Voices of the Past: George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens on Tea


The Midwest, and other parts of America, are in for a heck of a winter. It’s been cold, below freezing and steady snow for weeks. And, it isn’t winter even yet. Months like these require a constant kettle of water boiling, to keep my tea cup filled to the brim. Many have strong opinions about tea, and the British seem to have the strongest of them all. This has always stricken me as odd, in that the Brits merely appropriated tea as part of their acquisition of Empire. Knowledge of tea is not innate within them, but what seems to be in their genes is a mastery of the prose required to write about tea. Two such Brits come to mind.

The genius behind the dystopias 1984 and Animal Farm was also known in his time as a prolific essayist. Some years ago, George Orwell’s entire canon was available, should you wish to read the man’s thoughts on every subject. One of my particular favorites include his brief work, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a celebration of the cast iron house plant–a plant that served its owner to signal to others that they have attained middle class-hood. (Think about it, for whom would keep a plant that wasn’t food unless one could afford such excess?) Orwell also expounded on every Englishman’s favorite past-time, the consumption of black tea. In his 1942 essay, A Nice Cup of Tea, Orwell attempts to lay down the rules of proper brewing, in 11 steps:

“First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea…Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.

Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware…

Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand…

Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right….

Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot….

Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about….

Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.

Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is,the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.

Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject.

The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

History is harsh to the essayist. Moderns will forever appreciate Orwell’s literary masterworks, but his essays may fall to the wayside in a hundred years. Few essayists can expect their work to survive their lifetime–Mencken, Thurber, and Twain come to mind, but who is reading say, Mike Royko nowadays (aside from your author?) As for contemporary essayists, time will tell if Christopher Hitchens will join Twain or perhaps fade into the ether of the late 20th century. Hitchens, the late Anglo-American essayist and polemicist, idolized Orwell for many reasons–the economy of his pen, his opposition to fascism, and his exposition on the balance every British citizen must take with their heritage–pride and shame. When it comes to tea, Hitchens tried to rescue Orwell’s advice, in his own words. Hitchens made a point to mediate upon Orwell’s sixth rule:

“Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter…

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: ‘[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.’ This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.”

It is entirely possible that in fact, Americans never, ever learned how to make a proper tea correctly. And if we did know, the knowledge has been lost over the decades, a victim of the mass production of everything. There is hope though, as tea purists and the nerdy predilections of those with “first world problems” are perhaps seeking out quality over quantity. And perhaps then, we will not need reminders from British essayists on how to brew tea, as the practice will become innate within the population.

One last note from Orwell, worth repeating here. While I wholeheartedly disagree that tea should be bitter and enjoyed like a warmed over British IPA, sugar in tea is pointless. You’d be better off drinking sugar water and sparing yourself the cost of the tea leaves:

“Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tea-lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Orwell, always the gentleman, ended on that illustrative note. Hitchens, always maintaining his elan and sardonic humor, ends his exposition differently:

“Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don’t trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.”

What is your favorite tea? Do you have your own way of brewing your favorite cuppa?

Christopher Hitchens Photo Credit: Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com

George Orwell Photo credit: PVBroadz / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


The Sultan of Tea


Turkey and her denizens are nationalist in a way that even Americans might find embarrassing. The Turkish flag waves large and tall over the hills along the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul–from apartment buildings, along the narrow streets, and in every public place. The red flag with its white crescent are everywhere, always reminding the people of their proud, national, secular country at the edge of the Muslim world. Ataturk (translated literally as “Father of the Turks”) is their George Washington and his statue is on every street corner it seems. As a general, Ataturk defeated the British as the Allies sought to carve up the old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Spared from the fate of Turkey’s Middle Eastern nations, Ataturk had won the Turks freedom from colonization, then Balkanization. He founded a republic based on the American idea, abolished the Sultan and Caliphate thus severing the tie between mosque and state. He converted the beleaguered Hagia Sophia–the once cathedral, then spoil of war, then mosque–into a secular museum. Ataturk banned headdress–fez for men and scarfs for women. He gave women equal rights under the law. He changed the Turkish language from its Arabic script to Roman letters. In short, the modern country of Turkey looked west for reform. Think of Texas pride without the swagger. Turks come first in Turkey.

However, some habits are hard to break. And just as Texas has its own toast, the tea in Turkey isn’t just tea, it is Turkish Tea.  The Turks are not going for the subtly of Chinese oolong teas or the ritual of Japanese green. They are purists first–no British adulteration of their topaz delight with cream or lemon. And since the Turks do nothing in moderation, it should come as no surprise that the Turks are among the greatest tea quaffers in the world, second only to India. They do add sugar to their tea, which to me seems less about taste and more about fortifying and amplifying the effects of the caffeine–a supercharged shot. While Turks are more libertine than their Arab neighbors and will drink alcohol, tea remains the beverage of convivial companionship and hospitality. And so, this tea is served continuously and caffeinated, strong and sweet.

Everything about this tea, from its preparation to its presentation is uniquely Turkish. This is nationalism in a cup, in the same way America has its Coke, the Turks have their tea.

