Maybe it’s the time of year, maybe it’s the colder weather…. But all of a sudden, a number of the people around me have taken a great interest in hot tea. English hot tea. What in my family we refer to as a proper cuppa – as in “cup of tea.”
Because I grew up in England, I have been anointed as a sort of tea expert, it seems – a source of all knowledge on what tea bags to buy, what size of tea pot, what cups are best, whether to use milk, and so forth. Well, it’s true – I do have very strong opinions on the matter of tea. So... rather than run from this responsibility, I have decided to embrace the task. Here follows my official north London gospel of tea.
First, let me put the kettle on…. In England, this is the standard response to any situation – good news, let me put the kettle on; bad day, let me put the kettle on; national tragedy, I’ll just put the kettle on. We all need a good cup of tea. Tea is comfort, celebration, sustenance, love.
Now that the kettle is on the boil, let’s talk about tea bags.
It really makes a difference if you buy good tea. None of this grocery store “iced tea bag” or even fancy individual bags with strings. Go with something that says it’s from England, or even better from India or Sri Lanka or Kenya. Good black tea – it can’t be floor shavings. Would you make coffee with grated crayons? And still call it coffee? Well, then I can’t reach you... For today’s example, we’ll use my favorite English tea bags - PG Tips.
Before we go any further, we need to warm the teapot. Pour some hot water into the tea pot and sluice it around, making sure that the entire pot is warm to the touch. Then tip out the water. The pot is now ready to make tea. I’ve heard various explanations about the reason for warming the pot. A distant relative in Canada once showed me his family heirloom tea set. The tea pot had a big crack right across the base. He told me sadly that he had once tried to make tea in that pot and had poured boiling water directly into it. The china cracked at the shock of the hot water and the pot was ruined except as a decoration. That precaution only seems to hold for fine china, but even for more ordinary porcelain or steel, it’s still good to warm the pot so you don’t chill your tea water on arrival.
OK, so now put your tea in the pot. The rule of thumb here is one teabag per person, plus “one for the pot.” Two people, three bags. Three people, four bags. You get the idea. If that sounds like a lot, then prepare yourself for a taste revolution. Tea should be strong and deep brown. None of this weak-as-water stuff people pass off as tea. Your spoon should almost stand up in the cup.
By now, our kettle has come to a rolling boil.
At the Friendly’s I worked at back in the 90s, we would use the warm water from the coffee maker to make what we called tea. My grandma saw me doing that one time and about disowned me on the spot. No, the water must be brought to a boil – and then used immediately – no boiling the oxygen out of the water.
Pour the boiling water onto the tea bags in your well-warmed pot. Put the lid on the pot. And now wait for the tea to steep, or to “mash” as they say in Yorkshire. Three to five minutes is perfect. Less than that and the tea isn’t strong enough. More than that and the tea starts to “stew.”
While the tea is steeping, milk your cups. Two percent or whole milk only, please. English people argue over whether milk should go in the cup before or after the tea. I am a firm pre-lactarian, as they say. A short finger of milk in the cup or mug. And then, when the tea is properly brewed, pour the rich, deep, intoxicating, comforting brown elixir into each cup, on top of the milk, letting the contents mix perfectly together.
Ah, the lifeblood of the nation, we always said: what an excellent “cuppa.”
Music: "Katie's Tea" by Camille