"Humans have been taking tea forever, and one of the wonderful things about tea is how democratizing it is," explains Tom Parker Bowles, a British food writer and author of The Cook Book: Fortnum & Mason. But that doesn't mean all cups of tea are made equal, and if you're looking to make the perfect cup of tea every single time, look no further for advice than Fortnum & Mason. The London department store has been obsessed with high-quality tea for over three centuries and is known for its luxe afternoon tea. After all, Fortnum's Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth back in 2012. With a little bit of guidance and a lot of practice, you too can make tea at home just like they do at Fortnum's.
According to Bowles, Fortnum's process for making tea has been refined over the decades and is still enforced by a veritable army of people at the department store's restaurants. "That means ensuring the water is fresh-drawn and heated to the correct temperature, and the tea is steeped for the correct period of time," he writes in an email to Extra Crispy. "Tea is so rich and complex in terms of flavor; the brewing process is about letting those flavors reveal themselves fully."
As Bowles writes in The Cook Book, the Fortnum's tea-making ceremony is a five-step process, starting with the basic ingredients. Bowles does note, however, that, "while Fortnum's is very particular about how tea is made, it's also important to say that there is no hard and fast 'perfect' process; tea is very much what you make it."
The best advice Bowles can give to inexperienced tea drinkers? "Be bold. Try everything, and you'll be surprised at what you discover. I think many people have this wrong-headed idea that tea is tea is tea. Nonsense. There are grassy teas, malty teas, honey-sweet and gently-floral teas, and so much more besides." The only way you'll know what you like is by trying them all. "Set your kettle boiling, get brewing, and explore," he says. "Add a dash of milk, a little honey, a spoonful of sugar, a slice of lemon. Tea is adaptable. Find something you like and make it your own."
So here are the five steps you need to follow if you want to make tea fit for royalty.
Use Loose Leaf Tea
"Loose leaf tea will always give the better pot," writes Bowles in The Cook Book. "The leaves are whole and unbroken, expanding as they steep, releasing all those fragrant oils, flavors, and aromas. In short, they stretch to release their full potential." If you are buying tea that's been prepackaged in tea bags, make sure it's whole leaf, not chopped.
And Fresh Water
"Always make a pot of tea with fresh water," writes Bowles. The reason? "When it's been boiled once, it loses its oxygen. And its zing. Flat, stagnant water does not make for a good pot."
Before you brew your tea, you want to warm up your teapot with hot water. "Most black teas (e.g. Royal Blend) need water at boiling point to release all their flavors," Bowles explains. "When hot water hits cold porcelain, the temperature drops and you won't get to appreciate all the joy contained within the leaves."
Time Your Brew
"Brew most teas for 4 to 5 minutes; 1 to 3 minutes with some of the greens," and if you want to make the most of your tea, be sure to let the leaves steep for the full time. "A common British problem is not brewing for long enough," Bowles notes in The Cook Book. "The buyers wince when they see a tea bag dipped in the water for 10 seconds, then taken out. The result is little more than caramel-colored hot water, and you'll lose all that lovely flavor they've worked so hard to create." Bowles does warn, however, "don't over-brew. If the leaves spend too much time in the hot water, they'll stew, resulting in a bitter, over-strong cuppa."
Add Milk at the End
There's nothing to say that adding milk makes a cup of tea less than perfect, but you want to be sure to time it properly. "If you do wish to add milk, please make sure this is done after the tea has fully brewed in the water. We recommend that milk is added to the cup first, then your freshly, fully brewed tea is poured into the milk," he writes. "This gradually heats the milk rather than 'shocking' it. It also helps to protect your best china from cracking." And if the china cracks, how can you drink the tea?