Warsaw: Wednesday 24th October 2012
It is perhaps something of a surprise that I should find myself writing in praise of the teapot. For without putting too fine a point on it, I am at best a born-again convert to the charms, civility and decency of both tea itself and its associated crockery.
Mine, you see, was not a teapot sort of family. I imagine that we had one somewhere, possibly an unwelcome wedding present from a well-meaning aunt, consigned from the outset of my parents marriage to the darkest corner of the Welsh Dresser, beside the lava lamp and his & hers bath robes. If we did have one it was probably binned years ago during one of my mother’s whirlwind bouts of minimalism. Certainly, I have no recollection of one ever making an appearance, even in a cameo role in one of our family drama’s and as far as I know it played no part in our day-to-day existence at any time.
And yet, it must have on some level. I have been aware of the existence of the teapot and what it’s function was for as long as I can remember. Not only that. I was also aware of the curious accoutrements which accompany a teapot. I have always been aware of the existence of the tea cosy, for example, and the tea strainer. I have always known that tea should be served in a cup with a saucer, that it is consumed, if such is your particular taste, with white rather than Demerara sugar and that there is some sort of obscure order in which milk must be added for optimal satisfaction.
I have been dimly aware of all of these curious practices, and as such of the unusual formality with which tea is consumed, since I was old enough to walk. From where has this knowledge come?
Well, certainly not from my mother. She has always been a modern person and as a modern person throughout the Nineteen Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and Naughties, she has drunk black coffee from a thin rimmed china mug, the design of which has changed with the passing decades to keep pace with whatever trends have dominated the family crockery line.
My Father did drink tea, although I don’t recall him always doing so. When I was younger, his choice of hot drinks appears not to have been much of a factor. Indeed, he may not have had one. It is likely that he occasionally consumed tea or coffee, but not in such a way as to arouse my infantile interest. Possibly I never saw him consume a hot drink. An early riser and ubiquitous traveller with work, he would have left the house before I rose and if he drank tea it would have been in the peace and tranquillity of a cold dawn light.
As I entered teenage years, I recall him developing a fondness for Earl Grey Tea, drank black, without sugar, from the same thin china mugs my mother favoured. There was no pot. He would simply pour hot water over the teabag in the cup, removing it with a small spoon and leaving it on a cork place-matt next to the kettle. Unknown to him this act would arouse years of consternation in our household after he had left for work. My mother rising after him would have to remove the cold brown blob of tea bag and deposit in the bin, an action she found distasteful and irritating. It is probable that it was her complaining about this daily ritual for the hundredth time that first arose my own awareness that a family member drank tea at all.
Or possibly, it was attending his office for a week of “Work Experience” when I was 15. I cannot recall much about what i learned that week, beyond what I learned about my father. For it was only then that was privileged to see my father’s own tea ritual played out in full.
He did not drink it immediately. Rather, he would finish his ablutions, combing his hair and putting on his tie, before leaving the house in the darkness, resting the hot cup on the roof of the car while he unlocked it and put his briefcase and jacket in the back. The cup would be removed and wedged between the hand brake and passenger seat while he applied his seatbelt, reversed out of the driveway, and negotiated his way to the main road. I recall this because he made a point of avoiding a small dip in the road as he approached the junction to leave our housing estate. At some stage he must have travelled over this causing his tea to spill and avoided it thereafter. To this day, my mother, who is less bound to commuting ritual when leaving the house routinely drives into this dip without noticing, causing the car to wobble in a barely perceptible but fluid spilling judder.
Later, he would have a car which contained a retractable cup-holder in the dashboard, beneath the radio, a development from which he gained what seemed a disproportionate level of pleasure.
And so, even without a teapot, my father had developed a complex sort of ritual. It is probable that he took his first sip at about the same point in the road every morning. Tea, it seems is that sort of drink in a way that coffee is not (at least in Britain).
And yet, as an adult, I have become aware that hot drinks have ritual significance across the globe and have developed a whole collection of accompanying technologies to assist in their preparation.
In Bosnia, where coffee is the national drink (some would say national pass time), the water is boiled in a copper handled open jug called a Dzezva (pronounced Jesva). When boiling, ground coffee is added and allowed to simmer just long enough for the grounds to fold into the liquid and descend to the bottom. It is then decanted into tiny, copper lined handle-less cups called Fildzan (Filjan).
