Tea in the Middle
There are at least two quintessential essays on tea by British authors. The one is called Tea and is by Douglas Adams, the other A Nice Cup of Tea by George Orwell. Adams was proselytising tea to an international audience, and preferred Earl Grey and the milk-first method. Orwell was more explicit, outlining eleven rules to the perfect cuppa, and advocating Indian and Ceylonese teas with the milk-last method. Since they wrote, it's been proven by Science™ that the milk-first method likely preserves the flavour of the milk better, but the milk-last rationale of being able to judge exactly how much tea to add still stands.
But I have another, more controversial, method to suggest: put half the milk in first, then adjust it to the right level afterwards. This way you get half the benefit of the enhanced flavour of milk-first, and all of the benefit of being able to ascertain the exact level of milkiness from the milk-last method. I think I've seen this done before, so I can't take credit for it, even though it seems to occur mainly as a byproduct of underestimation on the behalf of milk-first exponents. I ought admit here, also, to usually being of the milk-last persuasion.
As for types, I'm not too fussy. Even generic (what does that word even mean anymore?) teas will do in the absence of a real tea, but one should aim for a Darjeeling, Ceylon, or Assam and the like if possible. Darjeeling at its finest is like champagne, and approaches the specialty Chinese Fujian province white teas and the Japanese Gyokuro for its taste. Ceylon, especially when you haven't had it for a while, always tastes like tea should do, as if it's just raw tea, but should be savoured as a treat rather than be used as a regular tea. Twinings's blends are good, and I'm partial to their English Breakfast, for example.
But one thing I must insist on is no flavouring. If you're going to go for a scented tea, then go all out and get a chamomile or similar. But Lapsang Souchong (or Lapdog Shoesnog as Stephen Fry called it) just isn't right, and, to be really controversial, Earl Grey is practically an abomination with its oil of bergamot. If I wanted washing-up liquid in my tea, I would add it myself. For the specialty, white teas, nothing should be added at all, including milk. Orwell says that adding sugar soils even regular tea, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Oddly, although Earl Grey was first blended around 1830, Orwell doesn't comment on it except to say that there is "not much stimulation" in Chinese teas, which Earl Grey is legendarily said to have been at first though many other varieties have been used since. Though Adams's favourite tea was Earl Grey, I very much agree with him that the water must be boiling when it meets the leaves.
The disagreement over the correct way to prepare tea may be daunting to an outsider, but of course the best way to settle the matter is to experiment with it yourself. And just as the love of tea is a main stay of civilization, as Orwell puts it, in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, so is the quarreling contention that surrounds it. It just shows how important it is.
Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Tea in the Middle", in: What Planet is This?
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