Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"tea's up!"

When I was small I was fascinated by my nan's tea ceremony. It wasn't strict and formal like the Japanese kind - it was far more familiar and comforting to watch her brew her cuppa.

First she'd boil water in the kettle and get her old dented metal teapot with the hinged lid out. Then she'd pour a little boiling water into the pot to "warm" it, swirling it around and then pouring it out. Into the pot would go the tea leaves that were stored like a treasured resource in an air-tight avocado green canister (this was the 70's, after all). There was a formula to the tea leaves too; one heaped teaspoon for each person who was going to partake and then one extra - for the pot.

In would go the boiling water and on would go the tea cosy which kept the pot warm whilst the tea was brewing away inside. My nan used to crochet her own tea cosies with left over knitting wool. I thought they looked just like Joseph's amazing technicolour dream coat; only in miniature and with a decorative pom pom on the top!

Knitting or crochetting a tea cosy is quite the art form. You have to remember to leave a slit on either side of it to allow the pot's spout and handle to poke through, whilst the rest of it covers the pot and keeps the tea hot while its steeping.

The brew would sit and steep for at least five minutes and then out of the top drawer would come the strainer to sit beside the teapot on the tea tray, while nan got the teacups out. She'd die all over again if she saw me using a coffee cup to drink tea out of, as I occasionally do today and I understand why. A teacup holds the perfectly proportioned amount of tea and milk, a coffee cup always knocks those proportions way out and your tea ends up watery and sad. There's nothing like a proper teacup if you want a real cup of tea.

Nan's tea tray was always stocked with sugar in a china sugar bowl, complete with its own spoon and a small milk jug that Nan would freshly fill for every tea break. The tray always sat on the kitchen bench and was covered with a tea towel to stop the flies getting into the sugar.

Once everything was ready she'd pick up the tray and take it to the table. Arnott's Milk Arrowroot biscuits would be put on a plate and a small amount of milk would be dashed into each cup. She'd then hook the strainer over the teacup and pour out the the blessed brew. Her friends would kick their shoes off under the table and relax - it was only after that the most important part of the tea ceremony would begin - the conversation; which was the whole reason for taking a tea break in the first place. Local gossip, neighbour's news, scandal and rumour, world events and politics - they were all dissected and commented on in between noisy slurps of tea.

To this day, I've still never tasted tea that good - or heard gossip that juicy.

Afterwards, my cousin, my sister and I would fight over who would get to, "water the lemon tree" which meant taking the tea leaf dregs, still in the pot out to the garden; filling the pot with water from the tap and pouring the whole lot over the lemon tree's roots. Nan assured us the used tea leaves helped the tree grow and sure enough it seemed that way to us. Because of the tea leaf dreg fertiliser we poured so carefully over those roots of that tree every single day of our Summer holiday, huge yellow lemons would spring forth.

I guess armed with a dented teapot, Nan taught us recycling and a love of nuturing all at the same time - well, that plus the lesson that little pitchers have very big ears.. something I remembered when I had my own children and went to get the teapot out to have an excuse to gossip.

I miss my Nan and her tea ceremony.. I never realised back then how precious those moments would be, or I would've savoured every single one. Nan's been gone many years now, but she's left a keen legacy behind. I know how to brew an exceedingly good cup of tea from scratch and it's only my tea cosy crochetting skills that ever let me down.


  1. I've always felt a tinge of jealousy for people who grew up with a proper "tea time" experience. My grandmother would occasionally have a tea ceremony of sorts at random times, with weaker tea from tea bags and saltines to replace biscuits. Yet for some reason I instinctively put milk or cream in my tea from a very young age, much to the amusement of my family. Sometimes it's the simple things that leave the best memories. Certain blends of tea still take me back to those moments.

  2. Tea making is a dying art, I think. I remember when I went over to the US to meet Debra in Texas, she made sure I had tea bags at hand so I could have a cuppa.

    American restaurants can't do tea right.. they give you a tepid cup of water with a limpid tea bag floating in it.. so sad. Nan would be spinning in her grave.


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