Some literary extracts concerning tea

We've pulled together some passages from our favourite authors in which they talk about tea.

Writers like tea. This is a Thing. We approve of it, and note the happy side effect: a lot of people who are much better than us at writing have written about tea. Here are some highlights, and like many things on this website the list is not in its final form. If you can think of anything we've missed, please let us know.

1. Kyril Bonfiglioli

Possibly the greatest prose stylist in the English language, writing books that are a cross between PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. It is criminal that he is not more widely known, especially for the Mortdecai Trilogy, and it's even worse that the one film adaptation of his work turned out to be the worst thing we've ever watched. Anyway, here's him on tea. Now buy his book.

Jock, you see, although not bread to service, has a heaven-sent knowledge of what the young master will require in the way of tea. I would pit him against any Wigmore Street physician when it comes to prescribing tea: there are times, as I'm sure you know, when these things *matter*. I mean, an art-dealer who has nothing to face that day but a brisk flurry of bidding at Sotheby's needs naught but the soothing Oolong. A morning at Christie's indicates the Lapsang Souchong. A battle-royal at Bonham's over, say, a Pater which only one other dealer has spotted calls for the Broken Orange Pekoe Tips - nay, even the Earl Grey itself. For an art-dealer in terror of his life, however, and and one who has valiantly embarked on Part Two of his honeymoon in early middle age, only two specifics are in the field: Twining's Queen Mary's Blend or Fortnum's Royal. 

    -- After You with the Pistol, p.346

How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an awakening without tea!

    -- Don't Point that Thing at Me, p.148

Oh yeah, and Bonfiglioli also wrote an entire book set in the midst of the Eighteenth Century tea trade. It's called All the Tea in China, but read the Mortdecai trilogy first.

2. F Scott Fitzgerald

Well, mostly there's just this one letter that we're aware of. But it's a good one, regarding etiquette when drinking tea in Company. For the record, we disagree with the notion that there are subjects that don't belong at afternoon tea. Tea breaks down barriers, and we see it as a catalyst for open discussions on any subject.

Margaret,

I know that it was very annoying for me to have lost my temper in public and I want to apologize to you both, for the discomfort that I know I gave you. There are certain subjects that simply do not belong to an afternoon tea and, while I still think that Mr Perce's arguments were almost maddening enough to justify homicide,  I appreciate that it was no role of mine to intrude my intensity of feeling upon a group who had expected a quiet tea party.

Ever yours faithfully,

Scott Fitzgerald

Historical note: the argument related to Mr Perce's defence of Hitler.

3. Douglas Adams

The king of funny science fiction, whose career also contained a stretch as bodyguard to a Qatari family, Douglas Adams cared a lot about tea. He even wrote a , aimed at Americans who couldn't see the point of it, but probably his most famous tea passage is the following. Arthur Dent, reluctant hero, just wants a cup of tea and the machine in the spaceship keeps giving him the sort of thing you would expect to drink in, well, America...

“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple…. All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”

And he sat. He told the Nutro-Matic about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon. He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun. He told it about silver teapots. He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn. He told it about putting the milk in before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded. He even told it (briefly) about the East India Trading Company.

“So that’s it, is it?” said the Nutro-Matic when he had finished.

“Yes,” said Arthur. “That is what I want.”

“You want the taste of dried leaves boiled in water?”

“Er, yes. With milk.”

“Squirted out of a cow?”

“Well in a manner of speaking, I suppose…”

“I’m going to need some help with this one.”

  -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

4. Thomas de Quincey

An essayist of renown, Thomas de Quincy spent the years 1804 to 1858 smashing the opium. The most important result of this was his controversial publications of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, an account that ranges far and wide in its discussion of the human condition. We highly recommend giving it a try (the book rather than opium). Although the writing does tend to show its age, it has been a great inspiration to us (an article I had published under a pseudonym in Spiked Magazine a couple of years ago is named for it), and here we can see Thomas de Quincey basically inventing hygge and demonstrating tea's importance to the aesthetic:

Let it, however, NOT be spring, nor summer, nor autumn, but winter in his sternest shape. This is a most important point in the science of happiness. And I am surprised to see people overlook it, and think it matter of congratulation that winter is going, or, if coming, is not likely to be a severe one. On the contrary, I put up a petition annually for as much snow, hail, frost, or storm, of one kind or other, as the skies can possibly afford us. Surely everybody is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a winter fireside, candles at four o'clock, warm hearth-rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies on the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without [...]

