In his latest series award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the teapot and strainer
Words and illustration: Ed Smith
Ratan Mandal, Tea2You
I have been a Borough Market trader for six years now. We sell fine teas from the Indian sub-continent, including the very best teas from the gardens of Darjeeling. We use teapots on the stall all day, every day, as we prepare teas for customers to try and to take away—and it’s an essential thing for everyone at home too, isn’t it?!
Before I set up my business at Borough Market, I spent three years studying ceramics on a scholarship at Sunderland University. Before that I was a ceramicist in India, so it’s fair to say I have a lot of knowledge about teapots and an opinion as to what makes a good one.
There’s nothing worse than a teapot that doesn’t pour properly. Usually, the ones that dribble and spill have been made for looks alone, without real consideration as to how they should work.
A very stable base
A good teapot will have a very stable base and is still stable and balanced once you have picked it up by the handle. That handle needs to be an appropriate size—actually, there are a lot of anthropological reasons for different country’s teapots having different sized handles and so on. But perhaps that’s for another conversation.
The spout is obviously crucial. For it to pour properly, the top of the spout should be parallel with the lip of the pot so if you took the lid off and rested something between the lip and the spout, it would sit flat.
The spout needs to be angled or fluted in a way that helps the tea to pour easily, and the shape and angle of the hole at the tip of the spout needs to mirror the shape and angle of the hole at its base, where the spout joins the pot. All these things help the liquid to flow well.
Tea habits depend on the country that you’re drinking in. In India, we drink out of small cups. The Chinese have their tea ceremonies and of course in England, there’s afternoon tea. The pots and the cups we use to drink come out of those experiences and the idea of an English teapot is that it’s for social occasions.
I prefer a two-cup pot, which holds about 255ml of water. For me, a four-cup teapot never brews quite as well. The particular one we have at the stall has a strainer inside, which is a relatively recent thing in Britain. For a long time we have used tea bags and before that, in the 18th century, people just used to use loose leaves and pour from the pot carefully.
Actually, if you’re using very fine teas—my first flush Darjeeling, for example—then you shouldn’t use a strainer. The strainer confiscates the flavour of the tea. Really all you need to do is let the tea leaves settle down.
A good tea
People talk about three and four minute brews and various different weights of tea and water, but I don’t want tea-drinking to become complicated. If you have a good tea, the drink will not become bitter from being in water for too long so I just tell my customers that it’s simply a case of one flat teaspoon of tea leaves for a two-cup pot of tea. Pour in the recently boiled water, and when the tea leaves have sunk down and settled, then the tea is ready.
If it’s just me, I make tea in a cup: boiled water, dash of cold water and let the leaves drop. But when there’s more than one person, I do like using a teapot.