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I'm a Little Teapot


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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 07:37 AM

hspace="8" align="left">by Tim Hayward

My first memory of ‘eating out’ was of tea. I attended a Prep School with pretensions, one of which was classes on a Saturday morning. My Father, who’d attended the same baleful dump with rather more relish, would pick me up at lunch time and, as a treat, take me to the Docks to drink tea and watch the sand dredgers at work. There was a stall built into a railway arch that served the traditional array of artery cloggers and ‘made’ tea. As recommended by Soyer, Beeton and the British Army Catering Corps Field Manual, milk and sugar were already added and the whole kept piping hot all day. (God, I hope it was just the one day.) The dockers had it in what appeared to be huge old jam jars. There was a selection of mismatched mugs for visiting gentry, but I’m sure the proprietor thought ‘the cup’ was an annual football match.

I can still see the deep oxblood red colour, taste the mysterious milk that came in crown-top bottles and feel the way the tannin made your teeth squeak and your tongue roll up. I’d still take a jam jar full of that in place of any perfectly brewed single-estate tea with honeyed champagne notes and a light smokey nose.

Above all, though, I remember the pot. It was made of aluminium and had two handles, one in the regular place and another riveted above the spout. This was so the retired stevedore who ran the place could lift it off the gas ring and pour with it. He was a gigantic man, but then the great Valhallan pot was big enough to have contained a coiled child.

Somebody suggested the other day that I could make excellent tea with good loose leaves and a Bodum cafetiere. It was a brilliant idea. No bags, no strainers, no fiddling around with warming the pot and stirring thirteen times clockwise, just a few spoonfuls of top-notch Darjeeling and a leisurely push on the piston. It was a heartbreaking experience. The liquid that flowed into my cup was perfect in flavour and presentation and utterly without emotional or cultural resonance.

This is a problem. Tea is emotional and cultural resonance -- in a convenient liquid serving. There have been many attempts to imbue it with the baggage of connoisseurship. Yet, no matter how carefully you cup, swill, nose, honk and spit, when it finally comes down to it nothing is as moving as a hungover cup of ‘builder’s’ in a greasy spoon when you haven’t been back to your own to bed; the cup that comforts after an emotional upheaval; the cup that makes up after a ferocious row or the tiny bone china cup with your Grandma.

The British rituals of tea might not match the Japanese for calm elegance and poise, but the ingredients, the process and the equipment are just as burdened with solemn significance. The vessel from whence the cuppa is poured is the key object in the British kitchen. Once the right pot is found it should be protected more jealously than your honour. A 'good pourer' with a properly built up lining of tannin and a spout that doesn't drip is a jewel of great price. If it comes with a cosy knitted by an elderly relative then you are thrice blessed.

For many people, the ‘proper’ teapot is the Brown Betty. It is the teapot a child would draw, the ur-teapot, the sixth Platonic solid. A slipcast, red-ware beauty with a Rockingham glaze, made in the same Staffordshire factories since the days when Victoria had an Empire not a Secret. It crops up in bad war films more often than Alfie Bass, wielded by a brisk, competent WRVS volunteer, dispensing the original tea and sympathy to blitzed families and shell-shocked pilots. It appears in any café scene that needs to express higher social cachet than the urn.

Others favour the straight-sided enamelled pot, often equipped with that extra handle at the front for leverage when pouring tea in institutional quantities. You sometimes come across these beasts in antique shops and, though they look undeniably fetching in a kind of road-mender/tinker/bargee way I can’t love anything which so resolutely refuses to patinate.

My perfect pot is the Picquot Ware T6. My Mother had the first one as a wedding present at the beginning of the sixties. Hers is still going, though knackered. Mine was won at great personal cost in an extended negotiation with a man in Brick Lane Market and comes with the matching tray, milk jug, coffee pot and sugar bowl that my ancestors could probably not afford.

