Friday, 18 April 2008

A Nice Cup Of Tea

I make a nice cup of tea.

I know exactly how to do it, too; I've been given precise, if not superfluous, instructions any number of times. I've also been told with wearying frequency that Americans don't know how to make tea properly, and desperate to show people that this isn't always the case, I have become an expert. For what it's worth, here is how it's done. (This is for Americans, of course, who don't know how to do it. If you are British, go ahead and skip this whole spiel unless you're game for a little tongue-in-the-cheek British bashing and a serious rant. My apologies to all of you who have lived, or live, in America. You'll know what I mean.)

1) Pour a little hot water into your teapot and swill it around. Leave it to sit and warm the pot thoroughly, then dry the pot and pop in some loose tea. One teaspoon for every tea-drinker, folks, and don't forget the extra spoonful for the teapot! (Tea bags? What are those? Promise me you weren't even thinking about using them!)

2) Boil a kettle of water. And don't dare turn off that kettle until it has reached a rolling boil.

3) Pour the rapidly boiling water over the tea leaves as fast as ever you can. Go on -- risk burning your wrist; it's that important.

4) Immediately put a tea cosy on that teapot! Don't let it sit uncovered for a single second!

5) Steep for at least five minutes. Pour tea into a mug that already has milk in it. That last part is important; it drives people in my husband's family wild if there isn't milk in that teacup first! (Putting milk in the cup first, I am told, is to protect one's fine bone china from cracking. Our fine bone china happens to be crappy old mugs from Tesco, but never mind; it's the idea.)

6) Smile graciously at the kindly British family member or friend who has been watching your every move with an eagle eye and offering helpful tips, such as "Wait until it's at a rolling boil, now!" just as the water is furiously boiling and you have timidly raised a hand, or "Remember the extra spoonful for the teapot," drowning out your murmured "And now a spoonful for the teapot."

I'll never forget the first time I offered to make the tea at my father-in-law's house. Other relatives were present, and no sooner had I innocently suggested taking over this ritual than there was an obvious hush in the conversation. Covert glances were quickly traded, and if there had been thought bubbles over everyone's heads, all of them would have read Uh oh.

I won't bore you with the details of how often I've had someone follow me into the kitchen issuing precise instructions. It is hard to be gracious and receptive about this; I always reassure people that I will not bring them a cup with a teabag in it and -- horror of horrors! -- an indifferently heated cup of water for them to steep it in. Because no matter how many times I tell them I know how to do it, I still get the exact same reaction as I did that very first time I offered to make the tea. Someone will look meaningfully at someone else and murmur, "Go with Mary, dear. Make sure she knows where everything is." Because they don't trust me with the tea. Without their supervision, God only knows what I might get up to in the kitchen.

Being the family's sole American can be a tiresome business. My husband's nephew is bound to tell me about the obnoxious, loudmouthed Yank who kept everybody at the airport waiting or an inebriated guest is sure to diss the American education system as being vastly inferior to the British. American racism, American obesity, and the unfortunate American fondness for SUVs and the effect this has on world oil prices are also favorite themes and ones that get trotted out at every other dinner party.

And when all else fails, someone will invariably remember that time they visited Houston or Atlanta or Orlando or San Francisco and -- would you credit it? -- they were given a cup of hot, not boiling, water and a tea bag -- and expected to drink it! And boy oh boy oh boy oh boy am I tired of hearing it.

Because I make a nice cup of tea, damn it, and don't you forget it.

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29 comments:

Carole said...

Would you mind popping over and fixing me some? Perhaps there is some redemption in fixing it your way. I don't know, I'm not overly fond of tea, but you make it sound lovely.

Do crumpets go with that? How do you make them?

Linda D. (sbk) said...

hmm ... seems Canadians might not know how to make tea either.

At our house ... dunk a tea bag into a cup. Boil the water and pour it into the cup over the bag. Add about 4 teaspoons of sugar to make it taste less like tea. Check sweetness by slurping from a spoon hovering above the cup. Add another 2 tsp.

