Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sisterhood of Tea

I saw my sisters this weekend. We had a wonderful visit despite the tea. You see, tea is important to us. We have high standards for it -- none of the bland blends, not ever the burnt Starbucks kind, not a drop of the herbal.  We want strong, clear, brisk English style tea with cream and sugar.  We were weaned from Gerber’s iron-fortified formula straight to hot tea and all three of us are still devoted to it.

Tea must be made a certain way. Cold water must be drawn from the tap and put on to boil. To me, the sound of cold, fresh water splashing from the faucet into the kettle is the sound of coming home, because when I return home, making tea is the first thing I do.

While the water is boiling, rinse clean the teapot and fill it with hot water to heat it up. The hotter the water is, the more brisk and flavorful the tea will be. So, if the teapot itself is hot, when you pour the boiling water in, the teapot will not “take” heat needed for steeping the tea.

While the teapot is heating, ready the tea. I use Lipton and nothing else. I use one teabag per cup and one extra teabag “for the teapot.” This same measure should be used for loose tea, using one teaspoon loose tea per cup and one extra “for the pot.” PG Tips is also good, but much stronger, and if I'm desperate meaning in an area of the country where no Lipton can be found, Red Rose will do for a day or two. 

Though both my grandmothers' parents immigrated from different European countries, they both served tea in the afternoon with the same homey ceremony, inviting the same opportunity for friendly connection.  When my son travelled to India recently he described their affinity for tea as a cultural similarity. It's universal!  Tea has just the right amount of flavor and spark for an afternoon respite. 

Heather and Val doing their comedy act over tea -- to the delight of all.
The best tea is made with just boiled water. This means that the water must be brought to a full, rolling boil, but not left to boil longer—allowing the water to boil even seconds longer flattens the flavor of the tea. Really. I’m serious. (You can trust me because truthfully without bragging, I make the best tea in town).

Just boiled means also that as soon as the water boils, you pour it into the teapot. Don’t wait. Don’t let the boiled water sit on the stove for a while. Use it immediately!

The water must be poured over the teabags. Don’t pour the water and then stick the teabags in. Pouring the just boiled water over the tea releases the flavor.

What is forbidden is to heat the water in the microwave, then dunk in the teabag.  This process makes a faintly colored liquid that tastes nothing like real, good tea.

Now that the tea has begun to steep, cover the teapot with a tea cosy or clean towels. Let the tea steep for 3 to five minutes.

You can't see the teapot because it is hiding cosily under the lovely tea cosy my friend Teresa made for me.

If you want to share my affinity for tea culture, you should also know that tea invites the use and contemplation of beautiful things.  My friend Anne served tea to our faculty in the library on Wednesdays after school.  This generous act brought tired teachers together for refreshment of soul and body. She made sure to include a bowl of fresh flowers --or if there were none available, fresh greens.  Softly in the background played music of the sort that invited camaraderie.  Often she had prepared a poem to read to us. Tea is the time for a snack of beauty. Therefore, serve your tea in porcelain mugs or china cups.  It tastes better this way. 

Real English style tea is served with milk or half and half and sugar.  The "mother" or hostess pours the tea into each guest's cup.  Some tea-lovers like to put the milk in the cup and then pour the steeped tea over the milk.  The flavor is slightly different and you’ll have to decide which you like better.

Tea is a meeting place in my family.  We gather over tea and talk.  Good hot tea, its fragrance delicately bracing invites conversation, provides comfort.  Tea is best when you've been away from home for awhile, or even outside in the Spring working hard on the garden.  When it is time to stop, to pause, tea warms the soul, so when we went out to lunch this weekend to visit and catch up, we all, one by one, ordered tea.

Me and my siblings ... my brother likes tea, too.
The waitress brought the tea with lemon wedges.  We asked for milk or cream and once fixed, for restaurant tea, it wasn’t too awful.  Translated this means it wasn't good, but as long as it was hot, it was drinkable.  We talked and sipped and enjoyed a delicious lunch. But that’s when it happened. The waitress came to check on us and poured luke warm water into our half-filled tea cups! The mixture was as murky and appealing as the water used to clean your paint brush. Our eyes met in horror and we burst out laughing.

at lunch before our mugs of tea were ruined
My sister gave my granddaughter a little teapot. It doesn't hold water, but when you turn it over, it makes a glugging sound like water pouring! Clare was facinated as you can see from the picture.

The tradition continues.


  1. Really great tea does do a body good. I don't break too many of your rules, and I ALWAYS heat up that teapot, and my mug. That part is essential! I'm not as locked in to Lipton to be satisfied, but other than that, you've said it all. Poorly made tea is a sorry affair, on the order of instant coffee.

  2. that reminds me of a time visiting an english piano teacher living in Denmark. My sis and I would often stay for tea after the lesson, and the first time he said humourously, after everything had been collected, "oh! Shall I be 'Mum'? Which was delightful and amusing to us, because I'n not heard that particular term before.

    I must confess, however, that I am partial to flavored and sweetened tea and infusions, including herbals and many varieties offered by Bigelow.

    For a divine tea, finish it off with real scones and lemon curd and devonshire cream!

  3. Yes, along with very strong, but not burned tea, as Loris describes, I am also partial to certain flavors--Lapsang Souchong anyone? That was often on offer at my grandmother's afternoon tea, and I still love its smoky distinct flavor. Very nice. By Twinings. I've also found some lovely blueberry black teas that are very nice indeed with milk and sugar. And a good herbal has its place.

  4. You always did make the best tea. :)

  5. I am seriously considering hosting a tea for some of the MOPS ladies I am very glad to have been educated on the technique. Cakes I could manage but the tea was never as good as it was in the tea houses I had wondered why.

  6. I love this post so much! So many people make a terrible cup of tea! My friend Tracy (a self proclaimed "donkey") and I actually found one of those coffee carts near work that makes a great cup of tea. The father/son team pours volcanic water over the actual tea bag...excellent! Most of these idiots pour the milk in first like they are preparing a cup of coffee and then they add the hot water and plop the tea bag in afterward so all you have is warm, watered-down milk with a useless tea bag floating in it...Ugh. I emailed the page to Tracy 'cause she would appreciate it...
    Hope all is well!
    -Cousin Danielle

  7. My niece Lexi LOVES tea. I just have to get her to understand what you wrote here and what I say to her every time I make it for her "good tea takes time."

  8. I had a tea party once in high school. Andrea, Karis and a friend from church came to my house. We dressed in our Sunday best and enjoyed tea and snacks. It was such a great afternoon. Ask Andrea if she remembers the tea party at my house many moons ago. I wish I lived closer to civilization so I could get together with girlfriends more often to have tea while our kids play. It would be great.