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« Killer garlanded and showered with rose petals....(omar) | Main | Brief and Scattered Thoughts From Tucson (Jesse Schaefer) »

January 07, 2011

Comments

As a godless person and a tea lover, I could not agree with Hitch more. His caution and care regarding brewing a good pot of tea are exactly correct. And yes, it has to be Indian or Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) tea leaves that yield a proper cup of English tea.

No matter how tired or groggy I am in the morning, I assiduously prepare a pot of tea every day using loose leaves, strainer, milk (no sugar) and the whole nine yards. The water must come to a boil and the tea pot rinsed with hot water prior to infusion. For the last year or so, I have been crestfallen that due to some import-license problems, the Lipton (India) Darjeeling loose tea is no longer available in American stores. (Twining's or Bigelow's Darjeeling tea bags just won't do) I have found a couple of acceptable alternative brands of Darjeeling loose-leaf tea on Amazon.com at exorbitant prices. I am paying the premium to get my daily morning dose of the fragrant brew. The rest of the day, I am okay with tea bags.

Norm, I once wrote about tea here although it was more about the china than the preparation of the beverage. It was inspired by one of Aditya Dev Sood's articles on 3QD.

Incidentally, this line in Hitchens' essay caught my eye and had me nodding.

Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried.

Why DO Americans pronounce "herb" as "erb?" It took me a couple of years after moving to the US to get used to saying "I need gas (instead of petrol) for the car." Now after thirty years, I still cannot swallow the "h" in herb.

Ruchira, I'm coming to Houston immediately to take your teabags away. There is only one teabag that can live in my house -- Canarino, an Italian herbal tisane that is very lemony. Norman, I think you're getting it. Your tea life will improve, henceforth.

I am just now reading a fascinating book on how the Brits inculcated Indians with the cult of tea, with "tea representatives" going into Indian homes to show them how to make tea properly as late as the 1930s. Did you know about this? That tea was not popular in India until relatively recently? It was known, but had many more applications as medicine than as a stimulant or a thing to drink for pleasure and comfort. Now what???

Elatia, that is true. Indians did not drink tea the way they do now until the Brits came. I don't know about house visits by the English tea cognoscenti though. I thought that Indians just picked it up by watching the colonialists do it. Remember, most upper class British households in India employed local people as servants and cooks. The knowledge must have spread through the "domestics" grapevine. The Indian elite followed the British way of tea making in their homes, exactly as Hitchens recommends. But guess what. The villagers didn't quite take to the pale, slightly acrid, little milk & sugar variety of the concoction. In rural north India, a hearty cup of tea is made by boiling creamy milk, water and tea leaves together. Generous heapings of sugar are added in the cup or the pot. For extra special flavor, a couple of sticks of cinnamon and a few pods of cardamom are thrown in with the boiling mixture. Tea is still used for its medicinal value and depending on the malady, ginger, basel, neem leaves or liquorice are common additives.

By the way, in south India, coffee is the brew of choice for most.

The mention of 'bag' in any discussion of tea is anathema of the order of uttering the word 'instant' to an espresso fiend, comparable even to holocaust denial, or finally, to a Japanese woman denying her culture by extolling an abominable western invention. Equally reprehensible, and nauseating to me, is the Indian custom of boiling the shit out of a mix of tea, high fat milk, a handful of sugar and an overpowering blend of spices that has found favor in America, prepackaged as 'chai'. In between, and well removed from these extremes, there are a number of processes espoused by tea fanciers, each to his own taste, whose common elements are a pot, water at the boil, and a specific type of leaf tea. The stuff to be found festering in bags is just reward to the terminally otiose and impatient, for it consists of the sweepings from the process of sorting and blending the fermented and dried leaves of the tea plant. [Did I beat you to it Dean?]
It took me half a lifetime to settle on my implements - the cast iron pots favored by the Japanese and Chinese - one for green tea and one for black. As for the leaf, I depend on the discriminating palate of a young friend from Hyderabad who shows up at my door every year bearing a half-kilo package from some bespoke tea merchant, which I immediately transfer to an air-tight container that is kept in the darkest depths of a kitchen cabinet, A few times a month I have powerful cravings for tea that last all evening, and on those occasions I bless my friend for his excellent taste. Once in a blue moon I am after a raunchy experience and do the unthinkable of adding a dash of Lapsang Souchong to Orange Pekoe. De gustibus ...
Of green teas I know even less, except that one day I got off a tour bus in SIngapore, wandered into a tea shop, and was presented a double-thimbleful of a clear saffron-tinted liquid that approximated heaven. I bust my Visa for a tin of the stuff and am still enjoying my hoard seven years later. For my money the Taiwanese are the best at this game.
'Nuff said, because coffee is my stimulant of choice and I daren't impose on true connoisseurs of cha / thé / tea. As usual, Hitchens had nothing to say to me, besides which, tea as the English drink it is less than what it's cracked up to be.

