Wednesday, 28 April 2010

My Life In Tea

This morning a box arrived to my flat. I signed for it, and brought it inside, and only then did I wonder what it was. It was, I soon discovered, a "cheer up!" present from my brother in New Zealand.  There are few gifts more special than one that is given for no other occasion than to make you smile. Which this one was sure to do: my brother had sent me a box of a selection of fine teas.
Those who know me know how much I love my tea. Yet it's more than just a drink; it's something I have grown up with, and wherever I have travelled to, it has been a part of that journey.

Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage.  ~Catherine Douzel


When I was quite young, about eleven, I would work in my father's shop, helping serve customers, unpack stock, (and most of the time make a nuisance of myself) but I also made the obligatory cups of tea. I remember then that my own cup of "builder's tea" would require plenty of milk and a large heaping of sugar.  Often when I had gulped the last of the liquid there would still be a layer of sugar at the bottom of the mug.

As a teen I refined this syrupy recipe into, specifically, a splash of milk and two sugars. Or, "two and a moo," as I liked to say. By the time I reached 20 I had removed the sugar and replaced it with a single, questionable, artificial sweetener. Looking back it was clear I had so much to learn about tea.

Then I moved to England, where tea as I knew it began to change. I still drank it every day, but I moved from "builder's tea" to English Breakfast. I had not yet developed my knowledge of teas beyond this staple, however, and while at one of my many jobs in London a colleague asked me to order some Earl Grey tea for the office. I distinctly recall raising an eyebrow and asking,
"Who on earth likes Earl Grey?"
"I do!" he replied. He was just as shocked that I didn't appreciate the Earl as much as I was shocked that someone would want to drink something that tasted like dishwater.

Something changed. Maybe it was the natural change that came with my slowly becoming Anglicised? Maybe I just developed further my sense of taste? Whatever it was, I soon became an Earl Grey drinker. And with it, I developed a fascination and thirst for the plethora of teas from all parts of the world. Tea became a passion.

The first time I had Earl Grey with lemon was, strangely, in Rome, at the gloriously decadent Babington's Tearooms. This fantastic place was founded in 1893 by two English women living in Italy, to create a simple sanctuary where homesick Britons could drink their tea and read the papers. Babington's sits at the foot of the Spanish steps, and it was here that I brilliantly decided to make the switch to lemon. This was also around the time that I realised the great flavours to be found in loose leaf tea, rather than in a teabag. It finally and completely opened the door to my truly appreciating good tea.

Ironically, Italy was also the source of the worst cup of tea I've ever had. On the side of Mt Vesuvius, having zig-zagged around the slow ambling tourists and then being denied any decent trekking routes at the top for lack of a guide, finding a cup of tea felt like a matter of life and death. The refreshments truck on the volcano offered a variety of things, but tea was not one of them. Asking for some tea with milk was met with a strange look, and resulted in a cup of microwaved milk and peach ice tea. Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised - Italians are all about coffee.

Most of the time the best cups of tea have followed some sort of hard phsyical slog or weary day. A particularly memorable cup of tea was had in Scotland, in a wild stretch of moorlands outside of Inverness. Having walked all day, there was some surprise to discover a hand-painted sign on the side of the path, which read, "TEA". 

This sounded great, but from where?
Some ambling off the path lead us to another sign reading "REFRESHMENTS", and behind it a corrugated-iron shed, a large crudely-constructed cage housing barking huskies, and a caravan. I couldn't help but wonder whether we we about to be captured and fed to the dogs - who had gone mental at the sight of us - when a tall, wild-looking bearded man came out to greet us. His name was Rory and he was a crofter, tending to the lands, who had not left the area for his entire life.
"Not at all?" I asked him.
"Why would I?" said Rory, stretching his arms out at the view. "I have all I need!"
He brought us some fantastic tea, (made to perfection by Rory who obviously cared about a good cup) which we sat and drank in his wild, overgrown garden.
"Just kick the chickens out of the way," said Rory.
It was one of the most surprising and inspiring tea stops of my life.

