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Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Perfect Cup of Tea

One word: WANT.

Recently, I've been reading a lot more than I would usually. This isn't part of some belated New Year's Resolution, or a late attempt to culture myself - it's just that our kitchen has been being remodelled, and as such, cooking is off the menu.

So I've been trying to work my way through the many unread (by me at least) novels that line our bookshelves. It hasn't been an altogether pleasurable exercise though; one of the paperbacks I slung into my suitcase and read during the widely-documented Eyjafjallajokull ash drama was Alex Garland's 'The Beach', which I think, and I say this after great consideration, is possibly the worst thing I've ever read. How was it a best seller? Really - who liked it? Trash!

Something I did enjoy though, was Audrey Niffenegger's latest, 'Her Fearful Symmetry'. I loved the fully-formed characters (Take note, Mr. Garland), and descriptions of London though the eyes of Americans, and the witty and clever observations of British (and I suppose by British, I really mean English) behaviours - the description of Mr. Roche the solicitor's office in particular made me laugh out loud.

Then there's Julia's tea with Martin, who has terrible OCD:

Martin had set out three places at the kitchen table. Julia sat down at the one that faced the back door, in case I need to escape.

'Valentina couldn't come. She isn't feeling too well, ' Julia said; it was sort of true.

'That's unfortunate. Another time,' said Martin. He felt pleased with himself; he had contrived, at short notice, a very passable afternoon tea. There were fish-paste sandwiches, as well as cucumber and cress; there was a Victoria sponge cake. He had set out Marijke's mother's china, and there was a little jug of milk and bowl of sugar cubes. He thought it looked quite as nice as what Marijke would have done. 'What kind of tea would you like?' he asked.

'Earl Grey?'

He pressed the button on the electric kettle and plopped a tea bag into the teapot. 'This isn't how it's supposed to be done, but one gets lazy.'

'How are you supposed to do it?'

'Oh, you warm the pot, you use loose tea... but I can't taste the difference, and I drink a lot of tea, so the ritual has devolved somewhat.'

'Our mom uses tea bags, ' Julia assured him.

'Then that must be correct,' said Martin gravely.

I loved reading that! Not just because I identify completely with Julia feeling she might need to escape from a proper, English afternoon tea (I hate both that sort of formality and fish-paste), but because I myself have a bit of a tea-making ritual (though I do use bags - PG Tips all the way!), and get quite obsessed about brewing times, water temperature and whether or not the drinking vessel is made from bone china. If even this man who is so affected by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that he scrubbed through his apartment floor cleaning it with neat bleach can de-ritualise making a pot of tea, does that mean that I am some kind of fruit loop?

I hope not.

I drink more tea than anyone else I know. My family tease me about it, because since I left home my mum and sister drink much less than before I flew the nest, and whenever I offer to make a cup, they gasp in faux horror and exclaim 'What? Another cup of tea?'

They always have one though, because I make rather a good brew, even if I do say so myself. I can even make good tea on a plane.

The tea drinker I have the most regular difficulty coercing into drinking tea with me is Mr. Other P. He's a subscriber to this ridiculous modern trend of avoiding caffeinated drinks after 8pm, on the grounds that you'll get a better night's sleep. So I go along with it and make him peppermint tea, which is the only substitute I keep in the house. I have wasted too much money in my time on those 'herbal fruit infusions' which need to be brewed for something ridiculous like seven minutes, and yet still taste like a mouthful of rusty bike chain, however fruity the aroma they give off.

Anyway, let's talk rituals.

I made and photographed what I consider to be the perfect cup of cha for today's post. Just for illustrative purposes, I don't have a disorder or anything. Honest. I even used my fancy teapot, just so you could see. But normally, we just make it straight in the cup. If you too want to enjoy perfect tea, then you'll be needing:

Mr. P's Ritualised Tea Making Method

You will need:

tea bags - one per cup, and it has to be PG Tips (Sorry US readers - Lipton won't play here)
bone china cups (and teapot if you want to use one)
skimmed milk

  1. Put some fresh water on to boil. Fresh is best, the stuff left in the kettle from last time can go on the house plants (cool it first!).
  2. If you have followed instructions and are using bone china cups, warm them. This means running them under a hot tap, or pouring in some warm water from the kettle, which hasn't boiled yet. If you don't do this, your cups might shatter when you pour in boiling water to make the tea. See that beautiful white cup in the photo? There were two once. Don't make me elaborate.
  3. Into your warmed cup, put one tea bag. If you're using a pot, warm it and add one bag per person.
  4. Pour over boiling water, and brew for two and a half minutes. Exactly!
  5. Remove the tea bag (or pour the tea from the pot), and add milk to taste. I find if you add milk back up to the tea-level before you removed the tea bag, you'll have perfect tea. But that's just me and my own version of OCD. You can please yourself.
If you use tea leaves, get yourself a strainer, and simply replace the bag with a teaspoon full of leaves. But why bother? Martin's right - the taste is the same!


  1. What an awesome post! I have a friend at uni who I tease about drinking too much tea (but secretly, I have the same obession with Indian chai- they just don't sell it in the uni cafe... as if!) I bet you've been making lots of cups of tea with all of those kitchen fitters in?

