On my way back from London in 2007, I brought back a piece of England with me!
No, it is not the jewels that adorns the crown and the sceptre of the Queen, neither is it a piece of Chicken curry that has become the national dish of England. It is associated with a beverage that is just opposite to beer, in terms of its beneficial value and the style of its usage. Yes, It is a tea strainer that I bought from Greenwich and carried it back with me as a proud possession and as a reminder of one of the many good things that England stand for!
Tea, or the English cuppa, made its way into England rather late and it was not until the Dutch and the Portugese traders had started trading in this commodity than the English East India Company decided to get into this trade.
The English society has always placed great importance to tea as a beverage. The English gentleman’s game of cricket has kept an allowance for a special break in the afternoon when the tired players can rejuvenate their spirits and their sportsman spirits with a cup of tea. One also fins mention in many stories about how the English women of the upper echelons of the society in colonial India used to spend much of their afternoon playing host to tea parties on the lawns of their sprawling bungalows. Indeed tea parties have probably been made most famous by Lewis Carol in the book Alice in Wonderland.
I read with interest an article on the website of British UK Tea Council that proclaims tea as the cause for spurring of nationalistic feelings in America and ultimately leading to the start of the American war of Independence. The article was certainly referring to the Boston Tea party, an important event in the history of USA and which helped place tea in the books of history.
It was therefore with great interest that I visited the museum named after the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark. Prior to the visit I was not aware of this vessel that had been anchored in the dry docks of Greenwich and which is the only clipper to have weathered all storms since 1800. Greenwich, for a common visitor like me, meant the royal observatory and the prime meridian and I had no inkling to the fact that it was home to a part of history associated with the popular beverage in Britain. Having seen the Royal observatory and getting ourselves photographed as standing on the prime meridian of the world, we roamed through the streets of this heritage village and reached the river front. Immediately our sight was attracted by a large area that had been fenced and covered with posters all around proclaiming that restoration work was in progress. It was then that we chanced upon a door that led the way inside, to the make-shift museum that opened our eyes to the history of Cutty Sark and the importance that Britain is placing on restoring this piece of history.
Cutty Sark is a tea Clipper and the only such vessel to survive even today. The vessel is a proof of the importance of tea in the cultural life of Great Britain. Cutty Sark was designed and built for John “Jock” Willis who came to be known as “White hat” Willis because he always wore a white top hat. He nurtured an ambition that Cutty Sark should become the fastest ship to be the first to bring home the bounty of tea chests from China to England. In those days the race top bring in the season’s first tea from China to Britain was taken up by the clipper vessels as they were built to be the fastest vessels to sail on the seas. It is believed that White hat Willis named the ship after a Scottish legend that was later turned into a story by Robert Burns. The clippers eventually lost out when the steam ships were built and Cutty Sark was brought back to its present resting place in 1954.
While we couldn’t see the ship itself, as the same had been badly damaged in a fire in May 2007, the tour of the museum provided me with a great deal of knowledge about Cutty Sark. The museum has lots of items on display that is related to either the clipper or to tea. It was while looking among the objects of display that I noticed this lovely little piece that was for sale!
The object was a simple tea strainer but one that was so wonderfully designed that it immediately evoked my interest. Straining the tea leaves is an important task and the success of a strainer can make or mar the cheerful spirit that is associated with the cup of tea. If one carefully observes the different kinds of strainers that one gets to see in India, it also tells a story of its own, about the taste of the person who would ultimately drink the tea and about the type of tea leaves that the person prefers. The many roadside tea shops that one comes across all over India use a piece of cloth as a strainer. These road-side tea shops cater to the common ‘junta’ on the streets of India; people who do not time to mull over their cup of tea. Tea, for them, is often a form of “pick-me-up” a sort of brew that is meant to rejuvenate them after a hard day’s activity or to make the ‘babu’ keep from falling asleep over the files in the office, after his lunch. Therefore the tea vendor usually uses the tea dust or crushed tea leaves that is meant to provide a strong liquor and not so much of aroma or taste. To strain such a kind of tea, one has to use a cloth filter because the holes need to be miniscule in order to prevent the dust from passing into the cup along with the liquor. At the other end of the spectrum is the silver tea strainer which has a beautifully designed border and a short handle that one uses to hold it while the tea is poured on it from a pot. These strainers have bigger holes because their job is to arrest the tea leaves, known as pekoe in commercial world of tea. The pekoe variety has full tea leaves that are curled and twisted while processing but also ensuring that the leaves do not break during processing. Thus the strainer’s job is easier as it does not have to stop the small tea dust from flowing into the cup and therefore the holes can be bigger and the strainer designed in an ornate fashion. The strainer has lost much of its significance today ever since tea bags were invented and the task of dipping to the desired level of strength and colour was left to the consumer rather than the maker of tea.
This strainer that I picked up from the Cutty Sark museum is shaped like a globe split in two halves and made with fine wire gauze, the kind that is used to make tea strainers. Around the equator of this globe is the rim which holds the gauze in its place. The two parts of the globe are joined at the rim with a hinge that facilitates the two parts to be opened in order to fill it up with tea leaves. Having filled the globe with tea leaves, it can snapped shut and then dipped inside a cup or a pot of boiling water. To hold the globe suspended into the pot/cup of water there is long chain attached to end of the globe. The other end of the chain has a cute little piece of tea cup, made of china clay and decorated with brightly painted designs.
It is a very handy piece of tea-strainer and it has set me free in a certain way. I dont have to depend on anyone now to get me a cup of tea. Anytime, I feel like, I can always fill the strainer with tea-leaves of my favourite flavour and then dip-dip-dip; into the mug of warm water (the micro-wave has made the life so much easier by boiling water instantly)! Also there’s no hassle of having to stock expensive, branded tea bags. The strainer allows me to taste the various inexpensive-yet-traditional flavours of Darjeeling tea that my local grocery store stocks. I have fallen in love with this piece of purchase from the land that loves its cup of tea. It will, am sure, keep the memories of Greenwich and London fresh in my mind, for a long time.