The Slow Art of Tea
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
“It is a matter that concerns our health, for tea has become to us one of the necessaries of life; we drink it morning and evening, and we find ourselves refreshed and benefited thereby; it smooths our ruffled nerves, calms excitement, and gives us strength to battle coolly and successfully against the worries of this work-a-day world”
from Tea: The Drink of Pleasure and of Health, c.1880.
Tea has always cast a bewitching spell over the English, or so it seems. As expressed in the opening pages of Tea: The Drink of Pleasure and Health, from around 1880, it calms us, soothes our nerves, and helps prepare us for the challenges of our daily lives. When life deals the English lemons, we may be more inclined to add a lemon slice to our Earl Grey than to make lemonade.
A pot of tea enjoyed whilst gathered with friends or loved ones is often the first step toward solving a problem. My own family certainly believe that many of life's hurdles and hiccups can be solved if we all sit down and have a cup of tea first. In fact, it would be fair to say that in my family, much of life's challenges have been completely avoided by sitting down and enjoying a pot of tea: this family ritual can often take the entire afternoon, leaving no time at all to tackle any of the tasks and trials that had been feared.
When life deals the English lemons, we may be more inclined to add a lemon slice to our Earl Grey than to make lemonade.
The tea-drinking habits of my immediate family have been rituals that – as an adult – I have rarely been able to observe since leaving the family nest. Life beyond the walls of my family home seemed to move at a different pace with different priorities, and the ritual of “putting the kettle on” soon became a fading memory.
When I was at university, I tried desperately hard to make time for a pot of tea, but living in student halls posed many obstacles; most notably the absence of a kitchen, and a first term spent without a working fridge. Kind friends, who knew of my love of tea, rather sweetly treated me to a Whittard Tea-for-One as a present for my 19th birthday, while my insistence on keeping a small fridge in the corner of my shared bedroom, not for wine, or beer, or food, but for milk, was often the subject of ridicule.
After graduating, I moved to London, and enjoyed regular excursions to Richmond to visit The Tea Box and Rosie & Java to feed my growing interest in different varieties of tea. My tea drinking habits became rather private. On days when I wasn't working, I’d bake a cake and take time to enjoy a speciality tea (in the summer, my personal favourite was Rosie & Java’s “Palace Court Afternoon Tea”) whilst sitting alone in the back garden, either reading a book or writing my journal.
When I was at university, I tried desperately hard to find time to settle down with a pot of tea, but living in halls posed many obstacles, most notably not having a kitchen and spending the first term without a working fridge to keep milk.
As a nation, the way we consume tea has changed so much in the last few decades that the scene of a family gathered together to "take tea" feels more like a scene depicted in a museum or television period drama than a moment in our modern lives. In fact, tea isn't even our preferred beverage anymore. We have become a nation of coffee drinkers, enjoying our drink on-the-go, grabbing something richly caffeinated, highly calorific and intensely sugary on the way to work to compensate for last night’s lack-of-sleep. It’s a quick refreshment in a disposable cup on the way to a meeting you are probably already running late to. Even if tea is your drink of choice, it is too often served in a thick mug, and consumed in a noisy, crowded chain café in the middle of a busy day in town.
Even when we are in the home, tea is consumed as quickly (and with as little ceremony) as possible. We make tea in the mug rather than in the pot, throwing in the teabag, dousing it with scalding water, giving it a minute (or less) before wringing it out with a teaspoon against the side of the mug, and your tea is good to go. I must confess that – whilst I never have tea on-the-go when I am out of the house – I am guilty of making it in the cup, walking around the house with it, letting it get cold whilst I tidy the house, or taking it to my desk to sip whilst writing. (Alas, I am doing it even now: my green tea is currently cooling beside me on the coffee table whilst my real attention is focused on my laptop!)
Our tea drinking habits have changed to match the pace of our days: we no longer feel we can afford to takes things so slowly. Time can no longer be spared to sit and wait while the tea brews in the pot under the crochet cosy, nor can we stay seated – not other occupied – for the full duration of the drinking experience. We are nearly always needed somewhere (perhaps everywhere) else at the same time. Tea has become drink of choice for the modern multi-tasker.
So why is it so important that the ritual of tea be recognised?
I must express up-front that I do not believe that 'taking tea' – or any similar traditions – should be preserved for their own sake, by default. Our traditions must mean something to us today, as well as being historically important. My desire to retain the slow art of tea-drinking doesn't stem from a desire to conserve or conjure up some sort of British spirit from the ancient past: that time before we can remember, but to which we hark back to.
