"Did you say tea?” comes the question, not an entirely unexpected one. In recent months, I have heard it often. It follows that innocuous question about what I do. I have taken to replying that I write about tea.
Yes, tea, I say. Some respond with delight, eager to know more, sharing their own discoveries and loves, while the philistines ask what there is to write about tea. And (this from extended family), how do I know anything about tea, given that I come from a long line of coffee drinkers?
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Over a cup of tea (Assam, with a splash of milk and two spoons sugar), I try to make sense of my own love for it and my desire to stay engaged with what I think is an enormously fascinating world.
I have no recollection of my first cup of tea. It must have been after I began working. Perhaps I went for the less vile beverage on offer at the office and it happened to be tea. At home, my mother indulged my growing preference for tea by doing what so many in the south do: coffee for the morning and tea (milk tea) for the afternoon. My father, whose work used to take him to the Nilgiris often, taught me to steep, not boil, tea.
With marriage came a kitchen that was my own. Since I am not much of a cook, it too became a space for tea for me. I like tea that has more leaf in it. As I sought more leaf, my preference for Assam tea grew. I would heat water to boiling, add a spoon of the tea and turn off the heat. And then steep for exactly four minutes. I would then add a bit of milk, just staining the tea. The sugar would go into the cup and the tea would be strained into it. Now, I seem to have grown less fussy, more accommodating of different styles of tea making.
Come for tea, I would tell friends. A chair is placed for them to plonk on while the water bubbles and the tea steeps. Shaman-like, I wave the tin of tea, encouraging them to inhale its aroma and earthiness even as the cup of goodness brews.
Motherhood sealed my relationship with tea. Craving a few minutes of peace every day, I set out to claim teatime as me time. Twice a day, mid-morning and late afternoon, I would retreat into the kitchen, occasionally followed by the two-year-old asking to “dippit” the accompanying biscuits.
I did wonder if I could become a tea taster—spending days just sipping tea. I must say, though, that it has been more rewarding to write about it. To dip into legends and ghost stories, the history, of people and places, of craft and craftspeople, of authors and tea…. I no longer separate the story from the tea, as you may have noticed. As one story ends, a thread has already unravelled—and I just follow on.
Wednesdays are designated column days and as I nurse my morning mug, I think about the story to tell. I look at my growing collection of teas, many I may have never otherwise met, like the aged, the blended, the scented, the roasted, the gently made, the experimental batches…often, the idea for a story begins there. Opening a new tea to taste, I remember again that there will always be more teas and more stories than I will ever catch up with.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1
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