Under a dome, it is scandalous. When trouble is brewing, it's tempestuous. But whatever its political history, the teapot has been a fixture in the kitchen since the first cavehusband got into hot water.
Interest in the teapot began in 1650 when tea was introduced to Europe and England from China. The teapot, of course, was soon to follow. At that time it was thought that porcelain was the only acceptable material for teapots since it too originated in China.
Because tea was a very expensive habit, the early teapots were small vessels capable of holding only two or three cups, allowing each drinker a demitasse taste. By the middle of the 19th century, exporting of tea had expanded to a massive business, and the teapot followed. The three-cup model evolved into a large cylindrical pot, sometimes with clawed feet, in silver, pewter, copper, tin and clay. There were pear-shaped teapots with dome lids and affordable bulbous pottery pots for the working masses. Teapots had arrived in every color, material and size for any price.
Granted, there are some people who could care less about teapots. Take Martha Brown of London. She consumed a pound of tea a week. After five years, she ended up as the first person every reported to have liver damage from drinking tea. But Brown didn't brew the tea. She just ate the leaves -- 260 pounds worth.
This is not recommended. Instead, go out and buy a teapot.
As anyone who has ever poured tea knows, buying a proper teapot is a tricky business. If the lid isn't sung, it amy end up in your cup. If the handle is too close to the pot, you will burn your knuckles. If the spout isn't high up enough, the tea leaves will clog the spout strainer.
The logical thing to do when shopping for a teapot is to buy what the queen of England bought -- Ansley bone china. Her pattern is rather elaborate -- a gold embossed leafand floral design, entwined with retangular shapes on cream china. And the price is princely. On special order from Martin's in Georgetown, Woodies or Garfinckle's, you might be able to pick up a "Queen's Choice" pattern teapot for $300 or $400. A more reasonable choice is the "Elizabeth" pattern. A four-cup pot will set you back about $97.
The common folk may prefer an old fashioned Brown Betty or Rockingham heavy porcelain teapot. The traditional pot of "I am a teapot short and stout" fame can be seen in almost any English kitchen or tea room. It has a curving spout, firm flat base and a deeply seated, secure lid. Though usually glazed dark brown, the pot is available in a variety of colors and sizes (three-, four-,six- and seven-cup sizes) from the Kitchen Bazaar that cost from $8 to $15.
A heavy porcelain or ceramic Brown Betty pot is easier to clean because of its simple lines. (If the teapot is not properly cleaned, a film of tannic acid can build up and give the tea a bitter flavor.) Heavy porcelain may retain heat longer, but it is more prone to chipping than bone china.
Glass pots, though attractive, are poor conductors of heat and are difficult to keep warm. But practicality doesn't count for everything. The Jena glass pot, on permanant display at the New York Museum of Modern Art, is one of the Kitchen Bazaar's best sellers ( $30). This glass pot comes with a built-in tea infuser, and because it is transparent you can pluck out the infuser when the tea reaches a desirable color.
Watching tea brew through glass is like watching clothes writhe around in a clothes dryer. If that is your idea of a good time, the Chemex Carafe Kettle ( $25) will keep you occupied. It's shaped like a wine carafe. You can boil water in it (and watch the bubbles jump around) and then brew tea in it. There is a strange little stopper at the top that looks like two squash balls connected with a glass tube. The stopper fits vertically into the neck of the carafe and when the water boils the steam escaprd through the glass tube out the top ball. This keeps the neck of the bottle cool to the touch.
The manufacturer may tell you otherwise, but glass (Pyrex, Chemex, etc.) will shatter if overheated. Use an asbestos mat or a Flame-Tamer under any glass pot to diffuse the heat, especially if using an electric burner. Even a metal kettle will burn out if left on a stove too long. If you are absent-minded, buy a kettle that whistles.
Hand thrown pottery teapots come in a variety of shapes and colors. When examining them, look for these characteristics:
The pot should be well balanced with a firm heavy base.
See that the flange of the lid is deep so that the lid remains firmly in place.
Handles should be placed on the side of the pot. Handles above the lid can put your knuckles in front of the hot steam. If the handle is on the side, it should be far enough away from the pot so your knuckles don't touch the pot.
The top of the spout should be at least as high as the top of the tea pot so the water won't run out when you fill it.
The base of the spout should be above the level of the leaves so that the grid holes don't become blocked.
Robert H. Dick, tea taster for the Board of Tea Experts of the Food and Drug Administration, prefers a ceramic pot to a silver or metal pot. He doesn't like the metallic taste silver or aluminum pots give the tea, and he believes metal pots lose heat too quickly. Dick is also a collector of teapots. A friend gave him a pot from England that has a music box in the base. When he picks it up to pour a cuppa he hears "Hail Britannia." Another of his prized pots has a built in tea cosy -- a metal dome that fits sungly over the pot to keep the tea warm. A similar model, the Cosy Hot Pot, is available at the Kitchen Bazaar ( $25).
Though most teapots come with interior grids at the base of the tea spout to trap loose tea, you may have to buy a fine mesh strainer to catch small leafed Ceylon and Indian teas. Bamboo strainers are attractive. But they should not be washed with detergent or placed in hot water, which makes them rather impractical for straining tea. Those tiny metal-screen spagetti strainers are more useful.
Tea eggs or tea infusers may seem to eliminate the need for a strainer, but they don't. Tea eggs trap the tea so it has little room to expand and brew. Just throw the leaves in the bottom of the pot and let them swim around. If any leaves escape through the strainer, read them to a friend. CAPTION: Pictuses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, Ceramic teapots, on display at the Baltimore Winter Market crafts fair, Feb. 23 to Feb. 25, clockwise from top left: by Candy Norton, by Glenn Dair, by Bruce Kornbluth, by Stephen Fabrico, by Robert Crystal and by James P. Johnston