The history of tea is an intriguing blend of rituals, strong opinions, and hierarchy. Whether you put the milk in first — apparently, the ultimate class betrayer since it suggests that somewhere in one’s background there was only sub-quality crockery available (say, a jam jar perhaps) that could easily crack with the shock of scalding tea — or you prefer it sweet and iced, it’s the humble drink that many of us will turn to automatically in times of misery, illness and polite introductions.
But the basic comfort of a cuppa goes way beyond this; tea is also a universal social “loosener.” Not in the same way as alcohol of course, but the very act of tea drinking can encourage sharing. One of my best friends in high school had a “cool mum” and much of this reputation was gained by her bringing up a large footed tray on post-pub Sunday morning sleepovers. She provided a fat pot of tea, thick slabs of toast and three china mugs. There was also a glass dome of marmalade, linen napkins and dark inky Marmite. As we gratefully poured, any teenage attitude fell away and this brilliant woman skillfully formed a composite picture of what we’d been up to. Without asking a single question.
Another favourite tea scenario also features a friend’s mother, interestingly, but this time from another culture. Every day after school, this wonderful woman — often resplendent in a turquoise and gold sari — would be smiling as she swirled freshly crushed spices into a saucepan brimming with hot milk and tea bags, steaming and fragrant as we came through the door. We then all sat down together — with a revolving selection of family members — and began sharing our day quite naturally, in the comfortably established ritual of passing spicy chick peas and ginger snaps, and sipping frothy Chai.
But perhaps the most epic cup of tea I have ever had — before or since — was delivered to me (pun absolutely intended) after I gave birth to my first son. As I struggled with tears of exhaustion, joy and pulsating anxiety (perhaps a heady combination of all three!) an older nurse appeared with a heavy gauge hospital tea cup and placed it beside me. As I began to shakily sip the scalding, sweet tea I began to revive and could feel myself unfold a bit.
“It’s just the thing, isn’t it?” she smiled, patting my hand. And my eyes welled up with her kindness.
I know and understand that tea drinking has since become quite trendy (and possibly less sentimental) and certainly, there are knowledgeable tea sommeliers ready to offer advice and samples. I bow to their expertise and appreciate the guidance in trying something new. But for me, the most valued and elusive infusion of all will always be derived from the tea makers themselves — because it’s the taste of caring.