Monday, March 14, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea: Part the Third.

What You Will Need: One ceramic teapot; cups or mugs of fine bone china; tea bags or, for the purist, loose-leaf tea; a small jug of 4% milk; sugar lumps and tongs.

Fill the kettle with enough water for as many cups of tea as you desire. Bear in mind that there is a drought here in Southern California, and refrain from filling the pot for an entire rugger team if all you want is one cup for yourself. Even if there is no drought where you live, there very well could be. Besides, using power to heat all that water just to throw it away doesn't make sense. End of politically correct admonition.

Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. What is that? Let me tell you what it is not: if you see little bubbles all around the edge politely popping as if to say, Will this do? The answer is an emphatic no, it will not. If the entire contents of the kettle are seething with bubbles that refuse to give up, that's more like it! Notice that the bubbles keep popping as you remove the kettle from the source of heat and take it to….

… Oh crumbs, I forgot about the tea! While the kettle is coming to the boil, heat the pot with water from the hot tap. This will take no more than two minutes. Drought hint number two: use the teapot water to heat the cups or mugs. What should these be made of? There is little doubt in my mind that tea tastes better drunk from bone china. There is equally little doubt that the more expensive china has been crossed with lemmings: put it anywhere near the edge of a table and it will hurtle to its doom the second your back is turned. Thwart its self-destructive tendencies by purchasing pre-used cups from the thrift store, and save the best stuff until you have friendly eyes to help you watch over it and there are no happy Great Dane tails wagging enthusiastically at prime teacup level.

A word about cleanliness: the saying, "what the eye don't see, the heart don't grieve for" might have been made for teapots. Why else would a Brown Betty be brown, if not to hide the thin patina of scum remaining from previous brews? (Relish, if you will, "patina" and "scum" appearing in the same sentence. If you look up "patina" you'll see that it's a bit of a stretch applied to a ceramic teapot since it usually describes metal, but anything in the cause of tea, wouldn't you agree?) The same cannot, however, be said of teacups; these must be scrupulously clean and, drought or no drought, equally scrupulously rinsed. There's nothing more destructive to an ace cuppa than the chemical tang of dish soap.

My favorite tea is Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Blend, which I buy from Amazon in boxes of 160 bags, and very good it is, indeed it is. My husband Robin, on the other hand, swears by Barry’s Irish. The funny thing is that blind taste tests have proved that neither one of us can tell the difference, yet we stick faithfully to our avowed favorite.  Both are best when allowed to steep no more than ten minutes; theoretically, tea bags can more readily be removed than loose leaves; I wish I could say that I do so with any regularity.

I close with two anecdotes that illustrate rather different tastes in tea strength. When breakfasting in a B&B in Clonmacnoise, Eire, Robin was offered a pot of tea with his full Irish breakfast. Somewhat to his surprise, the waitress produced a little tin teapot from her apron pocket and asked him in all seriousness, “Will you be taking five bags or six?” Without skipping a beat, he opted for six.

On the other extreme, my mother was helping the Ladies’ Guild of her church in Everett, Washington, as they prepared tea for a social function. Quite a number of guests were expected, and the Enormous Ceremonial Urn was brought out and filled with (almost) boiling water. The person in charge of teabags dug out from the back of a cupboard a half-empty box of Lipton’s that looked as if it had been there for years; having unwrapped the first, she reached for a second, saying brightly, “I don’t think two would be too many, do you?”

It’s as well my mother had no liquid in her mouth at the time, or it would have surely ended up sprayed through her nose. Many’s the chuckle we’ve enjoyed over that story: “To each his own,” indeed!         


  1. I didn't know the water needed to be a rolling boil! And I love the tips on heating the tea pot and tea cups with hot water first!

  2. Heating the pot improves the flavor of the tea, while heating the cups keeps the tea hot longer.
    Amazing how much there is to find out, isn't it!