I do not drink tea as often as I would like, because it’s hard on my insides. You wouldn’t know it to hear me rhapsodize about food and beverages, but I have a long history of gastric woes. Perhaps that is why I prize food and drink so much. Some pleasures are sweeter when you can only enjoy them once in a while.
America is known as a land where you cannot get a good cup of tea, and for the most part, that is true. Even in fine restaurants, ordering tea results in a pot of warm water and a choice of tea bags from a rosewood box. You’re lucky if a good, plain black tea is included in the selection of fancy herbal and flavored varieties.
I may as well confess here and now that I am devoted to plain black or green tea. Nothing flavored. Once in a while, if I can’t drink real tea, I’ll have chamomile or another herbal tea. During the holidays, I will drink chai. But I cannot abide bergamot. No Earl Grey for me! I am secretly convinced that “Earl Grey” owes its popularity to its aristocratic name, not its flavor. Apologies to all you Patrick Stewart fans.
The Long-Suffering Husband and I learned to drink tea from a guru. He was known as The Tea Man. His shop on Williamson Street in Madison WI was lined with shelves of jars, each holding a different leaf or blend. There were teapots and the odd bit of crockery, but nothing flowery. It was a decidedly masculine space. When you visited the shop, you did not simply walk in and order something. Before business was conducted, tea was to be sampled and discussed. He would offer some Nilgiri that had just arrived, or something he thought you would enjoy, based on your past purchases.
The Tea Man taught us to make tea in a pot. Two pots, as a matter of fact. One for brewing. The brewing must always be timed, between two and four minutes, depending on one’s taste. The tea was to be poured through a strainer into a second pot, suitably warmed beforehand with hot water. Tea bags, he explained, contained the sweepings from the factory floor.
With all the good teas one can find in bags today, I’m sure that’s no longer the case. And yet, truly fine tea simply does not come in a bag. Period. For daily use, one’s preferred tea in a bag is fine (with boiling hot water). But for something special, there is nothing like real leaf tea. Tea that is innocent of any factory, of marketing and packaging and puffery.
The Tea Man was not averse to flavored teas. He blended his own. One of his best-selling teas was a chai-like “spice tea” with licorice root. It made the tea taste remarkably sweet, even though it contained no sugar. The Tea Shop storefront is gone now. The Tea Man passed away in 2001, but his family carried on the business, which has a website where you can buy premium teas from China and India as well as his personal blends: Spice Tea, Rose Garden (with rose oil) and yes, Earl Grey with Double Bergamot.
The Tea Man was indeed a Beautiful Man. Thanks, Reed, for teaching us that “excellence is not optional,” and that there is always time for a good cup of tea.