After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. Each Turk uses 2.5 kg of tea per year, India is hoping to declare tea its national drink, and the average inhabitant of Ireland drinks four cups of tea a day.
And yet, we cannot help but think of tea as uniquely British. As much as our national love of tea is cliched, the beverage offers a celebration of not only pernickety rituals, but also our peculiarly British cultural awkwardness. It serves as a buffer in uncomfortable situations, a catalyst to any conversation, and, as many discover at Cambridge, an excuse to invite people into your bedroom.
There are those who perhaps wonder what all the fuss is about, thinking ‘tea’ just means standard English Breakfast, with milk and/or sugar. This is fair enough, but, for those who may want to expand their repertoire, the sheer number of varieties of this delightful beverage which are available is bewildering. Fear not – it is never too late to start expanding your tea collection, so here are a few to get you started.
A good place to start is Earl Grey, the classic choice for afternoon tea. If you’re starting out, you might like to drink this with milk or sugar, but I’d advise against it, since this will destroy the flavour.
However, if you are looking for something a little more interesting, then one of my favourites is Russian Caravan. It’s like Lapsang Souchong’s older sister, a bit less smoky, more complex and sophisticated. This blend is traditionally said to have acquired its smoky flavour from the campfires of the merchants who brought it to Russia in the caravans of the Southern Silk Road, which led to its being labelled the ‘Tea Road’.
To drink it like the Russians do, never add milk (seriously, Tsar Nicholas/Lenin/Anastasia will spin in their respective graves) and take it with a teaspoon or so of jam. Yes, jam. Don’t look at me like that – I know it sounds weird, but it’s delicious. If you’re not feeling quite that adventurous, then perhaps consider a nice cup of Darjeeling – it’s known as the champagne of teas, with good reason.
As much as I struggle to comprehend it, some people just don’t like tea, and this is where green teas (although scrumptious in their own right) often have more success. The most commonly available options are bancha, sencha, and genmaika.
Like many others, Japanese teas are graded according to their origin and time of harvest. ‘Bancha’ roughly translates to ‘common’, and is a lower grade of sencha, being made of tougher leaves and harvested later. Sencha accounts for 75% of all Japan’s tea production, and is delicate, with a flowery green aroma.
I myself am partial to genmaika, a blend of bancha and roasted rice, which gives it a more full-bodied, slightly nutty flavour. White tea is becoming more widely available now – grown primarily in the Fujian province of China, it is made from the young buds on the tips of the tea plant, which are covered by fine white hairs – the source of its name and delicate flavour.
Tea is also delightfully idiosyncratic. Everyone makes and takes their tea slightly differently, and more than one violent dispute has arisen over whether to put milk in first or second. You will be delighted to know, however, that the issue can be put to rest once and for all. According to the International Organisation for Standardisation, and George Orwell’s delightfully serious essay ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, milk should always be added second. While many terribly clever people could give scientific reasons for this, the most obvious, practical one is that it is impossible to control the strength of the tea if you add milk first.
Making the perfect cup of tea is a complex, but highly desirable, skill. Whenever possible, tea should be brewed in a teapot. This should be made of china or ceramic, as metal and enamel teapots often lend an unpleasant taste. Water should be freshly boiled; this is important, as twice-boiled water has less oxygen. Warm your teapot before use – my personal practice is to swill at least half a cup of hot water for three stanzas of ‘The Jabberwocky’ but each to their own.
For the true connoisseur, loose-leaf tea is preferable, as it infuses properly. Allow one heaped teaspoon per person (if you insist on using teabags one per person will do). Notable exceptions include a full pot (allow one per cup of water the pot holds) or if brewing in advance of a late night essay marathon. If you have tea cups, you may as well use them – people will be terribly impressed, and it makes you look sophisticated and knowledgeable. Suddenly, any time people pop round for a cuppa, it becomes an impromptu tea party.
Tea is always going to be an important part of British, and student, life. Whether you’re trying to get through an all-nighter, warm up after you’ve trekked back from Cindies, or erase the memory of that last supervision, tea is always there to make life seem a little better.
Tea is meant to make you happy – and therefore you should drink it any way that makes you happy. If you want to start experimenting, there’s a whole exciting world of tea out there for you to try – and the best part is, no matter where it comes from, it will always be ours.
Photo: Alexandre Dulaunoy