My bad for neglecting that other indispensible of tea drinking. Soon after moving to PA I asked our receptionist, a friendly old soul, if she knew where I might buy a tea-cosy. She was puzzled - "What's that?". It took a few minutes to educate her and I made her a sketch of one. The next day she brought me one that she had made overnight, a thing of beauty that I still have after twenty years. Nothing I've seen in the stores comes close to it. Thanks Louise, wherever you are.


Here is George Orwell's definitive essay on making tea.

A Nice Cup of Tea
By George Orwell
Evening Standard, 12 January 1946.

If you look up 'tea' in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial.

Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase 'a nice cup of tea' invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one's tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one's ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

(taken from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45, Penguin ISBN, 0-14-00-3153-7)

Narayan,
the only encounter I've had with 'chai' that was truly delectable came in the form of a chai + whisky hot toddy. The chai had been brewed extra strong and then made into a simple syrup and melded wonderfully with the bourbon (I wouldn't use a scotch)a most wonderful concoction for freezing nights.

Narayan, I am assuming the cast iron pots are lined with a ceramic glaze? There's an area of China celebrated for dark purple clay which makes a superb teapot. I bought one as a guilty offering to someone I'd accidentally wronged (oof! long story!) and she said it was worth it being screwed over by me for the teapot. Does anyone know the stuff I mean> It's the last word in tea snobbery, and I seem to have misplaced it!

Also, Naraan, I am trying to visualize a tea cosy on a cast iron pot from Asia. Failing...


This is an abridged version of George Orwell's essay on making tea. It will fit on one page is pasted into a Word document. Then you can secure it to your refrigerator with a magnet, or tape it on pantry door where you keep your stash of tea.

A Nice Cup of Tea
By George Orwell

Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

1. [U]se Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues...but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.

2. [T]ea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot....The teapot should be made of china or earthenware....[A] pewter teapot...is not so bad.

3. [T]he pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.

4. [T]ea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart,...six heaped teaspoons would be about right....[T]rue tea lovers...like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger ..each year...[.]

5. [T]ea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea....[I]f the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.

6. [T]ake the teapot to the kettle and not the other way....[W]ater should be boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.

7. [A]fter making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

8. [D]rink out of a good ...cylindrical...cup, not the flat, shallow type. [With t]he...other kind one's tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

9. [P]our the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

10. [P]our tea into the cup first[,]...whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

11. [T]ea...should be drunk without sugar....[H]ow can you call yourself a...tea lover if you destroy the flavour...meant to be bitter....[Y]ou are no longer tasting the tea...[.]

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become....It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out ...the twenty good, strong cups...that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.


@ Ruchira:

A couple of years ago, a friend was appalled by my lack of appreciation for good tea. For many years she ordered tea for herself from a catalog. I looked at the catalog and thought it was like a reference document for oenophiles - wines, estates, and vintages. I had no idea one could select from so many teas, the countries of origin, regions, estates, altitude within an estate, etc.

As a gesture of great charity (and probably pity) she ordered a gift tin for me. The label reads:

Upton Tea
Packed on [date] for
[My friend's name]
Puttabong Estate 2nd Fl (DJ-292)
DARJEELING SFTGFOP1
TDE6T: 100G net (1+ tsp./3min./212F)
Imported and Packed by
Upton Tea Imports 1-800-234-8327
Purveyor of the World's Finest Tea
www.uptontea.com
140Q

She ordered another tea for me this past year. This time I had to pay for it - no more pity. This is the label information:

Upton Tea
Packed on [date] for
[My friend's name]
Steinthal Estate 2nd Fl (DJ-57)
DARJEELING SFTGFOP1
TD36: Net Wt 125g(4.4oz) (1tsp./3min./212F)
Imported and Packed by
Upton Tea Imports 1-800-234-8327
Purveyor of the World's Finest Tea
www.uptontea.com
226-M

Both teas are delicious.

Elatia : My black pot, a gift, is a knock-off from Joyce Chen and conventionally rotund. The green pot is fancier and squat, a Marshall's remainder, also a gift. My girl-friend is a prolific giver of gifts and in these instances I have not looked the horse in the mouth. In the words of the song - "though it's just a simple melody - nothing fancy, nothing much" - they both work for me, and if they were lined when new, years of rough use have rectified that nicety. It is a tribute to Louise's magic art that her cosy snuggles each well enough, considering that she had to imagine and execute its design overnight.

Jesse : The Germans make a tea liqueur under the name Tiffin that might be your cup.

Sniff- I'm not much of a tea drinker- it's confined to when I visit friends and get offered a cup of hot tea, which I accept to prolong the visit. And I stand by and watch as the fresh ginger gets crushed, tossed in the water as it reaches boil, tea leaves, milk and sugar being added to the cups after the tea goes in ("Just half a spoon, please"- looking at the mammoth tea/table spoon being used to measure the sugar).

We have some bagged hogswill at the office, which I use to faintly flavor the tepid 'hot water' that issues from the coffee makers, sustenance till lunch time.