In Morocco I experienced the renowned mint tea; a heady liquid stuffed with bright green mint leaves and sweetened with cubes of sugar. It was the warmth of it that tuned me into the frequency of Marrakech. I think one of the things that has always drawn me to Morocco is the role of tea within its culture. When you arrive anywhere you must have tea! If you begin a conversation you must have tea! And to accept tea from a stall-holder in the souk was to enter into a haggling game, during which the tea continued to be poured as long as one wished to bargain.

"You want some tea?” Mohammad asked, looking hopeful. This was his chance to really push the sale. We accepted. Now the haggling would begin.
Mohammad left his stall to organise the tea, and came back with tiny stools for us to sit on.  Amusingly, his own stool was between us and the door. The tea tray was placed on the floor, and the strong, sweet minty tea was poured into three glasses.
We made a toast, and discussed the popular subjects of football and Marrakech, but eventually it was time to get down to business.

- (from my blog,
Two Weeks in Morocco)

In the Saharan desert I watched my nomad friends brew notoriously strong gunpowder tea leaves in a ceramic pot on the fire. They would pull a ludicrously large rock of sugar out of their pocket, break off half of it and put it into the pot. Tea (known as "whisky du berber", or "whisky of the berber") was the ceremony around which the rest of the day revolved. If you had reason enough to stop in the desert, then it was worth making tea for.

"Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company."  ~Author Unknown

One night in the desert, our camels had run away and our guides had been gone all day to find them. When the sun set, Ben and I were still alone, and so were forced to make ourselves a fire. Here I had a chance to try and make the tea as I had watched the nomads prepare it before. Yet it proved to me what I had already suspected - that for every kind of tea, there is an art to making it.

In the light of the headtorch I filled the little grey teapot with water and placed it on the fire. Once it boiled I opened the box of gunpowder tea, and scooped in a heap of the bitter black stuff. Thinking back to when I had seen Barack make it, I let it stew and then added a handful of sugar cubes. Tasting the tea, it was still terribly bitter, so I added another handful of sugar. It seemed there would be no room to add any more. 
Just as I was tasting it again, we heard a voice.
“Barack??” we called out into the dark. The moon had not yet risen, and there was no light except for the fire.
And then we saw a small dot of light moving towards us.
Barack had found his way back to camp, using his mobile as a torch. We each grasped his hand in warm greeting. Barack slumped himself down beside the fire.
“Tea?” I offered him. “It’s nearly ready.”
I was delighted to be able to offer our guide some tea, but it was still bitter.
Kindly, Barack drank the glass I offered him anyway.
“Is good!” he lied.
“Some more?”
He declined, and we laughed.
“Is no good!” I grinned.
“No no,
c’est bon!” he assured me.

Someone who appreciates really good wine, and the ceremony of sourcing it, pouring it, and tasting it, will understand the importance of doing the same for tea. Of course, such a person will usually go somewhere with a really good wine list and cellar. For tea-drinkers, there is The Ritz!  Ben and I were given the fantastic gift one year of afternoon tea at The Ritz hotel in London. (Frankly, anywhere that has a tea menu automatically piques my interest). There were more cakes and miniature sandwiches than any person could possibly eat, but more tragically to my mind, there were more teas than I could ever try in one afternoon. Darjeeling! Lapsong! Assam! Jasmine! Oolong! Where to start? And how to finish?

Actually, perhaps the greatest part of the Ritz experience was the heavy silver tea sets. It made the ceremony of afternoon tea all the more decadent and detailed. In the same way that the nomads took the time to make the tea just the right way, pour it just the right way, and serve it specifically to tradition, with their chipped glasses and fire in the sand; the Ritz hotel in London also gave time and attention to doing things right.

Everyone has their rituals. For me, the ceremony of tea is a comforting ritual, the way that the ceremony of prayer is a comforting ritual for the religious. Of course I'm not a religious person, and on Sundays I don't go to Church - instead I pick up the Sunday papers, make a pot of loose-leaf tea, and say a happy little hallelujah.

There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.  ~Bernard-Paul Heroux

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