Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Nice Cuppa

Originally uploaded by Salihan

I have a tendency to discount what I know.  If I've had a skill for a long time, I take it for granted.  I know intellectually that all skills must be acquired somewhere, somehow, at some point in each person's life; and that I too had to learn all these things one by one.  But in many cases I figure everybody must already know all about something I know, and therefore it would be pointless if not condescending to write about it.  Having volunteers around my home and garden disabuses me of this attitude quite often.  And I love that.  I love being surprised by opportunities to teach things, pass along skills that I haven't given any conscious thought to in years.  It gives me an inkling of what it must be like to be a grandmother passing along to a new generation skills that were unremarked in her youth, but not so commonplace today. 

So I'm writing about something utterly quotidian in my home - making a pot of tea.  Maybe my first instinct was correct and this is quite familiar to all of you.  Maybe not.  I should say that my teacher in making a proper pot of tea was an elderly English lady who was old enough to be my grandmother.  She had lived through the Blitz in London, and came from a working class background.  Her formal education had been minimal (it would be appallingly deficient by today's standards), but she knew her way around a kettle and teapot.  When I knew her, she was a pensioner living very modestly in Cornwall.  I'm going to tell you exactly how she instructed me to make tea.

You will need a kettle, or some way to boil water, a teapot, teabags or loose leaf tea, teacups or mugs, a spoon, and whatever you like to add to your tea - milk, cream, lemon, sugar, etc.  For preference, you will also have a tea cozy for the pot, and your cups and the pot itself will be ceramic.  A timer is also handy, and you will need a strainer of some sort if you use loose leaf tea.  It is possible to make a perfectly good pot of tea with teabags, provided they are of good quality.  Loose leaf tea tends to be of high quality, while there is considerable variation in the quality of tea sold in teabags.

To begin with, boil a good quantity of water - more than you will want to serve as tea.  Bring the teapot as close as feasible to where the kettle is heating.  The saying was: "Bring the pot to the kettle; not the kettle to the pot."  This old rule may seem arbitrary, almost a superstition.  But really it has to do with making sure the water is at the right temperature for steeping the tea.  You don't want to carry the kettle very far, letting it cool all the while; having the pot near the kettle means it will also be near the heat source, and thus stay at a good temperature as well.  When the water comes to a full boil, turn off the heat and straightaway pour a modest quantity of the water into the pot, at least enough to fill one teacup.  Put the lid on, snug up the cozy, and let it stand for 1 minute.  If you don't have a tea cozy, you could improvise with a kitchen towel.  During this time, keep the kettle on the warm burner, but with the heat off.  After one minute, pour the water out of the teapot and into the teacups to preheat them.  You don't need to fill each cup to the brim, but you do need to empty the pot.

Add tea to the teapot.  Traditionally the rule of thumb was one for each cup of tea, plus one for the pot.  "One" in this case could be a teabag, or one heaping teaspoon of loose tea.  I find this produces an incredibly potent pot of tea when using teabags, but it's just about right for the loose tea.  I suspect teabags have gotten bigger since my lovely English mentor learned to make tea.  You may need to play around with this and see what works with the tea you prefer.

As soon as you've added the tea, pour the still hot water into the pot, put the lid on, and replace the cozy.  Set a timer for four minutes.  Tea needs extremely hot water to steep properly, and it needs that heat for a few critical minutes.  This is why it is impossible to brew decent tea in a paper cup with water from a hot tap.  It's also the reason preheating the pot is necessary.  However, never make tea with water that is boiling.  This is too hot, and it will produce tea with a bitter tannic flavor.  Letting the kettle sit for just about a minute lets the water cool to the optimal temperature. 

At some point during the steeping process, open the teapot briefly, and stir the tea leaves around with a spoon, or bob the teabags up and down a few times, then close everything up again.  Tea in the pot can sometimes just settle to the bottom, so that it's very thin and watery on top.  A gentle mix makes it more uniform and encourages better steeping.

When the four minutes are up, empty the water from the pre-heated teacups (you could use the still warm water to soak any dishes that need washing) and serve the tea, not forgetting to employ the strainer if you've used loose tea.  There's a great deal of form to tea drinking in England.  The upper classes have an absolute prohibition against putting milk or cream into the cup before the tea is added.  I think adding the sugar first is possibly less vulgar, but I'd need confirmation of that from a British reader.  I'm not aware of any rhyme or reason behind the horror of putting the milk in first.  As far as I know, it doesn't affect the tea.  It may simply be a case of a distinction without a difference, which the upper classes have decided signals a class division.

