Tea Story

Tea Story


He turned the tap 60º anticlockwise and the water poured comfortably into the kettle with barely a splash thanks to its special shape. That had been one of the features that had convinced him to buy this particular kettle, rather than any of the others. It was supposedly shaped like a pear, which gave it extra stability and enhanced ergonomics according to the information on the side of the box, but he wasn’t too sure about the ideal ergonomics of a kettle, so tried not to be persuaded by the description of this questionable characteristic.


When he’d calculated there was sufficient water in the kettle, he turned it off firmly, making sure it didn’t drip because he’d had a lot of trouble lately with this leaky tap. It was probably just a question of changing a washer but he didn’t know how to go about that and yet it seemed too small a job to call in a plumber. Turning the tap off as tightly as possible was the short term solution, which was the only kind of solution he was interested in when it came to taps.


He plugged the kettle in and flicked the small round switch near the base. It made a pleasant, satisfying clicky noise. A friendly red light came on. He listened hard to see if he could hear any activity. It seemed to be taking a long time to heat up. He opened the lid of the kettle and observed little bubbles forming on the element and rising to the surface. Satisfied that the kettle was performing adequately, he put the lid down again.


It was the first time he had used this kettle. He’d bought it the evening before, suddenly, almost impulsively, on realising that his old faithful kettle no longer boiled the water to his satisfaction It took too long and lately he’d noticed a bizarre brackish taste, possibly on account of the all-too-evident fur that lined the whole thing. He had been wondering about buying a new one, but kept putting it off, until yesterday evening, at about half past six, when he felt something like an urge to buy a new one. He just knew it was the right time, the right day. It was the right decision. In the shop he had to choose between several models, and he felt stupid wasting time weighing up the pros and cons of kettles, as though they were cars or cameras. Almost recklessly, he chose the most expensive one, which was perhaps too big for his needs, but its quaint pear shape was striking and he thought it would look good in his kitchen, just standing there next to the Bauhaus-like bread bin. People would come into his kitchen and say, “Ooh, what a nice kettle”. He liked the thought of that; he ran through the scene in his head several times, with different people coming into his kitchen and remarking on his kettle.


After a few minutes, not long really, the kettle turned itself off with a loud, almost harsh click, the red light went out and the steam changed from a raging cloud to a lazy wisp. He had half-wished for a kettle that whistled when it was ready, but they told him in the shop that they no longer manufactured them and anyway they were only used for kettles that you sat on the hob, not for electric ones. He wasn’t in a position to challenge the shop assistant’s claim. He didn’t mind not owning a whistling kettle and could, in fact, imagine the inconvenience of the noisy whistling, for example if he were attempting to make a cup of tea in absolute silence, maybe so as not to wake up someone who was sleeping in the same room or a particularly light sleeper in an adjacent room. An elderly relative, a sick child, perhaps a guard dog, even. It was an unlikely scenario but, even so, it was a reason not to regret not being able to purchase a whistling device like the one his grandmother used to have, although he could hardly remember what it sounded like.


He poured a tiny amount of boiling water into the teapot, swilled it round and sloshed it into the sink. Swiftly, he spooned in some tea, added the water and replaced the lid. While he had been waiting for the kettle to boil, he had been pre-coordinating the necessary movements, anticipating which hand he was going to use for which action. Being ambidextrous called for such foresight. He held the tea in the jar with the lid off and inhaled deeply, loving the smell of the tealeaves. He never used tea bags, much preferring the magic of the loose leaves, which offered him greater flexibility when it came to gauging quantities and strengths. He prized the possibility of intervening in the tea-making process, at every level. He used a special spoon – it had been a present many years ago, or at least that’s what he told everybody but, in fact, he had stolen it from a restaurant in London. Every time he picked it up, he re-lived the thrill of purloining this distinctive stainless steel teaspoon. It had an obscure engraving on the handle, probably either the logo of the manufacturer or some indication of the restaurant which, as he recalled, was just off the Tottenham Court Road, but he had no idea of the name of the place, why he had eaten there or, indeed, what he used the spoon for. It was slightly bigger than the average teaspoon and its curious curvature meant it could accommodate about 20% more tea than would have been the case if he’d had to rely on a standard teaspoon.


