A Paean To Tea

Spoon heads with various teas inside, in a row, on a pale blue wooden background

“I feel really unhappy.”

It’s a puerile statement for any mother to make, my only defence being it’s day 58 of lockdown, I’m still in pyjamas and the migraine drugs have left me a lethargic mess on my daughter’s bed.

I’ve finally accepted there’ll be no family holiday this year and little chance of seeing my eldest child any time soon. There’s the added guilt that these are all first world problems.

“Don’t worry mum,”  says our ever sunny 18-year-old. “I’ll make you tea all day long.”

How well she knows me.  Tea, glorious tea, has become the daily fix that keeps a nation going. I send a message to my WhatsApp Girls Night group. “If you had to choose tea or wine – what would be it be?”

Within seconds, the teacher replies “Tea!”.  The superstar mother: “Wine”, obvs. It’s tea for both our hero NHS obstetrician and online retailer, and the interiors queen  concurs, then posts a green tea martini recipe. Dream team. The potter is for wine and for the scriptwriter it’s gin – a conclusive 5:3 win for Britain’s most popular hot drink.

Stuck inside our four walls, Britain’s tea drinkers have become more obsessed.  General sales are up 41%. At the posh end, it’s much more. “We’ve seen a 1,000 percent increase in demand for our products,”  Sebastian Pole, founder of the  Pukka Teas told the New York Times recently.  “A cup of tea is a guaranteed good moment, isn’t it? And there aren’t many guaranteed good moments these days.”

Chasing those precious moments has also seen teapot sales up six percent. I too have ditched tea bags (plastic alert) and recently ordered half a kilo of Earl Grey loose tea from the suitably named merchants Good & Proper.  It cost me £20 which translates into 160 good moments at just 12.5p a pop. That’s practically free.

How can I sufficiently explain the pleasure I take from tea?

It follows an evolving rhythm, starting with that initial sip at the beginning of the day. This is undoubtedly the best,  and one that’s anticipated from the moment I wake up until the tea urge becomes too great and I pad downstairs to begin the ritual ceremony.

The freshly filtered water, a must, goes into the kettle, while a heaped teaspoon of the aforementioned loose tea, kept in an old Harvey Nichols tea caddy, goes into a deep tea strainer which perfectly fits my favourite mug. When 100 degrees of  boiling water hits the crispy leaves it produces a shrill hiss, followed by sonorous gurgling noises. Few things sound as sweet.

There’s a four minute wait while the tea steeps and the leaves turn into strands that look like tiny seaweed – not desiccated dust like that of mass produced tea.

After which it’s a dash of oat milk – I gave up the cow thing last year too – and either back to bed or on the sofa or into the garden because you really need to be seated to fully appreciate that first mouthful.

Who knows if it’s the flavonoids or the theanine or the caffeine it contains, but whatever the magic elixir, its malty flavour, oatmilky sweetness and hint of lemony bergamot makes for a heartening reprise to punctuate these lockdown days. Up to six times a day.

Because frankly there is nothing more upsetting than bad tea.

As George Orwell once wrote, tea-making is “the subject of violent disputes.” The New York Times article reproduced a spreadsheet used by its London office detailing the type of milk, mug and sugar its journalists required, plus – this is the best – a colour palette of the desired end product. Genius. I need to do this in our house, where tea requests so often end in disappointment.

Undisputed is the truth that Americans cannot make it.

The New York Times editor, London-born Mark Thompson told The Daily podcast earlier this month: “Quite honestly, one of the most disheartening things about American life is not the politics, not the incredible social division – it’s the way you make tea.” They believe a Lipton teabag in tepid water is the real deal.

My newly discovered supply from Good & Proper is the stuff of legitimate tea, and hailing from Sri Lanka, feels symbiotic.  Because tea always reminds me of my mother,  whose Irish ancestors survived off it,  and I have a picture of her in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, taken in the fifties looking like Audrey Hepburn on a hillside in the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya. I once went there in the Nineties and remember fields of tea pickers and the wood-lined interiors of the old tea estates, full of ghosts from its colonial past.

Despite my increasing tea snobbery,  there are random alternatives for which I’ll happily break my usual cuppa. Costco, home of bulk-buying loo paper, does a spectacular strong and milky Tetley breakfast tea in its food hall for about 80p, while the Indian restaurant chain Dishoon offers a warming mix of milky Darjeeling simmered with ginger, black peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and sugar.  Spicy chai tea in the afternoon with a slab of dark chocolate is a particular lockdown treat which had me recently purchasing two boxes of Twinnings Spicy Chai teabags online when it was out of stock everywhere else. (My quest for loose leaf chai tea continues.)

India is also where I was first introduced to restorative ginger tea, when in the Nineties we’d rent an old Portuguese villa in the mountains above Anjuna in Goa. I have a lasting image of everyone draped around the courtyard at dawn, having danced all night, being served sweet ginger tea by bemused staff while Aretha sings Say A Little Prayer.

That memory has been recently usurped by a friend’s 60th birthday at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons hotel in Oxfordshire where £10 cups of Earl Grey were sipped, recommended by a tea sommelier who refused to let us tarnish it with any milk at all.  I regularly long to return to that corner of England with its hot clear tea and heavenly sandwiches.

Throughout my life, tea has been there for me when grief and tragedy turned everything I ate to dust,  and it kept me going, along with Minstrels, during gruelling 15 hour days on newspapers.

With the world in chaos, it has again become an increasing source of comfort.  There are dozens of quotes that eulogize tea, from the likes of Rudyard Kipling to Agatha Christie and Douglas Adams. I’ll end on my favourite, from a former British Prime Minister who could well provide our present incumbent with a lesson in clarity.

“If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; If you are depressed, it will cheer you; If you are excited, it will calm you.

William Gladstone 1809 – 1898

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