We may love a good cuppa but we still haven't got it down to a tea
Despite all the wonderful coffee shops now thriving - at least, I hope they're thriving - we're still a nation of tea-drinkers. But, ah - how many people know how to make a pot of tea these days? Has a generation grown up thinking that dunking a teabag in a mug of warm water is the right way to make tea?
Our continental cousins have never mastered the art of the tea ceremony. Some of them still offer a cup of warm water with a limp teabag on the side. I don't favour making scenes in restaurants, but this should be rebuffed with a reprimand. The water must be added to the tea, not vice-versa. And here's the tricky bit - the water must be boiling when added to the tea.
That's a major difference between tea and coffee. For coffee, water should be hot, but not boiling, because it scalds the coffee detrimentally. For tea, water must always be boiling - and not just-boiled. At the point of meeting the tea: boiling. The folks who devised the Hadron Collider still haven't grasped that essential element of tea technology.
I was once instructed in how to make tea by Mr Sam Twining, whose family has been associated with importing tea for yonks. First, he drew attention to the teapot. A teapot should either be (a) fine bone china (b) silver or (c) aluminium. A teapot, by the way, should never be put into a dishwasher for cleaning: the tannin that it accumulates should be gently wiped off with warm water, by hand, and no chemicals should be involved.
Water should be freshly drawn from the tap. Before making tea, the teapot should be rinsed with hot water, then the tea placed in the teapot, then add the boiling water. If using loose tea leaves (always favoured by the tea connoisseur), it's usually a spoon for each person and one for the pot. The teapot should then stand - to allow the tea to infuse - for two-and-a-half minutes before the tea is poured.
A word about loose tea: it does provide a superior taste, but most people find tea leaves too much of a bother. I think we have to concede that the teabag has won the battle for convenience. Top-quality teabags have improved in recent years, although the tea expert still regards them with suspicion, and sometimes with contempt. They'll tell you teabags are often just the sweepings of tea. I have accepted the teabag: yes, old tea leaves are a nuisance. Nuns would once clean the corridors of convents with used tea leaves, but as there are neither nuns nor convent corridors anymore, this recycling is no longer apt.
However, I think the teapot is essential for brewing a decent cup of tea. As mentioned, tea needs to infuse. It cannot infuse satisfactorily in a mug. A mug is fine for drinking tea - but it should be bone china (advised Mr Twining).
There's also the controversial question of whether milk should be poured into the cup first. Mr Twining taught that tea should be poured first, because that gauges the consistency of the beverage, and milk (or lemon, according to taste) subsequently added.
I personally prefer milk in first, which Nancy Mitford, that arbiter of what was posh and what wasn't, considered "common". She even had an acronym for those she considered common - "MIFs" - Milk In First people. Originally, a coating of milk prevented your bone china teacup from cracking.
As to tea flavours: Darjeeling for a delicate Indian tea; Assam for a strong cuppa and Ceylon for a smooth one. Earl Grey is delightfully scented with bergamot, but I think better suited for breakfast. Lapsang Souchong is light and scented.
It's great to see the spread of herbal teas - peppermint (a fine digestive after a meal), chamomile (soothing) and nettle. Green tea is also gaining popularity. These are caffeine free, so they don't provide the pick-me-up element of the true cup of tea, but they all have a place.
A herbal tea doesn't need a teapot - it can be a teabag in a mug - yet even herbal tea is improved by serving from a teapot. The decline of the teapot, as a matter of general use, is undoubtedly a metaphor of the decline of the collective experience and the rise of individualism.
The "Brown Betty" teapot was a symbol of families sitting around together, sharing a pot of tea - the pot itself was also a symbol of hospitality, like the Russian samovar, which stood sentinel to welcoming the stranger.
The individual teabag in a mug, by contrast, represents individual choice: "I do my own thing."
Are we a nation of drinkers?
Well, we certainly drink tea by the gallon ...