A Nice Cup of Tea

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Evening Standard,
12 January 1946.

If you look
up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably
find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines
of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most
important points.

This is curious,
not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in
this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but
because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

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. 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. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase
    ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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
  • Seventhly,
    after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the
    pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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 tealover
    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.

Some people
would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only
drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar
to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try
drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very
unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening
it again.

These are not
the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea-drinking,
but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business
has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding
the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer,
for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses
of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of
visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet.
It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot
and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure
of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of
that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

Taken from
Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell
Volume 3, 1943–45.

6, 2011

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