Alimentary, My Dear
The Tao of Tea
By Tamia Nelson
July 10, 2001
Whether they're seated at the breakfast
table at home or squatting by a campfire back of beyond, most Americans
are coffee-drinkers, and I'm no exception. I drink less coffee now than
I did when I was a mineralogy student, but I still look forward to my
morning cup. During the rest of the day, however, I prefer tea.
This wasn't always the case. Until I met Farwell, I assumed all tea
was made by dunking little paper envelopes into cups of tepid water.
The contents of those envelopes always smelled vaguely of wet straw,
and the resulting beverage tasted much the same. I simply couldn't see
the attraction. When I heard the Brits described as a nation of
tea-drinkers, I had a hard time understanding how so many masochists
could survive being crowded together on a small, damp island in the
North Atlantic, with nothing but cups of tea to help them keep out the
chill. That seemed more than the human frame could bear.
Then Farwell showed me the error of my ways. This came as a
surprise. Farwell's not a
Foodie. He isor was, at any ratestrictly an
eat-to-survive type. But he somehow learned how to make a good cup of
tea early in life.
Curiously, he isn't sure just how (or when) this happened. He can
remember his father telling him, in hushed and wondering tones, of
British armored columns halting on the drive north through Italy to
"brew a cuppa," even as HE rounds from German 88s shrieked into the
muddy earth around their idling tanks, showering the huddled crews with
clods of earthand, occasionally, bits of their comrades, as well.
To the end of his days, Farwell's father was amazed at the strength of
the Brits' apparently irrational compulsion. And he remained a
Later, when the Marine Corps invited Farwell to become one of the
few and the proudit was an honor he simply couldn't
refusetea wasn't on the menu.
So the mystery remains. Somewhere between the age of ten and
twenty-five, Farwell learned how to appreciate the "cups that cheer but
not inebriate." And sometime after that, he taught me.
OK. Just how do you brew a good cup of tea? Here's one
recipe, adapted from the work of the sixteenth-century "father of the
Japanese Tea Ceremony," Sen no Rikyu:
Tea is only water, heated to a boil
And poured over leaves.
Make it with care and savor each mouthful.
That's all there is to it.
Stripped bare of all ceremonial embellishment and reduced to these
essentials, the brewing of tea is a delightfully simple process. But
this apparent simplicity conceals an unexpected richness of detail.
Let's examine each element in turn.
Tea is only water
"Only water"? To make a good cup of tea, you need cold, clear, clean
water. This can be surprisingly hard to find. The water that comes out
of the taps in many cities smells (and tastes) like it's drawn from a
municipal swimming pool. And drawing water directly from rivers and
lakes is almost never wise. In his history of the Krupp dynasty,
William Manchester notes that the waters of the Ruhr "pass through the
human body eight times" during their journey to the sea. While the Ruhr
is a special caseit flows through Germany's industrial
heartlandfew rivers anywhere in North America escape entirely
unscathed. Paper mills, mines, and communities without sewage-treatment
systems can be found in the remotest corners of the continent, as well
as in the most highly-regulated and heavily-populated states.
Spring water, on the other hand, is often delightfully cold and
clearif you can find a spring that hasn't been fouled by the
remains of someone's picnic lunch or contaminated by agricultural
run-off, that is. But is it also clean? Maybe. And maybe not. The only
universally-applicable rule is the one propounded by Colin Fletcher in
The Complete Walker: "If in doubt, doubt." And treat.
Unfortunately, the easiest and most effective water-treatment agent,
tetraglycine hydroperiodide (Potable-Aqua is one familiar brand-name),
imparts a distinctive flavor to water, even at the minimum effective
dosage of 0.5 milligrams of free iodine per liter. A warning: while
this dosage will kill pathogenic viruses and bacteria if given adequate
contact time, it won't touch encysted parasites. The remedy? Much
higher doses (as much as 16 milligrams of free iodine per liter) or
Tap-water being what it is, and certified springs being few and far
between, many folks now buy their drinking water at the supermarket.
But hauling bottled water with you really isn't practical on any trip
longer than an over-nighter. Happily, though, tea-making necessarily
involves boiling, and simply bringing water to a boil kills pathogenic
organisms, even at elevations as high as 10,000 feet.
heated to a boil
So bring your waterclear, cold, fresh waterto a rolling
boil. Just that, and no more. Water left to simmer for more than a
minute or two makes flat, insipid, characterless tea. Once steam issues
forth from your pot or kettle, lose no time in pouring it over your tea
And poured over leaves.
