It seems appropriate at the Christmas season to pay homage to my British roots and in particular to the venerable art of making tea. There comes a time when an Englishman must stand up and protest against the American custom of dousing a teabag in a cup, much of the time with lukewarm water! Shame on Simon Baker in his role on television as the Mentalist who dishonors his ancestors by dunking a tea bag in a cup! The British do not adhere to the custom of tea-making in the rigorous and elegant manner of the Japanese, but they have their own version of the ritual, which is an important ingredient in hospitality and has a certain spirituality to it. I begin everyday by having a cup of tea with God, one of the basics of my contemplative practice. One of the joys of life is to sit in a beautiful place, gazing on nature’s wonders, sipping a well made cup of tea.
Most places in the UK and Ireland that serve black tea will give it to you in a tea pot, and will use boiling water. Both of these ingredients are vital, and I would add that a teapot cosy is necessary also. A “cosy” is, as the name suggests, an insulated cover which keeps the temperature of the water as hot as possible while brewing. It may be made from any quilted material.
The kind of tea used depends on your taste. But please avoid the tea mass produced for the American market, which seems to be made from the dust left at the bottom of sacks of tea. British Blend or Irish Blend are acceptable, while PG Tips is very good. Twinings and Bigelow brands are good. The best teas I have ever had are from Fortnum and Mason’s in Piccadilly, London, but unless you go to London to buy them, they are very expensive. Upton Tea is a good on-line importer of tea. I should add that the following instructions relate to the preparation of black tea only, since green and herbal teas require different water temperatures.
A typical semi-formal British tea ritual might run as follows:
- The kettle is brought to a rolling boil and water poured into a tea pot.
- Water is swirled around the pot to warm it and then poured out.
- Loose black tea is put in the pot, although tea bags may also be used. The amount depends on the size of the pot and individual taste.
- Water is added to the pot and allowed to brew for three to five minutes while a tea cosy is placed on the pot to keep the tea hot.
- Milk or lemon may be added to the tea cup before or after the tea is poured. Sugar is also optional.
- A tea strainer is placed over the top of the cup and the tea is poured. The cup and saucer are handed to the guests, and usually biscuits (cookies) are provided to accompany the tea.
(At step 2 you may decaffeinate tea bags at the same time by rinsing them with the boiling water for 20 seconds and discarding the water)
The Japanese Zen tea master, Sen no Rikyu, (16th century) emphasized four principles of tea-making: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. I would say that a well made and served cup of tea in the British tradition does promote harmony, respect and tranquility amongst the guests, maybe some purity of thought also. Sharing tea from a teapot is a bit like sharing from the common cup at Holy Communion, an act of loving fellowship. When the family’s best porcelain china is used you will know that you are a special guest. Everyone deserves a little elegance in their life and drinking tea from the best china is a wonderful way of feeling special. It is almost proverbial amongst the British that a cup of tea solves the world’s problems, at least for a little while.