I have made a number of new friends at work here in Sheffield, and sometimes they like to go to a 'coffee shop' to drink frothy hot milk with a little bit of coffee in it. As hot milk comes second only to scrambled eggs in the litany of Things I Can't Stand, and black coffee, let's face it, is something you really have to be in the mood for, I tend, in a triumph of hope over experience, to order tea.
I used to think it was a good sign when somewhere offered a pot of tea - and maybe once it was. But now it seems dinky little pots are a must-have for any establishment with pretensions to class. The tea they deliver is usually derisory, however, for one simple reason. They take a two-cup pot (wouldn't be any point in offering a pot otherwise, would there) and they put a one cup teabag in it. Result: lightly straw-coloured water. To add insult to injury, this is then usually presented with a chunky, wide, shallow cup in which the 'tea' instantly goes cold once poured.
So I have started a one-woman campaign (the Campaign for Proper Tea Rights) to get two teabags in a pot at - and this is the important bit - no extra cost. My reasoning is that if the menu offers tea at a certain price, then tea, not gnats' piss, is what it should provide at the stated price. The cost of a teabag - even a half decent one - is on my estimation approximately 1% of the cost of the entire coffee shop tea experience, so this is not too much to ask. So far I have had a 50% success rate (i.e. one out of two). In the successful case I did in fact get a whole second pot, as I only realised how weak it was after it had been made. The offer to immerse a second bag in the no-longer-boiling water was politely declined, and I pointed out how marginal the cost was, and got a reasonably decent pot the second time around, albeit still with the obligatory 'Instacool' cup. The second time, I made the mistake of asking - rather forcefully - before the tea was made, and while I got the extra bag, I suspect I was charged for it. And they quite possibly spat on my oatcake as well.
Now, you (yes, you, Starcross Jim) may well be sitting there shaking your head and saying, why all this fuss about teabags, when you can only make a decent pot of tea with loose leaves. Well, I accept that the very best, the apogee of tea, is probably that made with one's favourite blend of loose leaves, in a good, clean, warmed pot, and served in best bone china. But leaf tea is very easy to bugger up too, and to be honest, a good quality teabag (I'm favouring Yorkshire Gold at the moment) is at least more reliable in the hands of a barista. Certainly, give me a teabag any day, plonked in a mug, doused in boiling water, stirred, left, stirred again, then milk added, than some of the attempts at leaf tea you get served in cafes. Because at least in a bag, the tea has room to move and to brew. Places wanting to serve trendy leaf tea have these pots with the little strainer thingummy in the middle which is sometimes packed so full of tea that the middle isn't even wet. Result, once again, gnats' pee. (Solution: tip the contents of the strainer into the pot, give it a good stir, let it brew, then pour it through the strainer into the cup.) And that's if the stuff is tea anyway - the places trying really hard to be trendy seem to use a mixture of multi-coloured leaves and twigs and bits of bark, perhaps not realising that there's a reason tea leaves are traditionally chopped up very small.
The sad thing is that most people who think they drink tea, actually want to drink lightly coloured water with some milk in it; either that or they don't care. I have the same opinion of people who ask for weak tea as Jay Rayner has of people who ask for their steaks well done - they simply don't deserve to have it at all. Likewise (I have seen this said by one who should know), most people who think they are terribly sophisticated about coffee really just like slightly coffee-flavoured frothy hot milk.
Of course the place to go for a good cup of tea is not a coffee shop, or even a 'tea shop', but a proper old fashioned caff where it will be served in a white Pyrex mug and either poured from a big (but fresh!) pot, or made with a teabag and super-heated water. Sadly though I haven't found one round here yet. And I very much doubt if my colleagues would accompany me there if I did.
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