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Food for Thought

Fancy a Cuppa? Tea in the Rare Book Division


Three déjeûner pieces with quatrefoil ornaments. (Teapot - 3-1/2 in. and sugar-bowl - 4-1/2 in., date about 1789; chocolate-pot - 6 in., date about 1793.), Digital ID 490827, New York Public Library"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea."— A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith*

On the coldest winter days, I must say I agree with Smith. And while reading through a little 1863 recipe book called The Book of One Hundred Beverages in the Rare Book Division recently, I decided to see what it offered in the way of advice about hot tea.

Written by William Bernhard, The Book of One Hundred Beverages is organized into chapters with wonderful titles like Aqueous Beverages, Effervescing Beverages, Artificial Mineral Waters, and more (with some mock lemonades and wheys thrown in for good measure). I found tea right where it should be, in Breakfast Beverages. After describing how tea causes a “watchfulness and sleeplessness, whilst, at the same time, it has a soothing and sedative action on the heart and circulation,” Bernhard then enlists the help of one poet and one chef on the topic of brewing a proper cuppa.

Bernhard first offers Leigh Hunt’s advice on tea (quite similar to the guidance included in the July 9, 1834 issue of Leigh Hunt’s London Journal). Hunt’s instructions, though flirtatious at the start, cover territory that is familiar to tea makers today, with the main point being that the water must be in “a thoroughly and immediately boiling state.” What I like in particular is Hunt’s sensual description of a correctly made cup:

“In tea, properly so called, you should slightly taste the sugar, be sensible of a balmy softness in the milk, and enjoy at once a solidity, a delicacy, a relish, and a fragrance in the tea.”   

Hunt’s instructions are followed by those of chef Alexis Soyer, author of A Shilling Cookery for the People (and also, interestingly, a food reformer who sought to relieve famine in Ireland and who also worked with Florence Nightengale to improve nutrition among soldiers in the Crimean War). What intrigues me about Soyer’s advice is his suggestion to “warm both the pot and the tea before the fire” before adding boiling water. This step works in “developing the aromatic principle.” Sounds promising, right? 

Do you heat your dry leaves and pot first, à la Soyer? Are you a fan of loose leaves or little bags? What winter food and drink rituals — and what books — get you through the winter?

*Smith was, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a “scabrous wit” as well as a founding editor of Edinburgh Review. And apparently a lover of tea as well.


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I concur with Hunt's

I concur with Hunt's description! It conveys the sublime pleasures of a correctly brewed and prepared cup of tea. I'm a ritual pot-and-cup warmer, with a slow pour over the leaves and a long steep of my favorite black teas (foremost among them, the lovely Pu-erh, a compressed, fermented bullion of goodness). Often there is remarkable palate of outcomes, though, depending on how I finesse the milk and honey. (Unlike Hunt, I prefer the golden sweetener.) But because I'm sparing with both, small variations affect the taste. And I vary according to mood. Bracing morning? Less milk and honey. Tough day? A tad more. This kind of endless tinkering reminds me that brewing tea - the stuff of ritual for many centuries - lives on in the odd customs we embrace even today, in an era of Starbucks, which should have Hunt turning over in the grave, and probably does.

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