Friday, June 04, 2010

All the tea in china?

By Jess Hodges

I recently visited a café in Edinburgh called Eteaket, where they serve those fantastic kinds of high teas that persuade people to give the more serious stuff a try and go some way towards redeeming the English as a nation. The tea comes accompanied by an egg timer so you know when it's been steeped for the appropriate time and is served in a joyously miss-matched array of old fashioned cups and saucers. Eighty percent of the tea I drink comes from the shotgun marriage of a bag and a mug so I found it fascinating to take a more traditional approach. It made me think about 'tea' as in the event rather than the beverage and wonder how easily I could go about adding the production value back into my daily cuppa.

My first port of call was one of Edinburgh's lesser known institutions, the charity shop. The city is full of them and they're all packed with wonderful finds and stock a dazzling array of second hand crockery. It took me all of thirty seconds to find a pair of floral bone china cups and saucers to go with my teapot at home. If you're buying second hand china give each piece a sharp tap with your finger, if the resulting note rings out then the piece is free of hairline cracks and faults, if the noise is more of a dull thud then put the piece back, it's already damaged. If you hold a saucer up to the light and can see the shadow of your hand through it then it's bone china. There are a multitude of different symbols and makers marks used to identify antique china; I got as far as nineteenth century with mine before giving up. If you have a piece you'd like to identify then this site is a good start but I'd recommend a trip to your local library for a more thorough analysis.

Having returned home and set out my tea pot next to a cup and saucer at least a hundred years older than me I could already feel something of a sense of occasion. I was instantly tempted to raid the cupboard for something appropriately special but the idea of this experiment being to enliven my routine tea drinking I managed to restrict myself to a bag of Twinning's everyday so as not to bias the results.

Pouring myself a cup of tea felt like a real treat, though I'm afraid my quest for a milk jug that doesn't drip must continue. I found myself sitting up straighter in my chair, images of Victorian ladies in London hotels coming to mind. My new cups hold roughly a third of the volume that my usual mug takes so I was forced to spend time over my tea whilst in the same instance having to finish each cup fairly quickly before the thin china allowed all the warmth to seep away. At a rough estimate it tripled the time it took me to drink the volume of tea held by my usual mug. Overall I enjoyed the experience but was worried about how time consuming it could be if multiplied across the entire day.

The results of my experiment being intriguing but so far inconclusive I invited a friend over for tea and tried again. This was definitely a resounding success. The pretty cups were a talking point and constant sips interspersed with the clink of china and the show of pouring the tea made the table feel busy and exciting. It's definitely a chatty way to drink tea, leaning forwards and getting involved rather than sat back in your chair cradling a mug, the presence of all the different pieces turning it into an event rather than an accompaniment. It's an experiment I look forward to repeating, strictly for scientific rigour of course.

And my findings? Charming, is I think the appropriate word, it's a charismatic way of imbibing. It is a style of tea drinking I would definitely recommend, in the evenings at least, if it's not always practical in the mornings and definitely to the exclusion of all others in the company of friends. I think the lady who sold me the tea cups summed it up quite nicely, “It's so nice to meet a young person who still appreciates these things.” I would urge everyone to dig out those forgotten pieces of china and sit down for a good session of tea appreciation.