Recently I had an interesting conversation with fellow ‘tea moggies’ about this delightful national institution and how much we underestimate the role that it plays in people’s daily lives. The British are utterly obsessed with it, and those who observe this culture cannot help but find themselves enthused by a happy shared ritual of teapot to cup that extends not only from Lands End to John O’Groats, but all around the world. I have a friend living in North Carolina, for example, and despite her deeply traditional Southern roots – and the standard American obsession with coffee – she is mad for all things Anglophile, in particular a fine pot of tea. On her last visit to the UK I took her and her young son to Fortnum & Mason in London (www.fortnumandmason.com) and, departing on an Assam high, full of finger sandwiches, scones and a positively indecent amount of cake, it was pretty safe to conclude that the afternoon had gone down extremely well.
Connoisseurs view the drink in much the same way they would sample fine wines, and rightly so. Indeed, this lovely little leaf has much to offer, by association as much as anything else. In my own experience, it has accompanied both joyful news and offerings of sympathy, a hard day’s work and relaxing evenings. It has brought much-needed refreshment in the morning and sheer, unadulterated indulgence, with a glass of pink champagne and exquisite patisserie, in the afternoon. In short, its presence has been constant, yet not assumed.
I’m a huge fan of African tea. You can keep your Lapsang Souchongs, Rose Pouchongs and those pretentious, overpriced beverages from trendy tea houses that open up like a flower when you pour hot water over them. This is not where it’s at for me.
My favourite black tea is Ntingwe Kwazulu, which is grown on a small estate in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa: it’s a golden brew that tastes soft yet robust and makes for a satisfying everyday tea. It’s a bit hard to get hold of, as ordinary tea and coffee stores tend not to stock it, but thankfully Taylors of Harrogate (www.taylorsofharrogate.co.uk) purveys it online. When I’m in the Cotswolds I get my supplies from Tisanes Teas in Broadway, Worcestershire (www.tisanes-tearooms.co.uk). It is a fabulous little gem of a shop with an excellent tea room next door, which in 2010 won the Tea Guild’s Award of Excellence for the third year running – and quite frankly what Barrie, the proprietor, doesn’t know about tea or coffee really isn’t worth knowing.
Tisanes also stocks a special Ceylon BOP that is large-leafed, clear on the palate and very refreshing: it’s the tea I always turn to when I desire a treat. My next favourite is Rwanda-Burundi, a beautiful, rich tea that packs a punch – definitely one to pick you up on a dull afternoon. However, being under orders to watch caffeine intake (as every healthy person should), my mainstay is a good organic rooibos by Tick Tock (www.ticktocktea.co.uk) or Dragonfly (www.dragonfly-teas.com), especially Earl Grey or vanilla.
The wonderful thing about tea is that it gives an opportunity to learn about different cultures. The "Way of Tea" is an integral part of Japanese life, and its highly methodical preparation is a zen experience in itself. Tea has even helped me to learn more about eastern etiquette. A friend of Hong Kong Chinese heritage told me some years back that when dining out, if your pot of green tea is empty, you simply lift the lid and perch it on its side: this is a signal to the waiter that you require a refill. The reason for this is that to interrupt your conversation to speak to the waiter is considered disrespectful to your guests, so this little sign has not only practical purpose but behavioural significance.
To conclude, allow me to direct you to this charming short film from 1941.
But before you settle down to watch it, put the kettle on, make a brew and enjoy the finest drink known to man. Pip pip!