In a much-needed break from all the pain of the current national tragedy of government, let’s take tea together. Virtually speaking, of course. Because in the UK, it’s Afternoon Tea Week!
That means we need to talk tea, for at least a little bit. Almost as good as drinking tea is talking (or reading) about it. Just Saturday, I had a nice visit with Jack, who is opening Tea & Jam here in Blacksburg, later this month. I saw his van parking as I walked up to the Farmer’s Market Saturday, and stopped to congratulate him on a great article, about his upcoming opening, in the Roanoke paper. We got to visiting about the health benefits of tea (numerous!), and Jack introduced me to a book I just ordered: Cancer Hates Tea. A family member is fighting cancer, and the book seemed timely.
But tea’s healing qualities aren’t just about polyphenols (one of the health-benefiting elements of tea). The magic is also, as tea drinkers know, about quiet. About the ritual of filling the pot (or cup) with boiling water, and taking a moment to let it steep. It’s also about spoiling yourself just a bit, and taking a moment ‘off’ from your daily grind, whatever that may be.
It’s about savouring the fragrance of peach matcha as you stir it, or watching milk cloud a cup of Earl Grey. It’s about a moment when the world stops whirling & settles, for a warm comfy moment, into focus. You, the cup, the tea. The old be here now thing. Almost impossible to achieve with even the best cup of coffee (which I also like, just fyi). Coffee lacks the magic of tea, I confess. And don’t we all need magic these days?
Sometimes folks ask me to ‘recommend’ teas. Unlike Jack, I don’t own a tea shop. More like a tea way station, where I try to bring order to fractious days. At my house, if you’re invited to tea, there will be a black tea (if you’re a newbie tea drinker, probably just a good China black or maybe Earl Grey). And if you’ve told me you don’t drink caffeine, there will be one of the tisanes or fruit teas I often sip in the late afternoon or evening. I’m partial to lemon verbena, or a fruit tea made with mango pieces.
But if you do drink caffeine, I might go with a flavoured or blended black tea. My favourites — especially if you’re adventurous — are Lapsang Souchong, and a blend from Harney’s tea, Victorian London Fog. Despite my younger son’s dismissal of any tea using vanilla, I adore the London Fog tea, which is basically Earl Grey with lavender & a tiny soupçon of vanilla. And of course Lapsang Souchong is smoky & a bit wild. Good for days when it feels you’re being smothered in everyday minutiæ!
There will be a tea tray w/ a tea cloth. Matching cups & tea pot, drawn from the far too many I own (and use!). A complementary creamer & sugar, as I like my black teas w/ both. And a little honey jar, one of 2-3 I have for various tea sets. And of COURSE there will be cookies! Maybe scones, too, if it’s a mid-morning or mid-afternoon tea, where we need more sustenance. Probably ginger scones, unless I made ginger shortbread. (Can you tell how much I love ginger?)
The whole point of shared afternoon tea is just that: sharing. And the nurturing comfort that comes from someone baking something tasty just for you. Of, as M.F.K.Fisher said,
I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.
Tea’s like that. A way to feed people on so many levels. And here’s the best part of this open secret: you can do it for yourself! You can buy a package of tea bags or sachets (it doesn’t have to be loose tea, if that intimidates you, although the ritual of scooping and filling a tea strainer is pleasant!), in whatever flavour you like, and pour boiling water into a cup where the tea bag nestles. Let it brew for a minute or two, and then add what you like. Or nothing at all!
Now: take a deep breath of the healing steam. Let it out. And enjoy your moment of peace & comfort.
The tea came! A big box, full of possibility. I don’t have the budget for ‘teas of renown,’ but I do splurge on good tea. And I don’t rebrew it. Well, hardly ever :). Maybe if there’s company and I double-splurged on Sunday’s tea (Hao Ya A, for anyone interested).
Most times I order tea, I’m just replenishing the house tea (Panyang Congo), or buying everyday tea. Occasionally I buy a couple of samples (one of the great things about Harney’s) ~ a nice way to try a new tea. And every so often (especially if a tea I liked in sample is available on sale) I buy a new tea. This most recent package has two adventure teas ~Pu-erh and Temi Sikkim. I confess: I was sucked in by the fact that Temi Sikkim was on sale (and it’s a great full-bodied Darjeeling, w/ that lovely floral aftertaste I find so seductive in a good Darjeeling) and the Pu-erh is billed as an ‘ancient’ tea.
The other day I made the pu-erh, a dark, ruby-red brown tea. A China black tea tasting of chocolate, almost sweet. I added my usual lump of Demerara, and then stirred in my usual milk. No change in colour ~ this is seriously dark tea. Still, it’s lovely: lightly astringent but smooth. A great breakfast tea. Makes me wonder: just how old is ‘ancient’ …?
When I make tea, it is always ~ even at the most hectic of times, like early in the morning as I rush to some appointment ~ a moment of quiet. Often it becomes, almost accidentally, an evocation of other days, when my children were small, when I was a young mother dependent on my expat family. Even now, with those two small boys (and early on, there was only one…) grown to manhood, fragrant steam curling from a curved spout takes me back 20 years. Or more.
Tea is an ordinary magic. Like coffee (which I also love dearly), it provides an enforced STOP. Halts my thoughts, distracts me from the hectic mania of contemporary life. Puts a gentle finger to my lips and reminds me to sssshhh…
So why write about tea, in the months running up to something as important as elections? Why take time for something so small, so intimate, when the world seems to be collapsing around my ears? Why take the time to celebrate these fragile, ephemeral moments that fall to the bottom of a china cup wreathed w/ flowers? Moments that curl in the heart of a summer rose, or hover on the wings of a drowsy bee.