The pots are milled and machined, from a single casting, to such fine tolerances that they can be inverted without leaking. They were built by Burrage and Boyd: a Northampton aluminium foundry that had been making ‘non-electric vacuum cleaners’ throughout the thirties. They had the same, massive, over engineered quality of most British goods of the time, but with the added appeal of irony-free Deco streamlining. Manufacture of the pots was suspended during the war while the company turned out vital military materiel. That little detail adds the extra spoonful to the myth of my pot. It feels like pouring your tea from a bit of a Spitfire.

The T6 is made of ‘Magnailium’ an aluminium/magnesium alloy on which “a ‘silver like’ look could be obtained after polishing”. There’s something lovely about the pretension in that; the idea of buying something knowing that its very construction means an effort to maintain it. That implies either aspirations to gentility (right up there with polishing the front step and blackleading the grate) or servants.

I’m a devotee of the tannin deposits in a teapot. Flavour and, damn it, character, are built up in that tarry coat. On the other hand, the knowledge that the outside of my T6 need not look like a slowly oxidising galvanised bucket was a spectacular revelation. Within minutes of finding that last little detail on their website, I was in the kitchen plying the ‘Duraglit’ with such frenzy that a couple passing in the street stopped and watched me through the window. Granted, I must have looked like I was encouraging a genie to appear but the humiliation meant nothing to me as, with a final flourish of the glass cloth, I revealed the satin lustre of my restored pot.

If you ever ask a man about his watch or his car he’ll give you a wonderful line about how it expresses his character. I could never allow myself to be expressed as a vulgar red car or an enormous chunky diving watch. I am, I discover as I pour from my lustrous T6, a little teapot.

Tim Hayward is a freelance writer living in London, and former host of the UK forum. He publishes the newsletter Fire & Knives. Photo by the author.

#2 bavila

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 10:35 AM

Nice piece, Tim. I feel similarly about coffee. We've tried different brewing pots with Euro-chic names and come back to the beat up aluminum pot that I picked up at a garage sale. Boil the water in a kettle, pour it into the pot and let it drip through. Growing up my dad brewed his coffee (mom never drank it) in a similar enameled pot. We only get 4 cups (2 of our mugs) out of a pot, so it's not so great when we have guests, but it's an intimate little accoutrement to our morning routine, with a daily nod to dad.

Edited by bavila, 22 July 2006 - 10:36 AM.

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#3 The Old Foodie

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 01:22 PM

My Mum says a cup of tea cures everything. And - would her dementia permit it - she would specify that it would have to be the style of tea that has personal and cultural resonance, from a pot that could (would, and did) patinate.

Lovely piece. Thankyou.
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#4 H. du Bois

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 02:32 PM

Wonderful essay, Tim. You hit every note about this wonderful beverage. I had to replace my grandmother's brown betty with my own (a clueless roommate tried to reheat it on a direct flame), but I can still make a cup just as she served it to me and somehow feel as if she's still there. Resonance indeed.

#5 racheld

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 03:58 PM

How lovely--every nuance of tea, from the dainty cup to the workman's mug and back again. Every word connotes a lifelong love of the beverage, and you have a turn of phrase to convert any non-tea person on the spot.

I've been fascinated with tea in all its concepts and forms for all of my life, beginning with a most frustrating fifteen or so years in which good ole 40-weight iced tea was the ONLY incarnation under our roof. No one I knew drank "hot tea," the Deep South distinction between "tea" (with ice, sugar, lemon, etc., a daily drink in almost every household we knew) and the effete, strange brew taken only by Northerners, the British in literature and film, and a very few, VERY odd local citizens whose morals and tastes were in question on general principles anyway.

Only when I conquered the kitchen, learning to cook so well that my Mother passed the torch before I left High School, did I venture to prepare a pot of tea destined for anything other than the big cut-glass pitcher for the suppertable. Tea was always made IN a teapot, but could just as well have been steeped in a boot, for all the lasting effect or aesthetic appeal. Poured over ice and quaffed from huge heavy goblets, it became the vernacular "house wine of the South," served at a minimum of two meals a day.