There is some flexibility with the amount of steeping time.  I find some teas are ready sooner, while others take a little more time.  It should never take more than five minutes though.  If you find the tea is weak and thin after five minutes, you didn't put enough tea in the pot.  If it's dark as coffee in less than three minutes, cut it back a bit or add more water next time.  Keep in mind that how the tea looks is less important than how it tastes.  Color and flavor are only loosely correlated.  Some teas release color very quickly during steeping, while releasing flavor more slowly.   Teabag manufacturers have a trick to their advantage.  The finer the particles of tea in the bag, the faster the water will darken.  And since we've been conditioned to appraise foods more with our eyes than with our tongues, this produces an attractive result.  But the finer the particles of tea, the more susceptible they are to aging and damage, both of which affect flavor.  It should go without saying too that very fine particles of tea are "waste" products from the processing of higher grades of tea; thus some companies buy the cheapest tea dust, knowing it will produce a pleasingly dark cup of tea anyway. So beware a teabag that produces an instantly dark tea.  Taste is the real criterion.  I don't say that all teabags contain poor quality tea, but pay attention if you want to use teabags.  If you're very curious, you could open a teabag and examine the size of the tea bits inside.  There are no absolutes, because much depends on how the tea has been stored and how old it is.  But in general larger particle size will indicate higher quality.

So there you have it.  Boil water, preheat the pot 1 minute, preheat the cups while the tea steeps, steep for 3-5 minutes, stir the pot once during steeping, serve hot.  I've written a lot about making tea, and it may sound now like a complicated procedure. I hope not.  For me it's a simple, familiar and comforting morning ritual.  It's not instant gratification, but I like the process of making tea.  I often think very fondly of my tea mentor, especially when stirring the tea while it steeps.  An English gentleman once told me, when he observed me stirring the tea in the pot, that it reminded him of his grandmother, and that he hadn't seen anyone doing this in decades.  It made me smile.  I like feeling connected to old ways of doing things, even if they weren't passed down to me through my own family.


window into our life of love, joy, and adventures! said...

It is always wonderful to learn something new! I will keep this in mind when my daughter in love and her family come over this fall for my daughters wedding! My daughter in love and her family are British. As the young couple are living in England at the moment I am sure my son is learning to appreciate tea being served in a different manner than we do it here in the states!

Jaimie said...

Wow, I didn't know a single step of this. My tea-making ritual goes like this:

1. Put tea bag or container of loose tea into mug.

2. Pour in boiling water.

This sounds like a wonderful ritual although one that I'm not sure I could master or focus on, especially with little kids running around and vying for my attention!

Accidental Prepper said...

Yum, tea. When I was growing up, the best tea in the world was made by my Aunt Jean. She made it in a pyrex coffee pot repurposed for tea, and it set on a wire pot offset on a burner turned on low on the back of the stove all.

To make it, she would boil some water in the kettle, and turn the burner on low under the tea pot. When the water boiled, she put 3 or 4 teabags into the tea pot and immediately poured in the boiling water, and it would set for a few minutes and be ready to drink.

As the day progressed, she would add more teabags and more boiling water. If it was heavy tea-drinking day, when the pot got to be 1/3 full of bags, she start a fresh pot.

It was some good tea, and I don't recall every tasting better tea than the 'black tar' she brewed.

Dea-chan said...

I've heard that some forms of porcelain were more sensitive to the hot water, and that by pouring the hot tea into the cup before cooling it with milk proved that you had bone china, instead of any of those silly imitations. I forget where I got this...

Bellen said...

In college, I was a Home Ec major, one of my professors in Quantity Food Production instructed us that to deal with tea or coffee at an event add your cream & sugar to the cup first - thus to avoid having to deal with the addition of a spoon as it would not be necessary to stir. This was ONLY allowable at a stand-up to eat affair, otherwise it was absolutely the poorest of manners. With the extensive use of mugs, this makes sense.

I like the tea ritual whether for myself or a group - it's comforting, relaxing, and make one aware of what you're doing.

Fran said...

I am from the UK and I have to say that most of the time for me, and most of the people I know, tea is made just like Jaimie says, teabag in cup and hot water and milk. However, if I have guests to tea I do use a teapot and loose tea. When I serve the tea, I pour the tea into the cup and then milk from the milk jug, which gives the guest the opportunity to say how much milk they would like. Sugar is then added (sugar cubes with tongs) to taste. Sugar is added last so that it can dissolve in the hot tea. The guest then is served and stirs their own sugar in to the tea. xxx

meemsnyc said...

