How do you take it?

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Which is the ‘right’ colour of tea?

My recent column about tea bags resulted in some spirited feedback. If you recall, I wrote that I make time each day to switch off and enjoy a pot of proper tea made with good quality leaves. It is an essential part of my routine, and for me, is like therapy, having seen me through many a stressful time in my life. When teabags were first invented, though, they were viewed as rather posh, but over the years they became more popular than leaves, and thus the roles have reversed, with leaf tea now being seen as a bit more upmarket.

Reader Sarah Mason says that her family have always preferred tea leaves over bags. She writes: “Sacrilege in my house to use tea bags…Way back when, Mum and Dad didn’t even use a tea strainer. So it was dangerous to empty your cup completely. Good for reading your future though, apparently!”

I don’t use a strainer either, and have a habit of always leaving a bit of tea in the bottom of my cup, even when it has been made with bags and so is complete unnecessary. I’ve never tried to read my dregs though, and the art of doing so is known a Tassography (yes, it is a bona fide ‘ography’). The Chinese, for whom tea drinking has been a highly significant ritual for centuries, are thought to be the first to have ‘read’ the leaves, but it became popular in Europe among soothsayers and fortune-tellers during the superstitious 17th century once tea-drinking had become commonplace.

Clare Proctor, who could claim to be an expert on the brew due to the fact she owns a rather nice tea shop on the Shambles in York, says: “I was brought up with the idea that proper tea was made with loose leaf tea in a pot and it was terribly vulgar to use bags…By the way, you could start another debate – which goes in the cup first – milk or tea?”

She has a point. I asked Clare what she did, and she replied that she fills her cup half way, then adds milk until it is the right colour. But what is the ‘right’ colour? For me it would be a deep brown, akin to what those of us of a certain age might know as ‘American Tan’ (for the youngsters, that is a fetching colour of women’s tights from the 1970s). For many others, the right colour is more like off white, due to the fact they seem to put more milk than tea in their cups in a concoction that barely deserves to be called tea. Another reader, Gareth Child, believes putting milk in at all is totally unacceptable!

There is also the question of the water/leaf ratio. Because I like my tea fairly dark, people assume I want a really strong brew. They proffer something akin to tar thinking that’s what I like, and throw in far too much milk. I try to explain that I like an average-strength tea, but with only a small amount of milk. I’m not fussy really. Well, I am, a bit. Or maybe a lot. But when it comes to tea, it matters.

So back to the question of milk first/tea first. What do you do? Are you in the Proctor camp, with milk after, or like me, milk first? Believe it or not the answer is a reflection of your ancestral status in society.

When we first began importing black tea from India in the eighteenth century, only the rich could afford to buy it. They’d sip this precious elixir from fine bone china cups, taking the edge off the bitter taste with a drop of the finest milk poured into the top. As the product became more popular, and thus more affordable, the hoi poloi began to indulge, but when they poured the hot infusion into their rough terracotta mugs, the boiling water cracked the clay causing it to leak. They soon realised that if they put the milk in first, it would cool it down and thus solve the problem. Of course, bone china is incredibly strong and easily tolerated the hot liquid.

So you can deduce a person’s breeding by the way they drink their cuppa. Milk last means you are from fine stock. Milk first and you’re common as muck.

Just like me.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 13th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 11th January 2023