Ever since I was a child, tea has been an essential, constant daily ritual in my life. Memories of hearing my parents call out to 'put the kettle on' and having tea with almost every meal and every moment in between, was as pedestrian as it came for us. It was the tea drinking moments that allowed us to stop, to slow down, to take a moment. Quite often it would be as a family. Never would we make a cup of tea only for ourselves without checking to see if anyone else wanted one as well. It was dad's only drink. Strong, with a good spoon of honey and just a drop of milk. My mum and I shared the same taste, a little less strong a lot more milk and no added sweetness. My Grandma drank it black. Rather weak, with a drop of water so that she could drink it faster and with bigger gulps (she wasn't all that delicate, my dear Grandma). Everyone knew how everyone preferred their cup.
As I grew older, I began to develop a strong interest towards the art of making, serving and drinking tea. The types, the flavour, the history, the beauty. I believe it to be deserving of plenty of attention and detail - and that it is indeed an art form. You see, making the perfect cup of tea and appreciating the potential of this age old tradition is important to me. I like the ritual of selecting beautiful leaf blends. I like boiling the water pouring it over the leaves and watching it steep. I love nothing more than sitting down to a generous pot in the morning, taking time to sit and slowly start the day. I believe that tea is deserving of this detail, of ritual, purity and of time.
Over the years as my interest in cafe hunting and dwelling has increased, I have made it my mission to find the perfectly served, perfectly presented cup . Those who know me well know that I take my tea seriously, and that ordering in a cafe can take a lot to impress. Call it an obsession - even snobbish if you will. But to me it is no less obsessive than a coffee connoisseur making it their mission to find the perfectly roasted bean or espresso pour. Absolutely excusable. Recently, I have been carefully considering the criteria in which I determine the perfect cup. As it turns out, there are four basic parts to my personal tea judgement and I would love to share them with you. There is always more to talk about - milk or tea in the cup first? Favourite blends of tea? Organic? Fair Trade? For now, I've decided just to share the basics. The fundamentals of preparing and presenting my idea of the perfect cup of tea. So, here it is.
1. The Pot - The perfect cup of tea isn't just a cup. That's the first fundamental rule. Ordered tea should, without question, come in a tea pot. One of the most enjoyable things about drinking tea is the act of pouring the tea into the cup. It's not only the audible, tactile and visual part that makes this step so alluring, it's knowing that after one cup is poured, you still have another, if not two more to enjoy. It makes me happy knowing that when I sit down to tea, I will be enjoying at least two or three cups. If not four or five if I am lingering awhile and have the option of a hot water top up. So a pot of tea is imperative.
2. Loose Leaf - Second to the tea pot rule, is the type of leaf that you are making the tea from. It is crucial that the tea be a high quality, loose leaf blend. Let's not even bother with tea bags here. Unless, of course you are using one of those cleverly crafted silk tea bags that still manage to keep a nice amount of space inside the bag for the tea to breathe, and the leaves are indeed kept full shape and high quality. But still, if you are to enjoy the full benefits of a proper cup of tea, loose leaf really is the way to go. The leaves come as they are when they are dried. For black tea, they should be long and lean. For green tea, the same. In herbal tea, flowers and fruit should still be identifiable and the colour should still be vibrant and fresh. Really good cafes will let you smell the teas first. A truly beautiful experience of indulging in loose leaf tea.
3. The Brewing Process - There are some cafes out there who take brewing times of tea as gospel. They will brew your chosen tea for the recommended time and bring the tea out to you, having already disposed of the leaves. Some people like this. I'm not so much a fan. I believe that everyone likes their tea brewed to different strengths. Personally, the time suggested for brewing tea is much to long for me which ends up leaving an overly strong, not so enjoyable cup. I do believe, however, that you can over brew tea. Which is why I have the perfect solution! The perfect cup of tea should come with the leaves inside a removable infuser, which allows you to then remove your tea leaves once your tea has reached the perfect, personal brew time. For even more bonus points, the tea should come with a little timer - to ensure risk of over brewing the tea is avoided. Easy. Everyone is happy.
4. Presentation - Finally, the perfect cup of tea will be thoughtfully presented. There should be a tea pot, as mentioned above, a tea cup and saucer (not a mug, unless it is Japanese tea), a reasonably sized small jug for milk and well presented optional sweeters - eg, demerara sugar, honey etc. The more original the presentation, the better. I personally enjoy hand crafted, minimal ceramics or a beautiful fine rimmed china tea cup.
I have been pleasantly surprised during my travels in the past by tea that has completely obliterated the above criteria, all the while leaving me more than content with the experience. Take Sweden for example. Very rarely do they serve tea in pots. But it will always be loose leaf in a removable single served infuser and always be served in over sized, rather comforting mugs. So, the need to pour more cups is taken away, but the freshness of the loose leaf is not. Turkey is another example. I had no idea how important tea was to the Turkish people. Visiting Istanbul soon educated me on that. Tea is always served in a single, rather small sized cup. It is pre-brewed, quite strong and exceptionally bitter. That's the way they like it. And, despite all of my above pre-requisites above, I did too. I think it was a cultural exception. The tiny tea cups are made of glass, are the cutest hourglass shape and come sat on a traditional painted saucer. Although they are only three mouth fulls big, they are constantly being refilled. Most likely it will be from a happy Turkish man who is pleased to have you at his cafe and quick to announce that sharing a cup of Turkish tea with a stranger, instantly makes you life long friends. If that's not a forgivable serving of a cup of tea, then what is?
At the end of the day, tea is tea. And despite all of my above preferences, the brewing and serving of tea is a personal and cultural experience and differs from one person and from one country to the next.
There is one consistent unwavering factor, however, in the drinking and serving of tea. It invites a moment and a pause in the day. It is an opportunity to stop, to sip and to slow down. However this is done and however it is presented, it is always soothing, always intentional and always very welcome.
my perfect cup of tea
steep time: 2-3 minutes
yields: 1 serving
good quality, loose leaf orange pekoe tea
organic milk in a small ceramic or glass jug
ceramic/glass/enamel tea pot
stove top kettle
Bring fresh, filtered water to boil in the stove top kettle.
While on to boil, prepare the tea. Place a suitable amount of loose leaf tea into infuser. For a 2 cup pot, 1 teaspoon is sufficient. Double the amount for a four cup, and so on.* Be careful not to over crowd the infuser. Tea leaves need room to expand as they infuse, in order to release their maximum amount of flavour.
Place mesh infuser into tea pot and cover with the freshly boiled water. Allow to infuse for 2-3 minutes. Once desired strength has been met, remove the infuser from the pot. Leaving the infuser in for too long will turn the tea bitter and result in an undesired, over brewed flavour.
Pour a small amount of milk into the bottom of the tea cup**.
Pour tea over milk to fill the cup.
Enjoy on it's own, or with a sweet treat or two.
Repeat and enjoy until pot is empty.
*I enjoy my tea most at a medium strength, so any more leaves than this, especially good quality leaves, becomes wasteful.
**I like the milk to be poured first, and my tea rather milky.