If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several ofthe most important points.
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays ofcivilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject ofviolent disputes.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I findno fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others areacutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one ofwhich I regard as golden:
First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China teahas 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 oftea’ 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 ina cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be madeof china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produceinferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough apewter 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 outwith hot water. Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, ifyou are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoonswould be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea thatcan be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that onestrong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea loversnot only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger witheach year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra rationissued 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 potit 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 breakfastcup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half coldbefore one has well started on it. Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using itfor tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste. Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one ofthe most controversial points of all; indeed in every family inBritain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, butI maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactlyregulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too muchmilk 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 aminority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover ifyou destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It wouldbe equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to bebitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you areno longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you couldmake 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.
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 thecarpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sureof wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of thattwo ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.