Having posted on the follies of polarisation, I am now going to divide the world neatly into two.
It seems to me that people are either Tea Drinkers or Coffee Drinkers. They may pay cautious and polite visits to each others’ country but are often more likely to compromise on a hot chocolate when they do. (And what a puling, foolish, bastardised, homogenised, saccarined simulacrum that is in most of the tea-rooms and cafes that sell it. I could divert myself with the delights of a French cafe in Bath where the hot chocolate was dark and bitter and made out of melted chocolate with milk stirred in, but I won’t. I am here for another bigoted rant entirely.)
The trouble with coffee is that it is purveyed with a hundred different adulterations in clanking, banging, over market-researched, minimum waged ertzatzeries (spit the word out) such as Starbucks and Costa and Cafe Nero. Pity the poor tea drinker who stumbles into such a place. The noise, for a start. BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG as the grounds are dislodged from whatever crevices of the machinery they have been rammed in to. What kind of relaxation requires such force?
No. The real evils of the Cafe Costbucks of this world lie not in the coercive abominations they apply to the relatively innocent coffee bean (if you really want raspberry syrup with your coffee you are damned beyond redemption anyway). No, the true horrors of these places are the pathetic and derogatory nod they make in the direction of tea.
Tea. Tay. The. Chai. Char. Forget herbal teas, which are tisanes anyway. Forget the chimeras created out of mixed fruit and synthetic oils. We are talking about the dried top leaves of the camelia bush. Grown high, and harvested young.
Tea has to be made with respect. Do you know why tea should always be made with freshly and briefly boiled water? Read on. You are about to find out. Take a glass of water. Leave it standing overnight. Observe the little bubbles on the inside of the glass which makes it look like a glass of lustreless cream soda. These bubbles are air. Good fresh water has air dissolved in it. It is the lack of air in the water which makes tea taste nasty and sharp and tannic. The owners of tropical fish will tell you that they need to oxygenate the water in their fishtanks. This is because warm water cannot retain dissolved air, and the longer the water is warm, and the warmer that it is for that time, the less air remains dissolved in it. Thus, to make a decent cup of tea you need freshly and briefly boiled water.
Tea should be made with hot water in china. The china retains heat in a different way from the way that glass or – worse – pyrex retains heat. I don’t know how or why. But I have yet to meet an American other than my Ma’s friend Connie who could grasp these two simple facts. Hot water. China. Not warm water and glass. Glass beakers with steel handles look elegent, if you think glass and steel the height of sleek moderne good taste of course, but the tea tastes like pee.
Water matters to tea. Some teas taste best with hard water and some with soft. (Hard water comes from limestone aquifers and is pure but full of calcium. If your kettle furs up with chalk, then you live with hard water). Good tea blenders know this. My Ma used to buy tea from a tea-merchant who blended a mix for the local water. The Yorkshire Tea company still do a local version of their soft and delicious dark tea and a version for exiles designed to produce the same flavour in a hard water area.
Different cultures make tea in different ways. Last night I had a cup of Persian tea, tasting slightly of mint, made in a heavy china teapot which balanced on a stand which contained a single tea-light, (oh moment of epiphany!) which kept the pot warm. We had delicately gilded thistle shaped glasses to drink it from, with a bulbous base to keep the tea warm and a flaring lip to hold.
Chinese tea: scented with jasmine and served in wafer-thin porcelain translucent with grains of rice.
Japanese tea: green and delicately harsh, served in heavy little earthenware handleless cups.
European tea: black but light and clean-tasting for serving with lemon.
English tea. Dark. Strong. Tannic. Transformed into a foodstuff with milk. Sergeant Major Tea strong enough to kill most Sergeant Majors. Tea advertised by Chimpanzees.
South African Redbush tea: naturally scented and aromatic, orange in the cup, lightly tannic but without caffeine, drunk with or without milk.
Indian tea: smoky, dark, strong, from Assam or Darjeeling.
Gunpowder Green tea: whole leaves rolled into tight little balls that bounce open in the hot water.
White tea: made from leaves so fragrant and delicate they used to be picked by virgins.
Spiced chai: strong, sweet, milky, aromatic with cardamons, hot with pepper and sharp with ginger.
Turkish tea: pungent with mint, made palatable with sugar and served in tiny glasses.
Russian tea: too strong to think of, but diluted with water from a samovar.
Tea accommodates eccentricities. My Ma used to mix Early Grey (a strongly aromatic china tea scented with the oil of the bergamot orange) with Darjeeling. Me, I drink spiced chai mixed with roibosh. My aunt would add a sprig of rosemary to her Assam. But we all made it with hot water in china teapots or earthenware mugs.
You see, tea should always be treated with respect. It does not require snobbishness. Single Estate Cylon tea just tastes like tea to me. I buy my every day teas in bags. But it does deserve respect.
You can keep your steamed, boiled coffee, with a flavour which has to be smothered in milk, frothed up and fluffed, disguised with sprinklings of chocolate or nutmeg, and drowned in hazel syrup.
I should be grateful that the Cafe StarryCosts of this world have not adopted tea, I suppose. Or people would assume that something vaguely brown made from water which has been kept at 85 degrees for half an hour, poured into a glass with the offer of maple flavored corn-syrup comprises tea.