When I began working from home one of my mantras was that every cup of tea was to be enjoyed. The idea was – is – that too often this cheap source of enjoyment, like too many others, is missed in the blur of contemporary life. With a moment’s pause great pleasure can be squeezed from the deceptively simple seeming dried leaves of Camellia sinensis which offers innumerable variations of blend, style, origin, ways of processing…
Tea is dangerously close to being cool these days, one of its celebrity advocates Moby who opened Teany in New York’s Lower Eastside in 2002: “I started a tea shop with my ex-girlfriend because at the time it seemed like a much healthier alternative to opening a bar,” he tells us: “We both loved tea because it’s healthy, tasty, varied, and one of the only drinks that allows someone to be a connoisseur for less than $5.”
As I write this I am sipping a mug of Keemum tea, brewed for five minutes to extract the maximum flavour, served with a mere cloud of milk. It is at once fruity and perfumed – it smells like a craft store. Earlier today I drank a cup of Earl Grey, black (and not spoiled with lemon either), heady with oil of Bergamot, brewed for less than a minute to retain its finesse. Two moments of gourmet wonder that cost perhaps 15 cents each.
Travelling the world in a previous career introduced me to the diverse ways in which different peoples prepare their tea. Living in the then USSR a residual delicacy was strong black tea served in a glass within a filigree metal holder, always drunk sweetened, on good days with a spoon of jam instead of sugar, a Chekhovian instant. In India there was Chai, milky, sweet and spiced, almost a meal in a cup. In China endless thimble-cups of green tea, the water used to brew it in that case not allowed to boil. And in the USA the best option certainly always used to be iced tea. Perhaps some sort of national aversion to hot tea came about in Boston harbour on December 16 1773, though it seems Moby and his ilk have at last moved things on – Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins fame another, his recently opened ZuZu’s tea house in Highland Park, Chicago, inspired by his travels where the medicinal uses of tea attracted him, as did the aesthetic surrounding the drink.
There is indeed a whole world of tea to explore. At one extreme stands Lapsang Souchong, a black tea which in trade terms has been lengthily fermented/oxidized, which in reality means the leaves once picked are left in store to darken and develop tannins, then for that variety are smoked. It is not subtle. At the other green tea, processed to halt oxidation, subtle and herbal. And in between the too little encountered white tea, barely oxidised it always tastes like it’s doing you good; Oolong, a touch more tannic, and the un-smoked black tea that provides the cuppa without which British civilisation would crumble.
As with so many inventions – paper, gunpowder, printing – the Chinese got there first with tea, but the British can take some credit for spreading its use, introducing commercial growing in the early 19th century into India and what is now Sri Lanka, and eventually Kenya too. So credit us with bringing the world the smooth delicacy of Darjeeling, the assertiveness of the deep and full-bodied Assam, and the subtlety and fragrance of Nilgiri.
But while I’d recommend seeking out such pure delights, don’t despise the blend. This is an art, the adept magically incorporating the best aspects of several teas in one mix. These do not necessarily have to be refined – English Breakfast Tea is perhaps the best-known blend, made to stand up to a meal of bacon, eggs, sausage, fried bread and if you are lucky black (blood) pudding.
So with a little buying effort, and taking a few minutes to brew it correctly, every cup of tea can be a pleasure. And while it is not the performance or philosophical tour de force of the Japanese or the Chinese Gongfu Chadao tea ceremony, consider enhancing your experience of black tea at least with the British version: warm the pot and cup (China tea cup of course, ideally Wedgewood, and on a saucer please) with boiling water, then empty them. Add leaf tea to the pot (one heaped teaspoonful per cup and ‘one for the pot’), then pour on freshly boiled water – it must be as near boiling as possible, hence the rule pot to kettle not kettle to pot. Let the tea brew to the strength desired. Put the milk, if desired, in the cup first (never after the tea please), then pour on the fragrant brown liquid through a strainer to capture the leaves. Drink once it is not going to burn the mouth. And think how much a similar taste experience with say a single malt or a glass of champagne would have cost you.