Tuesday, 1 February 2011

"A nice cup of tea"

I've been reading Orwell's essays on my iPad lately -- remarkably easy and pleasurable.  And came across one I'd not seen before, but I now realise that it has infused, steeped as it were, the public's imagination more than I realised.  For example: the whole "milk in first" or "milk in last" controversy, that has split families.  Or the "shaken not stirred" concept of the way tea should be handled post-adding of the boiling water; I wonder if Fleming drew on this for Bond's preference (incorrect as any cocktail mixologist will tell you) for his dry Martinis to be "shaken not stirred"....
From “A nice cup of tea”.  12 January 1946
Below are extracts of the essay, with my comments.  Orwell is indented, italics, mine to left.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no 
fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would 
be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely 
controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:
First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea.
Agree.  English Breakfast Tea is my tea of choice, usually Twinings Classic, “A traditional blend of black teas, creating a rich and satisfying taste”.
China tea has 
virtues which are not to be despised nowadays – it is economical, and one 
can drink it without milk--but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.
Perhaps not, but one should note that the “virtues that are not to be despised” are not just economic, as nowadays we can feel healthier after drinking China teas.  They are said to be good for the Omega 3’s and all that healthy stuff – good for lowering blood pressure, anti-cancer and so on.  You can drink it in between your regular cups of “proper” English Breakfast tea and it doesn’t matter if it sits on the desk getting cold.  You can still drink it cold (try that with your normal cup of Indian tea with milk!).  Or you can just top it up with hot water.  So I’d not be quite so dismissive of Chinese teas as is Orwell. 
[I should note – literally parenthetically – that Chinese teas need not be more economical.  A good Pu Er tea, for example, from Yunnan, can set you back many, many times more than a tin of English Breakfast tea]
Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities--that is, 
in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made 
in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash.    
The teapot should be made of 
china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea 
and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a 
rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
Agree entirely.  My pot of choice for daily use is a “Velleroy & Boch (1748 Luxembourg)”, which is labelled “Fine Vilbo china”.  This was a wedding present and is much cherished.  The “fall-back” pot, in case the “V&B” should be unavailable for any reason is a pot simply labelled “Royal Fine China” on the bottom.  I feel confident that both pots are Orwell-compliant.
Thirdly, the pot should be warmed 
beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the 
usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
Yes, of course.  Though I tend to use the “swilling out with water” method, as putting on the hob would entail firing up the electric bit of our stovetop and that takes some time.   I’m not so sure there’s a difference between the two methods as the pot is heated up by both, except that, perhaps the swilling-out-with-water method might leave some water in the pot before you put in the leaves, and that might affect matters.  The cure for that – and which I have instituted since reading this essay – is to dry out the inside of the pot with a paper towel.  I suppose if I were being properly conscious of the environment – after all, every little bit helps –  this sub-step should be done with a cloth tea towel, and I may just do that.  Time will tell. 
[Parenthetically (again), I wonder if Orwell’s preference for the hob over the “swilling it out with hot water” method may have to do with the possibility – I put it no higher than that – that on the hob they pot may get hotter than if swilled out with hot water.  Yes, on further reflection, that may well be the reason.  It’s sure a pity we don’t have Orwell around to ask, though I also wonder, given the popularity of this essay, if he was not at some stage asked the question in his lifetime. One for Orwell scholars, perhaps].
Fourthly, the tea should 
be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly 
to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the 
week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak 
ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a 
little stronger with each year that passes--a fact which is recognized in 
the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.  
Agree.  Though I wonder if Orwell is not a touch profligate with his teaspoons-to-pot ratio, especially “in a time of rationing” (which ended around 1954, eight years after this essay).  A quart is about four cups, which would give, by the usual ratio of “one for each person and one for the pot” about five spoons for the full-to-the-brim pot.  I grant that this rather depends on both the actual size of the cup and the strength of the tea, so I would defer to Orwell’s judgment on this. Just wondering.  More concerning is Orwell’s wild assertion that “one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones”.   To be sure, Orwell may have been using hyperbole for effect and to make a point.  But it surely depends on the situation as to whether this 1/20 ratio is correct.   For example, are you trying to hydrate, such as during an offshore yacht race.  In which case you need the water and weak tea will do – indeed may be preferable – to the usual strong cup required.  Then again, such a situation is, one presumes, outside the circumstances of one’s normal tea drinking as I imagine is envisaged by Orwell.  Overall, of course, I do agree with Orwell on this one, though I do feel he might have been a little more cautious in on the preferred ratio of strong tea to weak tea. 
[Parenthetically (and (in order not to interrupt the flow) again at the end of the para), I should record that the grammar-check in this program picked up two “errors” in the above paragraph: (i) “if you are”, suggests “if you were”, and I guess it is right to have the subjunctive there. (ii) it suggests that it should be “… tea lovers not only…. but also…”.  Again, that appears to be a correct correction (ie, adding the "also").  I have lived by Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” for many years, and am slightly discomfited that the grammar-check corrects “The Master”.  I will assume that he has done so for felicity’s sake, knowing the correct version, but eschewing in favour of simplicity and elegance].
Fifthly, the tea should be 
put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to 
imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little 
dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are 
supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in 
considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose 
in the pot it never infuses properly.
Agree.  Clearly teabags had not been invented by 1946, so Orwell talks of “strainers” and “muslin bags”.  He would surely have been against tea bags, and rightly, too.  The do “imprison the tea” and poorer quality, tea-dust, at that.  “Loose tea”, that’s the job.
Sixthly, one should take the teapot 
to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually 
boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on 
the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water 
that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that 
it makes any difference.
Well, I never.  I mean, I never thought of this before and confess that I have at times brought the kettle to the pot.  Since reading this essay, I’ve changed and punctiliously take the pot to the kettle.  I’m enjoying my tea more.
I should like to bring to the attention of “certain family members” Orwell’s final sentence above about whether or not water should have been freshly brought to the boil, “…I have never noticed that it makes any difference”.   Indeed.
Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir 
it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves 
to settle.
Agree.  Once again, however, I wonder at Orwell’s preference for shaking over stirring.  I’m almost inclined to call it a “prejudice”, in the sense that it means “to judge before”, ie before knowing the facts, and I wonder if Orwell had done a blind tasting to test his preference, for had he not, it is surely a prejudice.  My own feeling is that it makes no difference, save for the fact – and I do not venture too far from necessary caution on this matter in calling it a “fact” – that stirring the pot gives does a more thorough job than shaking.  And I have done research on this. So, I’m venturing – and here I am, indeed, venturing – to suggest that the Master was at the least prejudiced on the matter of stirring vs shaking.
[Parenthetically (though wondering if they {brackets (square or otherwise)} are really needed), I wonder if Fleming got his idea of James Bond’s famous “shaken not stirred” for his Martinis from Orwell.  It’s not beyond possibility.  The first Bond novel was in 1953, not long after this essay – a very popular one at the time – was published. If he did, it’s ironic that he got it wrong, and should have done so on the basis of a prejudice of George Orwell.  Thus, pace Bond, the Martini must – as any good mixologist will tell you – be stirred, not shaken.  As you would with any cocktail made with a grape-based liquor.  If you shake a liquor made from grapes it will froth and go white].
Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup--that 
is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The 
breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one's tea is always half 
cold--before one has well started on it.
Yes, of course.  I agree entirely. I use a breakfast cup bought in St Petersburg, and call it my “Peter the Great” cup.  Though, for some reason, my mother and others of her generation – and a little after, too – seem to prefer “the other kind” (does one detect a slight curl of Orwell’s lip here?).  Perhaps it’s just what they’re used to; for I do agree with Orwell’s observation – completely borne out by experience – that in those of the Other kind of cup, the tea “is always half cold”.
Ninthly, one should pour the 
cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always 
gives tea a sickly taste.
Agree, I use only skimmed or semi-skimmed milk. 
Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. 
This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family 
in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The 
milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I 
maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting 
the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the 
amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does 
it the other way round. 

