“The cup of tea on arrival at a country house is a thing which, as a rule, I particularly enjoy. I like the crackling logs, the shaded lights, the scent of buttered toast, the general atmosphere of leisured coziness.”
–P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
Don’t you love Wodehouse’s vision of arriving at a country home and being given a perfect cup of tea? Unfortunately, living in the United States, I have never had the pleasure he describes. I don’t think I have ever had a decent cup of tea in a private home, if we don’t count my home. In this country, only at Chinese and Thai restaurants — and at La Strada in Berkeley — have I been offered a properly made pot of tea. If you are a fellow tea drinker, this might be true for you as well.
What is it about tea that is so wonderful, so calming? It is a delightful elixir, sweetly fragrant, older than coffee and more subtle. It’s not especially difficult to make a good cup of tea. So why is it almost impossible to get one here?
In this life there are big problems, small problems, annoyances, and pet peeves. This particular problem could definitely be categorized as small. Yet I still struggle with it. If you are brave enough to accept a cup of tea in a coffee drinker’s home, the coffee drinker often hands you a mug full of microwaved water with a stale tea bag in it, the limp string hanging out of the cup. Gentle coffee drinker, imagine if I microwaved some water to just slightly hotter than body temperature, threw in some indifferently measured stale instant coffee I’ve had solidifying in my cupboard since the nineties, and handed this to you with some nasty fake creamer. That would be a cup of coffee that only a member of the Shackleton Expedition would consider drinking.
(Have you ever noticed when people on TV have tea, they also drink with the bag still in the cup? No real tea drinker would do this. The tea would get overbrewed and nasty.)
Making a good cup of tea is not that difficult. Step one is to boil water in a tea kettle. While the water gets hot, rinse out your teapot with hot water and place in it some tea. I always make an entire pot of tea, even if I am the only one drinking tea, because I deserve two cups or more if I want them.
George Orwell felt that to get the best flavor, the tea leaves had to be able to swirl freely in the pot: “If the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.” Tea purists will tell you to never use a tea bag, but you can make tea using a bag so long as it holds decent tea.
“Cup of tea?” Lupin said, looking around for his kettle. “I was just thinking of making one.”
“All right,” said Harry awkwardly.
Lupin tapped the kettle with his wand and a blast of steam issued suddenly from the spout.
“Sit down,” said Lupin, taking the lid off a dusty tin. “I’ve only got teabags, I’m afraid — but I daresay you’ve had enough of tea leaves?”
Harry looked at him. Lupin’s eyes were twinkling.
–J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
When your water comes to a boil, immediately pour it over the tea and stir it around. After a few minutes, depending on how strong you like your tea, it will be done. (George says that you should keep the water boiling and the kettle on the flame while you pour, but considering the nature of boiling water, flames, kettles, and gravity, I confess I’m not sure how to accomplish this wondrous feat.)
Do you remember the day when you fell in love with coffee, bitter and steaming and black as sin and then decided that would be your morning drink ever afterward? Of course you don’t. No one falls in love with coffee that way. Some people, coffee’s Chosen Few, might like it right away. But for others, coffee is one of those difficult personalities that you have to learn to love, accompanied with massive quantities of sugar and cream.
Unlike coffee drinkers, tea people knew from that first taste of tea (milky and sweet, perhaps stolen from your mother’s cup) that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
My first real taste of tea occurred on a school camping trip to Santa Barbara, when our teacher made a pot of tea. Even though we were technically roughing it, inasmuch as anyone can rough it whilst camping on a beach in southern California in July, the teacher brought a kettle to a boil over the fire, put loose tea in a real teapot, and made a proper pot right there. (The tea was Constant Comment, a widely available brand containing orange peel, black tea, and spices.) As I drank this magical tea by the campfire with the waves crashing in the background and the Coast Starlight rumbling overhead, I knew I had been Chosen. When I got home I immediately bought my own supply, and have been a devoted tea drinker ever since.
Just as being the chosen one in a fairy tale leads to a life fraught with obstacles to overcome, being a tea drinker in America presents its share of problems. Drinking tea isn’t just about the tea. If you are a true tea lover, you know that declining coffee in favor of tea can be a political statement. You aren’t going along with the crowd, and the way is not made easy for you. Offices everywhere accommodate coffee drinkers, but few workplaces make it possible to have a decent cup of tea. There is a coffee maker in every office, but very few tea kettles, and often no way to boil fresh water. The workplace enables coffee drinkers in their indiscriminate drinking of coffee of dubious quality, having a coffee pot, sugar, and that weird fake creamer stuff in every break room, the better to keep the employees awake. I’ve worked in fancy law firms with coffee bars, some even with their own dedicated baristas, but only one law firm in all my years of office-hopping made a decent cup of tea possible, and that was because one of the partners was an English woman.
