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Since I’m a fan of Ann Patchett, it’s no surprise that I wanted to buy her most recent book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s a book of short stories, but not fictional ones – it’s a compilation of essays and articles she’s written over the course of her writing life. My favorite is the one in which she describes in intimate detail how she goes about writing a book. About the process, her thinking, and the the hard, hard work it entails. I loved every one of the stories. She is quite self-deprecating about the book – it likely wasn’t her idea to put it together as she never thought any of her essays were worth much. She wrote them to make a living. Each of the chapters (essays) has been updated and/or addended to, so she did have to put some spit and polish on all of them before sending this group to the publisher. She’s written essays for a very esoteric group of publications; some I’d never heard of. But I enjoyed the book from beginning to end.

Also just finished reading The Invention of Wings: A Novel by Sue Monk Kidd. What a story. Sometimes it’s a good thing to read the author’s notes before you read a book. I guess I’m glad I didn’t (in this case the notes were at the end of the book) because it was then, afterwards, that I read that one of the characters in this novel is fictional; the other two (sisters) were real. There’s a bit about the Quaker religion in this book too, which was different. This is a slavery story and about the beginnings of the abolitionist movement. Interwoven between the 2 sisters who make waves about anti-slavery is the poignant story of one particular slave and her hard, hard life. It’s heartbreaking in many respects, not just because of the violence and abuse heaped upon her. The book is almost a page-turner. Very glad I read it.

Also read The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice by Laurel Corona. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I enjoyed it a lot. It has a rather unusual story line, all envisioned by the author from reading a tiny line of elaborate script from a journal at what remains of a foundling hospital (run mostly like a convent by Catholic nuns) in Venice. It said something like Antonio Vivaldi purchased “a bow for Maddalena Rossa.” That started the author’s novel journey. Two sisters are raised at the Ospedale della Pieta. One becomes famous for her violin skills; the other for her voice. One is married “out” and the other stays cloistered her entire life. Then you throw Vivaldi himself into the mix, as he really was paid by the Ospedale for his compositions and for teaching some of the residents to play instruments. It’s an enlightening story about Vivaldi himself (a priest, with a lot of questions about his piety). It takes place in the early 1700s. Fascinating story and I want to listen again in total to Vivaldi’s very famous work, The Four Seasons, as a result of reading this. I’ve heard it many times before, but it will have new meaning now.

Also read The Time In Between: A Novel by Maria Duenas (translated). Apparently this book has been a runaway best seller in Europe as it deals with a little known, or I should say a part of WWII that you’ve probably never read about – Spain. The heroine is a Madrid seamstress, but is seduced by a young man to go to Morocco. She knows no one and is left high and dry when the lover disappears. She finds her way, makes friends, begins sewing couturier clothing in Morocco. The Spanish Revolution intervenes and merges into WWII. She becomes a spy of sorts (in Madrid) because she is coveted as a seamstress to the Nazi wives of Madrid. It’s a page-turner and informative. Good read.

IN THE POWDER ROOM: Our guest half-bath has a little tiny table with a pile of books that I change every now and then. They’re books that might pique someone’s interest even if for a very short read. The Art of Travel, a collection of essays about traveling (it’s not a how-to), gathering a variety of stories of some historic authors and where and why they traveled; The Greatest Stories Never Told; and Sara Midda’s South of France; also Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages (just the cutest book – with a miscellany of things – letters, grocery lists, notes, reminders, confessions the author discovered hidden inside the books he purchased for his used bookstore); and The Trouble with Poetry (Billy Collins).

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small engraved sterling silver tea spoons that I use to taste as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Beverages, on May 20th, 2007.


I’ve been under-the-weather this weekend. I think it’s a flu bug? Not sure, but food doesn’t thrill me. I’ve had juice, but am just going to go make myself a pot of tea. So thought I’d tell a little story about my tea and teapots. Growing up, probably like most of you, the only time I drank tea was when I was sick and my mother would brew Lipton’s with a teabag and some milk and honey. Then once I was able to eat a little something my mother would lovingly make me some milk toast – a piece of toast, buttered and sprinkled very lightly with sugar, placed in a wide shallow bowl and topped with about 1 cup of hot milk.

