The quiet tea time of the soul

Some folks put much reliance
On politics and science
There’s only one hero for me
His praise we should be roaring
The man who thought of pouring
The first boiling water onto tea

Once in a while, I go on a ramble, a stream of consciousness jaunt. The following was inspired by one of my very best Facebook friends, a resident of Oklahoma, who posted a picture of a mug of Twinings Irish Breakfast Tea, and the comments I made regarding that post.

In my opinion, I wrote, the best tea is Irish – and the best Irish tea for me is Barry’s, although Bewley’s is also excellent. Taylor’s Yorkshire Tea, from Harrogate in, yes, Yorkshire, is also very delicious. I don’t like my tea too strong or “stewed”. At home, we drink Barry’s Gold which we buy it in our local supermarket – we used to be able to buy Bewley’s, but that was before the British Shop in the Sydney CBD closed down over a decade ago. With such a large Anglo-Celtic population here, there’s a strong nostalgia market for British food products DownUnder, whether it’s for tea, McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, Marmite or Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts.

Eteaquette

Tea is served traditionally in a tea pot (and you must heat the pot first), and drank languidly, leisurely, and ideally with the morning newspaper – online these days- and with a plain biscuit which you might like to dunk in it. Milk rather than cream is how Poms and Paddies like it. Some prefer it without – “black tea”. With or without sugar. I like it not too milky , and never with cream – cream is for coffee, though personally, I don’t like that either. And never over-brew it! The Brits call that “the barely bloody drinkable”, “barely bloody…” for short. I’ve learned that trades people generally like it strong with one lump of sugar. And on the matter of the Irish, a wee drop of whisky in the tea is nice. We used to be given it when visiting our Irish relatives.

Tea without milk is called black tea. Some take a slice of lemon in it, which some purists call poncified, and others like sugar or honey. My wife prefers her morning tea black, in a Doctor Who telephone box tea pot,  and prefers Earl Grey and Russian Caravan. But I’m not into “fancy” teas like these – and the Chinese Lapsang Souchong smells and tastes like old shoes – it has actually been banned in Europe because lapsang is potentially carcinogenic if smoked for too long (I mean smoked over a pinewood fire and not rolled like a joint). But I do drink camomile tea when under the weather or need to cut down on caffeine, and mint tea on occasion, for the same reason. But these are never my first tea choice.

I prefer hot tea to water or coke after a hard slog on the property as it is very refreshing when the weather is hot. Don’t ask me how that works. But it is very popular in high summer in the Middle East. Hot tea is also comforting when it’s very cold. In fact, any time is right for a cup of tea. With that biscuit, preferably.

Russians like it black and well-brewed. It’s an old tradition (samovars and all that). Arabs like their tea black with sugar. Indians boil theirs’ with milk and sugar. They call it shai, which is not the chai that hippies and present day wellness advocates go for – and which I do not like at all. The Chinese have their own type of tea, weak, light and fragrant, as do the Japanese – who have developed elaborate ceremonies for serving it, and indeed people have committed ritual suicide when they have stuffed it up.

Eteamology

We are all floating somewhere on a full tide of tea.
JB Priestley, English Journey, 1933.

Back in the day, when I was a lad, there was whole etymology around tea, There was the English tradition of High Tea, a posh afternoon “tea” (as in “teatime”) with pots of tea and little pastries and quarter-cut salad sandwiches on white bread. One would “take tea” at places like Harrods and Fortnum and Masons – many “posh” hotels here in Australia persist with the pretentious practice. Variations on the theme are “cream teas” with scones, strawberry jam and cream (on the scones, not in the tea!) and a more downmarket High Tea of bacon and egg, baked beans and chips (that’s potato“fries” to you), described on café menus as a “mixed grill” that I used to love on Boy Scout camping excursions and on Wednesday and Saturday evenings in university halls of residence.

When I was growing up, our evening meal was called “tea time” (“dinner” was called lunch). Hence the kiddies’ refrain “what’s for tea! Mom?”. “Heinz baked beans” was the refrain in The Who’s Sell Out album, and they featured on the cover. Decades, later, I love Heinz baked beans on toast, and I still call our evening meal “tea” which irritates my wife no end because she was bring up proper!

Roger Daltrey bathes in beans

By the way, tea should not be confused with a golf tee and draftsman’s T square, or with the phrase “teed off” as in “I’m getting quite annoyed with you!” – which is a polite way of saying “you’re beginning to get on my t##s”.

Teastory

Tea is regarded as a particularly English thing. In his celebrated wartime essay on Englishness, The Lion and the Unicorn, famed, left-wing author George Orwell placed the beverage near the top of those favourite things that Brits cleave to “when the dog bites, when the bee stings” and when Mister Hitler’s bombs and rockets rained down on British towns and cities – and you can read his instructions on how to best brew it below. During the Cold War, sixties, English folk revival luminary Leon Rosselson prophesied that when the Big One dropped, we’d “stand firm” and “duck down in our hidey holes and drink cups and cups of tea”. And when Britain was locked down for months and months during the worst days of Covid-19, and tens of thousands of people perished, folk recalled that old “Blitz spirit” and I wager sales and consumption of tea went through the roof. Orwell observed that it was a palliative pleasure shared by all social and economic classes, a national characteristic on a par with the “stiff upper lip”, “shoulders to the wheel” and “seeing it through”.