No, my interest in defending the time to prepare, drink and enjoy tea is one that grows from a growing need to nurture our own wellbeing at a time of uncertainty. It is about the way we engage with the world around us, at a more natural pace, away from the pressures of work, chores and obligations. It is about taking care of ourselves, and showing an appreciation for what we have and what we are about to enjoy.
Appreciating a pot of tea can be an act of meditation in itself; one with a thirst-quenching reward. It is a ritual that forces us to focus on where we are, right at that minute. It directs our minds away from the anxieties that are building up around us, allowing us to turn inwards and plan for the future. For me, the whole process can be a rewarding ritual: from taking time to choose a good tea in a tea emporium, to brewing the leaves in a way that best enhances their flavour, to making the most of the leaves I have, and ultimately to taking the time to sit and enjoy my tea on it's own terms, and not because it is a caffeine fix in an already busy day.
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly. “I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I ca’n’t take more.” “You mean you ca’n’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
"traditional and regional recipes suited to modern tastes"
There is a 'recipe' for tea in Florence White's 1932 cookbook Good Things in England, which aims to collate “traditional and regional recipes suited to modern tastes contributed by English men and women between 1399 and 1932”. Thankfully, this fascinating book is still easy to obtain since being republished by Persephone books.
I must admit, I gave a double-take when I first spotted the recipe: do we really need a recipe for something as simple as tea?
The first four steps are as one would expect, and most perhaps unusual to see recorded:
Warm the teapot.
Put in the tea.
Pour on ½ pint freshly boiling water for each breakfast cup.
Let it infuse for 3 minutes
However, the last instruction for the recipe explores (in some detail) the correct way to make the most of your cup of tea, including: "pour off the tea into another well-warmed pot and cover it with a cosy”. The purpose of decanting the tea (we are told) is so the water does not “stand on the leaves”. If you are a tea-drinker, I am sure you have experienced the predicament of waiting for your pot to brew to make a perfect first cup, only to find that the second and third infusions are bitter and over-stewed. Using Florence White's method ensures your subsequent cups as fresh as the first.
White goes on to write that step 3 may be repeated, pouring fresh hot water on to the leaves in the pot, letting it infuse, and decanting it again into your second teapot. Quite different from our one-dunk teabag approach!
Then comes the question of milk. I recall a previous boss of mine being horrified when she poured me a cup of Earl Grey during a meeting, and I asked for milk rather than lemon. I am happy to say that White does not rule out the addition of a dash of milk, regardless what tea you are drinking, though "people who really like tea don’t as a rule care for cream in it – it is too clogging; top milk may be used, or a slice of lemon in the tea, without milk…” She does observe that in China, tea is served without milk or lemon, but that their teas are more of a “golden” hue compared to our “drabbish brown” liquor. Instead, tea should be served with “a saucer of preserved kumquats or litchis” (by which I have interpreted lychees).
I may not have any preserved lychees to hand, but I am interested in testing White’s tea 'recipe' to see how much difference it would makes to the overall flavour – and experience – of the tea. She does not specify what type of teapot should be used so, using what I already have, I add the leaves to my Denby china pot, and decant to an artisan clay pot. We follow the rules to the letter, and Sam even bakes a lemon drizzle cake especially for the occasion (alas, not a lychee drizzle cake, should such a thing exist!)
As we pour the tea into the second teapot with waver for a moment - will it really be ready? It looks so light in colour? We decide to trust Florence White, and continue to pour. We add a dash of milk (semi skimmed, not top-of-milk as suggested). The tea has a light golden hue, rather than the apricot tones of a stewed bag-in-mug tea. The flavour is lightly floral, deeply satisfying, and cuts-through the tart tang of the lemon drizzle cake. Knowing there's no leaves left stewing in the pot, we can drink at our own pace, making time for conversation.
"We need to take the time to do this more often," Sam said, as we start clearing away the crockery and cutlery. And this is exactly the point: we do need to find the time, and take the time. It's important that – among the hustle and bustle of our modern lives – we take the time to slow down and really enjoy a cup of tea, selfishly, for no other reason than for itself, and the pleasure it brings. Going forward we plan to set-aside time every weekend to make a pot of tea just as Florence White instructs.
At last, my past student self, Tea-for-One in hand with milk from my miniature fridge, can finally rest easy.