Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Teas, the Quease and the Alchemist

"Why does tea make me feel naseous? And what can I do about it?" asks faithful blog reader D. Before answering his question, and finding surprising parallels with alchemists' queasiness and a literary tummy soother, here's a little

The British love of tea is often belaboured by other cultures when they have exhausted all the other traits that make this people so distinct from any other. And it is not even exaggerated that man an Englishman's cup of tea is what a bottle of wine or glue, a fag or a large box of chocolates is to others: tea helps. There's the breakuppa tea; the brew that beats the blues; the pick-me-cup; even if you've lost your sense of smell or taste, a cup of tea is in order. But seriously: putting on the kettle gives your hands something familiar to do when your mind is racing. And the taste of tea is strangely reassuring. Whatever happens, we'll always have tea.
Actually, dear reader, there was a time when I almost did not have tea. Upon arrival in the United States and induction to my work place, I noticed that the generally accepted method of making 'tea' was using the hot water dispenser at the sink to dump hot, old water onto something resembling a tea bag (containing - oh, better not ask...) in a mug, then putting everything into the nukomizer (microwave) for a minute, and finally sipping along (without taking out the bag-o-tea) as a thin film of scum forms at the surface. Adding coffee creamer (mmmh, so deliciously artificial, and look, it's best before 2025!) optional.

I was willing to bring in tea, milk and a kettle of my own, but since the powers-that-fancied-themselves were not familiar with the marvellous institution that is the electric kettle, my request to put it up beside the communal toaster was refused 'for fire safety reasons', and with a note scribbled onto my written request: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do". I did as the Germans do - and got permission to use an old-fashioned kettle on the office kitchen's stove. The electric kettle was introduced when an older colleague forgot to turn the stove off while heating up water for hot chocolate (!) one day, producing a rather inadvertently alchemical glob of metal and plastic that had once been a kettle. Be all that as it may (and it does make a good story now, doesn't it?), the point is, not all cultures have a natural affinity to the comforts of tea. And I used this knowledge for a lot of really, really bad tea puns.

Tea, tummies and alchemists
Back to D and his tealemma. It is true that tea without the addition of milk can be rough on one's stomach lining. I find that particularly acidic concoctions like green gunpowder are jarring, whereas many herbal teas do not offend. This is due to the tannins in black tea - and if you have ever seen a traditional tea pot, which is only swished with water but never washed, so that it acquires a thick layer on the inside, you can imagine why. Much has been written about tannins in the media, so there is no need to repeat it here. Suffice to say, they're nasty buggers for the delicate tea drinker.

The good news is that adding milk to tea cuts through the tannins (which then attack the milk rather than your mouth or tummy), although this changes the taste of tea completely. By the way, if you have trouble with black tea, coffee (and particularly filter coffee) will also be trying on your inner life, both the physical and the psychological: there seems to be some connection between sensitivity to acidity and caffeine. Unfortunately, there is no rule when it comes to picking a nice blend: there's nothing but trying out different kinds of tea. A good reason to visit teatotal friends and work one's way through their infusions! Organic tea without artificial flavourings has a higher chance of making the cut than their cheaper equivalents.

Another option is eating something with your tea: a biscuit, a little scone or sandwich, or just some bread and butter. The power of bread and butter was also believed by alchemists to protect them from toxic fumes in the alchemical workshop. Alchemical notebooks show that a quick nibble of this kind was advised when alchemists felt faint and queasy in front of their furnaces. Of course, they'd still get mercury poisoning and other nasty experimentally transmitted diseases, but I say, a bit of bread and butter has never hurt anyone. Except when the bread is bad (Wonder Bread, anyone?). But that is a matter for another blog post.

Mysteriously soothing novels
Suppose you had an ill-advised mug of cheap gunpowder tea, or were too passionate about that mercury-copper alloy, and now need some time to recover and a hug? I recommend Martha Grimes' mystery novels to sweeten the convalescence period. These little masterpieces of entertainment feature inspector Richard Jury, reluctant Lord Melrose Plant, London, and the English countryside. Although (or perhaps because) written by an American master of the genre, this series is so English that you'll rush to make cucumber sandwiches after reading the first few pages, washed down with pots of tea-cum-milk and co-read by a cat on your shoulder. Each novel is named after a pub; each one sees lovable characters sitting in pubs doing the crossword, cream teas, red phone boxes and buses, and anything else you imagine when thinking 'England circa nineteen-oh-fairytale'. True, they become darker as the series continues. True also, if one is not in the mood for escapism mixed with grisly crime, this experiment could go wrong. But much like a lapsang souchong, or a strawberry-vanilla flavoured black tea, there is a time when Martha Grimes wants to entertain you, and you are oh, so ready to sink into the arms of your favourite character...

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

i'm reading this now while having my mandatory morning cuppa.
having fought with flatmate because there was no milk for tea yesterday, i concur with the magical properties of tea!