From the latter weeks of October to Christmas Eve, therefore, is the period during which happiness is in season, which, in my judgment, enters the room with the tea-tray; for tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally of coarse nerves, or are become so from wine-drinking, and are not susceptible of influence from so refined a stimulant, will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual; and, for my part, I would have joined Dr. Johnson in a bellum internecinum against Jonas Hanway, or any other impious person, who should presume to disparage it.

  -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Part 2

5. Terry Pratchett

The only famous person whose death moved me.

'Would you care for a cup of tea?' said the Duck Man.

'You drink tea down here?'

'Of course. Why not? What kind of people do you think we  are?' The Duck Man held up a blackened teapot and a rusty mug with an inviting smile.

It was probably a good moment to be polite, thought William. Besides, the water would have been boiled, wouldn't it?

'...no milk, though,' he said quickly. He could imagine what the milk would be like.

'Ah, I said you were a gentleman,' said the Duck Man, pouring a tarry brown liquid into the mug. 'Milk in tea is an abomination.' He picked up, with a dainty gesture, a plate and a pair of tongs. 'Slice of lemon?' he added.

'Lemon? You have lemon?'

'Oh, even Mr Ron here would rather wash under his arms than have anything but lemon in his tea,' said the Duck Man, plopping a slice into William's mug.

'And four sugars,' said Arnold Sideways.

William took a deep draught of the tea. It was thick and stewed but it was also sweet and hot. All in all, he considered, it could have been much worse.

'Yes, we're very fourtunate when it comes to slices of lemon,' said the Duck Man, busily fussing over the tea things. 'Why, it is indeed a bad day when we can't find two or three slices floating down the river.

-- The Truth, pp.247-8

More to come...

Although I'm worried I've already revealed slightly too much about my reading habits...

On the preparation of tea

We give some tips on dealing with a range of teas. As ever, our emphasis is on real-world and practical advice rather like the video below (which is priceless).

Mow we've watched that we're going to start this article proper by embracing controversy and stating that tea preparation can be taken too seriously.

This is an example of what we're speaking about, the Engineer's Guide to Tea Preparation from the excellent resource that is www.worldoftea.org. It's impossible to fault, impeccable in its detail, but fundamentally getting it wrong. Oolong may be at its very best when steeped for thirty seconds at 195-degree water, but it's pretty good when steeped for a couple of minutes at whatever temperature it came out of the kettle at.

George Orwell was closer to the mark with his seminal essay 'A Nice Cup of Tea', although it focuses entirely on Indian (ie. black) tea. He tells us it's about getting the basics right - hot water, loose leaves, earthenware pot if possible. Here's a photo of the great man himself, enjoying a lovely cup of tea.

george-orwells-nice-cup-of-tea1.jpg

And then Christopher Hitchens got one step further in his article for Slate magazine, a homage to the Orwell essay updated for Twenty-First Century America:

"Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don't be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It's not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience."

Throughout the article he dispenses practical advice for practical people in the context of modern life, and as such we judge it to be much more useful than the nitpicking of the latter day tea masters.

Which takes us to this photo of our office teapot:

Nothing fussy. Holds enough for two mugs and has a basket in the top to contain the tea leaves. Let me tell you what we do with it:

For Black Tea and Oolong

Heat it first by swirling hot water around inside and then pouring it away. Two or three spoons of tea in the top. Fill with freshly boiled water. Wait for a minute or two. Serve. Add milk if you feel like it. If you're on a health drive and only drinking skimmed milk I wouldn't bother at all. Rude Health almond milk, interestingly, can work pretty well too if you are putting yourself through even more intense dietary gymnastics.

You can then reuse the same tea leaves. We find that this works for one more pot, and then you need to start adding a few more fresh tea leaves to each additional pot - say half a spoon. Repeat until the basket fills up completely.

For Green and white tea (and La Caravane gunpowder tea)

Leave the kettle for half a minute or so after it has boiled. Maybe even a minute. Then do about the same, except maybe just two spoons of tea leaves and absolutely no milk.

We've found with La Caravane that you can just keep reusing the same leaves - the resulting tea just keeps improving, until it starts getting a bit weak at around the fifth use. Then you should add some more. The Chinese insist that the later steepings are the best ones, the least bitter and most delicate. Who are we to argue with them?

 

And that's about it, really. As we said, the focus should be on getting the basics right, and on doing so with decent quality tea. Too much admin is detrimental to the experience. But so is crap tea.

But I don't have a teapot

Don't panic! We've got you.

