I work part time at a museum of social history. One element on this is working in our Kitchen Studio, an interactive area focussed on cooking and the home. Mostly cooking. It tends to be historical recipes, though sometimes we go for foods with an interesting history.
I have a real soft spot for unusual foods. I love game and offal, and I like to play around with recipes I find online (like tomato soup cake, which is delicious). I'm not going to regurgitate my training packs from work; I'm going to explore foods and themes that interest me. Hopefully, some of these recipes will be useful in writing, especially historic or fantasy pieces. And hopefully they'll give you something good to eat!
Since I'm British, all measurements will be in metric (unless I'm sharing an American recipe...). There's a lot of websites dedicated to conversion.
Anyway, on to the show. The first month's theme is Tea! It's hot, wet, and British, and it's just what you want at this time of year. Let's start with the basics: making the perfect cuppa
How to Make the Perfect Cuppa
Loose leaf tea
I'm taking advice from that veteran tea-drinking author: George Orwell. He offers an eleven point plan for the preperation of tea - it doesn't take an hour, like the Japense ceremonies can, but there's definitely an element of ritual in it all.
Step One - Choose your tea.
You can use either loose leaf or tea bags, but loose leaf gives a better flavour. Tea bags commonly use what used to be known as 'Tea Dust', the crumbled, dusty parts of leaves that would go straight through a strainer. This produces a stronger, more astringent tea. Fine for a wake-me-up breakfast tea, but it's a waste if you're drinking something like Darjeeling (trust me, bagged darjeeling is rarely as nice as the loose stuff).
So, choosing your tea. Breakfast teas are strong and tannic, e.g. Ceylon. Afternoon teas are delicate and complex, e.g. Darjeeling. Some teas are flavoured, such as Earl Grey (Bergamot oil), Lapsang Souchong (smoked), Jagertee (Rum), Genmaicha (Roasted rice) and Chai (heavily spiced).
Personally, I love Lapsang Souchong, as did William Churchill and James Bond! Though I've been told it smells of kippers...
One should use Indian or Celylonese tea. China tea has virtues virtues which are not to be despised... but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wise, braver or more optimistic after drinking it.
Basically, if you fear a dystopian future, you want a black tea, not green.
Step Two - Boil The Kettle
Water Must Be Boiling. No Ifs, Ands or Buts. Electric kettle or traditional will do, or even a saucepan at a pinch, but a microwave shouldn't even cross your mind. That noise you didn't just hear? That wasn't the sound of the entirity of Britain gasping, because you didn't consider a microwave.
A coffeepot won't work either.
Water should be fresh from the tap, and shouldn't be boiled more than once.
The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep [the kettle] on the flame while one pours.
It is fun using a traditional kettle, because it whistles: a sound traditionally associated with the end of work, like a factory whistle.
Step Three - A Watched Pot Never Boils
While your water is coming to the boil, how 'bout a quick history of tea (from a very British perspective)?
Tea has been cultivated in China for about 4000 years. It was first drunk in Britain about 400 years ago, for comparison. The Dutch and Portugeuse had more trade with the east than we did, so it didn't really take off until Charless II married Catherine of Braganza (Portuguese), and the court took to drinking it.
At the beginning of the 1700s we barely touched the stuff, by 1800 we were importing 11000 tons a year (not including the vast amounts of smuggled tea and adulterated tea) and it was 1/20th the price it had been. Tea drove the British Empire quite literally: it led to the acquisition of Hong Kong and conquest of India.
Hong Kong is quite interesting, actually. Being the bastards we were, we tried to pay China for tea with opium, in the hope they'd get addicted and have to sell us more and more tea. China objected to this business model, and the opium wars began. They ended in our favour, with the acquisition of Hong Kong as a trading post, but during the war we'd also managed something sneaky: we'd stolen some cuttings from China and started growing tea in India, which we'd acquired from the Dutch East India Company a little while before.
Tea actually grow natively in India, in the Assam region, but we didn't find that out until the 1820s. Assam quickly became known as Bitter Tea due to the appalling conditions for the works; a third of them died on site. Definitely a situation of "They're not slaves, we're just not paying them. And flogging them if they try to leave." Did I mention we were bastards? Regulations protecting workers didn't come in until the 1930s.
So, we have lots of tea. While under the East India Company's control, taxes of over 100% were levelled on it at times, but in 1784 the tax was forceably reduced to 17%. Let them Drink Tea!
Speaking of which...
Step Four - Warming The Pot
Your kettle should be near boiling by now. Before it reaches the boil, pour a little hot water into your tea pot. Swill it around until the pot is warm and pour it out.
This is done better by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
This rather depends on your teapot and your kettle. Brace yourself for a cracked pot or burnt hand if you try it.
Step Five - Adding Water to Tea
If you're using loose lea tea, you want one spoon for each person, and one for the pot. If you're using teabags, you can follow the same rule, though after four tea bags in total you're unlikely to need more in an average pot. If you make too large a pot of tea, the final cups will be stewed to tar before you drink them.
For a pot holding a quart... six heaped teaspoons would be about right... I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea stronger, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes - a fact which is recognised in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
Add your boiling water to the tea.
Step Six - Leave to Brew
Black tea wants five minutes to brew, green tea three. Overbrewed green tea is one of the foulest drinks imaginable.
Since we've got a few minutes, how about a few tea facts?
96% of all cups of tea drunk daily in the UK are brewed from teabags. Tea bags were invented by accident in 1908 by Thomas Sullivan, a New York importer who was sending out sample bags. His customers let him know what they thought of them! Tea bags didn't reach the UK until the 1950s, and even then took some time to catch on.
Afternoon Tea was invented by Anna Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford (1783 - 1857). Legend has it she got "that sinking feeling" midafternoon thanks to the rather unbalanced British meals, and requested tea and sandwiches in her room to boost her flagging metabolism. A friend came to visit one day and was invited to partake. Afternoon Tea blossomed into a fashionable meal.
High Tea is different; the main evening meal. It's sometimes known as dinner, but then so's lunch. You can cram a lot of meals into a day if you put your mind to it.
Tea cups didn't have handles until the late 1700s. Like the Chinese, we drank from bowls (which were often shipped to Britain as ballast in tea-bearing ships). In the 1600s we were drinking green tea, but due to the tendency to adulterate it with other leafy material (bits of hedge, sawdust, sheep's dung) and then dye it green again with poisonous chemicals we switched to black. No less pure, but the additions rarely required dyeing, so it was a bit safer to drink. Since black tea was more bitter than green, we started adding milk and sugar, as we were accustomed to in coffee.
Step Seven - Pour Your Tea
If you're drinking green tea, afternoon tea, or one of the more unusual types, I recommend taking in black, at least the first time. Otherwise, let us confront the dreaded tea-milk conundrum!
Tea first or milk first?
If you add the milk first, you prevent it from scorching. This is apparently a good thing, though I have to admit the resulting tea is significantly more creamy than tea-first tea, which I don't consider a plus. If you do, then milk-first it is!
I side with Orwell, who makes the salient point:
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 around.
Other additives make more significant changes to the flavour of the tea. Lemon is quite a nice addition to Earl Grey, but it would smother the flavour of Darjeeling. Honey is best saved for green teas. Jam should be taken on the side (that's a Russian thing).
On, and sugar?
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 and salt.
Apparently in Nepal, they do. So there we go, Mr Orwell.
Orwell, George; 'A Nice Cup of Tea', Evening Standard; 21/1/46
Standage, Tom; A History of the World in Six Glasses; Atlanta Books; 2007