The one other exception to the coffee hegemony in the workplace was an Italian designer’s office I worked in several years ago. Italians are famous for their excellent coffee, but they enjoy tea as well. This office I worked in had official tea breaks: Everything would come to a stop at 11:00am and 3:00pm, and a nice woman in a long white apron would roll her tea cart around with cookies, pastries, small sandwiches, and pots of tea. She would pour a cup, hand me a plate of cookies or a pastry and a real cloth napkin, and return a second time to refresh the tea and cookies if desired. (I worked in this office very early in my career, and it came as a rude shock later when I learned that the majority of workplaces had neither tea time, nor pastries, nor dedicated tea sommeliers.)
Most American restaurants seem flummoxed by a request for tea, if you are so foolish as to ask for some, and it’s likely they will bring you a metal pot of barely hot water, a generic tea bag, and some sugar, and think that’s good enough. Coffee drinkers, on the other hand, get freshly brewed coffee, cream and sugar and unlimited refills. I’ve only had decent tea at five restaurants in North America (not counting various Asian restaurants), and two of them were in Canada, so maybe they shouldn’t count — because they know about tea in Canada; they don’t make a fuss about it, whereas in the U.S. ordering tea instead of coffee is sometimes seen as a bit pretentious. Chez Panisse once offered me a pot of water and a warmed teapot on a fancy tray alongside a basket of tea bags (tea bags! Really, Chez Panisse?); Restaurant Daniel in New York was much the same. Tea bags are fine in a pinch if the tea is good, but I remain shocked that Michelin-rated restaurants would offer a selection of bags instead of loose tea.
There are some faint glimmerings of hope that the disrespect for tea is gradually fading — I recently read that the restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York is developing a tea list, matching teas with food with the same care as they do with wine. If their experiment is successful, our long national nightmare of horrible tea in restaurants may be ending. (Please note that no one would think of pairing coffee with elegant cuisine, because that would be gross. Coffee only goes with breakfast and dessert.)
Tea drinkers are often maligned as fussy perfectionists. It’s rich that the coffee cabal imply that tea drinkers are the particular ones, because coffistas are a thousand kinds of annoying about their different roasts and varieties. “Serious” coffee drinkers take it black, the better to judge the aroma and taste of the burned dirt mentioned previously. John Thorne’s father-in-law teased him about his coffee habit, implying that he was less than masculine because he drank “hot coffee ice cream” instead of taking it black, like a real man would. Tea drinkers don’t judge you on your worthiness as a human based on whether you add milk or sugar.
Writers, like the rest of us, were sorted into Team Tea or Team Coffee.George Orwell was a tea man all the way, even writing a treatise on proper tea brewing. Dorothy L. Sayers, Beatrix Potter, J.K. Rowling: all Team Tea. Laurie Colwin may have liked tea, but she made it clear that coffee was her true love. Like most coffee addicts, she confessed to drinking leftover cold coffee, and dragged in Bach as partial justification. Unlike coffee lovers, we tea people have no comparable Tea Cantata.
While coffee lovers pine for their beloved in a somewhat alarming way, and even have physical symptoms when kept from their bitter brew (they need their “hit,” they are “in withdrawal,” they “mainline” their coffee), tea’s gentle embrace does not inspire such unhealthy passion. Coffee drinkers have mugs that proudly state “Don’t even talk to me before I’ve had my coffee.” Tea has better manners than that. Also, the whistle of the tea kettle is a happier sound that the snorting and grunting of the coffee maker.
When I was in labor with my daughter (for 29 hours!) I wanted nothing more than the comfort of a cup of tea, but the nurses refused to let me have anything other than ice chips, because they claimed I might choke. The first thing I did when I got home from the hospital was make a pot of black tea and have a mug of tea with milk and sugar. If anyone is in need of a pot of tea, it is a new mother. (Those nurses were probably coffee drinkers.) After I’d had my tea, having a new baby didn’t seem as scary, somehow. Tea is comforting like that.
Like all misunderstood people, I fantasize about living in a perfect world where superior tea is respected and readily available. I imagine that some rogue group of clever entrepreneur-revolutionaries might one day overthrow the coffee cabal and figure out how to make millions by opening tea places with high-quality, perfectly prepared tea. All kinds of tea, made properly, from all of the great tea-making cultures — tea hot and cold, light and dark, strong and fragrant. No one would ever again order a “chai tea latte.” Chosen by tea, we would spread the gospel far and wide, and the world would be a calmer and happier place. Until that glorious day, I must remain hopeful, if also realistic. It has been over 200 years since the unfortunate events in Boston. We may have forgiven the British, but as long as I still can’t get a decent cup of tea outside of my own home, it is clear that we haven’t forgiven the tea.
George Orwell, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3
M.F.K. Fisher, With Bold Knife and Fork
Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen
John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne, The Outlaw Cook
Laura C. Martin, Tea: The Drink That Changed the World