  2. I read Her Fearful Symmetry not too long ago, poor Martin and his out of control bleach everything three times a day habits. I'm in the States, and we're perfectly content with Lipton over here, but I did have a roomie who did the whole loose leaf tea thing, it was fancy, but what I really love is chai. Yum!

  3. Ha! My Friend Lena (who hails from Birmingham) brought me a bunch of PG Tips with her on her last vacation to the the States...so I can make this perfect tea!!!

    I think they might also sell it at Safeway grocery stores, but I can't be certain...I never go into Safeway LOL

    Thank you for this post, I actually was talking to my mom about how I need to learn how to make a decent cup of tea before I head to the UK in September...she laughed, but I knew...you all take your tea seriously.

  4. Thank you for the post! I am particular about my tea, but I drink green mostly - loose leaf from Japan :D I've been meaning to try tea "the English way," but I have some kind of skepticism about milk and tea...oh well. :) You have me convinced.

  5. With you on the fruit tea issue!!!

  6. I just found your blog, and I love it! I have a bit of a tea-making ritual, too, and I totally agree with yours - especially the bit about warming the bone china cup/teapot...!
    Agree on fruit herbal teas, too - they only smell good, and not all of them!
    Disagree on the loose tea being the same as teabags, though - but I'm in Dublin and I can't find PG Tips, so you might be right...

  7. You can get PG Tips in the United States...

  8. Great, funny post - I am an American with a tea fetish. My Irish-Indian neighbors in Munich converted me in 1994. Tea is just so civilized compared to coffee. :-) I would like to let you know that the nice folks at Strand Tea Company in Oregon (www.strandtea.com) make fabulous loose tea and ship it all over - in case you decide you would like to try something new and are willing to forego the bags for a little while. I found STC when I couldn't get Ashby's in the States. Lipton? BAH! These guys rock. Just like you.

  9. Great post...and how intriguing..I am a tea addict..but I limit its intake..love the way you walk through the steps..I am gonna make..right now :)

  10. This is what I will never understand - WHY don't Brits use teapots?! This is the home of the proper afternoon tea, and there you are all plunking the PG Tips straight into the cup!

    In Canada we always use a teapot (we're clearly more refined) and when I moved here it took me sooooo long to come around to not using one. Sadly, now I do it too... The poor teapot only gets to stretch its legs when we have at least four people over.

  11. Oh dear. I feel terribly unrefined. I pour in my milk with the teabag still in, and jiggle the teabag around to stir the milk through. Is this jiggle ritual too uncouth? Should I be doing it behind closed doors?

    You'd get on well with my parents. Back in the day when I was reliant upon them to drive me around, whenever I would ring to ask to be picked up from wherever I was I would be answered with "I'll just finish my cup of tea and then come get you", without fail.

  12. Have to love a man who loves tea-although my favorite is Lipton's Russian Earl Grey Tea which is only available on the continent.

  13. What a lovely post! I'm English and love drinking tea, and the fascination alot of Americans have with it is so nice to see! Kudos on using PG tips- by far my favourite. One little criticism however, would be your ordering. Traditionally milk is added to the cup first in order not to crack the china, it also means that you don't have to stir the tea, unless you're adding sugar of course.

    Lovely post, lovely tea pot! Shame about your other cup!


  14. Cathlin, I knew someone would point that out! You know that's why English made bone china became so popular? Because it was sturdier and could take the tea before the milk. And then guests could check they were being served on proper British top quality china.

    Or so I have heard! :) Thanks for commenting!!

  15. Heh, I kind of glaze over when people give instructions for making tea or coffee because I don't drink either. I can make a respectable cup of tea (although for you, it might not cut the mustard by the looks of things) but those coffee machines in offices... I just used to claim amnesia with them, partly because I didn't want to be the girl who fetched the coffee my strategy was to be so annoying keeping on asking people how to make it and how the machine worked that they'd fetch the damn stuff themselves. It worked !!!

    I did enjoy similar neuroses with my diet coke and lucozade addictions though, having to trek from shop to shop to find GB Diet Coke (a few years ago when 75% of it in cheap newsagents was imported) and original flavour Lucozade in cans rather than plastic bottles (god I needed that metallic after taste to match the sugar hit).

    Thankfully I'm on the wagon from both right now. But what I'm saying is, that although I think tea and coffee are the juice of the devil, I know where you are coming from with it having to be JUST RIGHT!

  16. Mr P, I'm always thrilled to find someone who takes his tea seriously. My mother's family is English, so I grew up with tea and drink it several times a day. I've converted many of my friends to tea and to afternoon tea. Some insist on herbal "tea" after a certain time in the evening, though, which I find odd because I have a cup of tea before bed and before naps. Helps me sleep. Helps me wake up. Tea simply does it all!

  17. Wonderful tea set. Thanks a lot for sharing your tea ideas and flavors.

  18. Loved your post!
    You're not a fruit loop at all - I'm the same way about tea making rituals and recently wrote a similar method on my blog.
    I do have to differ with you on one thing - Lipton is really not that bad! Use it all the time. 2 teabags though ;-)

  19. PG Tips and Yorkshire Gold or Traditional (Red Label) are both excellent brands. Bigelow and Twinings breakfast tea are Gnats p*ss. Even Liptons is better than the latter two. I prefer the 3-4 mins brewing time black with one teaspoon of sugar.


That's what he said.

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