I am a tea jenny, an old Scottish phrase that means I am a tea addict and very fussy about how my tea is made. (Growing up in Scotland, you drank either tea or whisky, and I was too young for the whisky.) My mother had a wood-burning fireplace in the kitchen, and the tea pot constantly sat by the flame. Tea leaves were thrown in and water was added all day. It made for a strong drink.
Coming to Canada was a shock to the system for us tea drinkers. People threw a tea bag into a cup and poured water over it. What a disaster: No taste and the tea cooled off in a minute. Now it has changed for the better in Canada, but the United States lags behind – tea does not have the respect there that coffee does.
So how do you make a proper cup of tea? First you need a kettle and a good clay or ceramic teapot, which has the best heat retention. For better flavour, warm the pot with some boiling water and discard. The pot is now ready for you to add your tea and more boiling water.
For black teas, the water must be boiling to extract the essence of the tea. Hot water dispensers and not-quite-boiling water do not cut it. Green tea, however, needs a slightly lower temperature to ensure that it does not taste bitter; the perfect water temperature for this variety is 190 F. As for white tea, a slightly lower temperature is needed again, around 180 F; boiling water will kill the delicate taste.
Once the water has reached the correct temperature, immediately pour it over the tea bags or loose tea in a strainer in the teapot. Let it sit for four to five minutes for strong tea, three minutes for a weaker version.
Serve tea only in china cups or mugs, as other materials mute the taste. Plastic or paper cups are the worst.
As for milk, we were brought up adding it first, as it mixed better with the tea and cooled the tea slightly so as not to crack the china teacups. However, I noticed in Downton Abbey – authority of all things English – they poured in the milk afterward. Both are correct.
What tea to drink? I like a good black tea, such as English or Irish Breakfast, Assam or Darjeeling. Pu'erh, a fermented tea from Yunnan province in China, is supposed to be the best tea in the world. It commands a very high price for an aged version, which supposedly provides many health benefits.
Another trick to always brewing a perfect cup: Consider buying a kettle that has temperature settings for different teas – you will never go wrong.