The art of tea

On the US website Slate in early 2011, the late Christopher Hitchens advised that “US style of tea is best thrown away”.  In a complaint that will resonate with many travellers to the US,  Hitchen’s main gripe was that Americans seem to offer only cups of tepid water, with teabags served separately.  Indeed, I was once escorted – rather forcefully – from the kitchen of The Jefferson in Washington for offering an accelerated lesson to kitchen staff in the art of making tea.

Hitchens  provided a list of guiding principles, the most important of which is making sure that boiling water is added to the tea. “Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.”  Next, he insisted that your teapot be pre-warmed.  As for milk, “use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first.”

The question of whether milk should come first or last is one that has divided polite society for eons, as George Orwell observed in his 1946 instructions on making tea (Orwell is with Hitchens).

However, the science is now settled on this issue: as set out in The Tea FAQ (The definitive guide to tea) “…pouring milk into a cup of tea at near boiling temperatures will scald the milk (denaturing the proteins), giving your cup of tea an odd flavour. It is therefore best to add your tea to a cup that already contains the milk, much like tempering the egg base when making custard in order to bring it up to the proper temperature without ruining it”.

As with climate change, I’m siding with the science.

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