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.
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.
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. 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…
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.
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,
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’.
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