The Perfect Cuppa, Mr Orwell
It’s a point of contention, isn’t it: how to make that perfect cup of tea? Putting to one side the fact that some people insist on having tea without milk while the rest of us stick to our traditional milk and tea formula, the biggest divide is the battle between the BIFs and the MIFs (the Bag in Firsters or the Milk in Firsters). Now, interestingly, I was brought up as something of a MIF until I finally saw the error of my ways halfway into my teens. Bag in first has got to be the way to go. Why? Well, as George Orwell himself helpfully pointed out in his essay A Nice Cup of Tea (1946) . . .
“. . . this is one of the most controversial points of all [. . .] The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”
Come on, you have to love how dramatic he gets there; I find myself smiling everytime I read that first line. Still, well said, Mr Orwell. Back to topic though, I just can’t help feeling that the bag just brews better without all the milk getting in the way. Another key point is that the water needs to be boiling to make the perfect cup of tea – cold milk reduces the temperature and thus decreases the tea’s brewability (yep, pulling out the scientific vocabulary here) and so there’s plenty of arguments for the BIF School. Following on from this point, I have to say, somewhat ashamedly, that I go so far as to re-boil the kettle if I miss it just when it’s boiled – this has driven housemate’s of mine insane in the past – all to make sure that I get the water as close to that holy 100 degree point as possible. Orwell again had some advice of his own here, recommending you always bring the cup to the kettle and not vice versa to ensure the water doesn’t have time to cool (and you thought making tea was as simple as bag, boil, pour . . . for shame!)
The final point of consideration is how long to brew the tea for. This has to be a matter of taste but, personally, I tend to give the bag a couple of stirs and then leave it in the cup for about two minutes. Then I’ll pour in the milk and give it an extra stir if I pour in too much. I do, it has to be said, favour strong tea and friends of mine have compared it to gasoline in the past (yeah, for some reason it warrants the American term because, let’s face it, it just sounds so much filthier than “petrol”). Again, I have to reference Orwell, who wrote that, “All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.” Now did you know that interesting nugget of history?
Which brings us onto bags. I’ve been a Yorkshire Tea man myself, well, for most of my twenties anyway, but I’m not too anal about this. I’ve definitely had a good cup o’ Tetley before and the Twining’s English Breakfast is always good if left to brew that little bit longer. You can keep your fancy herbal teas because for me, tea is about the only thing that gives me a spark of patriotism: British brands all the way. One final note on this topic: Yorkshire Tea have been doing a “Hard Water” brand; I live in Oxford which is in the hard water region and, after using both versions, I can honestly say there’s no real difference. So, after spending a month or so on the hard water version, I’ve reverted back to the normal because – in fairness – it’s cheaper.
That’s about all I have to say on the topic. If you’d like to read more then check out Orwell’s essay, which is in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45.
Other interesting bits of advice he gives are: use a pot (though who really has time for one of those, these days?); use a cylindrical cup and not the low cup type (this is apparently because they keep the heat in for longer but, unless you’ve got a bus pass, you’re probably drinking tea from a mug anyway) and lastly, drink tea without sugar “. . . how can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it?” Orwell grumbles.
So there you have it. If I’ve not swayed you in any way I at least hope to have shown a few people that George Orwell could be a pretty down-to-earth guy . . . well, kind of . . . capable of taking a break from dystopia to talk about quaint old lovely tea.
Thanks for reading and take care.