Thanks to Maria Popova over at BrainPickings, I recently read a delightful article by George Orwell that discusses how to make "the perfect cup of tea." I'm posting the article below, or you could also read it on BrainPickings by clicking here.
This text was originally published in the Evening Standard on Jan. 12, 1946.
"A Nice Cup of Tea" by George Orwell, 1945
If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will
probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of
sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important
This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of
civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but
because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.
When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer
than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty
general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are
my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:
First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues
which are not to be despised nowadays--it is economical, and one can drink it
without milk--but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser,
braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting
phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities--that is, in a teapot. Tea
out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of
grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver
or Britannia ware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though
curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing
it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are
going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right.
In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of
the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak
ones. 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.
Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin
bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted
with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which
are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable
quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never
Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way
about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means
that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one
should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have
never noticed that it makes any difference.
Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot
a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup--that is, the
cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds
more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well
started on it.
Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk
that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most
controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are
probably two schools of thought on the subject. 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.
Lastly, tea--unless one is drinking it in the Russian style--should be
drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still,
how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your
tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or
salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you
sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar;
you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.
Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only
drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the
taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without
sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to
ruin your tea by sweetening it again.
These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea
drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has
become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot
(why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and
much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tea leaves, such as telling
fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and
sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the
pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing
out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly
handled, ought to represent.
Fiction, poetry, and all that good stuff . . .