Until I became an adult – even a middle-aged adult, I’d never had anything except Lipton’s. Then in 1981 we met the English couple Jimmy & Pam – the couple I talked about a couple of weeks ago on this blog – Pamela, the professional chef, and Jimmy, the retired RAF Wing Commander. When we met them, that momentous evening at the local pub in Ilminster, they insisted we had to come and stay with them for a couple of days. Now when was it you met someone and they invited you to come stay in their home? We were overwhelmed. We actually had plans to drive down into Devon for a couple of days, but agreed we’d come back through Somerset and stay for two nights.

So, a couple of days later, we arrived at their home at about 4 pm. It was cold, drizzly Fall weather, so when we took our suitcases inside, Pamela said come into the kitchen, where we sat down with them to have a spot of tea. We had some wonderful thick sliced wheat bread with peanut butter and tea. It was the tea that sort-of exploded in my mouth – wow, I thought, this is absolutely delicious. It was nothing whatsoever like Lipton’s. And even though I’d been to England before, I’d always drunk coffee, even though it wasn’t the national drink!

When Pamela showed us the guest room upstairs, she pointed out the tea tray that was sitting on the window sill, including a little, unique pitcher of milk (sealed with plastic wrap) on the tray. They lived in a very old house with thick walls, and the milk stayed very cold. If we woke up in the night, she said, we could brew some tea. I must say, it probably had never occurred to me to brew myself some tea in the middle of the night. But the next morning when we awoke, we did make a pot of tea right there in our bedroom. Most Britons buy electric kettles, like this, or this, to brew hot water. Nowadays you can buy them here in the U.S., but for many years the only place I ever saw them was in the British Isles. They range in price from $11 for plastic, to upwards of $100 for stainless steel, cordless models. And no, I don’t have one.
I was enchanted with the little cream pitcher (pictured here), which I bought on a subsequent trip to England because I just think it’s so darned CUTE!

The next day they took us on a whirlwind drive around Somerset, including Lyme Regis, and a British military air museum in a nearby village. But that visit set the stage for many more with them. We always stay two nights. One night Pamela cooked dinner and the other night we took them out. But it was on the second trip to Britain that I was, again, in love with Pamela’s tea. So the first morning there she decided to give me a “tea lesson.” She made her own blend – she explained about the differences between standard black teas, and the smokey teas that lend a real depth of flavor. She would never, ever, use a tea bag. (There is also green tea, but I don’t like green tea, so I won’t give you any info about that.) My recollection is that she mixed 2/3 regular teas (two different kinds) and the other third a smokey tea. After we returned from that trip Pamela mailed us a package of different English teas, which I used to make my own blend.

But, she then proceeded to show me exactly how to make a PROPER pot of tea, and ever since that day, I’ve not wavered from this technique. Here’s what you need:
 
A teapot
A tea cozy (it’s a cover for the teapot)
Tea leaves (loose only)
A strainer, or tea ball to put inside the pot
A small pitcher of milk, warmed
Sugar (or sweetener), if desired

For me, part of the fun of making tea is the presentation, so I have my favorite tea tray (which I couldn’t find this morning) given to me by my friend Darlene 24 years ago. Because I often bring the tea tray upstairs to my office, when I do have tea, it needs to be easy to handle. While the water is boiling I put everything I need onto the tea tray – the strainer, a pretty tea spoon, the pitcher of warmed milk, and my sugar bowl. You’ll notice that on my tea tray this morning I put my bright red sugar bowl – I collect those little sugar bags from our travels. I never take more than one or two at a place, but I still have a large collection of sugars from different places in the world, and in languages I don’t begin to understand, either. Pamela gave me that idea, and I thought it was a very fun one, so adopted it.