The result is a deliciously strong drink, which is best sipped in small quantities. At the bottom of the cup, the grounds form a thick sludge, so downing the remainder is not recommended. I once watched a Bosnian Movie at a film festival. It concerned the war and the effect of that conflict on a village in which only women and children remained. The film dwelt visually on two rituals applicable to all the characters: the covering of their hair as per the lead protagonists Muslim traditions, and the preparation and consumption of coffee, which was seen to be the default ritual with which any fight, argument, hardship or gathering was rounded off.
Not for Bosnians, the milky convenience of a skinny latte to go. Coffee was a central act in their daily observance, while it performs no higher function than seasoning in the British daily experience.
Yet to foreigners, the British remain synonymous with the civilised consumption of tea. While it is rare on a British high street to see a tea room any more, you will find a Starbucks without great difficulty, and yet, this fact remains counter to our perception abroad. Indians and Sri Lankan’s, I have met, have expressed surprise that the tea drinking tradition which brought us to their countries and left them with is not carried out by the british with the same frequency they themselves observe it. Americans, I have spoken to, often have a faintly respectful idea of the British, that our voices are authoritative, our institutions quaint and historically significant and our age-old habit of drinking tea with the Queen on a Sunday alive and well (Okay, I exaggerate, but you get my point).
So where did the teapot die and why did I develop such an awareness off it before it did?
Well, I suppose my Grandparents may well have used a te pot, and may indeed have knitted a woollen jacket for it (the above mentioned tea cosy – a singularly crazy invention, which can surely have no discernible function beyond demonstrating the British talent for eccentricity). And I am sure I recall that my grandmother retained a curious wired, handled basket in the cutlery draw, which was designed to be suspended over a tea-cup and contain tea leaves, over which the hot liquid would be poured.
Yet be that as it may, even then, tea consumption from a teapot was dying out in my Grandparents house. At the side of their bed was an absurd contraption made of Bakelite called a teasmaid. Part alarm clock, part kettle, its function was to boil water before the alarm went off, allowing you the luxury of a cup of tea, the second you awoke. While giving the inventor ten out of ten for imagination, I have not seen one for many years and must assume that they have gone the way of the curly wired dial-up telephone as Bakelite inventions which flowered only briefly, if brilliantly.
Yet the teasmaid does provide a hint as to why the teapot may have become lost to British households, such as mine.
For the principal selling point of the teasmaid is really the same as that of the high street coffee shop. They may market themselves as providing rest and luxury, but in fact the common experience of most people is the opposite. Did my grandmother spend long lazy mornings in bed curled round a cup of freshly brewed Tetley? I rather suspect not. Without having been party to the domestic arrangements of my grandparents, my guess is that the first sip from a teasmaid made brew was taken in bed. The second was taken, only once they had got up, brushed their teeth and headed downstairs to the kitchen.
Similarly, while I can sort of appreciate the lifestyle statement made by the sitcom Friends in enjoying witty conversation over a milky coffee, my own experience of these places leads me to suspect that they are mostly encountered differently.
In the mornings, commuters on their last few steps to their workplace stop for a coffee ‘to go’, the intent being to have it at your desk as you switch on your computer. Such customers do not relax in the shop. They queue, check blackberries, sigh audibly and tap feet as they await the production of their chosen beverage, before skipping off to work, already consumed with the day ahead. The apparent luxury of days off, spent with friends in a coffee shop is anathema to them. They don’t even have the moderate luxury of a cup, required to consume their morning fix from a mass-produced cardboard cone. For them the coffee experience is the same as stopping at a petrol station. It is about fuel, not renewal.
Then there are the shoppers who come later. Surely they have the chance to sip a coffee in relative luxury, perhaps with a scone and jam or a biscotti? Well, some do, but even then, if my own experience in the Berkshire town of Newbury, a week or so ago, is anything to go by, the answer is that most arrive in pairs, laden like pack-animals with shopping or small children. One queues while the other arranges the coats and buggies, infants and plastic shopping bags into an inelegant pile on one of the chairs. Then they sit down together, and begin to talk, barely taking so much as a moment to savour the blended artistry of the Barista before launching into a continuation of the conversation, started ten minutes ago in Poundland or John Lewis’s.
