It is hard to find a tea addict. We all know coffee addicts, of course. I have friends who cannot bear to face the new day until they have stopped at Barista and fortified themselves with litres of overpriced coffee. And I know people who will stare emptily into space until they have drunk cup after cup of strong coffee and watched the life return slowly to their bodies.
But tea addicts ? That’s a much rarer breed. When I was young, my parents would speak admiringly of their friend Krishna Menon, once India’s defence minister and later, a stormy presence on the sidelines of the political scene, who would sustain himself without any food, and without any sex ( as far as we could tell), content to live on a diet of political invective and endless cups of very strong tea.
By the standards of his day, Menon was a tea addict, the sort of man who needed a gallon or so of the stuff to get through the day. And yet, by today’s criteria, we would question his status. After all, he was not choosy about the tea he drank. He mixed it with milk and sugar (which made up for the virtual absence of any solid nourishment in his diet) and he treated it like a food, rather than a drink. My guess is that he liked the caffeine fix (tea has much less caffeine than coffee but drink enough and the drug will kick in anyway), needed the sugar and enjoyed the sense of continually sipping at a warm liquid while he railed against the evil United States of America, propounded the virtues of non-alignment and told us that the Soviet Union was India’s true friend.
These days, we have learnt to get more snobbish about tea. We still don’t have an equivalent of coffee snobbery where high prices are paid for any coffee which says Jamaican Blue Ridge Mountain on the packet, though this apparently straightforward term covers a multitude of beans of different quality. And despite the best efforts of the tea business to get us to prize the single plantation top quality teas (Castleton, Makaibari etc.) the average punter has resolutely refused to buy the line that the top plantations of Darjeeling are the tea world’s equivalent of the great vineyards of Bordeaux.
Most of us don’t even drink the great teas of India – the ones that fetch the highest prices at auctions. Nor do we understand anything about the process by which tea is made. How many of us know for instance that the bulk of all tea drunk in India is not orthodox but a cheaper version made by a semi-industrial process called CTC ?
The trouble with CTC tea is that it makes for s sharp, slightly nasty, liquor. To make it palatable, you have to add large quantities of milk and sugar. But most Indians like strong, sharp CTC teas, the sort that are cooked at chai dhabas all over the country.
It would be too snobbish to say that the average CTC tea represents a taste abortion – after all, millions of Indians enjoy it everyday. But consider this : nobody who is in the tea business or drinks tea professionally would dream of serving CTC at home. They would prefer the real thing – orthodox tea.
A professional tea taster would drink his tea on its own, without milk or sugar. Others, who enjoy good tea, but lack the stark discipline of the full-time taster would prefer it with a dash of lemon and just a little sugar. Nobody who really enjoys tea will bother with milk.
I do not know enough about tea to claim to be any kind of expert. But I have to say that I drink it all day. I start my day with several cups of a good leaf tea (usually from Darjeeling tea) with the slightest flavour of lemon and then, I end up drinking another four cups in the course of the day. Each evening I drink at least three large cups before bed. And if I am writing late into the night, then I fortify myself with endless cups of Darjeeling tea.
There are no tea bags in my house for two reasons. One : the worst tea goes into the bags. And two : to get the full flavour of tea, you need to let it brew for at least four minutes. This is difficult to do with tea bags. Most of us dip the bag into the water a few times and when the liquid in the cup has changed colour, we take the line that the tea is ready. In fact, the real flavour of the tea has not even begun to come through.
I like Chinese tea too. Essentially, this is green tea or tea that has not been fermented to make the black tea that we normally drink in India. It has a lighter colour and a fresher taste and you drink it on its own, without lemon, milk, sugar or anything else at all.
In China and Japan, the blending of green tea is an art by itself. The Japanese treat tea-drinking as something akin to a religious ritual and in China, the best teas are artisanal varieties, grown on small plantations and sometimes flavoured with flowers (the most famous of which is jasmine) and blended by hand.
Many people in my office prefer green tea (or Chinese tea as it is most often called) because it is light and fresh and I find that increasingly, when you offer visitors a cup of tea or coffee, they will take the green tea option over normal Indian packaged tea or instant coffee.
When I stay at hotels on my travels, I find it increasingly difficult to find good tea (the Bombay Taj which has an extensive tea menu is a notable exception) and am stuck with tea bags. In these circumstances, I find that the best option is usually Earl Grey. Because Earl Grey is essentially a flavoured tea, scented with oil of bergamot, the quality of the tea itself (ideally a mix of Indian and Chinese) does not matter too much. If you want an acceptable cup of tea bag tea, it is hard to go wrong with Earl Gray. (The name comes from the legend that the Earl Gray procured the recipe from a Chinese mandarin in 1883.)
Over the last few years however, I have become increasingly partial to herb teas. The name itself is something of a misnomer because they should contain no tea at all. In the old days they were called tisanes and were popular on the Continent. (Remember how Hercule Poirot used to always order a tisane before bed-time?)
But because the word tisane is regarded as too pretentious for English-speaking markets, they tend to be called herb (or herbal) teas these days. They are usually composed of dried herbs and flowers and are made in the same way as normal tea.
Most herb teas will claim medicinal properties and while the scientific evidence is mixed, my personal experience suggests that there is something to the claim.
For instance, camomile tea, made from dried camomile flowers, does tend to induce tranquil sleep. Peppermint tea (there are also spearment and plain mint) helps with digestion. Bergamot tea can save as a good pick-me-up. And though various aphrodisiac properties are claimed for ginseng tea, I have to say that the box I brought back from Korea has proved to be innocuous enough. (Perhaps it is just me).
When I first started drinking herb teas, they were hard to find and I had to buy them in bulk when I went abroad. Now, you get imported herb teas at nearly every good grocer’s shop and most hotels and restaurants will serve camomile tea at the very least.
Herb teas are of course the healthy alternative. And normal tea is less healthy. But, no matter how much tea you drink, there are no ill-effects; none of the caffeine rushes you associate with coffee and none of the manic behaviour that too much coffee can induce. And as long as you don’t drink it with milk or sugar (you can use Zero or Splenda or a similar sweetner), tea can be the perfect low calorie drink.
But the best reason for drinking tea is not good health or weight loss. It is taste. Indian wine is so-so. Indian coffee is disgusting. Indian spirits (whisky, gin etc.) are revolting. Only in tea do we have an indigenous drink that is world class.