Let them drink tea

What’s all this? Joe Collier finds it much easier to create the perfect afternoon tea ritual in France than in England.

For around three months each year I live abroad in France, and when away, the ritual afternoon tea gives moments of great pleasure. Preparation begins at around 4.30, so before the 5.00 caffeine watershed. Centre stage is a cracked-but-sound tea pot from our ancient (at least 42 year old) ‘Mason’s Blue Quail’ china set. This is warmed with boiling water – swilled, then jettisoned. Three heaped teaspoons (two for us, one for the pot) of Twinings Ceylon leaf tea (bought, and seemingly only available, in France), are then added and the pot filled with water brought again to the boil. Next, after being brewed for 5 minutes, the tea is served through a strainer. To it I add a cloud of milk and teaspoonful of sugar. Each sip is pure delight. Often the cup is not held by the handle but ‘cupped’ in my hands and on a good day drunk with eyes closed.

How very different teatime was in London. There, it was simply a matter of pouring boiling water into a cup containing a bag of ‘English Breakfast’ and drinking with little ceremony.

So, why not recreate the French experience in TW10? Simple enough, all I would need to do is buy a packet of good leaf tea and a decent pot. But things did not prove easy.

First, finding decent leaf tea in South West London was impossible. It also became expensive as the number of packets bought for sampling mounted. Packets described as ‘loose leaf’ or even ‘whole loose leaf’ simply weren’t. Rather they consisted of various sizes of ground down ‘grit’ with not a leaf in sight. With such a constitution the old ‘teaspoon’ rules counted for nothing. The tea was always too strong, and standardisation from packet to packet impossible. More importantly though, bits of the grit were so fine that most of it passed straight through the strainer. Finer and finer meshes were tried to no avail. Whatever I did, my cuppa was laced with a grainy suspension, and this is not right.

Now to the teapot. I have been to enough tea houses to know what I want of a teapot. First the spout – this should pour well, and after pouring, not dribble. Second, the lid – when the pot is tilted the lid should remain firmly in place rather than dislodge and fall into the cup or on to the table. In addition, on pouring, tea should not overflow from under the lid and so land in the saucer if lucky or on to the tablecloth if not.

Armed with this information, buying a teapot had the added demands of requiring some rigorous testing. In the final shop I visited there was a good selection, and after some protracted negotiation three candidate teapots were carried down a pokey corridor to a cramped kitchen at the back of the basement. The problem: part of the assessment needed the pots to be filled with water. Testing began. Of the three pots, the tilting-empty-test, to check lid stability, eliminated the white one. Its lid almost hit the floor. Next, the pouring-full-test. Neither overflowed from the top, both poured well, but the green one dribbled. I gave £7.20 to the somewhat bemused shop assistant and the blue pot was mine. And, with a packets of Twinings Ceylon brought from France it still serves me well.

I suppose if I were a more relaxed greyhare, I would not be concerned about tea being spilled on to the tablecloth, but somehow it does not seem quite right. It also seems wrong that manufacturers get away with making, and shopkeepers with selling, shoddy goods, and that I have such difficulty in testing them.

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