Enjoy a cup of Life
Tea is comforting and versatile; and curiously central to who we are.
No wonder we call tea the 'cup of life'.
Whatever the occasion, joyful or sorrow, significant or trivial, as a nation, we turn to our kettles because tea can only make things better.
Did you know, in Britain we indulge in over 60 billion cups of tea every year; that's 900 cups for every man, woman and child in the country. But, it's not just us, after water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world.
Curiously, tea has always been a measure of our personal identities. When it first came to Britain in the mid-1600s, it was so expensive that access to it was proof of wealth and social standing. The lady of the house would keep her tiny store of tea under lock and key in an exquisite wooden caddy: household staff weren’t permitted anywhere near it until they were given the repeatedly used leaves (by now tasteless and bedraggled) to re-brew for themselves.
While tea can now be bought for pennies, this hardly reflects its value to us as a nation: all we’d need to spark a revolution would be a threat to our tea supply. We’re now becoming tea connoisseurs in a way which was never previously possible, with attention paid to provenance, types, harvests and flavours in a way which is comparable only to wines.
In her book Watching the English, anthropologist Kate Fox claims that the way we drink our tea – the types we buy, whether we like it weak or strong, whether we add sugar, and whether we put our milk in first, last or not at all – still sends clear signals about who we are and where we’re from.
This most commonplace and yet most extraordinary drink has been at the heart of British lives and kitchens for almost 400 years. What makes it so special – and where might we be missing a trick?
We went to find out...
One leaf, four teas
All tea stems from the same shrub, the Camellia sinensis, which gives us the four main types we know in the West (black, oolong, green and white), although yellow and pu’erh are popular in the Asia. The only significant difference between them is the extent to which the leaves are permitted to oxidise.
Black tea is 100% oxidised is our favourite here in Britain, giving us English Breakfast, Darjeeling, Assam and Earl Grey, for example. Oolong is partially oxidised, while green tea is only lightly oxidised to offer a subtle but more astringent flavour. White tea, the most delicate and most expensive you can buy, is the least processed of all. (‘Herbal teas’ don’t actually contain any tea, and should properly be called tisanes or herbal infusions).
Loose or bags?
Black teas are graded by size of leaf, from ‘whole leaf’ to ‘broken’, ‘fannings’ and then ‘dust’, with the quality descending accordingly. For a faster brew, teabags are filled with the smallest, most dust-like leaves, so you aren’t getting the best flavour. Although loose-leaf tea may be a little more work, it’s absolutely worth it: larger leaves unfurl languidly to release their delicious fragrance into the pot. (And who doesn’t love the sense of ceremony that comes from using a strainer?) Plus, avoiding teabags is more eco-friendly, and loose leaves will tip straight into your compost bin.
Blends or singles?
Just as you might choose a single malt over a blended whisky, the same it is with teas. Most mass-market teas are blended, perhaps created to suit local tastes or even the local water, as with Portsmouth tea. Year on year, the relative proportions of tea from different countries are often adjusted within a single blend in order to ensure consistency of flavour. But if you want to get seriously into tea, try single-origin teas – even down to individual tea gardens, where the unique topography and climate can result in surprisingly distinctive flavours. Look out for single-harvest and even single-batch teas, too, choosing hand-picked leaves wherever possible.
British tea is a Thing
There are now two tea plantations in Britain, as far apart as Cornwall and Perthshire. The Tregothnan estate started tea production in 2005 and was the first to grow black and green teas on home soil. One of its products is a single-estate tea offering remarkable value: apparently its leaves can be re-brewed repeatedly, with the record standing at 12 times! Further north, the Dalreoch plantation offers home-grown white, black and oolong teas. Both estates sell online, so give them a try and see what you think.
Flavours to savour
Tea can be flavoured in infinite ways, including popular options Earl Grey, jasmine and chai. When buying flavoured tea, always look for genuine botanicals (such as leaves, resins, petals, bark, spices or oils), which offer the authenticity that synthetic flavourings can’t.
You can also flavour your own teas. And let’s face it, home-made teas will delight your guests, make great gifts, and look fabulous in your kitchen – whether lined up in glass jars or gathered in eclectic vintage caddies.
To flavour your own, simply place a large-leaf loose tea in an airtight jar and add your botanicals. Begin with just one or two flavours until you get the hang of it, and don’t overwhelm the tea: some flavourings only need to be left in overnight. Try rose, jasmine or lavender flowers; mint leaves; citrus peel; or spices such as cardamom, cinnamon or vanilla. According to potency or preference, you can then remove any solid flavourings or leave them to form part of your tea. You can also flavour with oils: a huge range is available by mail order from NHR Organic Oils of Brighton, including mandarin, peppermint, sweet basil, lime, ginger, and even bergamot for your own Earl Grey.
Iced is nice
In summer, what could be more refreshing than a condensation-beaded pitcher of your own home-made iced tea? It will bear little relation to the heavily sweetened, rather synthetic products on offer in the supermarket. Simply make a weak solution of hot tea and leave it to cool before refrigerating. Try flavouring it with lemon zest, mint leaves, strawberries, cucumber or even Pimms (or all of the above!). Tea contains virtually no calories, but if you prefer it sweetened then try sugar or honey, or simply top up with lemonade. Throw in some ice, garnish it prettily, grab a good book, and head for the hammock.
Flavoured gins, vodkas and whiskies are all the rage, so why not make your own? Add two or three tablespoons of a standard or flavoured tea (such as Earl Grey) to a 75cl bottle of spirit. Steep it for two or three hours before straining carefully and re-bottling. Avoid small-leaf, dusty teas which may be difficult to strain out. Use the result as the base of your favourite cocktails, finished off with a twist of lemon or cucumber rind. These make very personal gifts, especially with the flourish of a label in your own handwriting.
Cooking with tea
Subtle enough never to dominate or spoil a recipe, standard or flavoured teas can add an extra dimension to your cooking. Brewed tea can marinade, poach, or steam fish, and dry leaves can be used to smoke it. Use liquid tea instead of water in stocks, sauces and stews, and add tea leaves to casseroles and stir-fries. Tea gives a fragrant lift to cakes, ice-creams and panna cotta, and can be used in doughs and batters in place of vanilla. And if you’ve ever dabbled with vibrant green matcha, you’ll know it’s simply powdered green tea!
Now that you’ve discovered some inspiration for celebrating this amazing cup of life in exciting new ways; how will you take yours?