Sunday, January 10, 2010

A nice cup of tea

All this talk of tea has made me a bit homesick.
Irish people drink a lot of tea. A LOT of tea. In fact, we're #3 in the list of tea consumption per capita in the world, after Turkey and Great Britain. A cup of tea bookends most significant occasions in the British Isles: good news? Put on the kettle. Bad news? Put on the kettle. Just news? Put on the kettle. There are few ills that cannot be cured with a nice cup of tea (and please note, it must be a nice cup of tea): a shock must be instantly treated by pressing a hot, sweet cuppa into the victim's hands, news of an engagement will be briefly interrupted while someone sprints to put on the kettle, and many's a broken heart has been soothed by a pot of tea and a plate of chocolate biscuits.

The Germans, on the other hand, are much better at drinking coffee. They haven't really got the hang of the whole tea-drinking lark: tea is served black in cafés - if you ask for milk, you get a little jug of condensed milk. To add insult to very real injury, the tea is NOT made with boiling water. It's nearly boiling, but not quite, and that's what makes the difference between a nice cup of tea and a cup of ...sigh... tea.

How do you make a nice cup of tea? Well, for starters, you need a teapot. Sure, a mug is okay, but you have to have at least two cups, so a teapot is simply more efficient. You heat the water and when the kettle is screaming at boiling point, you pour a little water into the teapot to warm the pot, then you swish it out again. Yes, you do. You can't just plonk tea into a cold teapot, that's a barbarian practice. None of that. So you warm the pot and you add your tea, or teabags if you absolutely must, to the teapot. Then boil the kettle AGAIN. No, no, no, you can't just use the recently-boiled hot water, it actually has to be bubbling energetically when you pour it in on top of the tea. Then you let the tea draw, during which time the tea-leaves settle (any impatience at this point will mean that you'll end up with weak tea with a scum of leaves on top.) Once the tea has drawn and settled, you pour it into a nice mug - yes, porcellain tea cups are lovely, but you want to have more than two sips of liquid before you refill.

Do you think I'm exaggerating? I'm NOT. I come from a house where TEA is of UTMOST IMPORTANCE and on the subject of a badly-made pot of tea, normally mild-mannered people tend to get HET UP and PASSIONATE and then they start using THEIR OUTDOOR VOICES. My father makes the tea because - as a trained chemist - he knows how to make it properly. My mother is also allowed to make the tea, as is one brother-in-law, and my tea-making is ... well, it's endured. When I make the tea, I'm aware that my parents' beady eyes are watching my every move very closely, afraid that I'll mess up and ruin a nice cup of tea.

Occasionally a well-meaning visitor or guest will stumble into the kitchen and try to do something nice for my parents by putting on the kettle to make them a pot. Swift action follows: one or other of them will gently push the visitor aside, urging them to go and sit down, take the weight off their feet. My gingerbread husband was almost outlawed by his in-laws when he decided, in his amiable and do-goodery way, to make the tea. It was his first visit to Ireland and my mother, a little awed by the huge German that had turned up with her daughter (she was, at that point, still using the same voice with him as she uses with the hearing-impaired: very loud and VERY! WELL! ENUNCIATED! "He's foreign, Ma," I said crossly, "He's not bloody deaf!"), was powerless to stop him. She watched in horror as he flung loose tea (the wrong amount) into the (cold) tea pot and splashed (too little) water in on top. Needless to say, the kettle was not boiling - it had boiled, but long ago enough that its angry on-the-boil vibrations had stopped. Proud as punch, the gingerbread husband put the pot down on the table and covered it - with a grandiose flourish - with our thermal tea-cosy.

I'm not sure if this really happened, or whether memory plays tricks, but I do believe my mother clutched her throat. My father walked into the room and immediately sensed that some catastrophe had occured.
"He made the tea," she croaked, and pointed at the gingerbread husband, who was pouring cups of weak, leafy tea for all. My father blanched.

They silently drank their tea through pinched lips. Gingerbread husband, too much of a tea philistine to notice that his murky tea-flavoured water was in any way different to what had been made before, happily drank his, thinking he'd scored brownie points with his future in-laws. As soon as he could without insulting the hapless foreigner, my father removed the pot from the table and poured the leftover tea down the sink. He filled the kettle and set it to boil, washed out the tea pot with a splash of boiling water, added the leaves using the same measuring spoon they've been using for 35 years, then filled the pot with the exactly right amount of boiling - yes, boiling - water. The pot was placed on the table and allowed to draw and settle for a few minutes before the tea was poured.

My mother took hers the way a drowning man would grab a lifebelt. "Now, that's a nice cup of tea," she said, nodding significantly at my gingerbread husband. Husband, still innocently unaware of his faux-pas, agreed happily.

And that was the last time he was ever allowed to make a cup of tea again.

Till my father gave him a step-by-step tutorial and supervised his first attempts. I believe there may have even been a written test, as well as the oral exam, but I'm not entirely sure. Now his services as resident-tea-maker are also ... endured. They don't completely trust him, but by the time we reach our 25th wedding anniversary, the pain of that not-nice cup of tea may have finally faded.

You think I'm joking, don't you?
Believe me, I'm not.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with your tea way of making a nice cup of tea (if it is not green tea which turns into a horrible brew when you pour boiling water on it but I don't drink green tea much ;-)). Not sure how my mom and I picked it up (born German first transplanted to France now in US) but we do it exactly your way.
BTW - love your blog - came across it on Ravelry.

Susan Knight said...

That was funny and very interesting! I'm more of a coffee drinker but I am drinking Green tea now and then for health. BUT, horrors, I'm making it all wrong. I German! lol!

Anonymous said...

The worst is when someone thinks you can just microwave a cup, by putting the tea bag in the cup of water and putting the whole thing in the microwave! Disgusting.

Elisabetta said...

I loved this post! I see now that I have a lot to learn - I thought that the water had to be Almonst Boiling and not Fully Boiling!

Anonymous said...

What enjoyable reading! I felt as if I could see your parents' facial expressions -- priceless!

Thank you for sharing!

Had to Tweet this entry and share with others!

Beth J.
Twitter ID: JewellsHandmade

Paul & Carla said...

Ah. I had an idea I might need to dust off (yes, I admit it — another Single Cup Philistine here) my Brown Betty and see if I can treat her right again. She IS fun to use. She just (sigh) has to be washed up.

Rhonda said...

My daughter calls my tea making "the ritual". Yes, it does matter how tea is made; a bag in a coffee mug is not my idea of a cup of tea.

Thanks for this story, made me smile.