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Rescuing tea from the fuss and formality

Between the stuffiness of the Brits, the stiffness of the Japanese and the saccharine sweetness of the American agony aunt, Tea has indeed suffered. It has become this wimpy brew that can be manipulated by the upper classes to reveal the degree of snobbishness they wish to exhibit or equally objectionable, the perfect liquid to soothe away the blues. Not to mention the books on tea and weight loss, tea and the blues and other such random behaviour. All that story about the robustness of an Assam, bold and defiant in its flavour, is clearly only read by tasters! Tea and tea drinking has also been hijacked by etiquette and home dining clubs. It’s crying out to be rescued from the clutches of these kidnappers, and to return home, unadorned and true to taste.

Perhaps the most criminal violation has got to be the manner in which the drinking of tea has been turned into some kind of regal tradition to which ordinary mortals can only aspire. It’s not about whether you know your ‘tea’ from an ‘infusion’, but whether you know the propah way to stir in the sweetener. By the way, the sound of a stirring spoon should never be a hearty clink clink, but the infinitely more stylish ‘swish’! And you can’t just say ‘drink tea’. It has to be ‘have a cup’ of tea, ‘have a cuppa’, and most definitely not ‘take tea’, or worse, ‘take some tea’.

Tea and tea drinking is in danger of being hijacked by agony aunts and social queens. If you think I’m exaggerating ask google to list out the books on Tea. You will find your gaze distracted from the serious tomes of ‘Curl, Twist, Curl – The Bold CTC’ or ‘Wine Teas’ and landing on ‘Lessons on Love Over a Cup of Tea’, ‘If Tea Cups Could Talk’, ‘Sharing a Cup of Friendship’. I have nothing against self help books, but putting ‘Tea’ in the title does dim some of its magic.

Tea has come to serve as the weapon of choice of the Agony Aunt, the one who dishes out advice over a cuppa. It has quite an easy formula to it. To begin with the Agony Aunt must be invited for Tea, not a meal. Tea has a beguiling informality to it, a faint hint of delicious gossip and chatter that even the lightest lunch of salads and hors d’oeuvre lacks. Once the invite has been given, a good host must have a topic to be discussed. So you have Charity Teas where missionary ladies like Aunt Alexander in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, discussed the ‘savages’ of Africa (while their own ‘savage’ white men went undetected).

There’s a certain coyness that goes with all the pouring and asking if you’d like sugar and milk. If you haven’t read this in Pride & Prejudice or watched Downton Abbey carefully, you won’t be putting your foot on that social ladder in hurry. Discussing matrimonial prospects without the tea tray in attendance somehow lacks the same charm. Little surprise then that there is a thriving industry around tea drinking and the etiquette it demands. You think I’m making this up? Read on to what one website advises on how to drink tea:

First and foremost never hold your cup with your pinkie finger extended. This is improper and in most social settings is considered rude. Place your index finger into the handle of the cup up to the knuckle while placing your thumb on the top of the handle to secure the cup. The bottom of the handle should then rest on your third finger. The fourth and fifth fingers should curve back towards your wrist…

high tea_inset

This sounds just like a lesson on how to hold a tennis racquet. Correct me here, but I thought the main point was the amber liquid inside the cup, not the grip outside. 

…When stirring your tea, be careful not to clink your spoon against the cup.  Gently swish the spoon back and forth without touching the sides of the cup.  When through stirring, remove the spoon and place it on the saucer behind the tea cup and to the right of the handle.  Of course, never take a drink of your tea without removing the spoon first, and please never, ever sip from the spoon.

There’s more to come: add ons like milk and sugar cannot be afterthoughts. You forgot the slices of lime for those fussy black tea drinkers. So no sloshing the milk in or using the spoon to test the sweetness, it’s simply not allowed.

If seated at a table, do not lift the saucer (this is only proper if standing; then lift the saucer with the cup.)  When you are taking a sip of tea do not look around at the other guests, but lower your eyes so you can see what you are doing and not spill your tea down the front of your blouse or dress. 

And now for the final blow to informality:

The hostess will signal the end of the tea by picking up her napkin. 

So there you have it, the diktat as laid down by an etiquette magazine, an anachronism if I may, and one that’s almost taking the kick out of a good cup of tea.

From my not-so-lofty position, I decree that Agony Aunts, etiquette magazines and fine dining websites should be banned from using Tea as a prop; this fussiness is no longer acceptable. Meanwhile, I’m putting the water on to boil and settling down to my quiet afternoon cup. I’ll definitely be sipping from the spoon and holding my mug against my palm to warm my hands. None of this soppy stuff for hard drinkers!

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2 Comments

  1. This is beautifully written! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    As I was reading through, I felt that someone out there felt my frustration in regards to tea! I hate how everything started revolving around tea atmosphere but nothing about the tea itself. I was glad to be exposed to different teas and to identify that black tea from India taste different than tea from Sri Lanka than China than Kenya! We sometimes just drink tea without knowing how to appreciate the taste and the ground that have produced the tea that allowed it to develop wonderful flavors and aromas!

    I believe that we all need to work together to educate people out there on how to appreciate this beverage without ignoring its essence!

  2. Anup says

    Great article and throws some really bright light on the distinction between Indian and Taiwanese oolong…personally I prefer the Taiwanese oolong (hard to get in India) over Indian oolong (which kind of reminds me of Darjeeling black teas).

    Kudos to Teabox for daring to publish an unbiased article, one which does not exactly favour the teas they sell. But hey, Teabox guys you are doing a great job in establishing authority in the Indian market!

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