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Friday, June 28, 2013

Taking Tea with Ms. Stuart innocuous infusion of the cured leaf of the camellia sinensis tree in hot water.

Hard to believe that this simple leaf has been the cause of wars and was once so priceless it had to be stored in locked cabinets. It is synonymous with the British and the Chinese cultures and the tea ceremonies of Asia, particularly Japan, are complex and fraught with significance. Many a family problem is sorted over a "good, strong cuppa" and it is produced in times of stress and emotion to calm the nerves.

Writing stories set in the seventeenth century means there is little opportunity to introduce tea drinking* (as it did not come into Britain until the 18th century) but in GATHER THE BONES, set in 1923, tea makes a frequent appearance.

I am, of course, anglo saxon in my origins and upbringing. Tea, strong with a good slosh of milk, flows through my veins. One coffee (fresh beans of course - I would die before I drank instant coffee again!) to start the heart in the morning and then a good cup of tea mid-morning and another in the afternoon. It is so much more than just a  drink. It is a punctuation mark in my day. A time to stop and reflect on how the day is going and what needs to be done next. It is a social first instinct on seeing a visitor at the door is to offer them a cup of tea.

My pantry groans with every variety of the good camellia sinensis and a selection of "fruit" and "herbal" teas but when pushed into a corner, I revert to a traditional black tea. Of late I have become rather fond of  Twining's (so called limited edition) Australian Afternoon Tea. It is probably just the sweepings of the floor with a fancy label but who cares, it hits the spot!

Even in British culture there are so many 'traditions' around tea...does one pre heat the tea pot? How many spoons (one per person and one for the pot)? Milk first and then tea or tea first and then milk (I tend to the latter)? Do you take the pot to the cup or the cup to the pot?  Personally I find the tea bag, stick it in nice mug and pour the boiling water over it, BUT I do love an occasion to bring out my lovely Villeroy and Boch tea pot or on high days, my silver tea pot (which pours like a dream).

My favourite tea pot
When I lived in Singapore, that curious blend of cultures eponymised by that small city state came to the fore. Every posh hotel had its own version of "High Tea", a hark back to the languid colonial days when the taking of tea, accompanied by a substantial repaste filled in the long hours of the afternoon and quelled the hunger pains before the formal evening meal (that often did not start until after 8.00 pm).

If it is travel advice you are after, I would advise you resist Raffles and its much hyped High Tea and go instead to the Shangri La Hotel (just off Orchard Road), where a tea menu is presented for your delectation and served in elegant Wedgwood china (also the food is better!).

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, I was a frequent visitor to a tea shop in Chinatown where the proprietor would, with great dignity, talk about the history of tea in Chinese society and take us step by step with the fine art of the Chinese tea ceremony (which involves much sloshing of water in great contrast to a Japanese tea ceremony where the slightest misplaced drop of water would be a disaster). At this tea shop, frequent visitors kept their own blends in a locked cabinet, somewhat akin to a humidifier in a cigar shop. A delicate yum cha always rounded off the visit.

I love my American friends but I am afraid that, culturally, I am yet to meet a decent cup of tea in America. This probably dates from the time someone suggested tea mixed with the water of Boston Harbor might make a heady brew and frankly most tea I have drunk in America still tastes like it has been made with the water of Boston Harbor. I have taken tea at the Grand Hyatt in Washington where the beautifully coiffed grand dames of Washington Society gathered, little pinkies poised (where did that idea come from?) over afternoon tea. Gasping for a decent cup, you can imagine my disappointment when my tea arrived on a well appointed tray with linen napkin and in a proper tea pot...accompanied by whatever white stuff passes for coffee cream, so beloved of the Americans. MILK, people, you drink proper milk with tea - NEVER cream and never, ever, powdered coffee cream!
The Boston Tea Party

On one of our visits to Washington we took time out to visit friends on a posting to the JAG school in Charlottesville. This particular friend is a most proper gentleman so fearing he may be mourning a good gin and tonic, we went stocked with Bombay Sapphire, which he accepted most graciously. With a long face, he said, if he had thought about it, he would have asked for some decent tea and produced from the pantry a packet of dried brown leaves which had the instructions for making tea in a coffee dripolator on the side. He quivered in indignation and I have to agree, having stayed in many American hotels, tea made with hot water from a coffee machine and drunk with powdered coffee cream is the devil's own brew.

So many many cups of tea: Japanese tea ceremonies, Nepalese tea, Russian tea (apparently the national drink of Russia...not vodka), army tea (was it really infused with bromide?), billy tea and damper...these I will save for another day.

It is such a social drink that Ms. Stuart has decided that she will invite her writer friends to partake in the occasional cup with her and discuss books and writing in a civilised fashion. Watch this space for my new column "Taking tea with Ms. Stuart..."
Anna Campbell

In fact Ms. Stuart is delighted that  best selling author and raconteur Ms. Anna Campbell has sent back her card and agreed to be the first to take tea with her. For delightful conversation and the sampling of the camellia sinensis, Ms. Campbell will be taking tea with Ms.Stuart on Friday 5th July. A Giveaway is promised...

All this talk of tea...and a quick glance at the clock reminds me it is time to partake of my morning beverage. Would anyone care to join me, and please if you have a moment, do share a short comment about your favourite type of tea or a tea travel story.

*Post script:  I did however get an opportunity to introduce coffee in THE KING'S MAN. Coffee first arrived in London in the early 1650s