Food & Drink: What a brew-ha-ha

Don't think there's anything remotely simple about a nice cup of tea
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IF CHICKEN soup is Jewish penicillin, then tea is British aspirin. Whether you are suffering from a politically induced headache, or you have just been bitten by a rabid pit bull terrier, a nice cup of tea is prescribed. Ten minutes, and you'll be up to your old tricks again.

My Auntie May reckons she discovered the cure for cancer more than 30 years ago. Not only that, but she swore blind that a good cup of tea (dash of milk, two sugars) also made pre-menstrual tension disappear, alleviated the misery of gout, provided instant relief from lower back pain and was the perfect panacea for money worries, tiredness, depression and husbands. It does make you wonder what we did before tea came along.

Actually, we drank beer. Until the 18th century, the breakfast bever- age of choice was ale, and a sensible choice, too. There's nothing quite like a long glass of something alcoholic first thing. As you would expect, there were people who cried foul, refusing to accept that a pale brown liquid brewed from leaves could be more acceptable than a pale brown liquid brewed from hops.

In 1821, a certain William Cobbett wrote: "The drink, which has come to supply the place of beer, has, in general, been tea. It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious, that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well-known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases to shake and weaken the nerves." Tell that to my Auntie May. She would have said that Cobbett could have done with a nice, strong cuppa.

Tell that to Lu Yu, too, who laid down the instructions for a perfect Chinese cuppa in his Ch'a Ching (Classic of Tea), written around 800AD. Then water had to be brought from a slow-moving stream and heated in an earthenware vessel over a smokeless fire made from olive pit charcoal. As soon as the water boiled, it had to be poured into a blue and white porcelain cup, then emptied again before adding more boiled water to the required amount of tea leaves. To be absolutely perfect, Lu Yu stipulates that the tea should the drunk in the company of beautiful women in a pavilion next to a lily pond. Given that lily ponds are fast disappearing and a few compromises must be made to account for the passage of 1,200 years, I suggest you drink your tea in a cafe next to a carpark, a video arcade, or a Millennium Dome.

Even this is more realistic than the Japanese, who have managed to turn the simple act of tea-drinking into a painfully complicated theatrical ritual that makes Chinese opera seem like an easy-to-follow singalong session.

Everything about the Japanese tea ceremony is guided by strict rules, from the dimensions of the room in which the tea is served to the number of people present. Topics of conversation are tightly regulated, and each implement and vessel chosen for its artistic merit. The food accompanying the tea must be served in a certain order so that the texture, flavour, and temperature of every dish can be appreciated.

It's not unlike Auntie May's tea ceremony, really, where the room had to be a spotlessly dusted front parlour reserved for state occasions such as weddings and wakes. The number of guests was determined by how many pink floral cups with the tiny handles were left unbroken. The conversation had to be kept well within the confines of the weather, the climate, the maximum temperature and the long-range forecast. And yes, the food was served in a certain order - first came the scones, jam and cream, then the chocolate digestives, followed by the madeira cake, so that the texture, flavour and temperature of every dish could be fully appreciated. Tea, of course, flowed throughout, in a health-giving, disease- numbing stream. Mind you, she did eventually die, so it can't be that good for you.

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