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Crumpets, Tea & Co.

And what could be nicer than a lovely cup of tea.

November 01, 2000|LAURA CALDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In my family, we were tea drinkers, an admission that sounds almost quaint these days, given the coffee craze that has swept the continent over the past few decades. Somehow, my family slipped through that grip of mass social conversion and kept right on drinking tea as if coffee had never been invented. As a result, I grew up rather archaically knowing what a proper cup of tea tastes like, and I was brought up to be fussy about it, as only a tea drinker can be.

I once spent part of a year working in California's wine country, and my parents traveled to visit me from their home in eastern Canada, where British influence remains strong. One afternoon, worn weary from an exhausting day of sightseeing, I repeated what I'd often heard my mother and grandmother say in such nerve-frazzled moments: "Oh, I need a cup of tea in the worst possible way." My father snapped back in quick sarcasm, "Well, you're in luck because that's exactly how they make it down here."

He was disdainfully referring, of course, to the most unfortunate of fast-food inspired habits, now apparently standard throughout North America and even Europe, of serving mugs of lukewarm wash stained gray with no-fat milk and set before you with a paper tea bag floating lifelessly on top like a drowned toad. In more upscale establishments perhaps you'll be served a small pot of microwaved water and then, with ridiculously incongruous pageantry, presented with a small wooden box of assorted tea bags. Either way, you know you're in for what my family would call swill.

As I learned it, there is only one way to make decent tea, and this is it.

First, you'll need water, and it must be freshly drawn, not stale from sitting in a kettle all night. The house I grew up in had its own well of spring water that trickled down out of the woods from our back hill. When I moved into my own apartment in the city for the first time, my mother and father would arrive to visit carrying with them a large thermos of "country water." "Your tap water," they said, "is not fit for tea." So, you must start with good water.

Then, there is the tea itself. You can use leaves and a strainer, or a tea ball full of leaves, which is more convenient because it is easily removed, giving one the luxury of a second cup. If you must bow to modern convenience, use tea bags, but be sure they're made of gauze (definitely not of paper) and that the tea in them is of exceptionally high quality.

To make tea, first bring the water to an unambiguous boil. Pour a bit into your teapot and swirl the water around to warm it. Then empty the warmed pot and put in the tea leaves or bags.

You must not skimp on the tea. Put in the right amount for the amount of water you're adding; this will vary depending on the type of tea, so you may need to experiment the first couple of times. The old instruction "one teaspoon of leaves for every cup and one more for the pot" works for me. Pour the hot water in on top and give a quick stir to release the flavors. Put the lid on, set the pot in a warm place, and let it steep for about three to four minutes.

Now you must watch, because in that time there will be one precise moment when the tea is ready to pour: too soon and your tea will be weak, too late and it will be bitter and undrinkable. You want your tea to have definite color and strength, but no alarming tannic taste. With practice, you will know when it has steeped long enough. Pour the tea, serving those who prefer it on the weak side first and ending with those who take it stronger.

The milk (never the no-fat kind and never, ever cream) goes into the cup first. This is so the hot tea will warm the milk as it goes in and blend with it evenly.

Be sure to use china teacups with thin rims. Some people add a lemon slice to black tea, others like it plain, a few take sugar; this sort of variety needn't be scorned as long as the quality of taste and experience isn't compromised.

Picky? Maybe. Tea is not a beverage but an experience. It's a civilized ritual that has nothing to do with the morning kick-starts and fueling-up on the fly associated with coffee.

In defiance of the modern world, tea takes time; that's what I was taught. So, I'll no doubt grow old making it this way, and probably just as batty and uncompromising as the late, great aunt of mine who used to say: "When I make tea; I make tea. When I make water, I make water."

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