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George Orwell’s 11 golden rules for making tea

I recently stumbled across George Orwell’s 1946 gem of an essay, A Nice Cup of Tea.  It’s not surprising that as ‘the 20th century’s best chronicler of English culture’*, Orwell had some strong opinions about this quintessentially English institution.

In his short, humorous essay, George Orwell lists 11 inviolable rules one must follow to create the perfect cup of tea.  For the most part, his dogma stands the test of time.  But, there are a couple of points that are less ‘golden’ and, in my view, quite simply wrong.

George and I go head to head on what does, or does not, create the perfect cuppa.

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1. Only make tea with Indian or Ceylonese tea. Orwell pretty much dismisses ‘Chinese’ tea saying that while it is ‘not to be despised’, you don’t feel ‘feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it’.

Disagree. I don’t think Orwell can have tried Yunnan pu-erh tea or Japanese houjicha, from which anyone can find instant solace.

2. Tea should be made in a teapot.  And not just any old tea pot, but one made of china, ‘earthenware’ or pewter. Silver or enamel pots are a big no-no, if you’re thinking of buying one.

Agree, but I can’t make any calls on different teapot textures.

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3. The pot should be warmed beforehand.

Agree, wholeheartedly.  When I worked in a cafe in Ottawa, if I didn’t like a particular customer’s attitude, I wouldn’t warm their pot before making their tea.  Ha, take that rude person!

4. The tea should be strong.  Although Orwell noted that in a ‘time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realised on every day of the week’.  He asserts that ‘all true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes’.

Agree, provided the tea is of suitable quality, otherwise it just tastes like bitter sawdust.

5. Tea should be put straight into the pot. ‘No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea’.

Disagree.  There is much written on how many minutes you should brew each kind of tea (green, black, white) which can vary depending on which time of the year it was picked (first flush, second flush).  I bought a tea timer just last week for this purpose.  Sorry George, but unless you have some removable straining device in your tea pot, you will stew your tea. 6

6. Take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. I’m not sure what 1940s kitchen this instruction presupposes but whatever he means…

Agree.

7. After making the tea, stir it or give the pot a good shake.

Agree.  Pretty uncontroversial.

8. Drink it out of a good breakfast cup — ‘not the flat, shallow type.’ I guess he’s means not one of those Royal Doulton type of tea cups.

Agree, they’re far too wee.94920ade54d9e25050cf30e39e523dfc

9. Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Sort of irrelevant in this post Nineteen Eighty Four world. But because I don’t know any differently,

Agree.

10. Pour tea into the cup first, then the milk. Quite rightly, Orwell acknowledges that this is the most controversial point of all.  ‘The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable’. That is, you put the milk in after the tea. He is adamant that doing it this way means: ‘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’.

Disagree. Surely if you’re making several cups of tea a day as a ‘true tea lover’, you really ought to know how much milk you need.  Further, my position – milk in first – is backed up by scientists.  According to one such scientist, ‘If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk, and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation – degradation – to occur’.

11. Drink it without sugar. Orwell asks, ‘how can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it?…. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter’.

Agree, vehemently.

 

Despite these points of difference, I think George and I would have been good tea drinking pals.

Would you want to share a pot of tea with George? Where do you stand on the perfect cup of tea?  Are you a MIF (Milk in First) or MIS (Milk in Second)?

 

Feature image courtesy of Micol Montesanti

*According to The Economist

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

20 Comments

  1. George Falconer

    I agree with most of your sentiments. As your Dad upset you did not warm the pot for the customer – spitting into the pot is preferable. The teacup in the article is similar to the remains of a set we have which we got from your Grannie Forsyth. The name escapes me at the moment. Enjoyed reading the article. I am most certainly a mif.

  2. At the risk of being banned from this blog (!), I’m not a tea drinker and never have been (nor am I a coffee drinker, although at a push, I’ll have black coffee, no sugar). Many years ago, I was travelling around Ireland with a friend. We were paying a visit to an elderly friend of hers (a true Irish mam) and my friend said “She’ll make you tea and it will have milk in it and you just have to drink it”. And she did make tea (no questions as to how we’d take it) and I drank it. And it was the BEST cup of tea I’ve ever had. And I’ve never been able to replicate it 🙂

    • What a lovely story! Its a time and a place thing, isn’t it. I had the best ever scrambled eggs in Orkney once – no idea what farmer hostess did to make them so damn tasty.
      I’m trying to imagine life without tea (or coffee)…… What do you have to look forward to in the mornings?

      • Re eggs: probably butter and cream ?

        The tea/coffee thing doesn’t bother me – I’m a big maker of breakfasts and do something different each day, which is worth getting up for! The biggest problem is social, when people ‘meet for coffee’.

        • I need to aim for more cholesterol in my eggs, I think. I like the idea of lovely breakfasts every day. Sure would beat the Nutrigrain my kids get 52 weeks a year.

  3. I’m deeply intrigued by the “take the teapot to the kettle rather than the kettle to the teapot” one – I wonder what on earth he meant? Could it be he meant make sure the water’s boiling – i.e., don’t give the kettle a chance to come off the boil? When I get my time machine, I’m going to go back and ask him…

    • You’re right on the money. He did mean that it had to be boiling. What I can’t figure out is why wouldn’t you have the tea pot next to the kettle? Do you think people used to have the teapot on the dining table and would take the kettle to it? I keep thinking of my Granny’s flat in Leith in the 1940s – there wouldn’t have been a huge distance from the kettle to the pot where ever they were all situated!

      • I wonder if maybe rich people did it differently? I seem to have an impression from books that the lady of the house made the tea, which presumably would have meant that the maid brought all the makings from the kitchen – maybe the hot water came in a separate pot? If so, it’s a great argument for being poor… 😉

  4. I’m definitely a milk first person when I have milk in my tea (NEVER in earl grey though). My uncle is the one who started me on the milk first thing – I vaguely recall him saying something about the milk getting burnt if you did it the other way around, but my memory is fuzzy on this and I may have made it up. He makes the most perfect cup of tea and no matter how hard I try I can never get it to taste the same when I try to make it back home. He just uses regular Bushell’s black tea, but he has a teaspoon that’s slightly smaller than other teaspoons that puts just the right amount of sugar in (NEVER sugar in earl grey) and it always tastes perfect. He and my aunt live a few hours away from me, so I suspect it might be something to do with their water as well. Tea making is a proper science.

    • I think your uncle might be on to something. Those scientists discovered something about the way molecules broke down. I don’t know if it was burning exactly, but it definitely changed the molecular structure. Kate W posted on this blog too and noted that there is something about ‘time and place’, and perhaps the water too. I don’t really like Earl Grey that much, so milk is mandatory for me with that tea!

  5. Re: ‘Pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea’. Definitely agree with Orwell here. In a glass milk bottle (full fat) the cream rises to the top of the bottle. So either you can pour off that cream (and use for some special purpose) or shake the bottle and mix it in with the rest of the milk. He’s saying don’t use the “top of the bottle” cream in your tea. Have I got that right, George/Eric? Doesn’t apply so much today as fewer people use glass bottles/have a milkman/use full fat milk.

  6. Bah! You use milk?! Surely a Chinese tea like my favorite puh er shouldn’t be disgraced with milk, first or last. Perhaps for a simple mixed black tea, but not a tea in which you want to actually enjoy the flavor… ☺

    • Of course not! Puh er with milk would be heinous. But Sri Lankan or Indian black tea with a dash of milk is devine.

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