|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.