Disagree!  Goodness me, though, Orwell is surely right to conjecture that this “is one of the most controversial points of all”.  Having conceded that the “milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments”, he nonetheless goes on to make the wildly intemperate statement – I’m deeply tempted to call it “bigoted”, though my respect for the man does not permit me that contumely; though it is surely skirting the borders of bigotry – that his own argument is “unanswerable”.  “Unanswerable”!! Sir!  Control yourself! 
I am an “MIF” member (as I once heard a servant to the Royal Household disdainfully refer to it in a Beebs documentary ), proudly so, but not so bigoted as to claim that the MIF method is the only one, or even the best one (though it is).  Just that it’s a method that works for many, and that I have tested it against the MIL (milk-in-last) technique.  Here are my conclusions: if you are a genuine tea drinker – as surely we all are, reading an essay by Orwell about the matter – then you have a very good understanding of your cup and you will know precisely how much milk is needed for the tea you’re about to pour.  There you have in one fell swoop the refutation – the complete de-fanging, if you will – of Orwell’s asseveration on the MIL technique, namely that you can regulate the exact amount of milk required.  Indeed, one could suggest this: that if you have to add more milk (or, indeed, less) to the cup each time, in order to “regulate” the amount of milk, then you have done something wrong with the tea.  The tea-strength should be consistent and therefore the amount of milk needed should be consistent. If you have it too strong, then you should add water (not more milk).  If it’s too weak, then better start again, in recognition of rule Four above.
A side issue is this: that if you are MIL than you need to locate and en-hand a spoon.  You will not have one by default, by virtue of Rule Eleven (no sugar), so this entails an extra – and potentially troublesome – step.
I was discussing this issue with my wife the other night, as she had just been commenting how much more she enjoys tea now than in her childhood, and I was able to suggest that she was giving proof to George Orwell’s sub-point under point Four – that you like stronger tea the older you get.  I then ran Orwell’s Rule Ten past her – MIF or MIL – and she added another point in favour of MIF.  Indeed this may well be a clincher for the our side of the argument – one that would indeed make ours “unanswerable” – is that putting the milk in first gives the tea a “hit” as the hot tea is poured on it, and makes the milk – and hence the tea – taste better. 
I would venture to add that were he alive today, Orwell would, being the open-minded and careful man that he is, would give this “golden rule” a further look, based on the points I have made here, none of which it seems, from his comments, he had taken into account.  I confess, however, that one is loath to change the habit of a lifetime on such a matter, and that reason may not necessarily prevail.
Lastly, tea--unless one is drinking it in the Russian style--should be 
drunk WITHOUT SUGAR. I know very well that I am in a minority here. 
But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy 
the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally 
reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, 
just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer 
tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very 
similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water. 

So, sum total of eleven points: I agree with – and do – ten of them. 
Try it out yourself: see how Orwellian you are in your tea drinking.