A Good Brew

‘Bless ordinary every day afternoon tea’
Agatha Christie

The Swiss have long been a nation of coffee drinkers. It is perhaps no co-incidence that in 2001 Starbucks chose Zurich, rather than say Vienna or Milan, for its first venture into continental Europe. When I land at a Swiss airport, before I even check the train timetable, I go in search of a cafe crème. The Swiss, in my opinion, make the best coffee.

Tea, however, is another matter entirely. Order black tea in Switzerland and you will be given a tall glass mug filled with hot water from an urn. It is served with a tea bag on the side, a sealed, plastic pot of UHT cream, a paper twist of sugar and a tiny packet of artificial sweetener. I would often stare, impatiently, at the fast cooling water as it sat on the counter, awaiting delivery to my table. Thirty years ago kettles were practically unknown in Switzerland and I boiled the water for my afternoon tea in a saucepan. The tea, of course, came from England, as did the teapot and the tea cosy.

If I asked Swiss people who came to my home whether they would like to join me in a pot of tea, the answer was invariably ‘No, thank you. I only drink tea when I’m ill’.  One friend, generally a very confident person, grew anxious and doubtful when it came to preparing me a cup of tea and would call me into the kitchen to supervise the process: How long to steep the bag; when to add the milk; should she warm the cup?

Tea was first introduced to England in 1660 by the East India Trading Company. The king, Charles II, placed an excise duty of eight pence on every gallon of tea sold. Consequently, it was only the very wealthy who could afford to buy tea and the masses continued to drink ale. Water at the time was a public health hazard.

The ladies of London kept their tea in exquisite caddies, many of which were made by the English cabinetmaker, Thomas Chippendale.  The unlocking of the caddy was as much a part of the ritual of serving tea as the drinking of it.

On December 16th, 1773, the people of Boston, Massachusetts decided they had had enough of the English and their taxes and the East India Company’s entire cargo of tea was tipped into Boston  harbour. Three years later, the British Prime Minister reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12%, thus making the drinking of tea available to everyone.

Noble Fearnley Hutchinson Fleming, known to all as ‘Toby’, was my father’s first cousin and a tea taster for the Thomas J. Lipton Company. Born in Wales, Toby Fleming joined Lipton as a young apprentice and was sent to India to learn the trade. This marked the beginning of a 50 year career spent on tea plantations in India, Sri Lanka, China and East Africa. Toby was in search of the perfect leaf and his assessments were based on soil, elevation, rainfall, temperature and quality of management. According to his obituary in the New York Times Mr. Fleming and his handful of experts would study the tone of the leaves (brightness indicated enhanced flavor), place them in white bone china cups lined up in rows, steep them in purified water, add a precise amount of skim milk and then sip. Based on the taste-testing, he would tell his agents what to buy at auction.

To clear his palate before tasting, Toby would eat an apple and to avoid bloating from the hundreds of sips he took in a single day, he would use chrome-plated cuspidors. He was also the man responsible for creating Lipton’s Ice tea in its current form. Using orange pekoe, the youngest and smallest leaves on the plant, he succeeded in producing a blend that doesn’t cloud. The cold tea remains clear in the glass.

Toby Fleming was long considered to be the industry’s leading tea taster, a man who oversaw half the United States’ total tea sales. He might have been surprised, therefore, by a report, published this week about the current habits of British tea drinkers. Sales of speciality and herbal teas now lead black tea sales by more than five million pounds a year.

The English crime writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, once reflected that there was something ‘hypnotic’ about the word tea. Whatever the weather, whatever the occasion and wherever I am in the world, I endeavour to be within reach of a kettle (or a saucepan) and I carry my own mug and tea bags. There’s nothing quite like wrapping your fingers around a cup, lowering your lips to the porcelain and taking that first sip of hot tea.


Noble Fearnley Hutchinson Fleming –  born March 7th 1919 died February 24th 2012