Friday, 27 February 2009

English Tea

Living as I do in London, it is not uncommon for me to have to defend my position about tea. Whenever I profess to enjoy a cuppa, before I can say Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, I am asked if I like Liptons or Tetleys best. Or, worse, where I would suggest to find some really good chamomile. One doesn't want to be rude, but a short, sharp smack in the face usually works wonders - though does little to enlighten.

Gilles Brochard made the pointed comment that the English are not so passionate about tea as they are of milk. Ah yes. This is even more true with the advent of Starbucks and their crimes against coffee. No coffee should be served with half a litre of milk and froth and any tea needing the addition of milk to make it drinkable is certainly made from inferior leaves (not that you could tell since the leaves have been ground into dust - open an ordinary teabag, go on, it's eye-opening).

George Orwell, a man I hold in very high esteem, wrote a piece for the Evening Standard in 1946 called A Nice Cup of Tea in which he describes the how, in his view, one ought to make a pot of tea. It's a wonderful article full of vigorous opinion and he brings up the usual British tea controversies such as milk in first/last, warming the pot, teabags, sweetener etc... all of which are completely beyond my conception of tea drinking.

While I feel personally affronted when he states, "Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter", I feel physical pain when I read the advice in point six:
"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"
This is a good idea only if you want to destroy every flavour compound in your tea and release into it a superabundance of tannins. This advice is propagated at every turn, and I've noticed modern kettles now stay on the boil for several long seconds before switching off. I can only assume it is on the mistaken assumption that tea ought to be scaled to get the best out of it.

I would dearly love to meet Mr. Orwell, mostly to compare our bookselling experiences and discuss the rise of Fascism in Europe, but I would firmly take issue with his article and perhaps treat him to some serious tea experiences. What he describes in the essay is what the English hold most dear, but everybody else finds very odd about English tea.

Also published in 1946 was George Mikes book How to be an Alien. He offers a very different take on English tea.

"The trouble with tea is that originally it was quite a good drink. So a group of the most eminent British scientists put their heads together, and made a complicated biological experiments to find a way of spoiling it. To the eternal glory of British science their labour bore fruit. They suggested that if you do not drink it clear, or with lemon or rum and sugar, but pour a few drops of cold milk into it, and no sugar at all, the desired object is achieved. Once this refreshing, aromatic, oriental beverage was successfully transformed into colourless and tasteless gargling-water, it suddenly became the national drink of Great Britain and Ireland - still retaining, indeed usurping, the high sounding title of tea."

The erudite Half-Dipper recently wrote a post about drinking tea in London. It is here.

*You can find the article in Orwell's Collected Essays published by Random House's Everyman Library (ISBN: 9781857152425). It's a wonderfully obese volume full of treasures that is well worth investing in if you have any interest in Europe between the wars and English social history. The essay itself is also available online.

*Gilles Brochard's latest book is Le Thé Dans L'Encrier (The Tea in the Inkwell). It is wonderful book about the relationship between tea and literature and includes a guide for serving tea to your favourite author. According to him, Amelie Nothomb, a writer of dark complex emotions with a distinct Gothic sensibility should be offered nothing less than a 20 year old Pu'erh.


Lainie Petersen said...

This is beautifully written and so informative. It is amazing how enjoying a properly prepared cup of oolong or silver needles can change one's understanding of tea, eh?

Rebecca Long Okura said...

I agree with Lainie- great blog! I want to come to London and have tea and great conversation with you! It's great that the "information age" has helped us connect a world of educated, funny, and interesting tea lovers. From London to China to Utah to Argentina. Thanks Francofinn!

MarshalN said...

My suspicion is that Mr. Orwell intended his tea to be taken with something that will "cut" its strength, rather than straight as us tea fanatics tend to do these days.

francofinn said...

Indeed Marshal, it's a completely different way of drinking tea!

Anonymous said...

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

- Daniel

teagirl400 said...

haha, it's so true. Here in Ottawa, it's very hard to find a fellow tea hobbyist to chat with. My girlfriends that come with me to the teahouses enjoy the vibe, but can't tell matcha from puerh i'm afraid.

Thank goodness for the internet! :)

-- OrientalTea