Obviously teabags have their place, but we should really be trying to raise our tea game above this. Happily there is a tool at our disposal - the tea filter. These are small bags of filter paper. You add a spoonful of tea leaves, dangle the bag into your mug, and add hot water. It's quick and easy and means you can start drinking good tea on a regular basis.

Even better, we have started selling them in our emporium. Check them out...

On Twitter

Some things we've discovered in the early stages of our Social Media Journey.

So we've started using Twitter.

Not really in expectation of anything coming from it - our social media nerd tells us that each tweet has a half-life of two seconds, so if you have fewer than like a million followers you're just yelling into the wilderness. And, as it stands, the conversion rate from even our wittiest tweets to actual sales of tea hovers around nil. Even now this is largely for our own amusement.

And we started it as a reasonably private archive of articles and pictures that felt relevant to our work here. At an early stage we found Twitter's search function. We thought this would be a good way of finding more stuff about tea, and of keeping up to date with developments in the industry.

Our journey began:

It rapidly became apparent that tea did not mean what we thought it meant. We thought it was a hot brown drink, tasty and refreshing, and about 30% of the time it does mean this on Twitter. You even get a few gems, one or two per day, that we add to our ever-growing Twitter archive. But over the last few weeks of keeping an eye on people talking about tea on Twitter we have been able to divide the bulk of the other 70% into seven main categories.

1. Ariana Grande

This is mostly the fault of one particular Twitter user, who follows the life of a singer called Ariana Grande with stalker-like intensity. Because the word 'tea' is in her Twitter handle, this comprises about 20% of all tweets about tea. I don't know why the word 'tea' is in her Twitter handle.

2. Very Thin Women

It turns out that tea, especially green tea, raises your metabolism or something and so is good if you want to lose weight. According to Twitter, this is, which is filled with a cacophony of competing brands trying to sell you detox tea or diet tea.

And what better way of doing this than with pictures of very thin women?

Look at how thin they are! Let us all drink skinny tea!

Two thoughts arise from this:

Thought 1. Very thin women used to be for selling things to men. Now they are for selling things to women.

Thought 2. On further investigation, many of the diet teas (legal note: probably not ASAP Skinny) are made by adding laxative to normal green tea. Doesn't this make the actual tea irrelevant?

3. Hot Celeb Goss

This one, again more common than references to tea (the drink), took me a bit longer to understand. The word tea seemed to be coming up in all sorts of random scenarios, often being 'spilled' and in relation to high profile performing artists from the world of American music.

In order to understand this, I went to Urban Dictionary, a site to which my old manager used to contribute under the name 'Wanksy'.

All is revealed! For the record, I shall also display the second most popular definition of tea in full because I found it funny.

Urban dictionary is great.

4. Bone Apple Tea

Also a mystery, but not a rare one.

Once more to Urban Dictionary:

Yup.

5. This Quote:

A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until you put it in hot water.

-Eleanor Roosevelt (or Nancy Reagan, depending on who posts it)

This is quoted several times per day, and to us it doesn't make sense as an analogy. Doesn't the tea get stronger the longer you leave the bag in it? I mean, you'd get some insight as to the flavour and quality of the tea/woman by putting it in hot water, but strengBut on the other hand, if it makes people feel better about themselves then it's fine with us.

6. Anti-Tea Party Activists

Some tea party supporters, too, but the movement seems to have withered of late to be replaced by Donald Trump and the alt-right. This withering has not stopped the anti-Tea Party brigade, who are extremely prolific and quite dull if, like us, you don't really follow or even understand US politics.

7: More about Ariana Grande

Isn't she great. Apparently she had a cold the other day. I hope she's better now.

On which tea to buy

Under our public service remit we have decided to provide a list of what we consider to be the best teas of each type. This is open to discussion.

 

Builder's Tea

Cheap tea bags that produce something hot and strong to put in a chipped mug and mix with milk and sugar. Popular with the skilled tradesmen of England.

Buy: Yorkshire Gold. Easily the best tasting tea within this bracket and allegedly drunk by the Prince of Wales, although their Twitter game is a bit frantic. PG Tips comes close to them, but is tainted by the fact it appears in every office kitchen ever. Also by this.

Don't buy: Lipton's Yellow Label. It's really not very nice, and we have no idea how it became so ubiquitous. The only explanation is that you tend to find it most often in countries like America that don't understand tea. 

Slightly nicer teabags

It's 4pm and you want a cup of tea but can't really be bothered. You just need a teabag to chuck into some water and for it to be nice.