Leaves. Tea leaves. Not bags. Not herbs. (Herbal "teas" are
tisanes. These can be wonderfully refreshing, but they're not tea.) Tea
leaves. And where can you get leaf tea? Try your local supermarket
first. Lipton sells what they call "loose tea" in one-half pound
boxes. It's not badthink of it as the jug wine of teasand
it costs just about the same, cup for cup, as Lipton's bag teas. But
it's much, much better.
If you're feeling more adventurous, the sky's the limit. Local food
co-ops often have a good selection. Don't buy any tea that's been
packed in clear plastic bags and displayed on a self, though. Sunlight
and the odors of other foods will quickly destroy the character of even
the best tea. Buy only those teas that are packed in tins, retort
packs, or air-tight treated paper bags.
Your town doesn't have a food co-op? No problem. A quick Internet
search or a flip through the pages of any Foodie magazine will turn up
several international tea merchants. They'll be happy to supply your
needs, and then some. One catalog on my desk offers at least 200
varieties of tea, in packages ranging from 100 grams (3½ ounces)
to 1 kilogram (approximately 2.2 pounds).
Too much choice? Possibly. But it's not as bad as it seems. All
"true" teas come from one plant, Camellia sinensis. Differences
between teas reflect their place of origintea is grown in China,
India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, and Japan, and in several African
countries, as wellthe size of the leaf, and the nature of
post-harvest processing. Teas which are fixed by steaming shortly after
processing are called "green" teas. Other teas are allowed to ferment.
Those which ferment longest are "black" teas, while varieties
intermediate between green and black are styled "oolong."
I could go on at some length, but since you'll probably be happiest
making your own discoveries, I'll just tell you about three teas that
I've found good, both in the bush and back at home. First, there's the
Lipton "loose tea" I've already mentioned. It's cheap, widely-available
and perfectly satisfactory. Need I say more?
Then, for an after-dinner cup at the water's edge, give Earl Grey a
try. It's a blended, flavored tea, and there are as many Earl Greys as
there are tea merchants. Still, almost all of them are made from a
black tea base, scented with oil of bergamot, a flavoring derived from
citrus peel. It's not to everyone's taste, I admit, and it's not
something I'd choose for breakfast, but I find it goes down a treat at
the end of a long day. Maybe you will, too.
Lastly, when you're ready to begin your tea apprenticeship in
earnest, pick up one of the teas grown in the Darjeeling district of
northern India. With a characteristically subtle yet complex flavor,
darjeeling is sometimes called the champagne of teas, at least by
advertising copywriters. And it's available in a bewildering variety of
grades and types, both blended and "single-estate." Distinctions are
made between the first picking and later harvests (or first and second
flush, in the jargon of the trade), between teas with a lesser or
greater proportion of golden tips (the latter are said to be "tippy"),
and so on. It's all wonderfully esoteric. Indeed, if patience and
pocketbook permit, there's nothing to prevent a tea buff from competing
on equal terms with any wine snob. For the rest of us, however, even
brown-bag darjeeling makes a fine, bracing cup of tea. And that's the
Make it with care
How do you make a good cup of tea? Bring your water to a rolling
boil, and then splash a little into the pot to preheat itan
earthenware pot is best, but stainless steel and aluminum make much
more sense in the fieldswirling the water around in the pot and
then dumping it out. Next, measure a teaspoon of tea for every six
ounces of water that you'll be adding: use well-rounded teaspoons for
coarse, large-leaf teas like (most) Earl Greys, and slightly rounded
teaspoons for small-leaf teas like Lipton's or darjeeling. Put the
loose tea directly into the pot. Do NOT use a tea-ball or infuser. Now
pour vigorously boiling water over the leaves, put the lid on the pot,
and set it to one side. (If you're using a metal pot, wrap it in a
towel or shirt to hold in the heat.) Let the tea steep for three to
five minuteslarge-leaf teas usually require a longer steeping
timestir and pour. Use a stainless-steel mesh strainer to keep
tea leaves out of your cup. You're done! Sit back and enjoy a really
good cup of tea.
and savor each mouthful.
Chances are that you will. Leaning against a moss-covered rock at
the edge of a lake, watching the sun disappear behind a dense hedge of
spruce on the opposite shore, you'll find that the day's anxieties and
frustrations slide away. You may even begin to understand why British
troops risked their lives for a mug of tea on the road to Monte
That's all there is to it.
And it is, too. The Tao of tea. Anyone for a cuppa?
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights