Stressful times bring out the Englishwoman in me, and the Englishwoman in me is craving tea.
Last weekend at a diner in New Hampshire, while fretting about President Obama’s less-than-stellar performance at the first debate and the increasingly cliff-hanger nature of this upcoming election, I ordered tea.
How silly of me not to remember how tea is served in America: tepid water in a mug meant for coffee with a teabag on the side–something one of my English grandmothers referred to as “gnat’s pee.”
This is not tea! It’s gnat’s pee! I want to cry out, but the American national drink is coffee, not tea, and I know I’m whistling in the wind. You really can’t get a great cup of tea outside of the UK.
Tea is used in England for many purposes: as a bracing drink, a national icon, a vehicle for a cosy chat, and a medium of solace, as in, “Let’s have a nice cuppa to cheer ourselves up.” In English fiction and mystery books, bad news is always accompanied by someone putting on the kettle.
Two months ago, my daughter’s English boyfriend, whom I really, really like and have posted about at and his mother, whom I also like, but not to the same extent that I want her to marry my daughter ten years from now, came over from Cambridge, England, and brought us a thank-you gift for hosting them here in America.
The gift? The complete fixin’s for a perfect cup of tea: a teapot, milk jug, tea strainer, and a tin of loose tea leaves.
Both of my English grandmothers used loose tea and a tea strainer, believing that loose tea was far preferable to teabags because the tea “mashes” better when the tea leaves aren’t confined. They should know: they both drank tea at every meal every day of their lives. My mother’s mother, who lived to be 90, drank well over 12 cups of tea a day and always said she knew if the tea were made using teabags.
Here’s how to make a perfect cuppa UK-style:
1. Start with cold (not warm or tepid) water from the tap. Do NOT use water that’s already been boiled and has been left in the kettle. Already-boiled water has lost its oxygenation and is nowhere near as tasty as fresh water, devotees of tea say.
2. Heat the water preferably in an electric kettle as they do in England or, if you haven’t got one, on the stove in a kettle with a whistle. When the water is close to boiling, pour a cup or two of hot water into the teapot to warm it. Let it sit.
3. Put the water in the kettle back on and allow it to reach a rolling boil (signalled by a boisterous whistle of the tea kettle). This is important because the water needs to be as hot as possible to wrest the most flavor from the tea.
4. Pour out the water you used to warm the teapot. Put a teaspoon of tea leaves for each cup of water directly into the teapot, with an extra teaspoon “for the pot.” For instance, if you want 4 cups of tea, put 5 teaspoons of tea leaves in; for 6 cups of tea, use 7 teaspoons of tea leaves. (If using teabags, put in one per cup and one for the pot).
5. Pour the boiling hot water into the teapot and immediately encase the teapot in a tea cosy, preferably handknitted by your grandmother.
6. Let the tea mash (Americans say “steep”) for 3-5 minutes, depending on how strong you like your tea.
7. Pour a small amount of milk into the bottom of your teacup. Some people add the milk later, but this is wrong. In my family we believe that the milk needs to be put in first so it is immediately heated by the tea, rather than being put in second so the tea is cooled by the milk. This issue of milk in first or milk in second is one of the great divides among the English. It’s probably a class issue, as is everything in Britain when you start to analyze it. My family, who are not upper class, puts milk in first.
8. If you’re using loose tea, place the tea strainer over your teacup and pour the tea from the teapot through the strainer. Add one or two spoons of sugar as desired.
9. Sip. Feel a sense of relaxation wash over you as you indulge in the age-old pleasure of sipping a perfect cup of tea.
This is the proper English way to enjoy a cup of tea: a pot of tea, a pot of hot water, a jug of milk, teacups with saucers, scones, cream, and jam.
Now, as I take a sip of my just-mashed cup of tea, my cares drift away, at least for the moment, and I’m thinking, Romney? Who’s Romney?
Here’s a great post about tea-drinking in England that I just came across: http://www.smittenbybritain.com/its-time-for-a-cuppa/. However you take it: black, milk, milk and sugar, enjoy!