Buy: Twinings Earl Grey. It's the industry standard Earl Grey, a normal black tea flavoured with bergamot flowers (I have no idea how his Lordship came up with this idea, but it does work well mid-afternoon). Top tip: take one tea pot, add one bag of Twinings Earl Grey and two of Yorkshire Gold.

Don't buy: Twinings English Breakfast Tea. Or Twinings Afternoon Blend. I mean, they're fine, but take a good long look at yourself. Ask yourself why you aren't drinking Yorkshire Gold instead.

Even nicer, with a flowery taste

Earl Grey is just the beginning - we're starting to get serious now. We're spending a bit more, perhaps a tenner for 100g, and want it to be worth it. We want to put leaves in a pot, wait a few minutes, and know that we made the right decision in so doing. We're looking at a high quality flavoured black tea; a treat.

Buy: This brief is the domain of the French - they do a surprisingly good line in teas, but they are at their best when creating flowery ones. Go for Mariage Freres Paris Ginza ("pour un après-midi très fashion"). Their Marco Polo blend is more famous, but Paris Ginza is better, more delicate.

Don't buy: It's not really worth spending money on more expensive Earl Grey teas. Twinings have it nailed, although some of the loose leaf Earl Greys have the little blue bergamot flowers in them that at least looks pretty. Very pretty. Okay then, I'll let you buy Fortnums loose leaf Earl Grey. But keep your consumption below 2 litres per day because it turns out Earl Grey is poisonous.

Same sort of thing but spicy

We've still got our tenner, but it's cold outside and we want something warming rather than a mocking taste of summer.

Buy: The Tea House Oriental Spice. Good tea plus ginger, cinnamon, vanilla and orange peel - it all comes together rather well, and for good reason is their best selling tea over the Christmas period. It's also a good chunk cheaper than Mariage Freres - around a fiver for 100g.

Don't buy: More of a general warning, really - there are a lot of tea manufacturers out there who just bulk import mediocre tea from India, add the contents of their spice racks, and charge through the nose. Don't fall for it - do it yourself instead. Have some fun. I recommend starting with a solid Assam and adding cloves and peppercorns and cinnamon.

I'm really rich and only the best will do

Buy: TWG Black Tea. It's something like £35 for 100g but it will blow your mind - the finest black tea you'll ever drink, tastefully augmented with fruity and flowery notes courtesy, according to the label, of Bermuda. I drink it with milk but this would probably horrify the manufacturers.

And I guess you could start to get involved with stuff like heavily-aged pu-erh at this point, but that starts to require knowledge as well and there can't be many people out there who have been able to develop both a fortune and a knowledge of niche oriental teas.

Don't buy: Who am I to tell you what not to do?

Red Bush / Rooibos

We're now departing the world of black tea, and Rooibos is a good place to start. This is tea made from a South African bush that is not in fact related to tea. A sort of vanillaish taste to it. I drink it with milk but apparently you're not supposed to. Old people like it in the evening because it has no caffeine, but it's better in the sun on a hot day.

Buy: Tick Tock. Available from a supermarket near you in tea bags, or from their website if you would prefer loose leaf.

Do not buy: For a long time I thought there was no other supplier, but then one day I had a mug of Tetley's Red Bush and it was horrible in a way I can't really describe and has tainted the entire Tetley's brand for me ever since. So don't buy that. Most specialist tea suppliers, it turns out, has a rooibos in their armoury, but it's generally more expensive and less good. Sometimes they try to flavour it in some niche way but we haven't worked out why.

Green tea

I would once have been quite rude and started this with 'you're on a health drive...'. Although it is good if you're on a health drive, not least because you really can't drink it with milk. There are all sorts of health claims made for it, and some of them might even be true. But it's also tasty in its own right, delicate and uplifting.

Buy: La Caravane Gunpowder Tea. You know you want to.

Don't buy: Green teas marketed as health products. It's just green tea - the only thing they've added is a mark-up.

Who wrote the Book of Tea?

A quick introduction for those who were wondering why we sell Okakura Kakuzo's book of tea in our online shop.

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existance.

I had discovered a cult I could get behind. I had discovered it on page one of a rant published in 1906 for the edification of a small group of artists and academics by the new Curator of Oriental Art of Boston Museum.

It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

The writer was Okakura Kakuzo, recently arrived from Japan by way of India, China and Europe.

