A Nice Cup of Tea – George Orwell on the “Mainstay of Civilisation”

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My world is falling apart from the inside out, and I mean that literally. I knocked over my Replogle globe which unhinged at the North Pole, my Whirlpool dryer died, leaving a tide of laundry in its wake, and a thirty year old oak dropped dead across the driveway last night. If this weren’t enough, the tragicomic presidential bid for election and the sad news of Harper Lee’s death, might just find me unhinged at the poles myself. Lee was not much for public attention, but to know an author is to read her, so if you wish to  remember her, check out her “new” book, Go Set A Watchman.  Her passing coincided with the end of Lunar New Year festivities, and following this circuitous paragraph, maybe it offers an anecdote for the times. Many celebrated the holiday with a cup of tea. Given the paucity of civilised topics, a discussion on tea might just be the restorative and, as Orwell suggested, optimistic course we need.

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The world off its axis


Some weeks ago, I read George Orwell’s essay, A Nice Cup of Tea. Written in 1946 for the London Evening Standard; the essay makes it into Wikipedia, the penultimate recognition, a modern Encyclopedia Britannica, which has at least two things in common with tea today. First, the availability of tea is encyclopedic with its black, oolong, white, and green varieties; second, the making of tea has historically British (Britannica) influences. Note the spelling of the word civilised with the British S over the American Z.  A discussion of tea seems right. Brilliant, actually.

THE RULES

A lot has happened in the intervening 70 years since Orwell wrote this. And a lot is the same, so there are truths and advice worth bearing out. Orwell and his British high-mindedness reflect the empire, as well as class in that society, one which still boasts a monarchy today. He explains that “a nice cup of tea invariably means Indian tea,” or Ceylonese tea (Sri Lanka).

It’s his first rule, by the way, of the 11 rules, “every one of which [he] regards as golden.” Use the NICE tea, the Indian or Ceylonese.  The teapot should be china and warmed beforehand  by “placing it on the hob.” Today hob refers to the heated rings on a stove surface. Orwell tells you how much tea to use and even relates it to rationing, because it is important that the tea be strong. It was 1946; people the world over understood the term rationing.

The tea must be put ‘straight into the pot” and never in strainers or “muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea.”  Orwellian words like IMPRISON creep into the essay, and I have guilt about my own tea chest, its separate cells so wide and long, the bags closing in on the leaves.He explains the “most controversial point of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.”  Here it is: to put the milk in before the tea, or after. He concedes that the “milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments,” but he argues that putting the tea in first and then “stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk.”

Here’s the kicker, at least for this tea drinker. Tea “should be drunk without sugar.” UGH. I’d made it all the way to rule 11 to learn this: NO SUGAR!

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.

He doesn’t stop there, exerting his writerly privilege to go on about such misguided souls.

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.

 OK George. So, I gave it a go.

Though I didn’t drink tea daily, I did drink at least 14 cups of de-sugared tea, an equal amount of cups for the 14 days or fortnight in his challenge.  We’ve come a long way since Indian and Ceylon. I indulged in Chinese and Persian and herbal, which is often not made from tea leaves.

THE TEA TRIALS – WHAT I LEARNED

  • Black tea takes getting used to without sugar. I use milk and pour it in AFTER.  To be fair, I have not poured it in first. More milk is needed the stronger the tea
  • For black tea with any type of infusion or fragrance, I skip the milk.
  • Loose leaves don’t seem to make much difference. The leaves go to the bottom. That said, I’ve developed a preference for liberating the leaves! and put them in the cup straight away a la Orwell
  • Herbal teas and black teas with infusions/fragrances are nice without sugar
  • I pour bubbling hot, boiling water directly onto the loose leaves; seems to wake them up.  I also give the cup a good stir. Thank you Mr. Orwell.

It’s easy to tell the NICE tea, because the cheap stuff is not drinkable without sugar and sweeteners. Health trends include sugar detox and cleansing, so that was in the back of my mind during these sugar-free trials. I use a bit of sugar or honey on occasion, though not often.

Tea is the most consumed manufactured drink in the world, including coffee, alcohol, chocolate, and sodas combined. (Wiki)

So if your world seems to be falling apart, maybe a NICE spot of tea is in order.  Orwell dubbed it the mainstay of civilisation in England, Eire, Australia and New Zealand. I have been persuaded to agree on occasion, that it might even help you feel ‘wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.’

TEAS SAMPLED

Harney & Sons – Paris, English Breakfast

Golden Monkey Black Tea – fine black from Fujian Province

Persian Tea

Rooiboos Chai Mate

Scottish Breakfast

Jasmine & Green

** Essay follows

A Nice Cup of Tea

By George Orwell

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 mainstays of civilisation 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 properly.
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.

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.

About mylinhshattan

MyLinh B. Shattan is a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. She holds a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.