After an inspection of color and aroma, the tea taster tastes samples and since no tea taster worth his tannin would swallow a sample while tasting, he’s generally to be found in the vicinity of a three-foot high “gaboon” while on duty.
Tea is for the most part championed throughout the world today, but such universal popularity has not always been the case, even in civilized areas. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once recovered from a paralytic condition at approximately the same time he laid off tea. Back in the pulpit he railed against the tea leaf as a root of evil and a menace to morals as well as health. Later, we’re told, he changed his mind, holding tea in such high favor that he brewed it in a custom-built, gallon-capacity tea urn.
The great tea ritual, five o’clock tea, which implies, of course, the serving of tea with hors-d’oeuvre, small canapés, cakes, marmalades, jellies and the like, possibly was originated in England by Anna, wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford. During her lifetime, which spanned the years of 1788 to 1861, it was customary to eat ponderous breakfasts, light lunches and late dinners. Along about five o’clock in the afternoon Anna, wanting some little something to tide her over and someone to share it with, made five o’clock tea a daily routine. Reference also is made to afternoon tea in the famed seventeenth-century correspondence of Madame de Sévigné, who also made the first known mention of the use of milk in tea in Europe.
Though tea has never made the big-time in the league of those who compose serious music (Bach once wrote a cantata in praise of coffee), it has been source of many a Tin Pan Alley success, such as Youman’s “Tea for Two,” “Tea on the Terrace” and “When I Take My Sugar to Tea.” The Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda,” incidentally, is a tea-inspired epic. Seems that the tin vessel employed by the bushmen for boiling their tea water is known sometimes as a billy-can and sometimes as a matilda and, according to one informant, is in practically constant use, what with the inhabitants from Down Under having an almost insatiable thirst for the liquid.
Etymologically speaking, we inherited not only the leaf, but also its name from the Orient. It stems from an Amoy dialect variation on the Chinese word for the product, ch’a. The residents of Amoy say tay, while the Japanese and Portuguese say cha, the Russians tschai, the French thé, the Germans and Dutch thee, the Danish the, the Spanish té, and the Italians tè.
The efforts of the high-purposed tea industry in the United States being what they are, Americans are coming more and more to standardize their tea making and, as of this writing, experts are generally in accord that the best procedure for making tea is as follows: always use a teapot, preheated with scalding water. Place one tea bag or one teaspoon of tea per cup into the pot. (“One for the pot,” according to the Tea Council is no longer necessary nor even recommended. Such an idea is definitely old hat and has been for a year or more.) Pour boiling water directly over the leaves. The Tea Council recommends “merrily bubbling, boiling water,” but we suspect that water, freshly drawn and boiling would do as well. And finally, let the tea stand, or “brew,” without boiling, for no less than three minutes and no more than five: The color test won’t work with tea, for color varies according to grade and variety, so that the shade is not necessarily an indication of strength. A French missionary, a couple of centuries ago, recommended allowing the tea leaves to steep no longer than is necessary to chant the Miserere psalm in a leisurely fashion. You may try it if you like, but the procedure outlined above unquestionably produced a better and more uniform cup of tea.
And now, Polly, put that kettle on and let’s have tea!
Hot Tea Punch
Pour 6 cups boiling water over 6 teaspoons tea leaves and let stand. Meanwhile, in a saucepan combine ½ cup each of water and granulated sugar, a 2-inch stick of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind, and 1 1/3 teaspoons grated orange rind. Bring to a boil and boil for five minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick, add 1/4 cup orange juice and 2 tablespoons pineapple juice, and strain the tea into the fruit mixture. Serve piping hot. Makes six to eight servings.