It is some time since I held forth on what William Cowper described as “the cup that cheers but does not inebriate”, namely tea, so perhaps a post on the subject is due.
Like most people brought up in Britain, I was introduced to tea at an early age. In fact, I have no memories of my first draught of the comforting brew. My mother would put plenty of milk in my tea, perhaps thinking this was good for me. In those days we had no refrigerator and in summer, the milk, which often languished on the doorstep in the sun for some time before being brought indoors, suffered as a result. When I asked why they were white blobs floating on top of my tea and why this tasted odd, I was told it was because the cows had been moved to their summer pasture where the grass tasted different. Thus do parents lie to their children with the best intentions in the world.
Perhaps because of my acquired suspicion of milk, I tended to take less and less of it in my tea and to make this stronger and stronger. The final break came when I embraced vegetarianism a couple of decades ago. Like many a new veggie, I was “more Catholic than the Pope” and strove to do away with animal products as far as possible. I therefore tried using soya milk in my tea. Quite apart from its strange taste to the milk-habituated palate (you either love it or hate it), soya milk has an unfortunate tendency to coagulate in hot liquids, sinking to form a sludge at the bottom of the cup, reminding me of my childhood encounters with sour cows’ milk. I therefore did the reasonable thing and eschewed milk altogether.
Far from being a sacrifice, this proved a new beginning. I soon discovered the true delights of tea in its naked glory. Suddenly, there was a vast array of different teas with distinctive flavours and textures available for me to try. And try them I did. I had a cupboard full of half-empty packets of every sort of tea from green tea and fermented tea to herbal teas. In an effort to bring some order into the chaos I gathered up all the remnants and combined them in one mass. I expected the result to be so-so and was startled at just how good the blend was. So good, in fact, that I carefully investigated the main components and thereafter made up more of the blend for daily use.
What was this wonderful mixture which I alone in our household seemed to appreciate? Here is the recipe as it became: two parts Keemun to one part Formosa Oolong and one part Lapsang Suchong. I find Lapsang a bit too much taken by itself but in a blend its smokey taste adds character to the brew. The irony of this discovery only struck me the other day when, researching sources of Russian Caravan tea, I discovered my recipe being sold under that name. I had invented Russian Caravan tea, apparently!
The world seems divided into two groups, tea-lovers and tea-haters. If you are one of the latter, there is no more to say, but if one of the former, then you will know that the subject of tea is a very deep one. Throughout much of my life, our favourite brew was stigmatized as being diuretic and we were advised to drink plenty of water to compensate. This worried me as I drank little but tea. Water? Fit for cleaning your teeth in and that’s about it… Imagine my joy, then, at the recent re-evaluation of tea which says that not only is it not a diuretic but that it is actually better for you than water! I’ll drink to that.
On our travels, we make frequent stops for tea. In hot weather, Tigger likes a cold drink, but hot weather or cold, come sunshine, hail or snow, I stick with tea. I am told that a hot drink is more cooling in summer than a cold one. I am not sure I believe it (wouldn’t that logic require that we warm up in winter by taking cold drinks?) but I find tea truly a drink for all seasons.
I am not a tea snob but I do have firm ideas about tea. I only use tea bags if I really have to. To make the best cup of tea you need proper loose leaf tea and to give it room to brew. A teapot is best but that is often inconvenient, especially when making tea just for yourself. The next best thing, I find, is to use a filter, either in a pot or a mug. Muji sells a darling little nylon one for £1.50 that is perfect for the job. The market is full of gadgets for making tea but the old simple method remains the best.
Britain is almost synonymous with tea. Even the famous Asterix books make fun of the British and their tea. But tea is spreading. When we were in Paris recently, I drank tea all the time as I do in Britain. No one raised an eyebrow when I asked for it and it was every bit as good as the tea served here. A world with tea in it is a better world. Let’s all drink to that!