Even as a teenager, I longed for the IDEA of tea, the ceremony of it, the gentility and the charm. My meagre attempts at a proper tray, with a doily filched from the linen-press, were soon squelched by the indignant Mother who had crocheted said doily, with stern remarks about spillage and stainage. So I saved up, bought a little cutwork cloth, embroidered it with pale daisies, and "made do" with a ceramic pot, the sugar and creamer from the everyday set, and one of my Mammaw's one-of-a-kind handpainted cup-and-saucer sets, a dainty footed one with maroon flowers and gold trim, ordered by her from Sears for one dollar apiece back in the fifties.

And so, in those hot, long sunny afternoons, I would set the kettle to boil, arrange my tray with all the necessaries (bringing out a cup and saucer from the china cabinet should a friend be invited), and pour out. The conversation would sparkle, the tea would be a golden stream linking my teatime to other generations, and the ceremony would be all that I had dreamt and more. No pinkies raised, just a good honest cup of Lipton or Earl Grey (again purchased by me, just for my own consumption---my parents were still wary of the odd stuff) and a solitary delve into Austen or Trollope, Dickens or Poe, whilst the heat and the dust raged round the house. Perhaps a gingersnap or two, or on occasion, a little plate of bread-and-butter cut small, and my longings were fulfilled.

The beautiful of it will never cease to fascinate. We have hundreds of teapots, Halls and Fiestas and Harlequins and Imari and all manner of Made in England. I myself have passed the torch in the last few years, to a Granddaughter who loves the idea herself. Every time she comes to visit, we have a teaparty, squeezing our knees under her little pine table, lifting our small Blue Willow cups to sip air and call it delicious. For her I wrote the Fairy Tea poem, for her will wait the great number of beautiful pots and cups and the shining spoons.

I understand the heritage of tea, and have made it my own, despite the great amount of time it took me to get there. And we still have the pitcher of iced at suppertime---best of both worlds.
Fairy tea has its own magic, for it never does run out;
And the flavour you imagine will come streaming from the spout.
Fairy Tea

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LAWN TEA

#6 judiu

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Posted 22 July 2006 - 07:40 PM

How lovely--every nuance of tea, from the dainty cup to the workman's mug and back again.  Every word connotes a lifelong love of the beverage, and you have a turn of phrase to convert any non-tea person on the spot.

I've been fascinated with tea in all its concepts and forms for all of my life, beginning with a most frustrating fifteen or so years in which good ole 40-weight iced tea was the ONLY incarnation under our roof.  No one I knew drank "hot tea," the Deep South distinction between "tea" (with ice, sugar, lemon, etc., a daily drink in almost every household we knew) and the effete, strange brew taken only by Northerners, the British in literature and film, and a very few, VERY odd local citizens whose morals and tastes were in question on general principles anyway.

Only when I conquered the kitchen, learning to cook so well that my Mother passed the torch before I left High School, did I venture to prepare a pot of tea destined for anything other than the big cut-glass pitcher for the suppertable.  Tea was always made IN a teapot, but could just as well have been steeped in a boot, for all the lasting effect or aesthetic appeal.  Poured over ice and quaffed from huge heavy goblets, it became the vernacular "house wine of the South," served at a minimum of two meals a day.

Even as a teenager, I longed for the IDEA of tea, the ceremony of it, the gentility and the charm.  My meagre attempts at a proper tray, with a doily filched from the linen-press, were soon squelched by the indignant Mother who had crocheted said doily, with stern remarks about spillage and stainage.  So I saved up, bought a little cutwork cloth, embroidered it with pale daisies, and "made do" with a ceramic pot, the sugar and creamer from the everyday set, and one of my Mammaw's one-of-a-kind handpainted cup-and-saucer sets, a dainty footed one with maroon flowers and gold trim, ordered by her from Sears for one dollar apiece back in the fifties.