The tea was his own blend of Assam and English Breakfast. He had performed a multitude of experiments before coming up with this 70%-30% blend. He kept the tea in small air-tight containers, glass jars with devious locking lids, inside airtight freezer bags, in the door of his fridge. Experts assured him that tea should not be stored in the fridge, but he had found that it kept better this way and had no discernible negative effects on the taste, as long as he remembered to take out the required amount of tea from the fridge twenty minutes before he needed to make it.


The inside of his teapot had a line engraved half way down. He had learned that for the amount of tea he wanted, he needed to fill the teapot to just above this line, something like the width of a pencil. After choosing and discarding half a dozen teapots, he had decided that his favourite was this aluminium one he had picked up in a junk shop for next to nothing because it was dented. Purists and snobs used to be horrified on beholding this teapot and insisted he use a glass one, a china one, even a plastic one, but he stuck to his guns. The tea that emerged from the spout of his cheap aluminium teapot was, in his view, far superior to anything that came out of a teapot made of any other material.


There are two schools of thought regarding the cleaning of a teapot and he had always wavered between them. One school teaches that teapots should never be cleaned, only rinsed, and not straight after being used but rather, just before they are used, so what is rinsed away is the tealeaves that were used for the last cup of tea. The result is that the teapot becomes impregnated with tea. This obviously affects the taste of one’s tea, which is the combination/interaction of the fresh tealeaves and the vintage tea which has fused into the walls of the teapot. The second school of thought holds that any tea left in the teapot is tantamount to dirt and, as such, should be scrubbed off, lest it should impinge on the fresh taste of the recently-added tealeaves.


One day, by chance, he stumbled upon the perfect way to clean off an accumulated layer of tea. He had left the teapot out in the midday July sun and, a few hours later, the incrusted tea had peeled off by itself. So he gave it a vigorous rinse under the tap (no scrubbing) and thus it retained a mature tea quality but without that bitter, almost inky taste that really filthy teapots can acquire, especially if they’re cracked china and haven’t been washed for over ten years.


He left the tea to stand for a few minutes. He used to leave it for over five minutes, but recently he found that four was better, although it clearly depended on the amount of tea in the water. He liked strong tea. This meant, in his opinion, that his tea had to be made with a lot of tealeaves, not simply leaving a small amount of tealeaves for along time, which stewed the tea and deprived it of all the freshness and the subtle volatility that makes tea what it is.


He gently poured a small amount of semi-skimmed pasteurised milk into the bottom of a cup. This cup was made of china and was the thinnest he could find. He had an aversion to chunky mugs, and preferred the delicate wide brim of a proper cup. A saucer, he had no time for. He pooh-poohed the argument about putting the tea in first or the milk. He had always incorporated the steaming brew in after the milk and had no intention of changing his ways. UHT milk was equally a non-starter, as was soy milk, almond milk, or anything else that called itself milk without being straightforward cow’s milk. He had been violently sick once, accidentally swallowing a mouthful of tea made with evaporated milk; his attempts to sue the tea stall were, however, unsuccessful.


He used a special spoon for the sugar. Unlike his tea spoon, this was considerably smaller than the average teaspoon and he used it for measuring out spices as well for the sugar needed for his tea. One level spoonful of sugar came to about two thirds of the volume admitted on an ordinary teaspoon. He usually put the sugar into the milk prior to the tea, but he wasn’t sure it made any difference. As always, he stirred the tea clockwise five times, then anticlockwise three times. He shook the spoon in the sink before rinsing it and leaving it to dry in the rack.


Once or twice he had experimented with brown sugar and even honey, but in the end he reverted to plain and simple refined white sugar. Other sweeteners added taste qualities to his tea that he did not welcome. On one disastrous occasion, he had been compelled to drink a whole cup of tea sweetened with saccharine; severe vomiting ensued, together with a vow to avoid any further contact with that obscene invention.


He picked the cup of tea up to smell it. He smiled and walked towards his favourite chair. 




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