Being of Asian descent, I always love a good pot of tea. This year, we are growing our own chamomile tea leaves!

Homemade Alaska said...

I LOVE this post, thanks so much. I'm pretty generally guilty of the teabag in the cup method, but I am growing some herbs for tea and was just drooling over some lovely loose leaf tea, but didn't buy it because I didn't know how to make it!

Summersweet Farm said...

I find this often too; skills like making bread or painting a room that I just take for granted until someone mentions that they "couldn't possibly do that" and I pipe up with "let me show you!"

I heard once that the milk-before-or-after debate stems from one being more conscious of the quality of the tea (hence perhaps the entry of class division). If you put the milk in after the tea is poured, you can more accurately gauge how much milk to add. If you put the milk in first and say, the tea is weaker than usual or there's not enough left, then you've preemptively diluted it too much. -shrug- I like milk, and I like tea, but I find it splashes less when I add milk afterwards.

Katy said...

Thanks for a fun post! It's always interesting to read about other people's little domestic rituals. About six months ago I finally found a lovely little teapot at Goodwill, and since then my 4-year-old son and I often enjoy a cup of tea together in the afternoons. I started buying loose tea to avoid the waste of tea bags, and after several months I have found that tea made from tea bags (Choice Organic) tastes like dust. The difference in taste is really amazing. I use a tea ball rather than a filter because it's less messy. Now I'll have to try warming the pot too!

Jennifer Montero said...

It's wonderful to have a skill that, everytime you use it, brings back fond memories of the person that first taught it to you. What a great post.

Living in England, I've learned to drink a LOT of tea. It seems to me it's used to stave off hunger instead of snacking, and it's a primary social activity. We must drink nearly a dozen cups a day for both reasons.

My ex-MIL who was quite a superstitious person got really queer with me when she caught me stirring tea in a pot. She told me doing that it "stirs up trouble" and I should leave the pot to its business. I have taken her advice, just in case!

Kate said...

Window, as you can see if you read Jennifer's comment, tea methodology differs even among the British. I'm sure a teapot is a good start though, a nod to British traditions.

Jaimie, that's pretty much how I made tea until I was taught this method. I think I've stuck with this method so faithfully in part because the woman who taught me was so kind and dear to me. It's so much a part of my life that I take the necessary equipment on the rare occasions I travel. Try it out when you have the chance and see if you prefer it to what you're doing now.

Accidental Prepper, emotional memories of people often get bound up with food and eating for me too. I know that chai is made in India by boiling tea leaves, and I know that's good. So I can't square it too easily with what I was taught about not using boiling water. Unless it's the case that the spices they add cover any off flavors. Anyway, to each his/her own. I just wanted to share the method I was taught.

Dea-chan, that's the first thing I've heard which explains where the practice comes from. Not that it's a terribly logical basis for a prohibition against milk first. But it's an explanation nonetheless. Thanks!

Bellen, that's rather interesting. First of all, I've never heard of a Home Ec major in college. How cool! Secondly, it's interesting that necessity made something that was poor manners in other circumstances, the way to go. I assume that even when standing up, one would have a spare hand to stir a spoon in a cup. Verrry interesting.

Fran, thanks for a datapoint that hails from (by way of?) the UK.

meemsnyc, yes, I'm utterly devoted to the teapot. I know that Asian cultures have their own ways with tea. Chamomile for tea, eh? And it's the leaves you collect? I sort of thought it would be the flower heads or buds that the tea was made from. Either way, it's pretty cool that you're growing your own.

Homemade Alaska, you're quite welcome and I hope it's useful to you. There's nothing guilty about teabags in cups. I was just presenting my tea ritual.

Summersweet Farm, thanks for another feasible explanation of the milk-in-tea thing. Good to hear from a fellow irrepressible teacher.

Katy, I agree that domestic rituals can be fascinating. I'm glad to hear you're starting a tea ritual with your son. I have the same reaction to many brands of teabags now. I think once you've really accustomed yourself to good quality tea, you really notice it when you come across poor quality tea in a teabag. I find that Twinings is generally a good brand, as is PG Tips, a popular English brand. They both also sell loose leaf, which I think is superior in both cases.