Making a Proper Pot of Tea
1. Bring the pot of water to a boil.
2. Pour about 1 cup of very hot water into the teapot, swirl it around, then pour it out. This is an important step to warm the teapot before you pour the real hot water into the pot. You want to start with a hot pot. Alternately, you can use the hottest tap water and allow the teapot to sit while the water is boiling, then pour it out.
3. Drop the tea leaves into the pot and pour the hot water over it. Put the lid on, then place on the tray with the tea cozy on top. If you don’t have a tea cozy, cover the teapot with a kitchen towel to keep the heat in.
4. Allow the tea to stew for a maximum of 5 minutes.
5. Pour out into mugs, through a strainer, then add milk or sugar. In Britain, you don’t use both – you either use milk OR sugar. But sometimes I do anyway. It depends on the type of tea I’m drinking. My favorite sweetener is honey, but usually I add Splenda.

Because of Pamela’s influence in my life with all-things-tea, I’ve acquired a number of teapots over the years. The red one is certainly the most colorful, but it makes about 6 cups. The one on the tea tray is probably my favorite because it makes just the right amount for me to have 2 cups of tea. I also have a very fancy, small teapot that belonged
to my grandmother. I love it for its beauty, but it doesn’t keep the tea very hot, so it’s relegated to the cupboard, I’m afraid.

A very special one, though, is Pamela’s teapot, the one she gave me when she and Jimmy were downsizing their big, old house and moving to one of the Cotswolds towns. She asked me if there was anything I’d like to have, and I requested a teapot. She chose this one, and I brought it home with me as a carry-on. Very carefully. It also makes a big pot of tea, though, so I don’t use it very often. And although I have a collection of fancy china tea cups, I never use them for myself because tea just doesn’t stay hot in them. I prefer mugs, always.

I’m including one other pot here – it’s actually a coffeepot – I bought it at a lovely tea shop in the Cotswolds one year. It’s Staffordshire china, and a press pot. I did use it regularly for several years after I bought it, and was very cautious because it’s quite fragile. Mostly I
make espresso (a latte, actually) now, and Dave makes a pot of coffee for himself in our big Cuisinart grind and brew machine.

So, to finish the story, I’ve become a connoisseur of tea, even though I don’t make it often – but for some years when I was working I’d wake up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep (now I know it was the Claritin-D keeping me awake), I’d get up, make myself a pot of tea and quietly watch tv or turn on my computer and play mindless solitaire games. One year, I think it was 2000, Cherrie and I took a 10-day “Tea Tour” to England. She and I both like Earl Grey – and 12 of us, all ladies, journeyed to Britain. We had afternoon tea 5 times in 10 days. By the 5th time we’d all had enough of the afternoon tea, but it was sure fun.

So, go ahead, why don’t you make yourself some tea too.

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  1. Kate

    said on May 22nd, 2007:

    What a beautiful story.

    I love a good cup of tea and have gradually switched over from tea bags to loose leaf, keeping both on hand. Your explanation of making a good pot of tea is wonderful.

  2. yvette

    said on May 22nd, 2007:

    Carolyn,
    Can you please share with us
    your receipes for tea sandwiches
    and other tasty treats that we
    can enjoy with our “proper pot of
    tea”.
    Yvette

  3. Carolyn

    said on May 22nd, 2007:

    Kate – thanks. I loved writing up the story. Our friend in England is in her mid-80′s now and doesn’t DO computers, so I emailed her son-in-law, asking him to print out the two stories I’ve written and give them to her. She’s only read the first one so far, about the Cold Green Pea Soup, and she cried. She’ll cry over this one, too, I expect, especially when she sees her teapot in the group of teapot pictures. I’ll have to do another post one day about the different kinds of teas I drink. I have about 4 or 5 that I enjoy more than others, of which Earl Grey is right up there at the top.

    Yvette – yes, I will do a post sometime soon on tea sandwiches. I have one, that’s my very own concoction for curried chicken, but recently I attended a cooking class (yes, yet another one) that was all about afternoon tea (as if I haven’t gone to enough afternoon teas, or gone to enough classes on the subject), and I acquired two new sandwich recipes that were really, really good. I’ll post those as well. So stay tuned. Only problem is that I’ll have to MAKE them in order to photograph them, so it might be a little while . . .

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