Writing Contemporary Scottish Fiction

Tea is a serious business

There’s more than a touch of Father Ted’s housekeeper Mrs Doyle about me. The fashion sense, obviously, the careful attention to appearance; but, most of all, I share Mrs Doyle’s love of tea.

As a child, I was given cups of milky, sugared tea with my evening meal and often at other times too. The teapot was always on the table, a constant, amid the chaos of family life.

In time, I weaned myself off sugar and reduced the milk content and there I have stuck.

We didn’t drink coffee at home. I’m not sure why but it rarely featured. As a result, I did not grow into a coffee drinker and, when out for dinner these days, I will ask for tea at the end of the meal. I don’t feel the lack of coffee in my life but, as I become older, I find I am less and less tolerant of inferior tea. This can present in many guises.

ECONOMY TEABAGS – I don’t mind if my tea is brewed using a bag or leaves. Both can result in an acceptable beverage. The exception is bulk-bought economy teabags which give a weak, flavourless drink. Just say no!

MACHINE TEA – designed to scald your hands as you lift the flimsy paper cup. As for the taste – I have no words.

FRUITY TEA – Warm, fruity drinks take me back to my childhood days of “hot orange”, a disgusting concoction sold at my local swimming pool café. It was designed to warm us up, as we shivered, in our damp clothes, eyes pink with chlorine. In any case, I like my tea with milk which rules the fruity ones out.

STEWED TEA – Tea must be allowed to infuse so that the flavour develops. My own preference is for 6 minutes and I often set a timer to ensure I don’t pour the tea too soon. (I don’t mess about when it comes to tea.) But a brew that’s left too long or (perish the thought) heated gently on the hob becomes dark and concentrated, giving it a bitter aftertaste. 

THE TEABAG IN A MUG – The absolute worst. So bad it requires breaking down into individual points:

  1. The mug, unless pint-sized, will be far too small for a single teabag. The tea quickly becomes too strong as I attempt to fish out the scalding bag with my fingers (the Teabag-in-a-Mug crew rarely provide a spoon and saucer). The incorrect water:tea ratio also means the flavour does not develop adequately.
  2. It’s wasteful! One teabag can easily make two decent mugs but who wants a half-dead teabag sitting round the kitchen?
  3. Further to point 2 above, it robs me of the opportunity to have that second cup – I like my teas two at a time. By the time I reach the bottom of the first mug I’m just getting into my stride!
  4. Adding boiling water to a mug makes it impossible to pick up or (more importantly) to cradle it in my hands – one of the most comforting aspects of tea. And, boy, does that heat last a long time. Fine, china mugs are particularly effective at transferring the heat to fingers.

So here’s the rule: make your tea in a pot. I don’t mind if the pot is china, earthenware or glass, even. Dust it off and press it into service. Your taste buds will thank you.

Mary Lou Heiss, in The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide states “A simple cup of tea is far from a simple matter.”

I’m with you there, Mary Lou.



4 thoughts on “Tea is a serious business”

  • This post brought me out in hives!! I’m guessing you wouldn’t enjoy tea in my house – teabag flashed at the water – loads of milk – end result should be no darker than light beige. Bliss

  • Oh dear, I’m in the dog house. Haven’t owned a teapot for about 20 years. Definitely a teabag-in-the-mug girl. I remember in our sixth-form common room at school we developed a system of sharing used teabags, which was ahead of its pre-austerity time when I think about it. This was known as ‘shamrock tea’ because it resulted in tea that was as strong as if it were made with 3 leaves. One bag would be dunked in several mugs before being discarded. Perhaps this is why I rebelled later and demanded a whole bag to myself.

    • No teapot??? Sharing teabags??? I can see I’m going to have to run some classes on tea-ology here! I remember as a student arriving in halls and making a beeline for the St Andrews Pottery on North Street where I purchased my first earthenware teapot. I was devastated a few weeks later when I broke it (I can’t recall if it was the handle, lid or what) and another girl along the hall produced a tube of Araldite and fixed it! Never was I more grateful. 🙂

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