Jennifer, thanks for sharing your MIL's strong views on stirring tea in the pot. I like hearing about superstitions; they're always interesting to me. I can well imagine that your ability to hold your tea has improved during your residence in England. I'm glad I don't live there myself though - if I drink tea much after lunchtime I have trouble sleeping. But I always loved traveling to the British Isles; it was the one place I didn't have to pack the electric kettle, teapot and tea for. I agree that tea staves off hunger - in the early stages at least. Once I'm truly hungry it seems to make it worse.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Count me among those who had no idea.

So, what else do you know?

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife said...

Like Jaimie & Fran, our tea usually consists of a(n admittedly very good quality) tea bag with boiling water most of the time, but have a couple of teapots for leaf teas, or when we're anticipating drinking more than a mugful of green tea etc.

Pot or mug, water is always poured in immediately after it boils - and as-thin-as-us-clumsy-people-can-get-away-with china mugs are used to minimise the heat lost to contact with the cold ceramic.

Milk, when we have it, is always added afterwards in our household - as Summersweet Farm says, the amount needed varies drastically according to the type of tea and sometimes that can only be known once the tea is ready for drinking.

I might be wrong but I always thought sugar was seen as uncouth and lower class so from a snobbish etiquette point of view, you're common whenever you add it (says the girl who has two sugars in her tea). I usually add it afterwards though because I love holding the spoon in the water and watching it turn to syrup then sliding off :)

I'd agree with Jennifer on the snack/staving off hunger thing - we also use it to have an excuse for a break during the day. We don't drink anything like a dozen cups though - my partner John maybe has five cups a day, and just two or three for me (I used to only have two or three a week - he's got me addicted ;) ). Like you Kate, I can't have it after mid-afternoon though or I'm awake all night.

Grace said...

What a wonderful post. I make tea just this way. Folks generally look at me like I'm crazy to be so picky, but it makes a big difference in the quality of the cup. I also find the ritual of it comforting and friendly and homey. Thanks for this post.

Laurie Graves said...

Recently, in a movie, Emma Thompson took the first sip of tea and said, "Ah, lovely."

I often feel the same way.

Do you have favorite brands of tea?

Great post!

Laurie Graves said...

Recently, in a movie, Emma Thompson took the first sip of tea and said, "Ah, lovely."

I often feel the same way.

Do you have favorite brands of tea?

Great post!

saving for travel said...

Being from England having a 'cuppa' as the more ordinary folk say is a standard daily ritual. I love tea served in a pretty teapot but you have taught me how to make the ultimate cuppa. THANK YOU!
I also indulge in AFTERNOON TEA ideally served in a pretty cottage garden (We have the pretty cottage and are working on the garden-lots of hollyhocks, foxgloves etc..). Mr sft (OH) likes to put milk in first, I prefer after not because I am posh but because I can judge the strength of tea.
AFTERNOON TEA should also consist of dainty sandwiches, cake stand, scones, jam and clotted cream (made in the west country) AND OF COURSE TEA! We eat off my collection of bone china plates from summer fayres and charity shops. ABSOLUTE BLISS!

sft x

Kate said...

Tamar, that's sort of the problem. I don't really recognize what I know until something jolts me out of my assumptions.

Louisa, interesting point about thin cups sucking less heat away from the tea. I like my heavy mugs, but maybe it's because I pre-heat them. I like my tea served scalding hot. I never considered that thin cups would keep tea hot longer. Thanks!

Grace, I agree that it makes a difference in the quality of the tea, but also that there's something about the ritual itself that I like.

Laurie, I don't have favorite brands so much, as favorite tea vendors and styles of tea. I like Peet's for several of their teas, but lately I've been extremely impressed by the fair trade organic teas sold by Mountain Rose Herbs. They're bargains! In general I like Assam and Ceylon teas, also Irish or English Breakfast. For teabags I go with PG Tips, Twinings, or occasionally Newman's Own. Lipton's organic and Newman's Own make excellent sun tea.

saving, glad you found the post useful. Your garden setting for afternoon tea sounds lovely. I well remember the Cornish clotted cream of my earlier travels. Divine!

tory said...

When I lived in Europe, the English women would sometimes describe someone as

"Rather milk in first, darling"

It always struck my American ears as seriously snobbish. It was, of course, a way of indicating the the person was not quite up to their class standards.

Haven't thought of that in years but your remark reminded me of it!

Jennifer Montero said...

Tory - I've heard that too. And if you call someone a MIF (milk in first) it's a derogatory term meaning pretentious or snobby.

MIFs prefer Earl Grey tea, whereas us common folk prefer 'builder's tea' - strong tea with milk, usually with lots of sugar. The milk's added last to builder's tea so you don't dilute the tea too much. Manual laborers need the caffeine and sugar!

