The Coronzon Press

On teaching a woman how to make a decent pot of tea, and other tea prejudices

I’m pleased so many people are interested in tea, I’ve had a number of requests to write more about tea, so here goes.

Now there’s an art to choosing a teapot, and cost isn’t a factor as I have got most of my teapots over the years from those shops that sell slightly flawed crockery. I’m not too bothered whether it has a pattern on it, I am solely interested in the shape and how well it will pour. I don’t want anything between the body of the pot and access to the spout, I want tealeaves to flow out of the pot, not get clogged in a ‘convenient’ set of small holes to block their passage.

Lack of a decent spout from the body of the pot will from bitter experience only result in a right ol’ chuggin’ teapot going in fits and starts, you adjust for the slow flow then a large leaf dislodges itself and the increased flow misses the cup and onto the tray. It just isn’t elegant. You don’t have to know Bernoulli’s equation to understand this. If you use large-leaf quality tea, rather than crushed particulate Kenyan tea-urn tea, then you want unhindered passage into the spout, the larger the aperture where the spout joins the pot the better. The bog-standard traditional British shape of teapot (i.e., the classic ‘Brown Betty’ shown above) is an excellent design, but look inside before buying to see whether it has a clear passage or holes. Don’t bother with dinky small pots, get a full-size pot that will hold four cups, even if you only plan to brew two. And certainly never allow a stainless steel teapot into your house.

When I find a decent teapot I will do anything not to replace it. If, for instance, I manage to break the knob off the lid, I will get the Araldite out and glue it back on, not caring whether it looks a mess with Araldite around the seam like a sandwich filling oozing out. And I very rarely wash it, there are teastains all over the outside and my teacosy is filthy brown on the inside.

You must use a teacosy. I am of the habit when alone of making a pot holding two cups and I want that second cup hot. In fact, I want the first cup hot too, and if you don’t use a teacosy then all that heat is escaping. I say two cups, but this is mug size, if I’m brewing a green or white tea I’ll use my small Japanese chado cups – the accompanying chado pot long since smashed, unfortunately, but that hoop bamboo handle just wasn’t practical for use with a teacosy so I didn’t feel too upset, although it was certainly the most beautiful teapot I’ve owned, made in Japan. It was a gift, beautiful teapots are always gifts, but to me a beautiful teapot to be truly beautiful not only looks good but also makes a good cup of tea. Certainly I am in need of a chado pot reserved for non-black teas. (Chado: Tea Way, the Dao of Tea, ‘do’ is Japanese of the Chinese ‘dao’, same as in judo and kendo. Yes, the English slang for tea, cha, does come from the Chinese.)

A cup of tea must be hot. When I taught Tania the art of making a decent pot of tea I was quite convinced she would not get it at all. So few women do. So few women can be trusted with a teapot, which can be a bind as who wants to get up at that time in the morning when there is a woman on hand. Therefore all women need to be taught the art of making a decent cup of tea. If at all possible.

When teaching a woman how to make a pot of tea I resign myself at the outset to failure and generally set aside three weeks before I give up. This means three weeks of enduring insipid brews, admittedly with my feet up.

‘Was the water boiling when you put it in the pot?’

‘Of course it was boiling!’

‘Boiling as in boiling just that second, the second before it hit the tea?

‘Hmmm…’

‘I thought as much.’

Sheepish looks. After warming the pot from the recently boiled kettle I reboil the kettle before pouring the water on the tea, this is so important, the water must be spurting out of the spout of the kettle, steam rising like the Flying Scotsman on the London to Glasgow run.

But the first hurdle to get over is:

‘Did you warm the pot?’

‘No.’

‘Watch me again, watch exactly what I do this time. Empty out the old tealeaves, swill round with boiling water, both washing out stale tea and warming the pot. Pour out the spout to make sure there’s no old lodged leaves in there. Measure out the tea, one teaspoon per person and one for the pot. Reboil the kettle after it has already boiled, don’t just pour in the water after it has been sitting there cooling for a minute, look it takes maybe ten seconds to reboil the kettle, that’s ten seconds of heat that’s not going into the tea if you don’t reboil. Don’t use too much water, up to the end of the tannin stain if you’re not sure. Stir the pot, lid on, cosy on. Go away. Walk round the garden, finger the bay bush, stare at the stars. Come back, cosy off, lid off, stir the pot again. Lid on, pour tea. Soya milk last if it’s to be had with milk, if you put the milk in first you’ll scald it when you pour the tea in and inevitably make it too milky.’

Later, feet up, it’s time, I call over:

‘Yes please, I’ll have a cup of tea.’

‘I didn’t mention making a pot of tea, but I’ll make you one if you want one.’

‘Not if you’re not having one.’

‘I’m having one.’

‘I’ll have one then, nice of you to offer.’

Tea comes.

‘You used too much water, but apart from that, not bad.’

‘I forgot to stir it the second time.’

‘Yes, I know, appreciated admission, but I didn’t want to concentrate on two errors, I thought it best to deal with quantity of water today.’

And so it goes on. I’m teaching them a skill for life that will benefit them in future marriage to rich husbands and give them a little hope to cling to reminiscing about me while stirring that pot. If they stay the course, many an enjoyable cold winter night will be spent on tea recognition tests:

‘Well what d’you think? Recognise that subtle scent in the steam? I’ll give you a choice, Formosan Oolong or Yunnan?’

‘Yunnan.’

‘Correct, but that’s only because you know I’m out of Formosan Oolong.’

The friend who taught me to be more adventurous in my choice of tea was at university with me, we did chemistry together. He got two years into a PhD on the diffusion of tea before giving up on academia. I would visit him in his lab for a brew. He had a huge metal tank filled with tea, covered over by floating table-tennis balls to keep the heat in. Like Einstein he would go up to his green blackboard with a piece of chalk and quickly scribble down an equation to do with the physical chemistry of tea, he would stand back admiring his equation while sipping a smoky Lapsang, it was a charmed life to be sure for a few years, until abject boredom set in along with a desire to earn a living. He made the one o’clock news on Radio 4 once, after he showed that it was now a scientifically proven fact that tea diffused better if you stirred the pot. Ah, the joys of academia and time on your hands.

JB, Jan 23 04