There are so many memories and quotes about tea and teapots. While living in Britain, I learned that everything is much better with a “warm cuppa.” Even today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, tea can be soothing to the body and soul.
In her book, When Calls the Heart, Janette Oke pondered the idea that a fine china tea set would make life in a log cabin much more civilized when she said, “There seemed to be so many things that I needed, but I held myself in check and purchased only essentials – with the exception of one extravagance. I had determined that I would drink my tea like a lady, even in a log house; so I purchased a teapot and two cups and saucers of fine china. I felt somehow Mama’s mind would be much more at ease about me if she knew that I was having my tea in the proper fashion. After all, civilization could not be too far away from Pine Springs if I had such amenities!”
In Pomegranate Soup, a lovely book that marries Persian cooking with Irish living, the author, Marsha Mehran writes: “There were ceramic teapots in aubergine, mustard, and midnight blue (good for one, sweeter still when shared between two drinkers); and forty small, thin glasses with curved handles, set in gold- and silver-plated holders etched with arabesque swirls. Bahar gingerly lined the tea glasses up on the counter where the cappuccino machine had been stationed. She tucked the teapots into the counter’s glass-panelled belly, where they sat prettily next to twenty glass containers of loose-leaf teas, ranging from bergamot and hibiscus to oolong.”
In The Water Castle, Megan Frazer Blakemore plays with a trunk full of treasures and memories when she describes the moment when the lid was opened. “Ephraim lifted the top of the trunk. Neatly stacked were mementoes from what seemed like hundreds of journeys. Right on top was an etching of the Eiffel tower next to an African mask that looked at him with surprised eyes. He reached in a little deeper and unearthed a small teapot decorated with blue drawings just like the kind his grandmother collected and kept in a locked china cabinet.”
For the first twenty years of my life, I lived in the southern United States. Oklahoma to be exact. I have no memory of hot tea or teapots even though the china cabinet contained an array of thin, highly decorated teacups. I recall, as a child, being taken to the window in the dining room and being shown the translucency of the eggshell cups. They were not used for tea but were brought out on exceptional occasions with the coffee service. Everyone drank iced tea. If anyone had ordered hot tea at a restaurant, I am not sure the wait staff would have known precisely what to do. Tea was not hot except for its brewing for iced tea. There was no flavoured powdered tea. People in the South are purists. Teabags were brewed and then water and ice were added, never sugar. The tea was served in stemmed goblets. The sugar, if it was used at all, was combined with the help of an extra-long silver spoon and stirred till every last crystal was dissolved. Some added the juice from a fresh lemon.
It was only as a new immigrant to Canada that the comfort and the Britishness of hot tea and an old Brown Betty pot were appreciated. The tea that was made was Black and robust, most often requiring milk and sugar to chase away the bitterness. Hot tea was comforting to hold the cup or mug during the cold of the Manitoba winters, the steam warming your face. The favourite brand in southern Manitoba was Red Rose. I was never sure if it was the price, the quality, or the fact that there were often small Wade ceramic figurines tucked inside the boxes for collecting beginning in 1967.
Fast-forward and my life and the world of tea expanded in ways that I could not have dreamed of during those first winters in Canada. First was the chai simmered in some pretty forlorn tin or aluminium pots on the railway platforms in India. Delicious and creamy and often made even better with the infusion of cardamon. In Pakistan, tea was made on the side of the road in brightly painted metal pots while in Beijing, one could sit for hours in the Kempinski Hotel’s tea room sipping jasmine tea made in glass pots.
I am not the only person whose knowledge of tea has changed. Around the world, there are masters purchasing teas – green, white, Pu’er, Oolong and Black – for our more refined palettes. Teas are blended in the same way that whiskeys are with the masters identifying the notes in each. You can take classes on tea. You can order tea from the tea plantations along with suitable teacups and pots.
Today, I have an extensive collection of handmade teapots. They range from the most recent, a gift from Grace Han when she was leaving for Vancouver to a lovely lacquer one made by the lacquer master in Bagan, Malaysia brought back by my son. There are others, tucked away in China cabinets or sitting in my office for students to hold and critique.
Top row from left: Grace Han teapot (2019) made using Korean mould technique (Grace’s rock series); John Reeve temmoku teapot made at Sheridan College, 1976; lacquer tea set made in Bagan, Myanmar. Bottom row from left: Valerie Metcalfe, Barbara Tipton, and Gunda Stewart.
Each of my teapots holds a special place in my heart because of the memories and the beautiful people who made them. They are, in fact, more than just vessels for brewing and serving tea. It is a way of enjoying a quiet or shared moment with an old friend.
As my knowledge of tea has grown, so has my questions about teapots. Indeed, my taste in tea has changed dramatically. Instead of buying big boxes of 120 teabags of Black tea, I purchase small sealed packets of hand-rolled black teas from Malawi or small-batch silver tip jasmine white tea from Wuyi, China. Then there are the greens from Uji, Japan and the roasted nuttiness of genmaicha. Indeed, the only black tea that I drink is Huntington’s hand-rolled from Malawi. Its sweetness requires no sugar, and while you could steep it so that milk would be required, there is no need unless you walk off and forget it!
All of this brings me to the question of the teapot. The way that we enjoy tea today has changed from what it was during the war years in Britain or even on the Canadian prairies in the 1970s. We are more sophisticated in our knowledge of tea while, at the same time, there have been a growing number of companies and shops to cater to us. Today, I want to see the colour of the tea develop and to watch the leaves unfurl and to do this, I must use a glass pot. The same is true for any of the flowering silver tip white teas. I want to see the colour develop along with the unfurling of the leaves.
New revelations on the best temperatures to use to infuse different varieties of tea have resulted in small appliance manufacturers making electric kettles with temperature controls. Today, it is generally known that one simply does not boil the pot until the whistle is blowing the roof off unless they want their lovely green jasmine tea to be anything bitter. There is a French tea company, Palais des Thes, that has a marvellous green tea that is mixed with rose and raspberry leaves. A friend placed the leaves of the Paris for Her tea in a pot and poured boiling water over it and allowed the tea to steep as she would any black tea. After she was shocked at how bitter the brew was – so upset that she called the North American head office to complain. In the end, it turned out that instead of 100 degrees C, the tea required 70 degrees C and a very short steep. To handle this, some tea companies sell only 150 ml and 300 ml teapots so that you are merely making 1 or 2 cups. No leaves will turn bitter if you check the water temperature required and the length of the steep – generally supplied with the tea.
So what am I going on about???????? Well, like the right temperature of water to infuse the tea leaves, there has to be an equally appropriate teapot for specific teas. The Chinese make their Yixing teapots out of a beautiful local clay that is sometimes a purple-brown colour when fired. There is no glaze. The pot absorbs the flavour of the tea that has been infused after years (assuming the same type of tea is used) until, eventually, less tea is needed. Glazed clay teapots can be used for any kind of tea but should they? And should we make such large pots that the tea continues to steep under the cosy becoming more bitter? So my argument is this: If you are infusing a standard black or herbal tea, go for the ceramic pot. But if you are brewing a rare tea whose colour and unfurling is paramount to its appreciation, then you simply must use a small glass pot.