The Best Cup of Tea Ever Made

This is a recipe for feeling better; this is a story about tea.
Simple Tea
I have waxed lyrical in the past about tea. Not only here on Squid Niki – I often launch into homilies about taking tea, warranted and non sequitur: “did you know that my mother used to drink upwards of thirty cups of tea a day?”. Of course, I’m not just talking about the drink: I mean tea with a proper tea service complete with teapot, cups and saucers; snacks; and polite company. It’s the best way to raise your spirits.

It’s a romantic ideal really, taking tea. And, life with a little romance is good for the constitution. It’s also a social affair, the ceremony of which is steeped in quietude and reflection. Sure, conversations can get a little raucous but, it remains, tea inhabits an inescapably refined echelon. Not because of pomp and circumstance – in fact, what we call high tea, as far as I know, came from a tradition of the British working class – but, because the structure of its preparation: heating water just shy of boiling, selecting the type of tea to brew, steeping the tea leaves (without stirring), and so on, is refined by the nature of its execution and, as far as I am concerned, intrinsically social. It’s like sharing a pint to catch up with a friend when you don’t want to tipple (heaven forbid); or, when it’s too early to bend an elbow (if you’re steadfast in adhering to the order of acceptable drinking hours). But tea is not a compromise for when you can’t or won’t drink. It is sacrosanct in its own right.

I give you an anecdote about the best cup of tea ever made.

My grandfather was a commanding officer in the South African Air Force during the Second World War. He flew bombers and fought typically in the desert within Egypt against Rommel, the Desert Fox. I’ll spare you most of the details of the crash save that he did just that, crashed his plane (shot down I think) in the middle of the desert (we’re talking Sahara). And so, he and his crew had to set about finding rescue.

They knew in what direction there would be train tracks. Wracked with thirst, my grandfather, perhaps one other crew member, set out to find the tracks and hail a train which, could very well take two days between each passing. As I recall – I was told this story many years ago – my grandfather and his crew were transporting some dignitaries and left them behind in the shelter of the downed aircraft. Here, my cousin attests that the need for a swift rescue was amplified by rampant smuggling that, by some clever contrivance, took the form of water tanks with false bottoms in which to hide booty, thus, effectively reducing the amount of water they had, I expect, by at least threefold. (Rest assured, my grandfather took no part in such tomfoolery except by proxy and poor luck).

Fortunately, he found the tracks in time to hail a passing train and was taken aboard for a ride to wherever he could organise a rescue. Upon boarding the train, the conductor offered to make some tea to share over the long journey. He set about preparing a pot over the coals in the boiler of the train, this particular train being a steam engine. It must have been a sight to behold: water for tea a boil in the great igneous belly of the old metal beast, its boiler room, and the men in it, blackened by soot and halting their coal shoveling only for a cuppa.

It just so turned out, as my grandfather used to exclaim beamingly – the story gave him great amusement as did it all of us, told time and again – that it was the best cup of tea he ever had:… on an old steam train, in the boiler room, hurtling through the heart of the desert, during the war.

Tea will save.

It is because of such things that tea inhabits a special place in history: it punctuated the lives of the men and women that composed our illustrious past and it occupied so many great events and extraordinary affairs. Our forefathers, no matter where from, were born of tea in some form or another. History is peopled by teapots, and cups and saucers, even if so humbly made of tin or brewed in the grimy bellies of steam trains. When you steep tea and pour it from a pot, clink teaspoons against porcelain, and sip it to quench your thirst, may the sensations of it all conjure the memory of your forebears who once did the same, through thick and thin; through peace and in times of war – they shaped our world by tea.