Tea is every day ordinary and also sublime. Even the most humdrum brew sets us up for the day, for work, for study, for attentiveness. The Chinese have it that tea brightens the eye - both the I and the outlook. It's a drug which works equally on the meat and mind. It's a hook - on it hangs, history, empire, enterprise and every day.
What you drink says something about you but how you drink it is important too. There are rules for tea drinking and while some ignore them - most of them make sense and add drama and ritual to tea time. Not everyone agrees on what the rules are though.
Orwell thought enough of tea to write down his rituals - actually they read as commandments and remind us of how taste is custom and culture but also fashion. He warns against China tea preferring black Indias, he rails against tea strainers and muslim or silk bags - he wants the tea to float freely as it infuses. I am with him there. Never add sugar, he says, unless taking tea the Russian way. I wonder if he means puddled into a saucer and sucked up through a sugar cube. This is fun though perhaps not for every day.He has another jab at Tolstoy and Chekhov and their acolytes - never drink tea from an urn. How very English - one of my abiding dreams is to own a samovar.Poor Orwell would have been subject to railway tea - not of the Orient Express ilk either - an urn would have leeched every bit of tannin from cheap tea over hours - to be endured on the rainiest of cold days in the second class waiting room. I'm with Orwell on additions to tea. To my mind most tea is best drunk without milk - builders' tea might want the tannin toned down and sure, milky tea is good for dunking. Billy tea needs to be stronger than usual and laced with torn gum leaves. But mostly with exception of chai I want unadulterated tea.I don't even want a wafer of lemon.
School tea is a curse on all our houses. I remember an elephant of an aluminium tea pot, hammered with dents and equipped with a dozen tea bags - their strings tied to the handle. Forty or so cups were lined up - pushed as closed together as possible and the weak tea poured in a continuous stream. You hoped to get one of the first pourings because the second, third, sometime fourth were the product of water added to the same tired bags. Edward Epse Brown, in a film about the Tassajara Monastery, spoke lovingly of the kitchen's battered teapots. Cheap, oversized, some stoved in and covered in dings they were to Espe Brown a lesson in service and humility. I wonder how tea tasted from them.
These days still half asleep my first cup is sometimes brought to me in bed. M leaves it on the night stand and creeps out to work.Often only the dogs open one eye to watch him. Some days this first cup is cold by the time I wake enough to swallow it. The second one of the day is the one that counts. And here our methodology parts ways. Being a coffee drinker who rarely strays towards tea, M boils the electric kettle. I prefer the stove. Most often I boil the tea kettle on the hob. It's primitive but seemingly essential to light the flame and see the steam. I warm our old Arabia 3 cup - throw a measure aromatic leaves into the pot and pour on the boiling water. M is emphatic that the taste is identical between the electric kettle and the stove.(You don't argue with someone who brings tea before first light).If you have a glass pot it's nice the watch the tea leaves steep - otherwise I walk the teapot to the table with a sturdy cup, buttered toast if it is breakfast - or a crumpet for afternoon tea. Turn the pot three times and if you are a black tea drinker like me, pour out that first fragrant cup. Steam yourself in a herbal cloud - its both wholesome and dreamy.
If you are Orwell you will be using good china and drinking Darjeeling. If you are like me you want something homely in the morning - perhaps bancha or barley and something poetic in the afternoons when friends come - a smoky Lapsang souchong, a Japanese cherry leaf tea or something bright like Orange Pekoe. Even the names are enough to brighten bad weather.
I have a hierarchy of favourite teacups too.(I have tried M's patience by trying to pack good cups and a teapot for taking camping). I have some wide blue and white cups brought back from Japan, some heavy Denby, some handsome Arabia and the folksy Lotte all from fetes or opshops.For my birthday I was given some of Jane Sawyer's tea bowls. They are at once precious and formed for function.I am immediately reminded of the axiom of daily use proposed in The Way of Tea – that pots “come to life only after they are put to the test of their purpose.”
I am glad to be giving life to these beautiful objects by using them.
Recipe for Marbled Tea Eggs
Put 6 eggs into a pan of cold water covering by at least two fingers.
Boil for a minute then cover and turn the flame low and simmer for 7 minutes.
Take the eggs from the pan and cool in a bowl of water set in the sink.
Tap the eggs all over with the back of a spoon. Take care to have a light touch so as to keep the shell whole. When patterned all over drop back into the pan adding 3/4 cup of soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 2 tablespoons black tea, (Earl Grey or Russian Caravan is good) and 2 star anise or a stick of cinnamon.
Bring back to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for a further 45 minutes.
Let cool in the pan for an hour or so or even overnight. Carefully peel to uncover the marbling. Often the peeled shell is as pretty as a bird's egg.