Turkish tea is a black tea. It has been consumed since the times of the Sultan, and Ottoman Empire. It is rare to see a Turk in a cafe without the tea standing guard over his plate. The tea is prepared in a double boiler pot. The top pot has the loose tea, which is scalded with hot water, and left to sit all day. The bottom pot has boiling water on reserve. When pouring, the Turks draw off the “strong brew” off the top pot, and dilute the beverage to the taste of the customer with the bottom pot’s clear water. And, as a test of manliness or perhaps courage, the Turks drink their tea very strong and in very small, hot glasses without a handle.

First-time tourists to Turkey will have tea thrust upon them at every turn. Every cafe serves it all day long. Young boys make some extra money running tea from the local grocer down back alleys where Turks may be having as siesta (again, western looking), playing a pick-up game of backgammon. They’ll fetch the tea for you as well. However, most tourists will be served some instant variety, especially in the bazaars, where merchants will ply you with instant apple or herbal teas while they charm, encourage, and shame you into buying that extra rug or bric-a-brac for the house. No Turk would ever drink an instant apple tea–a hot Kool-aid lacking everything that the Turks seek in their high-octane beverage of choice.

The tea grows along the Black Sea. For the beginner and foreigner, the standard tea is Rize (REE-zay) Chai (they use the Indian word), from the Rize region. When I purchased my first pound of tea from the local grocer near my Istanbul holiday apartment, the owner had many varieties of tea behind the counter–Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas, and so on. Wanting to drink what the locals drink, I ask what we should get.

“Merhaba!” (Hello!)

“Merhaba, Efendim! Hoshgeldiniz!” (Hello, Dear Sir! Glad you are here!”)

“Hoshbulduk!” (“Glad to be anywhere!”)

“Chai var muh, lutfen?” (Where’s the tea, please?)

“Chai? Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas….”

At this point, the owner of the bokol (the tiny, locally-owned grocer) rambled beyond the scope of my Berlitz phrasebook. Time to turn it over to my travel buddy, who’s fluency in Turkish would carry me to my goal.

What about Rize? (Rize, again, being the tea with training wheels)

“I am from Rize, but I don’t drink Rize, I drink Filiz!”

” Chok Tessekur Ederim, Iyi Gunler!” (Thank you very much, have a good day!)

What is the difference? To a newbie, I couldn’t tell. However, as my tea palate has grown over the years, the Filiz offers a slightly smoother brew. In fact, the variations simply refer to tea growing regions within Rize. Perhaps the soil and air are just slightly different in Filiz. All Turkish tea offers a very slight floral flavor that rises above what might otherwise be politely called a “high-end Lipton.”

Making my own in the apartment, with the double-boiler, I find those little tea glasses. The tulip glass honors the Sultan Ahmed III, the “tulip” Sultan, who loved the flower so much that he adorned the city parks with it. Great mosques were bedecked in ceramic tiles painted with tulip themes during his reign. Since tulips do not have handles, neither do the glasses traditionally. (However, you can buy tulip cups with handles today). The Ottoman Turks were ahead of Riedel’s wine glasses and even brew masters with their pilsiners in crafting a fluted glass that would offer just the right amount of cooling with the right opening to amplify the bouquet of their favorite beverage.

Off to tourist locales, we stop in Ortakoy, where a large square sits right on the edge of the Bosporus Strait underneath the Rococo-styled Ortakoy mosque, another blend of east and west. A ubiquitous cafe with sea-side views offers a chance to relax in the morning sun.


The glass arrives in a steep red and white saucer, with an ample bowl of sugar cubes, and a rather tiny silver spoon aside the glass.  I like mine chok sekerli (very sweet). In goes the cube, rapidly deteriorating in the piping hot crucible of tea. The spoon is for turning the tulip glass into a centrifuge, spinning the granules through the tea before the sip. The cup is raised with just the tips of the fingers–to much finger pad on the glass will leave a burn mark. The sip is slurped a bit–the air cooling the tea before it hits the tongue.

A blurted utterance, not an “Oww!” but an “Oooh.” I surprised myself.

Looking up from the tea, still spinning a little in the glass, the vista changes. And looking out over the Bosporus, with the minarets of Istanbul piercing the sky, the domes of innumerable mosques rounding out the horizon line, the chatter of seagulls interrupted by a thousand muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, you realize that you are as far from home as you can be, and yet, are comforted by a new, proud, and slightly hyperactive friend.

Turkish Tea Photo credit: Carlo Rainone / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ortakoy Photo credit: Dietmar Giljohann / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Post-Script: Any vacation will leave the traveler changed for the better.  New ways are learned while on vacation. And the traveler should take something back home from the experience and make it part of daily life. Those rituals can make for a mini-vacation right at home. For me, I can escape to Istanbul anytime, with Turkish tea at home. Of course the experience will not be identical to the trip, but I find a cup or two or five of the tea does change my mood, leaving me literally warmed over with nostalgia.


Photo credit: iriskh / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

(NB–The Turkish is not the exact transliteration, I tried to add some Anglicized syllables to help the dear reader)