We live in such a frenetic, frantic world. At least most of us do. There is never enough time… Right now I should be working up a course for September. Constructing a class schedule for another. I should be reading books for two presentations next month, and figuring out what I’m going to need in the way of help during my beloved’s upcoming surgery. I should be should be should be…
Instead, I be. Trying to not try tooo hard to breathe, as the pebble in the garden says. Just resting in the moment, sipping tea from that thin-handled china cup. Sitting in the early morning sun and remembering big sky mind…
I don’t know that tea, or coffee, or the quiet music of bees working the blue bells of the caryopteris can solve the world’s larger problems. But I wonder if we took the time to listen to them, to watch and pay attention, what we might learn… Who knows what we could do?
Hello. My name is Britton and I haven’t had any tea in 7 hours…
I’m nuts about tea. Crazy, obsessive, elitist (and possibly boring :)) on the topic. I love coffee as well, but that’s another post…
I have almost as many tea ‘cookbooks’ as the more traditional type. There are (at least) six tea sets in the china cabinet, including two hand-painted by my grandmother, who also loved tea sets. That number doesn’t include the celadon set my husband brought back from Korea, the antique Persian set he bought me in Saudi Arabia, the hand-thrown pottery set in our wedding stoneware, or the various tempered glass ones I mostly use. Did I mention I love tea?
If you don’t love tea, you should stop here. If the fragrance of a SFTGOP1 First Flush Darjeeling doesn’t make you swoon, then you may be beyond saving. An aside ~ in Singapore once, at (of course) the old Raffles, I drank a Darjeeling I still remember. Sitting in the unintentionally shabby-chic dining room, I inhaled a haunting floral nose, swirled colour like dark honey in my cup. You hear from some that Darjeeling tastes of Muscatel wine, but really? That was the only Darjeeling I’ve ever had that did. I still love Darjeeling — although not as much as China blacks, particularly Keemuns.
Tea comforts. When my world falls apart, I can create one small island of order: boil water, watch it climb the glass walls of the kettle. Measure out the Hao Ya A w/ the scoop Glen bought me in Dhahran. About 2-3 scoops, depending on the pot, in the filter. Warm the pot which one? the small glass 2-cup? the larger 6-cup? the Aynsley or the Wedgewood…?, throw out the water, place the filled filter in the pot. Pour the boiling water over. Steep four minutes. This is the ritual that rescues ~ focuses the galloping mind in its own Anglicised tea ceremony. Calm.
Sometimes just a cup will do. So I pull out one of the many tea trays — a small one, perfect for a glass cup, a smaller filter and the honey pot my niece gave me. Rooibos chai is good to soothe. So is verveine. Some of the flavoured teas out now are lovely in the summer. And most are even better with honey from a silver spoon. 🙂
Elsewhere — in poems, in essays, in letters and journals and who knows where — I’ve written about learning tea. Long ago, in a galaxy and time far far away In a desert city, in a box of a trailer, alone w/ the wintry desert shamal and new motherhood, I learned tea. It was my life line. Or rather, the other women huddled together for support were my life line. A Brit, a Madrasan (now a Chennaite? ), an Aussie, three Texans, an Okie, a Canadian, a Vermonter… an eclectic group, my tea family.
Some of them already knew tea — the Brit, of course. And the Canadian and the Aussie. The Queen’s brew has a long, wide and colourful history. Here in the US, we drink coffee — proof of our rebellious natures. But no one ever turned to coffee (which I also enjoy) for comfort. Few people write poetry to coffee. And rarely do people worry about ‘too much tea.’ That would be tea’s younger and more aggressive brother.
In that long beginning, when I was learning tea and motherhood and loneliness, my tea family shared our lives over pots and pots of tea. Lyn, the tall Brit who mothered me in the way all eldest children crave, patiently instructed me on the intricacies. First I had to buy a pot. Which I did — at the seconds sale at Harrods once, on a layover in London — a lovely curved Aynsley teapot, as old-fashioned as its cottage flowers. I must have bought a couple of cups too, probably four.
I know there was a teapot first. And black tea — always four minutes, never five. Usually English breakfast, those first years. Sometimes Earl Grey — was it Martha who loved it so? Occasionally Darjeeling. Later? Lyn would pick us up wonderful teas from Fortnum & Mason’s, teas as beautiful as Paris, as sophisticated as Bangkok.
So much of what I know now is the gift of women. How to mother. How to bargain. How to live through grief and come out the other side still capable of joy. Many of these things I learned from my tea family, none of whom I see now. One is on my Facebook, and her daughter — who once played in the bathtub w/ my older son — is now a mother older than I was then. Others I lost track of in moves, lamenting their loss.
In those far-off days, I still ran. And sometimes I would run the track in furious anger, homesick and terrified of the alien spaces I inhabited: landscape and motherhood and marriage and all that comes with ‘adulting.’
But when Ione — another of my tea family — and I sat down over tea, in the quiet breakfast room overlooking two small boys playing on a swing set, I belonged. For probably as long as there has been fire, women have steeped the gathered leaves and twigs of plants in water placed in a skin, a gourd, a bowl of clay. And shared their stories.
What is it about memory? A fragrance, a fragment of song, something as small as a shard of coloured glass, and time respools. I am standing in the long narrow living/dining room of a trailer, with sand sifting in through drafty windows. The sound track is the laughing voices of women thrown together by time and circumstance: not quite sisters, more than friends. The fragrance this time is the bergamot of Earl Grey, no longer one of my favourites. In a cup, it’s just tea. Except that nothing we remember is ever quite that simple.