Strong, slightly milky, is how I currently like my mug of tea.
Tea has been a constant companion of mine for over forty years now. Growing up with grandparents who hardly drank alcohol and where soft drinks were a special treat, tea was the go-to pause in any part of the day.
I started, probably as most children do, having very milky tea with a teaspoonful of sugar. The tea was almost a secondary flavour. But it allowed me to be entered into the adult world, to be joining in with the grown ups as an equal.
I remember, when living at my grandparents farm, the early morning ritual of coming downstairs to sit by the fire with my older brother. Grandma would bring a steaming cup of tea with a biscuit for us. This was to tide us over until breakfast, while Grandad finished milking his small heard of kind faced Jersey cows.
Tea was drunk so much at Rushford Farm that the wooden sideboard, where the tin was kept, had absorbed years of flavour and scent. I would often open the door just to lean my head in to inhale deeply the wonderful, woody, tea smell. Even writing this, I can almost recreate the aroma, many decades on.
At both my grandparents homes, tea was always drunk in tea cups with a saucer. I don't ever remember a mug being offered. Only in one of these households was the cardinal sin of cooling hot tea allowed. Namely pouring it from the cup into the saucer, to be blown upon, cooled and slurped off the dish. Grandad P would sometimes do this, with a twinkle in his eye and probably a raised eyebrow from Grandma. We all thought it was really rebellious.
Tea likes good water. For many years, nothing ever tasted as good as the tea from the farm. Even our own tea, made by my mother at home, was not as good.
As I grew older, tea became a drink to be taken at prep school. It was offered from a large vat, boiled into oblivion. Medium strength, milk already added as well as sugar. It was interesting in that if any boy preferred tea sans sugar, they would get some from a small pot, next to the main vat. It was that unusual. Tea was on offer at breakfast and and dinner. And as a special privilege, the oldest prefects were given a hut to sit in and boil a brew with their very own kettle.
At public school the method of delivery and taking of tea was similar. Another large boiler filled with gallons of the brew, milk added, but now sugar had became a choice. The rumour here was that to stir the communal tea, the 'Gobbos' (catering staff) used to use the handle from one of the greasy brooms, employed to sweep up the floor every day. It didn't matter, we still drank tea.
Somewhere along the tea drinking route, as I grew older, it became apparent that I was now mostly drinking tea in mugs. I don't remember when this change happened. It seemed to take place instantly one day. Maybe it was because people wanted larger portions of tea, or couldn't be bothered with saucers any more.
In the workplace, tea became an opportunity to stop, pause, reflect and talk. It was also important to share the load and remember to take your turn in offering everyone else a brew. People notice if you never do this, trust me.
Tea creates friendships. It helps build camaraderie. When I found myself working as a lowly Runner in a television production company in deepest London, work was hard and stressful. It was on the go, constantly. So when a group of cheery colleagues offered for me to join them at lunch times, down in the basement I found a refuge. As more of us humble, good guys united, we began to use the brewing of a large pot of tea as the signal to stop for a while, talk nonsense and generally arse about. From this the Wardour Street Gentleman's Club was formed, as we decided to refer to ourselves. In addition to the real kindness and friendship I gained, I also discovered a new blend of tea. Over the course of a few weeks, we stumbled upon the perfect mixture of 1 bag of Earl Grey to 3 bags of regular PG Tips in the pot. I enjoyed many a mug.
I'll leave you for now with a few final random tea based nuggets that I have so far discovered.
- Whippets like tea, not too hot and sometimes with a bit of sugar.
- There is nothing worse than weak tea.
- The choice of mug makes a difference. Some mugs just feel right for tea, others scream coffee.
- Tea first in the morning, then coffee with breakfast, then tea all the way.
- Although I now have tea without sugar, sometimes hot, sweet, tea is the best medicine.
- Whilst it's ok to have tea made from tea bags, tea from a pot always tastes better.
- There is a magical temperature, just slightly hotter than you think, where your tea is perfect. This temperature doesn't last long, so don't get distracted.
- Would you like a cup of tea? - is one of the nicest sentences.
- Would you like a brew? - even better, if up North.