It’s not just an English thing. Irish folk regard a hot cup of tae as an important social custom, indeed, arguably as as important if not more so than the bottle, and is enjoyed at all hours amongst family and friends in greater volumes  than alcohol. It has traditionally been  a symbol of hospitality, camaraderie, and friendship, and not only is it a great way to cheer up and keep warm on a bleak and rainy day, but it brings people together too. This said, the worst cup of tea I have ever tasted – and I’ve been around the figurative tea bush many times – was actually in Ireland. In New Ross, County Wexford, actually, en route from my ancestral home of Enniscorthy to Waterford and the west coast. I reckon someone must have just squezz out a dishcloth into a cup and added milk.

Predictably, the British and Irish took their tea all over the world. Here in Australia, it has long been the most popular beverage. It was a tea manufacturer who came up with the first line of our most well-known song. In the early 20th century, a copy of the song was included in packets of the popular Billy Tea, as a promotional stunt. The tea manufacturers were concerned that the song ended on a pretty grim note, so the word “jolly” was added to the opening line. To liven things up a bit. Shocking, isn’t it? That one word changes the whole feel of the thing, elevating the swag man from an impoverished, homeless man, hounded to death by police, to a happy-go-lucky bush scamp. Yet the only reason the word is there is so the song would work better as an ad.


Songs have been written in praise of tea, most particularly the English song A Nice Cup of Tea, wrttien by a member of parliament and first performed in 1937 but made famous by Gracie Fields, England’s wartime ‘sweetheart”. A “nice cup of tea”, as we’ve noted, is a traditional panacea for stressful situations – it got Brits through two world wars, and will probably do the same in the next one.

Foreigners often make fun of the English for their fondness for a “cuppa”. The French cartoon strip Asterix, set in Roman Gaul, portrays the Britons as drinking cups of hot water with milk – because tea hadn’t been invented in Roman days.

But the Poms didn’t invent it – I believe that was the Chinese who worked.out that leaves can be not just tasty but also therapeutic – but the Brits’ fondness for that nice cup of tea was one of the reasons they decided to conquer India, and they managed to rule the place for over four hundred years by drinking gallons of it – but they nevertheless they still died of malaria, dysentery, alcoholism and mutiny by the score.

Tea helped Britannia rule the waves and most of the world, but Britain lost America on account of it. Americans reckon that is why they prefer coffee, but the famous Boston Tea Party was a bit more complicated than colonists dressed in red indian garb dumping crates of the stuff overboard.and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the contemporary American “Tea Party” Republicans and their MAGA heirs. But, the first tea bag was invented – by an American, a century or so ago, and this is now the most convenient and hence most popular way to “take tea” (a peculiarly English way to describe having a cuppa). Indeed, whenever we go on holiday, we take with us a swag of tea bags “just in case ..”

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more yarns in In That Howling Infinite, see: Tall Tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies

Tea sellers, Ramallah, Palestine, in traditional Ottoman garb

George’s Nice Cup of Tea

Published on the 12th of January, 1946 by the Evening Standard. George Orwell lets us all know how to enjoy hot flavored water best.

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, 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. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

George’s nice cup of tea

And in conclusion, here is that song in full:

And that song … 

Some folks put much reliance
On politics and science
There’s only one hero for me
His praise we should be roaring
The man who thought of pouring
The first boiling water onto tea
I like a nice cup of tea in the morning
For to start the day you see
And at half past eleven
Well my idea of heaven
Is a nice cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s time for bed
There’s a lot to be said
For a nice cup of tea

You can talk about your science
And your airships in the sky
I can do without the wireless
And you’ll never see me fly
The public benefactor of the universe for me
Is the genius that thought of pouring water onto tea

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning
For to start the day you see
And when I get the breakfast in
Well my idea of sin
Is a fourth, or a fifth, cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s time for bed
There’s a lot to be said
For a nice cup of tea

They say it’s not nutritious
But still it is delicious
And that’s all that matters to me
It turns your meat to leather
But let’s all die together
The one drink in paradise is tea

I like a nice cup of tea
In the morning
For to start the day you see
And at half past eleven
Well my idea of heaven
Is a nice cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s time for bed
As I think I may have said
I’d like a nice cup of tea
You can talk about your liberties
They talk of women’s rights
I don’t want to make no speeches
Because the one that does is trite
And anyone can have my vote and chuck it in the sea
But golly there’ll be trouble if they try to touch me tea

I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s getting late
Almost anything can wait
For a nice cup of tea

One thought on “The quiet tea time of the soul

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