How to Make a Cup of Tea, the Proper British Way
It is a truth acknowledged by all but the most stubborn Brits that there is is very little that a cup of tea can’t fix, or at the very least make slightly better. And since most of us are in need of soothing at the moment, might I recommend this ancient remedy?
Most of us, let’s be honest, boil some water, pour it over a bog standard teabag in a mug, top up with milk and possibly sugar, and voila. But even we Brits would guiltily admit that that’s not a Proper Cup of Tea. As with many rituals, there’s something special about slowing down to make a Proper Cup of Tea. So here’s how to do it.
Boil the water.
Do you own an electric, shuts-off-automatically-when-it-boils kettle?
If not, since times preclude rushing out to buy one, order one online. In the meantime, make do with a stovetop kettle (which nobody in Britain uses unless they are camping or time travelling back to the ’60s), or, if absolutely desperate, to boiling water in a saucepan until the water is jumping around furiously to indicate it has reached the required temperature.
Do not ever, under any circumstances including extreme desperation, microwave your water. It won’t taste anything close to right. There will be a weird film of something or other on the surface of the water.
One of the reasons for this is that microwaves don’t heat the water evenly, and so it won’t all come to the perfect boiling point of 100 degrees centigrade (or 212 Fahrenheit).
I’d ask you to trust me on this, but I’ve learned from bitter experience that you won’t believe me, so, for those of you who don’t trust the art of tea-making, here is the science.
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To reiterate: do not ever use a microwave to boil the water. Do not even tell me you have considered doing this — or, worse, actually done it. It would upset me too much, and quite frankly these times are trying enough already.
Warm up your teapot
Swirl some of the water you’ve boiled around your teapot, to warm it up, which will help keep your tea warm until it’s ready for you.
Throw out the water once you’ve swirled it around.
If you don’t own a teapot, that’s okay. Lots of us Brits don’t use one for our hourly tea ritual. But if you want the full-on, Proper Cup of Tea experience, you’ll need to get one. If you live alone and think one cup will be enough, a small one will do. But if you might want to make more than one cup, consider a larger one — which is where teapots truly come into their own.
And while you’re getting one, consider also getting a tea cosy. We’ll come to that in a moment.
Put a teaspoonful of loose leaf tea into your teapot
There are many, many available varieties of black tea (or what we call just tea in the UK). If you’re just starting out on your tea journey, Twinings Earl Grey or Twinings English Breakfast are great option. I’m also partial to a mix of the two — Earl Grey has a distinctive taste and sometimes a hint of that taste is all I need. Assam and Darjeeling are also delicious. Stay away from Lapsang Souchong until you are ready for true adventure — it’s an acquired taste, and I’m being generous with that assessment.
Pour the just-boiled water into your teapot
Then put the tea cosy on the teapot.
A tea cosy is like a little jacket for your teapot. Since the tea will need to brew for a few minutes, it could cool down too much otherwise — especially if you’re making tea to last you all afternoon.
Knitted brown snail tea cosy with frilly bottom. Washable fits 1 litre teapot.
New to Ruperts House hand knitted snail tea pot cosies for a tea time less ordinary! These fun little friends have…
Allow your tea to brew for a while.
Between three to five minutes is probably the right amount of time — depending on the size of your teapot and how strong you like your tea. You’ll probably need to experiment with this — as well as the quantity of tea leaves — to find out exactly what works for you.
Put a tiny bit of milk in the bottom of your teacup.
One thing that Brits love to argue about — along with the best route to drive somewhere and how to pronounce scone — is whether you should put milk into the cup first (MIF), or tea in first (TIF). There have even been surveys done on this.
Should milk go in a cup of tea first or last? | YouGov
Drinking tea is Britain's national pastime, and as with any treasured ritual the nation is wracked by bitter disputes…
The MIF tradition is most likely a holdover from the days when tea was always drunk in china cups, which tended to crack if the temperature was too hot — putting the milk in first lowered the temperature instantly, preserving the cups. I’m a strong MIF, even though it’s harder to control the exact strength and colour of the tea that way.
Place a tea strainer over your cup
A tea strainer is like a miniature colander that you use to catch leaves when you pour tea. I’ve learned the hard way not to forget this — it’s pretty nasty to get a mouthful of tea leaves on your last sip.
English Tea Strainer with Drip Bowl
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Pour and savour the tea, preferably with a biscuit
Rich Tea biscuits, which you’d think, given the name, would be perfect for this, taste like cardboard and are best reserved for unsupervised group situations, to stop children grabbing fistfuls of them. They’ll only ever need to eat one to learn that it’s not worth it. Hob Nobs and Digestives are the best accompaniment to tea — I would argue that milk chocolate Digestives are the best of all.
Put your feet up and enjoy the world righting itself for just a few minutes.
As Arthur Wing Pinero wrote, quite rightly, “While there is tea, there is hope.”
Claire Handscombe is the author of Unscripted, a smart read about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan. She also wrote Conquering Babel: a Practical Guide to Learning a Language, and edited a book by and for fans of her favourite series, Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.
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