Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea - Part The First

How may I approach such an exalted topic? Do I dare presume to add to the reams already penned on the subject? Perhaps the via negativa is the way to go, since for some reason it seems easier to state what a thing is not than what it is: and so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you My Two Worst Ever Cups of Tea.

How well I remember my first cuppa in America: the memory pains me deeply, indeed, the wounds have scarcely healed after all these years. The waitress seemed to smirk as she delivered me a stone cold cup and saucer, on which lay a dispirited-looking teabag still in its paper envelope. Next to it, a small metal teapot betrayed no reassuring signs of heat; indeed, I could touch it quite comfortably with my bare fingertips.
Now, the first and cardinal rule of making tea, dinned into me since early childhood by every significant adult in my life, is this: Always Use Freshly Boiling Water.
Aghast at such a flagrant breaking of this law, but keenly aware that every passing second only made matters worse, I hastened the tea bag from its envelope into the cup. As expected, when I added the "boiling" contents of the teapot, the only perceptible change was a slight staining of the water in the immediate vicinity of the tea bag. Leaving it for several minutes did little to help, and neither did the addition of the synthetic contents of the little plastic pot of “creamer”.

It was the most insipid cup of tea I have ever had the misfortune to drink.

At the opposite end of the tea-making spectrum lies the choice brew served up by the zookeepers at Bristol Zoo. In his youth, my brother Ian (same name as our Eldest Son Iain, just with a different spelling) got a summer job tending the zoo’s animal inhabitants, and among his tasks was that of Chief Teamaker for the Animal Keepers’ Tea Break.  As he was to discover, there was quite an art to this, a strict protocol that came as something of a shock to Ian’s system, and had to be followed to the letter.
First, the pot. This was lined with a thick, tannin-rich scum, built up over years (decades?) of use and no cleaning whatsoever. Ian’s life nearly came to an untimely end the day he tried to help by giving the pot a good scour . . . His vocabulary was greatly enlarged that day, but there weren’t too many places he was welcome to try it out: certainly not at the Prentice family dinner table.
Next, the tea leaves which had to be PGTips (loose, of course—no sissy teabags for this rugged bunch.) How many teaspoons? Well, there’s a daft question! Just pour in the right amount, straight from the packet. If your spoon can stand up in the finished slurry, it’s strong enough. At this stage, milk and sugar were added and the whole given a thorough stir before the final stage: filling the pot with freshly boiling water (at last, something we can agree on!) stirring it once more and leaving it to steep for at least fifteen minutes to allow the full glory of the tannins to develop. Not tannic acid, mind you; this is not found in tea. Tannins, or thearubigins, are found a-plenty, and may cause antioxidant activity. Hooray! Tea’s a health food—I always knew as much!

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the magical brew favored by Mrs. Patmore, Agatha Christie (“Tea! Bless ordinary everyday afternoon tea!") as well as by my Welsh grandmother, whose every afternoon was punctuated at 4 o’clock on the dot by a singsong, “Now what I’d like is a nice cup of tea.” All other activity came to a halt until Gran had her Willow Pattern teacup in hand and an episode of The Archers, an early farming soap opera that she followed faithfully, on the radio.

But what went into making that daily cup of ambrosia will have to wait until Part The Second.

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