How is this so wrong?? :)

debra said...

My English mother-in-law says that she hasn't had a decent cup of tea in years. #1 daughter went to a British store in New York City and bought some English breakfast tea for G'Ma. Wasn't good enough. Must be the water...

Kara said...

yeah well...the brits may know what's what when it comes to hot beverages...but i have on thing to say to them about cold ones.

ice.

Kara said...

one...one thing.

damn, totally ruined my "booyah" moment.

Susan Sandmore said...

URGH. I am frustrated for you! I've got an idea. Let's take their ol' tea and dump it right into the harbor!

laura said...

This is too wierd: I had just sat down at my desk at work with a cup of tea that I'd made in the microwave (forgive me) when I read this post. (Yes I get paid to blog at work. NOT!)I did use a tea bag but at least I put cream in it (does that lessen the shame?). I hate to admit that we're the bores from America who made family members come to get us at the train station at midnight(last year in Germany. Frantic appologies and explanations about train strikes etc...were met with deep sighs. After all what can you expect from people who shop at WalMart?

Ello said...

And what is wrong with Lipton? Snooty Brits. Just because it looks more like a feminine product than tea doesn't mean it's bad. Right? ;o)

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Yes, I can make crumpets. Ignore any recipe without potatoes in it and take great care when you're transferring the proofed muffins to a baking sheet: the bubbles burst easily. And until I make your tea for you, remember to bring your tea water to a rolling boil and don't forget to warm the teapot!

Linda -- Your tea-making method would have my in-laws up in arms, believe me! They would watch you do this the way a vegan watches a carnivore eat a rare steak. My immediate family drank tea without sugar, but when we visited relatives down South they did what you do and had it with sugar. Or rather, they had tea with their sugar.

Debra -- This is the awful thing, Debra. They're right about making tea, and that way I've described it is really the best way to make tea (or at least black tea). When we went back to the States, I stopped ordering tea in restaurants it was so horrible. All those years I'd been drinking it like that and thought it was fine. This is what my British family has done to me: they've made me a tea snob. They just won't admit that I'm in the know!

Kara -- Ooh, I have one or two things to say about cold beverages too! That British business of drinking warm beer, no matter how scientifically it is described, leaves me, well, cold. Bring me a nice cold beer, and bring it now!

Susan -- Yeah, what a great idea! Let's do that! If they won't let me into the party, I'll start my own! I think I'll refuse to pay taxes, too, until they officially admit I can do it.

Laura -- Oh God, no! Tea in a microwave? With cream in it? No-no-no-no-no! I feel like such a tea snob: my toes are curling at the thought! But not only have I also shopped at WalMart, I've shopped at K-mart. Also, I didn't know what a fish fork was for until I was over 30. So no matter how much of a tea snob I become, they'll never let me into the club.

Ello -- Wow, does Lipton tea really look like a feminine product now? What happened to that neat old carton with the salty sea dog on the cover, smoking his sailor-man pipe? Why did they have to get rid of that?

Gorilla Bananas said...

Suppose you like your tea black and sweet, as served in the middle east?

-eve- said...

Wow, I learnt a lesson today, Mary! That was a very detailed manual on how to make tea... ;-) I don't drink tea, but I like chilled brewed coffee (and ice-blended is even better), but don't know how to make it. Was intrigued by how everyone in your husband's family seemed to take tea so seriously; almost as if a properly-brewed cup of tea would be the deciding factor in making or breaking their day... (and it strikes me that perhaps, this is what my dad meant about 'cultural differences' when he advised me against mixed marriages! If I had a British mother-in-law who was hoping for a 'nice cuppa tea', I'd have to go attend a course first...! Or, I could always refer back to your post... ;-)

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Kim Ayres said...

Well I certainly enjoy your coffee. I'll have to try one of cups of tea next time I'm up. I'm pleased to know you don't use a microwave and cream... ;)

Mary Witzl said...

GB -- My husband, who used to live in North Africa, loves tea black and sweet. But he claims it only tastes right when the weather is so hot that you're sweating as much as you're drinking, and you can guess how often it gets like that in Scotland.