Japan was changing; the Meiji Reformation was well underway. This was the grand opening of the country to the world, an end to 250 years of self-imposed seclusion during which any foreigner setting foot in Japan and anyone leaving Japan without permission was put to death. The time of shoguns and samurai was at an end, replaced by industrialisation and militarism as the country rushed to catch up with the rest of the world.

In the late Nineteenth Century Kakuzo was at ground zero of this clash between traditional Japanese values and the increasingly powerful influence of the West. A cultural figure and man about town, vocal, respected and controversial, he founded the Japan Art Institute and became the first Dean of the Tokyo Fine Art College. He defended traditional Japanese art against the imported oil painting techniques, but more important to him still was the defence of Japanese culture and Asian culture in general as something superior to that of the West. As he writes at the beginning of an earlier work, The Ideals of the East with Special Reference to the Art of Japan:

The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life.

He wrote other works in English in a similar vein - see also The Awakening of Japan - but they are equally pompous and rather drier.

With The Book of Tea , however, he struck a chord. It turned out that tea, a substance respected equally by Japan and England, is both the perfect metaphor for Eastern philosophy and a relatable way in which to tell an impatient Western audience of its strengths. Just read the chapter listing: The Cup of Humanity; The Schools of Tea; Taoism and Zenism; The Tea-room; Art Appreciation; Flowers; Tea-masters. There is no clear division between tea and tao, tea masters and philosophers.

Nowhere is this more clear than right at the end of the book, where the Last Tea of Rikiu is described. He is condemned to death by his own hand, and conducts a final tea ceremony with his nearest and dearest. Tea is at the heart of the story which at the same time is eerily similar to the suicide of Socrates.

All I'd really known about Taoism before was through my reading around Genghis Khan and an inspired little book called The Tao of Pooh. And before I'd read The Book of Tea I hadn't really paused to consider the role of tea in our lives beyond musing how spot-on the stereotype of the tea-obsessed Englishman is.

Tea is important, a moment of beauty and even perfection in the middle of an imperfect day. As such, we should be taking it more seriously, and Okakura Kakuzo shows us how. I would recommend this book to anyone.

So what actually is gunpowder tea?

It's La Caravane gunpowder tea that got this whole thing going. Here we explain what it is.

We appreciate that we're backing gunpowder tea rather heavily without really explaining what it is. It's tea that looks like gunpowder (because we all know what that looks like). It's tea that's a bit smokey, like gunpowder is (I guess). Says Wikipediathe grey-green leaf is tightly rolled into a tiny pellet and "explodes" into a long leaf upon being steeped in hot water. Like gunpowder. Hmm.

It's probably better to start with the flavour. It's our go-to green tea, much lighter than most green teas and with a fresh, summery taste. Think wheatgrass, with a sort of honey thing going on at the back of your mouth. A hint of smoke, a memory of hillside earthiness. 

Its delicacy and complexity owe their survival to the fact that the wilted and steamed leaves have been rolled into tight balls before being dried. This preserves the flavours, and protects the leaves themselves from damage. Gunpowder tea can be stored for a very long time.

How to drink it? Without milk, we'll say that before we get any further, and we speak as people who have pushed milk in tea as a concept about as far as it can go. Milk is a definite no.

Even almond milk.

I'd say you've got two paths to go down. The first path is full Moroccan. Gunpowder tea is wildly popular in Morocco, so if you ever find yourself being offered tea in Marrakesh or Fez (spend more than ten minutes there and this is unavoidable) expect a small glass of extremely sweet tea that has been poured from an absurd height. The teapot will be metal and hot. It will contain two teaspoons of gunpowder tea, a handful of mint leaves and handful of sugar.

This is pleasant, but wouldn't do for every day. Our favoured path begins with putting two heaped teaspoonfuls of the leaves into a small teapot. We then fill the teapot with freshly boiled water, leave it to brew for about 30 seconds or until we get bored (generally the latter). Then we pour the contents into a mug and drink it. But here is the clever bit. For your next mug, use the same leaves - do not put fresh ones in. You can get about four pots out of the same spoonful of leaves. Each time you need to brew for a little longer, but the flavour improves each time. It looses a little bitterness, becomes even fresher.

Gunpowder tea is actually quite tricky to get hold of in the UK. You certainly have to go to a specialist shop - Fortnum & Mason did a particularly good blend of gunpowder tea and keemun to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (a pretty spurious connexion) but sadly this has been discontinued. It was partly to address this gap that we started selling La Caravane tea, a very popular Moroccan brand. Buy it here (go on). 

Finally, to address your curiosity, it looks like this:

   J  u st like gunpowder.

Just like gunpowder.