counter on blogger

Pickle Me This

May 23, 2008

A Nice Cup of Tea

My first tea ceremony took place in a crooked Tudor house in the English Midlands, a sign outside indicating which seventeen century king had once stayed there. The tea was simple, Cream Tea, pursued mostly for the sake of scones and jam. Made with PG Tips pyramid bags, the tea steaming in its pot and too hot yet to drink so I prepared my scone– spread the Devonshire cream thickly, topped it all with a dollop of jam.

Such an initiation into Englishness was not at all lavish, would even have been austere if not for the jam and cream indulgence. But it was a sacred ritual undeniably, every element essential, from the currents in my scone to the teacup’s rattle in its saucer. To the reverence bestowed on that steaming pot of brew, steeped to perfection. Poured to be admired: a nice cup of tea.

Tea in England is remarkable for its permeation into ordinary life. While I lived there, I studied the soaps and I soon learned “I’ll put the kettle on” would be the first response in any crisis. I’ve always loved the news stories of power surges following pivotal episodes of Coronation Street or EastEnders, Britons rising from their sofas to put their kettles on at the very same time.

I was pleased, however, upon marrying an English man and becoming part of his family, to gain a view onto Englishness beyond the television’s. And though the soaps’ depiction of ordinary life turned out not always to have been accurate, the tea thing was spot on.

At my in-laws’, we partook in the tea ceremony eight to ten times a day. Without ornamentation, of course (scones and jam are special occasions), but the steaming pot stayed fundamental. Each day was constructed around its tea breaks, a cup taken with meals and then to follow them. Tea was the bedrock of our everyday, plus a pick-me-up in a pinch (“I’ll tell you what you need right now— how about a nice cup of tea?”).

When my husband and I moved to Japan a couple of years later, I was only vaguely aware of the Japanese tea ceremony, a thousand year-old tradition rooted in Zen Buddhism that is, like so much of the culture, hard to explain. Practitioners enroll at Tea Schools and study for years to become proficient both in the actual preparation of the tea and in the ceremony itself. They must also study calligraphy, flower-arrangement, the art of wearing a kimono, among other things.

As tea lovers, we were both interested in Japanese tea and with great enthusiasm, we’d soon prepared our own ceremony. Purchasing a round Japanese teapot and a big bag of green tea leaves, and of course we knew how to brew it— pouring on the leaves (we do like our tea strong), adding boiling water, and we waited for it to steep.

When the time came, we poured our tea into mugs and sipped, not even tentatively. The bitterness was troubling but, trying for cultural sensitivity, we ignored it. And even after we realized the tea made us sick to our stomachs, we continued to make it. Reminding ourselves of the health benefits, that we’d get used to the taste, and as Japan was where we lived now, stiff upper lips would be maintained.

My Japanese tea experiences were an initiation into Japaneseness only as much as they affirmed that I’d never really belong there. Affirming that we were outsiders, for otherwise wouldn’t we have known that green tea is to be prepared weak, with water past boiling to avoid bitterness? We should have let the tea steep for just a minute or two, consuming it in small quantities— in cups more like thimbles than our cocoa mugs.

This was all properly demonstrated when we attended an actual tea ceremony. Kneeling on the tatami mats in our proper places as guests, with our host dressed in a kimono, her quiet demeanour setting the tone. She purified the tea bowl with a special cloth, added green tea powder and then hot water, and stirred it with a bamboo whisk. No scones, we received a small sweet instead, the colour of cherry blossoms and made with pounded rice. We bowed as we received our tea.

But when I say that we didn’t belong in Japan, I don’t mean that it didn’t become home to us. As in the tea ceremony, the two of us were guests taking part in a ritual we would never fully understand, but it was our everyday life for a while. That it couldn’t have gone on forever doesn’t mean we miss it any less.

In Canada, where we live now, our tea ceremonies continue. We put the kettle on first thing in the morning, and it’s the first thing we do upon arriving home at the end of the day. We can do caffeinated or herbal, and we now know how to make green tea delicious. Our ultimate indulgence is High Tea at a posh hotel downtown, but we save these occasions for fear of spoiling ourselves.

And tea at our house is certainly not without its own charms— I can whip up a batch of scones in twenty minutes, and we eat them with jam made from strawberries we picked last summer. The tea brewing in our little white teapot, the very centre of our household.

Tea remains a sacred ritual, undeniably— the world stopping for pleasures we’ve come to know by heart. Linking our past and present, the places we’ve been to how far we’ve come. A delectable definition of home.

4 thoughts on “A Nice Cup of Tea”

  1. Jen says:

    Predictably, I read that entry whilst drinking a nice cup of tea.

  2. Kerry says:

    Of course you did! For you are a civilized people.

  3. juhi says:

    What an utterly lovely post. I’m from India and my family drinks the beverage in copious amounts though I continued to spurn it till we relocated to North-East U.S. The cold winters made me seek out the drink of so many family gatherings, and “the delectable definition of home” as you put it.

    These days making tea for myself is a ritual–sacred, yes. Indeed sometimes it feels to me as if more than the actual drinking of tea, I derive more pleasure from the MAKING of it. I love letting the boiling water steep with ginger and cardamom, and sometimes my mom’s special chai masala, or maybe even a hint of cinnamon, and then adding milk, and loose leaves, and sugar . . . and then the smell! Ahh, the smell that hits my nose–sweet milk and tea and spices all merrily boiling together–letting me know that my tea’s ready to be drunk!

    I love keeping snacks on hand, in case the mood strikes me to nibble on something along with my tea. Oh, and when I have baked something, like a banana cake, I feel utterly decadent–as if I’m having my very own afternoon high tea (which I too dole out to myself as a special treat!)

    As you can see, I have FEELINGS about my tea! 🙂

    1. Kerry says:

      Yes yes yes! Thanks for your wonderful words (although they’ve made me hungry. Banana cake sounds like such a good idea…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Order my Latest Novel


Sign up for Pickle Me This: The Digest

Best of the blog delivered to your inbox each month! The Digest also includes news and updates about my creative projects and opportunities for you to work with me.

Stop Wondering about Blogging, and Build a Blog That’s Wonder-Full:

Get My New Free Download: 5 MORE Prompts to Bring Back Your Blogging Spark!

Photo Kerry Clare with her Laptop

My Books

The Doors
Twitter Pinterest Pinterest Good Reads RSS Post