Eve -- Your father is right, and even though I'm a big fan of multicultural marriage, I'd be lying if I didn't say that they are full of this sort of cultural clash. And the whole issue of how to make tea is as nothing compared to issues like whether to cultivate a stiff upper lip or whine and moan all the time over trifles.

Vinho -- Cyber hugs to you too, my friend, but if you don't mind my suggesting this, how about an English language refresher course with a trained professional? A little work on punctuation and grammar and you'll be selling that Vinho like nobody's business! My rates are even more likeable than my blog, and I could use the job.

Kim -- Now I know why you asked for coffee when you visited! You might have been hoping for tea, but not wanting to offend me in my innate incompetence, you went for coffee instead!

allrileyedup said...

Americans. Making the world a worse place one tea bag at a time.

Next time you make tea, you should give them all a scare and ask where the microwave is.

Kappa no He said...

I remember my Chinese teacher telling us matter-of-factly what was in teabags..."the stuff they sweep off the floor".

So what kind of English tea do you like best? Darjeeling? I'm curious!

Brian said...

The post before this mentioned Darjeeling -- but I note that you yourself did not mention either a generic or a blend -- there are a lot of them , like Lapsang Suchong , Orange Pekoe and so on. Even the Green teas . Experiment with some of the Twining blends ! And I have drunk Yerba Mate that tastes like old hemp rope.

And yes , the source of the water does make a real difference -- Yorkshire tea for instance is blended to remove the taste of hard water resulting from the limestone

Milk in the cup first or last ? Wars have been fought over it ! The in-lasters claim that in first gives the tea a boiled milk taste

Good tea truly tickles the tastebuds-- and there is nothing like a billy tea brewed in the Oz bush

Brian

Travis Erwin said...

This post made me laugh. WE've all been instructed how to do something we already know how and it is always frustrating, but this situation seems even funnier.

Mary Witzl said...

Riley -- The funny thing is, even though everyone tells you that you are supposed to use real tea leaves, the truth is that most people in the U.K. use teabags -- an insidious American invention! You are right, though. I believe I will try that microwave trick next time, just to amuse myself.

Kappa -- I've heard that too, from a Chinese friend, and an Indian woman I once knew who worked in a factory where tea was packed. All the rubbish goes into teabags. If it were just tea rubbish, no problem. But I really do worry about what else might be on that floor... I'm an Earl Grey woman, but if I can't get that, then Assam is my favorite. And I loooove green tea, mugi-cha, and Oolong-cha, but of course you don't make that the same way. What kind of tea do you like?

Brian -- You are a tea man too!
I like Darjeeling, Lapsang Suchong, Assam, and Earl Grey hot, but orange Pekoe I prefer iced. In fact, one of the things I love about tea is how beautiful and exotic all the different varieties sound. Tea names sound far more poetic than coffee types.

When we ran our guest house, we kept a large stock of different kinds of tea, but our British guests almost invariably asked for PG Tips -- tea bag brewed tea. The Americans, Canadians, and Australians frequently asked for different kinds of tea, especially if they were second or third generation.

Tea brewed in the Oz bush sounds fantastic!

Travis -- Thank you for commenting on my blog!

I see that you are from Texas, and yet you know how to brew tea the real British way! Do me a favor and tell as many Americans as you can about this. Save me the trouble...

Kanani said...

Geesh, Oh my. They need to lighten up. Really.
A rolling boil?
Well, according to The Tea Master,they're wrong:

"1. Use whole tea. Do not use powdered tea bags. In studies we conducted using teabags versus whole teas, the teabags disappointed every single time.

2. Find a convenient implement. Chinese steeping cups might be the easiest--a porcelain cup with a lid and a porcelain basket inside that you remove after steeping. French coffee presses also work well, and many great teapots are available online.

3. Use pure water. Tap water contains chlorine and minerals which can drastically affect the taste of the tea.

4. Infuse the tea with warm water, not boiling. Green and white tea should be in the 160-180 degree range, while oolong and black can be hotter, but does not need to be boiling."

