Six factors go into making the perfect cup of tea:
The perfect brewing time
A suitable tea service
A relaxing environment
In this chapter, we well explore each of these in turn, to give you every chance of enjoying speciality tea at its very best.
The ideal foundation for any quality cuppa is whole-leaf or broken-leaf tea, which are the two best types of tea leaf available. They should be produced by hand using the orthodox method and originate from approved tea gardens in the world's best growing locations. When all these elements are safely in place, you can be confident that the liquid in your cup will do justice to the depth of your enthusiasm for tea drinking.
It's no good buying the finest tea and then storing it inappropriately. Quality tea should be kept in airtight containers in a dry, dark and cool place. Loose tea is best kept in caddies that close tightly, so that their contents remain fresh and aromatic for as long as possible. Always fill the caddies with the same type of tea, so they don’t pick up the flavours of other teas. And if you do use the same caddy for two different types of tea, be sure to give it a thorough clean and dry before switching contents. That way, you minimise the chances of the smells crossing over. Tea bags need to be stored in a dry, light-proof and airtight container, unless they are already in a flavour-preserving package. If the packaging of flavoured tea bags has already been opened, do not store different varieties in close proximity, as they will pick up flavours from each other. In fact, even if you are only using one type of tea, this should not be left in an open packet, because it will pick up the odours of anything that is nearby, whether it be tea or some other substance.
It is surprisingly easy to make a decent cup of tea, yet the drink is often handled incorrectly. Just follow these two simple rules:
RULE ONE: regardless of whether you use whole-leaf or broken-leaf teas, they need plenty of room to develop their flavour. So try to avoid using tiny tea bags or small tea-making eggs to hold the leaves. Instead, it is best to place the leaves directly into boiling water. If this isn't possible, use a large filter with plenty of space for the tea leaves to move around in. Many modern teapots already feature such filters as part of their design.
RULE TWO: tea must be scalded - that is, it must have boiling water poured over it. Place the tea in the Chinese teapot first, then add the water - not the other way around. This is because tea is an infusion, so it works best if water washes over the leaves before they settle. That way, the flavour is evenly distributed throughout the pot.
SUGAR AND MILK
Loose white (granulated) sugar and white rock sugar can be used to sweeten all types of tea. They are particularly suitable for use with delicate green and white teas, and Darjeeling. Strong, malty teas like Assam tolerate the caramel flavour of brown sugar very well. Milk should only be used with Assam tea, Ceylon and chai. Light and delicately flavoured teas are better without milk.
LEMON AND ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Lemon is not recommended as an addition to any tea, because its acidity overwhelms the flavour. If you have a cold, just drink hot lemon juice by itself. Artificial sweeteners also spoil the flavour of tea and should be avoided wherever possible. People using them should opt for a paler-coloured brew, which will require less sweetening than a darker variety.
Some restaurants and hotels use innovative solutions to brew tea in a way that is more convenient than the loose-leaf approach described above. For example, you might see pre-portioned loose tea in an extra-large net, with a hook that attaches to the handle of a cup or teapot. This is a good solution for situations where tea drinkers don't have the time or inclination to brew loose-leaf tea, but they still want to enjoy its benefits. It can be used at home as well, and has the added advantage that it enables tea drinkers to store the leaves and use them in different ways - for example, as fertiliser on their flowerbeds. This is much harder if the leaves are swilling around the bottom of a teapot, or are caught in a filter.
TIME FOR A BREW
A tea timer is an indispensable piece of equipment for any tea connoisseur. Black and green teas require different brewing times, and it's important to get them right. Too long and a tea loses its potency, but not long enough and it lacks flavour. As a rough rule, black tea is best if steeped for a maximum of three minutes, and green tea is best if brewed for a maximum of two minutes. For herbal and fruit infusions, leave the tea leaves in the water for a minimum of five minutes - and even longer if appropriate.
Whole-leaf tea: use one slightly heaped teaspoon per cup Broken-leaf tea: use one level teaspoon per cup
Hard water and fine tea do not tend to go well together, as lime impairs the flavour of tea. So, if you live in a hard-water area, use a water filter to soften it. There are some exceptions to this rule. Assam, for example, tastes fine if made with hard water.
