Many an Englishman wouldn’t go a day without consuming at least one cup of tea. Be his preference an awakening mug first thing, a relaxing evening brew, or indeed both. The difference between a good and bad brew however treads a fine line, causing the argument of how to make tea properly a continuous subject of debate. With our modern, worldly tastes and options often overlooking the simple yet majestic pleasure of English Breakfast Tea, when a perfectly brewed cup falls into our hands there are few pleasures comparable. If there is an English bone in his body, it would be a gentlemanly sin for the modern man to not be partial to a cup of tea.
One of the most everyday of British tasks has its proper methods, yet we each have our own ideas on what makes tea so wonderful and how to make it so. The rest of the world may not quite understand the wonders of a good brew quite like we do on these fair isles but that is because they simply do not know the correct methods by which to make one properly. It is because of this that some of our most influential writers – George Orwell, Douglas Adams, and Christopher Hitchens have all felt compelled to write brilliant essays on what makes the perfect cup of tea…
The great Socialist writer wrote many an essay on how he thought the world should be (The Moon Under Water is his particularly good description of a utopian pub) and in this one he lists his eleven rules for making the perfect the cup of tea:
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.
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.
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.
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 recognised in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
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.
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.
After making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
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.
One should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
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.
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.
To complement Orwell’s ideas, also read Douglas Adams’ ‘Tea’ in which the author of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ explains to Americans their common brewing mistakes. Also Christopher Hitchens’ ‘How To Make A Decent Cup Of Tea’ in which, similarly to Adams, he informs those across the pond how to do it right, taking his cue from Orwell’s Golden Rules. We’d say it’s about time to put the kettle on?