I remembered an article by Douglas Adams that I read in The Salmon of Doubt. I was going to quote it for this post, but when I re-read it, I found that it advocated the use both of Earl Grey tea, and of teabags. Now I don’t object to either of these things, I use a teabag when I’m making my morning cup of tea: when, in other words, it’s a thing of necessity rather than a proper sit down and a cup of tea. I don’t have a problem with Earl Grey either, unless it is forced (with or without warning,) upon me. When you offer me a cup of tea, I expect black tea. Anything else needs to be specified.
So I thought I would detail here the proper way to make a good cup of tea. So that you will understand why we British like it so much. This is a ritual, so it is a good idea to put other pursuits to one side for the duration of the tea-making process until you have mastered the timings involved. When properly mastered you should experience not only a wonderful cup of tea, but also a special sense of a job well done that is only produced by brewing tea. If you are female, busy and in desperate need of tea, remind your boyfriend / husband / son / grandson / father / stepfather etc about what it says in the bible.*
First: Buy some black tea. Loose is preferable. Bags may be used, but the true tea connoisseur will be able to taste the bleach in the bag paper. (Clipper provides tea in nice unbleached bags.) If you’re abroad, and you hadn’t realised, you will when you open up the box of tea and find that each bag is individually wrapped. This affects the taste of the tea as well (which will be, in any case, much weaker. You can’t stand a teaspoon in foreign tea.) While you’re at the shop, buy some fresh milk. UHT milk or milk that has been preserved in any way will make your tea taste odd.
Second. Put the kettle on. Stay with it. Don’t wander off and come back in five or ten minutes. As Douglas Adams says “to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boilING (not boilED) when it hits the tea leaves.” This is the important bit which I have tried (and failed) to impress on my Swiss colleagues, and other Swiss friends (apart from The Boy. He pretty much has the art of British tea making down to a… well, exactly.)
Third: When the water is starting to fizz slightly, ie when it’s hot but not yet boiling, pour some into your teapot, put the lid on and put the kettle back on to boil properly. Swirl the water round the teapot and pour away. By the time you have done this, it should be time for the next step.
Fourth: If your teapot has a net, put this into the pot and put in enough tea for your pot size. As a general rule, one slightly rounded teaspoon of tea per person PLUS one for the pot is right. (I’ve had people laugh at me for saying this, but they did admit that I made the best tea.) If you don’t have a net, or are using bags, put the tea directly into the pot. If you’re using loose leaves without a net, you’ll have to hope you have a tea strainer in your cutlery drawer, or get used to leaving the last half-an-inch or so of tea in the bottom of the mug.
Fifth: Now that the water is boilING, pour it onto the tea. Working out the exact ratio of tea to water may take some time to get exactly right to your taste. Be patient. It’s completely worth it. Put the lid on, and cover the pot with a tea cosy. (Note: tea cosies don’t have to have openings for the handle and spout, the over-the-whole-pot jobbies keep the tea warm even more effectively than the one below.) If you don’t have one, a tea towel will do at a pinch.
Sixth: Leave the tea until it is ready. This is varies according to how strong you like your tea, but if you have your ratios right, five or six minutes should be about right. If you leave it too long to try and make it stronger, you will find that the tea just becomes bitter. Similarly, if you leave the tea for a very short amount of time in the hope of it being weaker, the taste will not develop properly.
Seventh: Pour milk into the cups, and pour the tea in on top. There is debate about this, but I just can’t seem to make tea nice when the milk goes in afterwards. People say that you can judge the amount of milk better if it goes in afterwards, but if you’ve had enough practise, it should start to come naturally, like knowing the tea:water ratio. If in doubt about other people’s taste, put just a little milk in and add more afterwards if necessary. You can, of course, drink it without milk, but the black tea that I make is just too strong to be drunk without. Another mistake that the inexperienced tea-maker is prone to make is that putting more milk into the tea will weaken it. It won’t. It will just make it more milky. The strength of the tea is determined solely by the proportions of tea and water that go into the finished item. Oh, and for heaven’s sake, take off the tea cosy when you pour, or, unless you have a completely non-drippy teapot (these are rare) your tea cosy will get a tea-soggy under the spout.
Eighth: Well done. Hopefully you’ve brewed a passable cup of tea. You may now drink it. Preferably with biscuits (do NOT dunk them.)
In my house back home, tea is judged out of ten. My father reckons he tasted an eight once, but mostly they fall at around the six or seven mark.
Disclaimer: results not guaranteed, personal tastes may vary. You may not achieve a perfect cup first time round – practice makes perfect. ;)