a mug. It’s soothing, relaxing and touches the soul. It’s liquid sunshine.
It’s a real treat for me to hold a huge molten-hot mug of tea in both hands as the steam floats up in front of my face. Often I am inspired and this is what transpired when I was last enjoying a cup of bliss…
BEING: Journeying rivers flow quickly to eternal infinity, etching kaleidoscopic ground through the landscape of destiny, north to east from morn to night, but I look at the stars and realise they’re you and me.
“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses… whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea…”
Marcel Proust – novelist (10 July, 1871 – 18 November, 1922)
* If these words have struck a chord with you and you would like to make a donation, please go to cerebra.org.uk. Cerebra is a UK charity which improves the lives of children with brain-related neurological conditions. It uses (non-animal) research and unique treatments and helps children and their carers.