I may have got these shoppers wrong, but my suspicion is that they are not indulging in luxury at all. There is no suspension of time or renewed room for contemplation. On the contrary the effect is one of mild, but temporary relief. They can loosen warm clothing, let the circulation back into their fingers, take a load off their feet. This is not Friends. This is the closing scenes of Ice Cold in Alex (only without the focus on the beverage).
And so we have it, the reason why the teapot has fallen out of usage, but also why it is so critical an impliment. And maybe, just maybe, we have a hint as to why it won’t ever quite go the way of the teasmaid; why, despite it all, the teapot may yet make a come-back and be central to our lives once more.
For the tea pot is about something which Starbucks or Costa or the teasmaid have never been about. They sell convenience and the illusion of stolen moments of luxury and contemplative relaxation. But the teapot does not need to sell those things. It sells ceremony, and ceremony, all ceremony, takes as long as it needs to take.
I am writing this from a coffee shop. As I type this I can hear the throaty sound of coffee being frothed. Yet I have a pot of tea in front of me; a delicious yellow coloured infusion with a hint of jasmine and lemon. I have not drunk any just yet. It has been sitting on a tray for the last three or four minutes, all white porcelain and expectation. Next to it is a small cup and saucer, a metal spoon and a small sachet of sugar, which I shall not use. There is something else as well. A small china ramekin, the sort of thing you might expect to find containing a Crème Brulee or a single soufflé. In a moment I shall lift the lid of the teapot and remove a plastic and wire strainer, containing the tea leaves, and place this into the ramekin. The infusion complete, I will pour, slowly tilting the pot a fraction to allow the liquid to pour in a perfect stream into the cup.
There is nothing which can be rushed about this process. The tea will not brew faster than it wants and will not pour faster than the teapot allows. At each step, your pace is regulated, slowed, your time elongated and renewed. In taking longer, you yourself begin to feel time slow, urgency dissipate, the world around you distil more clearly, into what is and what isn’t important.
It is hot, too hot to gulp. It requires to be sipped and in any case, anything more than a languid sip, will deny you the pleasure of the subtle blended flavours. It is a complex drink. It requires a moment to fully appreciate it.
And this is not even my favourite blend. That is a blend called Lady Grey, a delicious orange citrusy blend (a lighter variation of the earl grey, my father drank) which I drink at weekends in Riyadh.
But surely, this waiting, this taking time, this delicious procrastination, is the reason why we abandoned the teapot in the first place. Surely, this only serves to prove why it has to die. I think not. I think I see in tea drinking, in the teapot and answer for our troubled times. I think I see a future.
But there is plenty of time to get to that…
Firstly, allow me to point out that this is not an antiStarbucks or anticoffee post. On the contrary. I drink coffee and I use coffee houses myself. I am in one now. Nor am I suggesting that our fast paced lives are going to slow because I long for the teapot to make a comeback.
You will still be able to Bluetooth your friend the latest download while standing in the queue waiting for a spotty adolescent to ask your name and take your order for a macchiato, before cramming in a few laps of the pool and heading for a busy day at the office. Our increasingly atomised lives will go ahead as before.
I am not unduly partial to Starbucks, it is true, but only because, having had coffee in Sarajevo, Paris or Istanbul, allows me the luxury of deciding for myself that AngloAmerican coffee is a pale imitation of the varieties drank by other cultures. I have no moral objection to their market dominance or even their brand and style. If they sell illusions with their blueberry muffins, all the better. So do Ferrari and Vodafone and Louis Vitton.
Moreover, if two girlfriends want to take a break from the Christmas shopping to catch up about the time they spent together in Corfu when they were both young free and single, why should they not be allowed to take a load of their feet and do so in a Starbucks.
But just so long as we recognise that there will always be a place in our lives for a slower moment: a moment when it is not enough to dull our minds with alcohol or music, a moment when you let silence and serenity into your life for a few precious minutes. At such moments, the teapot is your friend. The tea ceremony is your vehicle; your passport to beverage Nirvana, a place where the harried, the put-upon, the down-trodden and the stressed can re-energize and realign, reawaken and re-focus. Renew, reward, restore and relax. The Teapot Revolution is upon us and we must take to the streets to proclaim the message; Friends, I have seen the future and it is shaped like a teapot!!!!!
I think I have just got time for another pot.