Tea making is a serious business, with many traps for the unwary. N8N Special Correspondent Major Blunder, Officer Commanding, Fifth Waikato Dragoons Regiment, Northern Command, Alf’s Imperial Army files this Authorative Report on the Art of Tea.
Being a Description of the Mysteries and Intricacies Inherent in the Decoction of this Most Sustaining of Potions
Despite the fact that tea is such an integral part of our daily lives, forming the very heart of that most English of rituals, the Afternoon Tea, very few seem capable of producing anything more palatable than a greasy, slightly tart infusion owing more to dishwater than an herbal beverage.
Whilst the brewing of a “good cuppa”, to use the vernacular, is not in itself in the order of wireless telegraphy, nor indeed ballistics, it is certainly not merely a case of bunging a few leaves into warm water and then leaving them to their own devices. If only it were that simple.
For many reasons the Art of Tea has attained quite heady altitudes of perfection in the Orient and serves both as social grease and social leveller. Woe betide the unfortunate born of high status for whom the production of a reliably impressive concoction is but a fevered dream.
Whilst the Empire places somewhat fewer strictures upon those for whom good tea just seems an impossibility (although a Lady’s future as an hostess, and thereby her husband’s future prospects in Polite Society, can be immeasurably harmed by the production of the wrong beverage for her audience) it is still important to be aware of the basics.
Ideally one should use loose tea that is as fresh as possible, stored in an airtight, damp-proof, vermin-proof container: tin-lined caddies provide the additional feature that the tin does not taint the tea stored therein. However, the wonders of modernity have served to provide a viable, if not ideal, alternative, the tea “bag”, which certainly aids the freshness, but still requires care with storage. Bags with rips should perhaps be used for resting ones eyes, rather than making a reviving brew of cupped tea.
A china pot is preferable to a metallic one, particularly if attempting to brew the more delicate infusions that require much finer control of temperature. However, despite the blandishments of merchants, and their sheer good looks, one should avoid copper, brass or bronze teapots, as all may cause a noticeably metallic taint, particularly in the stronger brews.
Bone china is ideal as it holds heat well, but is thin enough to cool consistently, while earthenware is robust and keeps the tea hot, but, perforce, may cause a rather overcooked flavour to arise after the passage of time.
Whether using loose or bagged tea, the following strictures all hold true;
1. Heat all the containers in which the brewing will take place, whether cup or pot and leave the hot water in until the very last possible moment.
2. Use boiling water, not merely hot, not boiled a few minutes ago, but currently, searingly boiling water that will send besiegers screaming into the arms of their Medical Corps when poured from a great height.
3. Empty the heated brewing vessel, place the tea inside, then add the boiling water immediately from the boil.
4. Add any sweetening you may desire, as this forms a chemical solution, thereby making it easier to draw the tannins and oils from the tea.
5. Brew for the required time. Mister Twinning recommends seven minutes, although most other Master Tea-makers will accept as little as five minutes for making actual tea.
6. Pour through a warmed strainer into the heated cup or remove the tea bags.
7. An especial note regarding pouring: please refrain from anything more than a sedately steady pour from no more than four inches above the lip of the receptacle, despite any feeling for the need of flourish. Between one and two inches is ideal as this provides sufficient impulsion to swirl the delicious decoction, releasing its subtle aromas, without infusing a great many bubbles that may cause embarrassment to the pourer and reduce the soothing effects of the beverage.
8. Add milk if desired. Do not be tempted to perform this stage before adding the boiling water as the milk will sear and taste vaguely burnt. Said action, whilst being utterly vulgar, will also serve to make it more difficult to draw out the tannins and oils for which the entire process is geared.
Of course, there are, in practice, a great many shades of difference between actual tea and the host of imitators that have grown up since first the Elixir reached the Mother Country. A greatly abbreviated descriptive guide is here appended.
Boiled Water: The merest thought regarding tea, or even the merest intimation thereof, is entirely lacking. Neither creams nor sugars shall adulterate this cleansing brew.
Maiden’s Breath: The requisite herb has certainly been present, but may well have not actually entered the steaming liquid, except perhaps in some vaguely existential way. However, in the right light it is possible that the waters may well have taken on an intimation of colour, not to be confused with actual colour.
Vestal Virgin: A certain amount of tea has been allowed to momentarily moisten in this thin, insipid brew, before being hastily withdrawn after mere seconds of steeping. Often served with copious portions of milk, thereby producing something with just the most vague hint of colour imaginable, Which may well be honestly mistaken for the effects of the ambient light.
Bone China Chaser: Brewed for under two minutes, this is an ideal infusion for the more delicate flavours. The liquid has a clear orange tint, showing as a vague hint of caramel with the addition of milk or cream, although such an addition is rarely warranted for such subtle flavours.
Sepia Infusion: A brown tea – although with a reddish hue in the clearest light – either from under-brewing (for 3-4 minutes at most), or from watering down of over-stewed decoctions. When milk or cream is added a colour not unlike a traditional brown paper bag is achieved.
Tea: The ideal British “cup of cha”, brewed for 5-7 minutes, eight at the absolute outside extreme of acceptable behaviour. The resultant liquid is a bold, reddish brown, with a distinctively strong, slightly acid aroma. If milk or cream are to be added, no more than 1/6-1/5 of the cup should be used, thereby giving a rich caramel hue, otherwise the result owes more to milk shakes than tea.
Shepherd’s Brew: A darker hued version of the above, this is often brewed for up to ten minutes, and both milk and sugar are added, making a rich caramel brown concoction that will warm one on even the coldest of nights. Also useful for reviving chilled lambs.
Tannery Row: Brewed for at least 15 minutes and so dark that if poured into a glass, the viewer may well be completely unable to see the opposite side. Little milk should be added or it may well be mistaken for a thin gravy. Excellent for producing a fine brown stain on leather or fabric, and an absolute must when cold and mixed with 1/10 its volume of vinegar for effectively cleaning grime from windows and cutlery.
Pit Slurry: Brewed for at least 20 minutes, possibly having been reheated. Well sugared in each cup, four or more would be the norm, this lethal mixture is designed to lift the layers of coal-dust inherent in coal-mining. Milk added often curdles, although a hint of lemon can achieve a slightly ameliorating affect.
Gunner’s Grease: Brewed for a full half hour, definitely reheated after the addition of six or more spoons of sugar, possibly twice, served in old shell casings and tasting strongly of gunpowder. Has been known to dissolve silver spoons, metal pots and fillings. Ideal for cleaning artillery pieces. Not for the faint-hearted and may in fact be injurious to the imbiber’s health if they are possessed of a weak constitution.
As a final cautionary note to the uninitiated or the criminally innocent, one should never, under any circumstances, allow good tea to cool below body temperature. It should be consumed whilst still hot enough to release the flavours inherent in the decoction, without scalding or otherwise damaging one’s palate. Furthermore, if said tea should regrettably reach the state most commonly known as lukewarm, it should be replaced by a fresh brew. For anyone desirous of surviving the rigorous strictures of the Afternoon Tea, one should never, ever consider entertaining the conception that a “little bit of reheating” will be acceptable. Social ruin is almost certain, with only motor vehicular salesmen, members of the legal fraternity, or politicians of lower standing on the slippery slope to social perdition.
Ed’s note: N8N admits to favouring the Bone China Chaser version, which strictly speaking, according to the Major, isn’t really tea. Oh dear.