Black tea and herbal or fruit infusions should always be made using boiling water. Green and white teas are best if the water is allowed to cool down to about 80 degrees Celsius. To accelerate this process, empty the boiling water into a separate teapot then make the tea in a second pot.
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
There is one part of the tea service that is tightly specified: the glass teapot. Go for a large, round-shaped design which gives plenty of space for the leaves to circulate. This will ensure that the flavourings and colourings percolate throughout the brew, which is crucial to enjoying a perfect cup of tea.
It's always good to find a teapot spout that doesn't drip, as this makes pouring a great deal easier. Apart from that, there aren't any strict rules. Teapots can be made from a host of different materials, including brass, glass, silver, clay and cast iron. An important factor for any material that is based on clay is that it has a good glaze.
Many tea drinkers favour a white inner surface on teapots and cups, because it sets off the colour of the nectar within. That said, some enjoy drinking tea from a large glass, and others always want their china tea cup to come equipped with a lid.
Whatever you choose, the vessel should be suitable for both the tea being served and the people drinking it. So a delicate porcelain cup with a tiny handle and the capacity of an egg cup may not be suitable for a great hulk of a man. Similarly, a petite lady may not welcome drinking out of a great clay-formed bucket. So match the cup to the person, to prevent the impression that you've simply picked out the first thing that came to hand from the back of your cupboard.
CARING FOR YOUR TEA SERVICE
It is a common myth that teapots shouldn’t be washed. Assuming they are glazed, this is simply not true. In fact, the most important thing is that they should be rinsed thoroughly in hot water after washing to remove any trace of washing-up liquid. And never, ever, use the same pot for tea and coffee: the flavour of the latter lingers and overwhelms the more subtle taste and aroma of tea. It is essential to have a separate pot for tea.
MAKING THE MOST OF TEATIME
Okay, so you've got the basics in place: decent tea stored in appropriate containers, a nice teapot and good cups from which to drink it. Now it's time to think about the other things you could buy to enhance your enjoyment of tea. Here are some brief suggestions-but you won't struggle to add a few ideas of your own.
Make a display of orchids or, better still, camellias, to position near you while you sip your tea.
Buy utensils that match the tea, such as bamboo whisks for Matcha or fans and a silk tablecloth for Japanese teas like Gyokuro.
Make your own tea menu to inform guests of the options available.
Put colourful fruit and herbs into iced fruit infusion, for a summery twist.
Use white accessories for white tea, such as a white tablecloth, white flowers and white crockery.
Serve Darjeeling with large heaps of white rock sugar.
If you invite friends for afternoon tea, set the table with nameplates that follow a tea-plantation theme.
Set up a display of Union Jacks and other icons of the UK for a great British high tea. Erect a Moroccan-style tent and lay on sweet Saharan treats for a Nana mint or Gunpowder tea party.
Get out your best Bollywood kitsch for an Indian film festival - with Assam and Darjeeling served in the intervals, of course.
Brew up some Rooibos or Honeybush and serve it up to an African drumbeat.
For a wintry treat, make displays of cinnamon and cloves, and brew some aromatic spiced teas.
SWEET AND SAVOURY: FOOD ACCOMPANIMENTS FOR TEA
Small tasty treats are a wonderful complement to a cup of tea, and you can choose from either sweet or savoury. In the former category, butter biscuits, top-quality chocolate, muffins, fruit tartlets, apple fritters and scones all make excellent teatime treats. If you want to serve a savoury selection, go for salmon, egg, tuna, cucumber or roast beef mini-sandwiches, with mild relishes or dressings that don't overwhelm the delicate flavours of the tea.
In the UK, the archetypal accompaniment to tea is the traditional scone which can be plain, cheesy or with dried fruit. Sweet scones are delicious with whipped or clotted cream and plenty of jam, while savoury scones work well just with butter.
USING TEA IN COOKING
As well as finding tasty treats to eat alongside a cup of tea, you can also use tea itself in cooking. Thanks to the endless variety of flavours available, there is a tea to suit almost every recipe. For example, spicy Assam soup goes down a treat, as does lamb fillet marinated in mint tea, shellfish and Oolong risotto, or Earl Grey creme brulee.