The Perfect Cup of Tea
I am so happy to welcome readers to the fourth adventure in the Lady Julia Grey series! Readers have come to know and love Lady Julia and her world-- in particular her partner in detection, the engimatic Nicholas Brisbane!—and DARK ROAD TO DARJEELING gave me the opportunity to combine three of my favorite things: tea, travel, and mystery.
When Julia’s eccentric family appeals to the newlyweds solve a murder, they travel to the furthest reaches of the sub-continent of India, into the very foothills of the Himalayas, to a tea plantation where the atmosphere is thick with secrets. Once the independent kingdom of Sikkim, this land lies nestled between Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Here rich soil is perfect for growing Camellia sinensis, the beautiful plant with glossy green leaves and silver-white buds which is planted in serried rows that follow the countours of the terraced land. Pickers work by hand, plucking the uppermost leaves and buds for drying and processing, and the prepared tea is packed and shipped round the world. Tea, like wine, is a beverage for connoisseurs. There are tea-tasters whose palates are so refined, they can instantly tell the difference between a black tea grown in Ceylon and one harvested in China. We needn’t be so exacting. It doesn’t take a great deal of education or refinement to enjoy a good cup of tea, just a bit of preparation.
To prepare a proper cup of tea, you must start with good tea leaves. No bags or sweepings! Only the intact tea leaf can impart the fullest flavor. When the boiling water hits the leaves, they twist and writhe in an activity called the agony of the leaves, and it’s this action that draws the flavor from the dried leaf, even if it does sound a bit cruel. So, begin with tea leaves, measuring out a teaspoon for each cup and one extra teaspoon for the pot. To prepare the teapot, fill it with very hot water and leave it to sit while you put on the kettle. There should be a cup of freshly-drawn water for each cup of tea. The water must be brought just to the very beginning of a boil, so watch it closely. Stale or overboiled water will result in dull tea. Just when the boil is reached, empty the pot of hot water, add the tea leaves, and pour over the freshly-boiled water. Once it has steeped—a few minutes will do, but it will depend upon the variety of tea you have chosen—pour the tea through a strainer to catch the leaves. Sweeten to taste, and add milk or lemon if you prefer. Keep the pot warm for the next cup, and put up your feet while you sip. Tea must be savored, sipped slowly, preferably with a good book and some scones within arm’s reach. And that is the real beauty of tea, I think. Unlike coffee, which insists upon haste, or wine, which demands companions, tea is the perfect accompaniment to solitude.
Now, having said all of that, I freely confess to most often drinking tea made from a tea bag and gulping it at a dash. There is nothing more comforting on a rainy day or more refreshing on a hot one. But every once in awhile, usually when I bring home a new book I am very excited to begin reading, I will bring out my teapot and bake up a batch of scones and make a proper production of the thing. I warm the pot and measure the leaves and treat myself to a full pot of tea instead of a quick cup, and it is then that tea becomes a quiet celebration of a moment. So, when you read DARK ROAD TO DARJEELING, I hope you will brew up a pot of tea and enjoy!
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