My mother made tea for ages and ages. Sometimes she used boiling, more often not. And we never used a tea cosy. NO! We had a proper insulated basket to throw the tea pot in that we got in Chinatown in San Francisco.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I had a professor who used to swear that Japanese/Chinese tea and 'western tea' were brewed differently. While black tea needed water to be at a rolling boil and subsequently had to be kept as hot as possible while steeping, green tea needed 160-180 degree water. He was very precise about his temperatures (and a weird, fussy guy about other things too), and maybe he had a point. We make oolong tea here a lot and never use water at a rolling boil. Same for barley tea (which isn't really tea, I suppose), green tea and jasmine tea (which is green tea with flowers in it, I think). But for British tea, oooh -- if I did it without water at a rolling boil, I'd be asking for trouble! (This is partly tongue-in-cheek. But partly serious: sometimes I get tired of being a foreigner wherever I go. Whiiiine.)

As for that pure water...sigh! I wish I could afford to use mountain spring water every time I made tea, but if I did, we could never afford wine.

K8 the Gr8 said...

*sigh* I always get comments like... 'tea should always be served hot', or 'my mum makes really good tea' when I serve a mugful.

I've been wondering about proper tea politics as nobody seems to want to tell me about them, so thank you!

The Anti-Wife said...

I have two words for you - HIGH MAINTENANCE! I love tea and rarely drink it out because of the tepid water problem. At home I have a hot pot that brings the water to a nice rolling boil, but I do use teabags most of the time - usually a nice English Breakfast, green tea, or plain old Liptons. I'm not much for the fancy flavors. I do occasionally buy loose tea and use an infuser to put it in. I don't like it loose in the pot cause it's just wierd. I'm sure your relatives would be appalled by me.

A Paperback Writer said...

I have escaped the whole tea thing in the UK because I have an excuse: I am a Mormon; I don't drink tea!!! (ha!)
However, I get the distinct impression the Brits have not yet forgiven us for that little affair in the Boston harbor involving tea a few years ago.....
(Once, when I was visiting Billingham for a folkfestival, an older man said to us, "Americans, eh? And from which colony do you come?" Being the obnoxious soul that I am, I replied, "From Utah, a former SPANISH possession, and never a British colony." That shut him up.)
I can just picture you left alone in the kitchen -- without proper tea supervision -- cackling madly as you stir up something truly horrid -- instant coffee!!
The next time they complain about Americans and tea, remind them that the Brits cannot for the life of them cook vegetables decently. (Carrots are not supposed to be the same consistency as mashed potatoes. And a salad should have more veggies than mayonaise. period.)
Of course, they won't listen. They don't even think we speak properly, since we're lousy at received pronunciation. (Okay, those are the Brits; most Scots I know don't care about that. They've been trodden upon by the Brits for their language since roughly the time of James IV, so many of them side with the Americans,since American grammar is more like Scots than British English is.)

Mary Witzl said...

Kate -- I'm glad to know that it's not just me, but my beef is that I really do follow the rules. In fact, despite my Yankness, I follow the rules better than most Brits (who as you may know happily use tea bags, which I would eschew if only I could). But they still give me fishy looks when I offer to make the tea, and that is why I'm whining. As for "My mum makes a really good cup of tea," though, I wouldn't take that. I'd serve him his tea in his lap and go call his mum to show HIM how to do it. But I am feeling particularly bolshy today...

Anti-wife -- The reason that tea bags are such a hit is because they do the measuring for you and they're easy to tidy up. I also suspect that the tea bits, being broken down so fine, infuse more quickly, so they save time, too. But although loose tea is a headache, it is absolutely superior. The issue of whether to use tea bags or loose tea doesn't bother most people here. What they hate is being served a cup with a tea bag in it and a flask of hot water that has traveled from the kitchen to wherever it is being served. THAT is the main gripe. As long as you keep that water at a rolling boil and let the tea steep a good long time, they'd forgive you just about anything.