Hazel said...

Now I was already to comment and say that although I know how to brew a pot of tea, we, like the rest of your UK readers, mostly dangle a teabag in a mug.

And in our case, this is because DH drinks 'proper' tea and I drink Earl Grey. (Incidentally, did you know that Earl Grey is the tea of choice for Marxists? That's because all proper tea is theft....Sorry. Favourite tea-related joke. Ahem.)
But now Jennifer says that makes me a MIF!

I did used to drink builders tea, but I can't bear the smell of warm milk, and after years of milky tea at work when you've asked for just a drop of milk, I gave up and now drink it black. This led to Earl Grey.(That makes it sound like a gateway drug. I can stop at any time, you know.) So does having no milk save me from being 'rather milk in first'?!

I do agree that stopping for a nice cup of tea is psychological as much as anything else. I suddenly flag when I realise I haven't had a cup of tea all day.I couldn't drink coffee all day the way I drink tea.
Oh, and the mug is vital. DH thinks it hilarious, but I have to have a thin cup to drink tea out of. Coffee doesn't matter so much, but I have particular 'tea' mugs I use.

Interesting post, thanks Kate!

Anonymous said...

Kate just picked up your blog. Terrific piece on tea. However the pic of the kitty with the teapot is making me crazy. I covet the tea cozy. I know that it isn't your pic. I tracked back to the source looking for the directions. In fact I've been all over the web looking for the pattern. Do you have it perchance? Anyone out there have it? It has invoked some sort of genetic memory of my crocheting Scottish grandmothers. Their spirits must be obeyed! Silly I know. Thanks in advance. Bonnie

Erin said...

I left my automatic coffee pot long ago, and I thought the press took a lot of patience at first.
Now it's just routine. I bet it would be the same if I made tea this way.
Routine's like this are so meditative. Kind of like when I hand mop my 110 yr. old wood floors.
I've been trying to make the switch from coffee to tea, and this sounds so lovely I'm truly inspired!!

Teri said...

I am just as fussy about my tea, but I take a few shortcuts. I put hot water from the tap into the teapot and cups, while the tea water is heating up. I use loose tea, preferably lapsang souchong, in a strainer. And I put half and half with honey in my tea. In my world, if I have tea, honey and half n half, life is good. I've even managed to convert my boyfriend over to tea. There's nothing quite like smoky tea.

Kate said...

Tory, too funny! That would have cracked me up.

Jennifer, that puts me solidly in the working class then. Earl Grey is one of the few teas I really dislike. It's the bergamot - not to my taste.

Hazel, I'd never call you a MIF, in either sense of the phrase!

Bonnie, the person who posted the picture to flickr, Salihan, blogged about it at her blog, but it doesn't look as though the directions were included. Check it out though:

Erin, I'm always happy to lure coffee drinkers over to the dark side. Welcome!

Teri, I'm right there with you. A good cuppa tea in the morning means life can't be all that bad.

debbie said...

My grandparents being English, taught me how to make tea, exactly this way. I only drink Earl Grey tea, black with a bit of sugar. My daughter had only had EG tea and was at a friends house and they asked her if she wanted a cup of tea ( she was around 10 or 11) and she said yes. They served her a Red Rose or Tetley, and she asked, Is this tea? I have to have my tea in a china cup or mug, but my coffee in a thicker mug. It just doesn't taste the same otherwise.

pedleyfigg said...

The importance of tea making is really far more about the calmative affect. Like wearing your favourite jumper (sweater). As another Brit who drink nothing but Earl Grey for years I have to say that teabag and maybe milk in mug, add boiling water and remove bag is the easiest and most common method here. It is to goodness that is the first sip that is the most important bit.

Patricia said...

What an absolutely charming post about an absolutely charming ritual. I get it! I get it so completely that I'm sitting here CRAVING a proper cup o' tea. Thank you! Now I have to find a teapot. I had one -- just one -- that had belonged to my mother and let it go. Now I'm sorry because it's clear to me that a proper cup o' tea can only be made in a teapot. I think I'll get ready for my new teapot by knitting a tea cozy. You see what you've done to me??? It's crazy, but I'm honestly enchanted.

Anonymous said...

No addition to the instructions, but I would like to add to the "pot to the kettle..." The verse as my grandmother recited:

Bring the pot to the kettle, not the kettle to the pot,
And serve the tea while it's hot, hot, hot.