Let's face it, I am a coffee drinker, always have been, since I was first introduced to the vice in high school. I'm still in search of the perfect cup of South Indian coffee, not being particularly fond of the American method. My musings on the subject are here.

Nice post. I love it. Waiting your new posts. Thank you...

I like chai, though typically with a minimalist spice-set than is found in spice mixes or in supermarket/Starbucks chai - just ginger, or ginger with some crushed pepper, or just cardamom, and the whole boiled thrice, twice with milk. The sound of bubbling liquid, the leaves and spices rising or sinking as the tea boils, the aromas, turning the heat down just before the tea overflows..making tea is almost more fun than drinking it, like a simple chemistry experiment.

I didn't think I'd like American-style chai, with vanilla or even caramel, and cinnamon, lots of it. It's quite pleasant though, provided sugar levels are kept manageable. I figure there's no reason for an Indian to get overly hung-up on authenticity issues regarding a Chinese idea hyped by the British.

Not liking coffee was how I proved to my filter-coffee loving family I was a Delhiite.


@ Ruchira:

I loved your article on tea, tea sets, and the link to Aditya Dev Sood's article on 3QD. The quote you selected from Aditya was superb.

Where else could I post an article about tea, declare my ignorance and the absurdity of my assumptions, and receive wonderful lessons about childhood and faraway memories, cultural anthropology, ethnic and national pride, fascinating etymological roots, geography, herbs and spices, a short excursion into coffee perfection [thank you Sujatha,] and the pleasures (and disappointments) of favorite brewed drinks?

I love it, here, at Accidental Blogger.

By the way, this is my second day of Orwell's recommendation to drink strong, unsweetened tea (properly brewed, of course) for two weeks. It is bitter; it is the real taste of tea; I think I like it; and, for the first time ever, I am sufficiently caffeinated by tea.

You go, Prasad. Delhi-wallahs zindabad!

I too occasionally enjoy the "spiced chai" in its minimalistic incarnation. The ready-made mixes are overwhelming and obscure the real tea flavor. I therefore make my own.

In the context of Chai-Tea, let me tell you a mildly funny story about reverse linguistic snobbery of a clueless American hipster. My son once asked for a cup "tea" at a concert food stall which was offering spiced-chai. The young man quipped with a superior air that what he was selling was "Chai" (excuse me!), not the plebian "tea."

Norman, I am glad you are getting comfortable at Accidental Blogger. Remember I told you that you would? See the caption of our blog - "Cerebral Table Talk." I may as well have added, "preferably with a cup of tea." We do try to have serious exchanges here but we don't take ourselves too seriously. I too enjoyed writing that post about my mother's tea-sets. It was a very pleasant remembrance.

Ruchira, I suppose that, as the origin of the word, "herb" is Latin via French, the real question is why those who speak British English insist on pronouncing what was originally a silent "h."

Sujatha, I enjoyed your blog post on coffee, which perhaps reveals my own bias as a person who generally takes my caffeine in that form. Both good Italian brands (like Lavazza, widely available in gourmet markets in the US) and French brands often include robusta as well as arabica in their blends, whatever the snobs say. And American coffees labeled as "New Orleans coffee," such as that sold by Cafe du Monde, include chicory (though not 47%!).

Jewish immigrants to NY in the early 20th century, like others from Eastern Europe, drank tea from samovars-- in the real FOB tradition with a lump of sugar held in the teeth or a spoonful of jelly. I know no Jews of my generation, or even my parents', who still do this, though some families, like Andrew's father's (to his uncle), have passed down the giant, sometimes ornate samovars.

My mother enjoys tea, and recently acquired some kind of special machine that automatically brews it, from loose leaf, at different temperatures and to different lengths of time depending on the type of tea. I have no idea of the value of such a device to someone who enjoys tea (I don't think she does either, but was talked into it by my father, a fan of gadgets). But while I appreciate ceremony and tradition and effort for the sake of taste, I have found modern American tea culture, as it exists here in the Bay Area, somewhat precious-- heavy on special varietals and implements solely for the sake of being in the know. Certainly coffee culture can be so, as well. Our local FroYo joint sells the coffee of the local gourmet roaster (Bluebottle) under a contract that required the FroYo joint to install cameras to ensure that its workers were individually drip brewing each cup to the roaster's specifications. It's just that I don't know of any non-precious tea culture here. But perhaps that will change with time and the not so self-conscious preferences of tea-drinking immigrants.

Norman, Anna,

Glad that you enjoyed my post on the Coffee experiments.
Maybe I will try the Lavazza,as you suggest, Anna. The reviews on amazon.com for it seem promising.

Ruchira,

I think that I can survive the table talk if it is a particular strong cup of masala chai. Just don't ask me to make it ;)

Loose leaf is definatly the way to go. For years I drank coffee and had to quit recently. It was misserable until I found loose leaf tea and now I can't see myself ever drinking a cup of coffee again. There is so much more flavor than the tea bags.

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