APW -- I've enjoyed that colony question myself, being from California. Few things are more satisfying in life than puncturing the balloons of pompous people, and my husband enjoys watching me do this. Most people here, though, have never heard of the Boston Tea Party! Kids certainly haven't. Ditto taxation without representation and Paul Revere's ride. Sad, isn't it? John Paul Jones, born in Scotland, is more popular.

As for British food being bad, I must tell you that my sister-in-law is one of the best cooks I know. Ditto many of the people whose houses I have dined in. It is the restaurants that tend to serve cooked-to-death carrots and mushy peas. In fact, it is interesting that many Britons can and do tolerate bad food here when they go out to eat, though they absolutely know better and eat fairly well in their own homes. I can't quite figure it out: the very expensive restaurants tend to serve good food, and the reasonably priced ones serve food that is just okay. Cheap restaurants tend to serve food I don't want to eat -- or have eaten (including those salads composed of a few anemic vegetables swimming in a sea of mayonnaise). What is lacking is that great middle range that America does so well. AND variety. Sigh...

A Paperback Writer said...

Hence the popularity of curry takeaway....
Well, I cooked for myself most of the time I lived in Edinburgh, although I did drop by Elephants and Bagels now and then. My main experience with English cooking was while I was staying in Billingham in 1996. Now the stuff in Cambridge last summer was slightly better, as some of the veggies had their original shapes.
Glad you've had the colony question asked of you, too.
Hmmm. Not heard of the tea party? I hadn't thought of that. I know I was tremendously surpised to find that George III wasn't viewed negatively for mishandling and losing the colonies (and for being insane and generally a bad ruler). I got quite a shock on hearing praise for Benedict Arnold in a class once. I chuckled to learn that the Scots aren't all that impressed with John Paul Jones. And I was mildly surprised that my extremely brilliant professor, who was quoting Edmund Burke's commentaries on the American and French Revolutions, had never so much as heard of Patrick Henry when I quoted him as a response to Burke in a discussion group. Eyebrows went up on the other Americans in the room, too, for this was not the man on the street, but a PhD discussing revolutions of the 1700s and their affects on the UK. He'd just been discussing Franklin and Thomas Paine, but he'd never heard of Henry's famous speech to the Virginia Convention.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- That is interesting. I remember reading that Benedict Arnold, for all that he was certainly a traitor, was a brilliant, hard-working general who had been treated shabbily once too often, passed up for promotion, etc. That doesn't excuse what he did, but it does help to explain it. Another thing we never learned in school was that he most likely regretted what he did. Carolie (of Adventures in Japan) is his direct descendant, (she was kind enough to tell me this after my Frank & Jesse James post). If it hadn't been for Benedict Arnold, the Battle of Saratoga, a pivotal point in the Revolution, might never have been won. There is a monument dedicated to Arnold in the Saratoga National Historical Park; though it doesn't bear his name, it is dedicated to "the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army... winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution and for himself the rank of Major General." It is the only war memorial in the States that does not display the name of the man commemorated.

I have heard George III referred to in less than glowing terms here as 'the idiot who lost us the colonies.' George III is the best argument I can think of against the whole monarchy system.

Natalie said...

I feel your pain, Mary. It's the same for me here in Italy--just substitute "tea" for "pasta". Oy. My mother-in-law doesn't like it al dente (because it's harder to digest, according to her). So if I don't cook it long enough, I get to hear all the details of how this will mess up her pipes. Lovely, I know.

Come on over any day for tea...I've got Lipton in bags, and I won't tell your in-laws.

Mary Witzl said...

Hi, Natalie -- If I had to guess what they were fussy about in Italy, pasta would have been number one on the list! I'd happily join you for tea-bag tea; too bad Italy isn't closer.

Not long ago, my kids and I went out for ice cream and I ordered a hot fudge sundae. The hot fudge was not hot; there were no toasted nuts -- and you HAVE to have toasted nuts! -- and there was no whipped cream or Maraschino cherry! I was not pleased. Clearly, we Americans have things we like to be just so, too. You ought to see what passes for a hamburger here!