And so, in those hot, long sunny afternoons, I would set the kettle to boil, arrange my tray with all the necessaries (bringing out a cup and saucer from the china cabinet should a friend be invited), and pour out.  The conversation would sparkle, the tea would be a golden stream linking my teatime to other generations, and the ceremony would be all that I had dreamt and more.  No pinkies raised, just a good honest cup of Lipton or Earl Grey (again purchased by me, just for my own consumption---my parents were still wary of the odd stuff) and a solitary delve into Austen or Trollope, Dickens or Poe, whilst the heat and the dust raged round the house.    Perhaps a gingersnap or two, or on occasion, a little plate of bread-and-butter cut small, and my longings were fulfilled.

The beautiful of it will never cease to fascinate.  We have hundreds of teapots, Halls and Fiestas and Harlequins and Imari and all manner of Made in England.  I myself have passed the torch in the last few years, to a Granddaughter who loves the idea herself.  Every time she comes to visit, we have a teaparty, squeezing our knees under her little pine table, lifting our small Blue Willow cups to sip air and call it delicious.  For her I wrote the Fairy Tea poem, for her will wait the great number of beautiful pots and cups and the shining spoons. 

I understand the heritage of tea, and have made it my own, despite the great amount of time it took me to get there.  And we still have the pitcher of iced at suppertime---best of both worlds.

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Rachel, what a lovely poem that is! I had thought it a quote, and wondered at the attribution; I apoligize that I didn't recognize it as an original!
"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

#7 Dave Hatfield

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Posted 23 July 2006 - 12:30 AM

A true tea story.

Some years ago a goumet friend of ours & his wife were visiting us in England. My English wife offered him tea, but he was reluctent to have any as he said he didn't like it. Turned out that his greek mother gave him tea as a curative whenever he had a stomach upset as a child. The momories had lingered on.
My wife said let me make you some proper english tea & see what you think of it. Well, he loved it & we drank a lot of tea during the rest of the visit.

Then the next afternoon he asked Linda why she didn't make her tea in a silver pot since that's how they did it at the Dorchester & other fancy places he had been to. Her reply was that it didn't taste as good and that 'proper' english tea was always made in china, not silver. She said it doesn't matter how expensive or posh the china is, but good tea MUST be made in china. He's a dogmatic sort & continued the discussion until finally Linda told me to go out to the garage & get Grandma's silver tea service out of it's box. He was a bit nonplussed by the fact that we didn't even have the silver service unpacked.

Anyway Linda set up a blind taste test. Two pots made identicially, one in silver the other on our ordinary china tea pot. You guessed it! He could tell the difference & he did prefer the tea made in china. Argument over!

The kicker to this story is that our friends went onto Vienna where they bought a beautiful china tea service. We didn't know this until some months later when we visited them at their home in Utah. He brought out the Viennese tea service which he's been saving & asked Linda to make the inagural pot. He then observed very carefully & got her to write down in detail how to make tea.

We still send them tea from Betty's Tea Room in Yorkshire from time to time.

I've always loved the mystique of teat & tea making around the world.

#8 suzilightning

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Posted 25 July 2006 - 03:53 PM

wonderful essay - perused as i drain my cobolt blue Rockingham...
The first zucchini I ever saw I killed it with a hoe.

Joe Gould
Monstrous Depravity (1963)

#9 aliénor

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Posted 28 July 2006 - 04:20 PM

tim--your essay on tea brought back some wonderful memories. in 1967 we were living in oxford and i went to the nuffield maternity home to deliver our third son. as an american i was unused to the english ways, but things went well. after the delivery the "sister" came over to me and asked me if i wanted a cuppa. i am not a coffee drinker so the offer of tea sounded wonderful. she handed me a cup of the darkest reddish brown tea i have ever seen and then poured in lots of milk and adderd several spoonfuls of sugar. it was the very BEST cuppa i have ever had. i tried for some time to duplicate,but to no avail. i now drink various black teas which i order, but sadly never have i duplicated that tea. so i will always cherish my special cuppa in memory only. :smile:

#10 Irenesh

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Posted 13 September 2009 - 01:00 PM

aliénor - there must be something special about the first thing that enters your mouth after such a powerful experience. It may have made the special flavor you could not reproduce again.