I have never liked tea from silver teapots but confess I cannot taste any difference between tea from good old crockery pots and those of silver. It's just that silver does not seem right to me for tea.
Sam Twining, however, will let you use silver teapots (or gold, if you happen to have one of them around) or porcelain, but not iron or aluminum, which gives the tea a metallic taste, he has noticed. As you might expect, he will run on as long as you like about tea, a subject on which he must be taken seriously because he has spent some years on the finer points of this elixir, and is the ninth-generation member of his family to be connected with the family firm. Which is Twinings of London.
They sell not only tea but coffee as well, and what we call herbal teas and the French call tisanes, but which Twining refuses to call teas since there is no tea in them.
He wonders sometimes if his forbears were quite pushy enough in the tea business.
"For years we supplied tea to Earl Grey, for whom Earl Grey tea is named, of course. Lady Grey used to send her friends who liked that blend to us and we would sell them some. But we never pushed it or did anything with it much. Then other companies began marketing it in a big way and many people do not know it was Twinings that first produced it.
"The critical thing in it, apart from care with the tea leaves used, is the addition of oil of bergamot."
Twining came to town this week for the display of silver tea services being shown at the Renwick Gallery, a venture his firm is supporting financially. The silver is not antique, but contemporary, and the services are designed by architects, rather than silversmiths.
At lunch he drank a Queen Mary tea, a Darjeeling type produced for the late consort of King George V. I asked if he always drank it and he said certainly not.
"A wine lover does not have a favorite wine, and a tea lover has no favorite tea. It depends on the time of day and whether there's food and what kind.
"You can have great fun blending your own teas to your particular taste," he said, but I thought this a bit advanced and speculated we should learn to walk before trying to run.
"Indeed. Well, you might try sampling different kinds. For breakfast you might try English Breakfast tea. Or, he indicated, Irish Breakfast if you need a stronger jolt to get going. Then for lunchtime you might like a good Darjeeling.
"For afternoon tea I am fond of Lapsang Souchong, rather smoky, and if the day is muggy, perhaps Earl Grey tea. By the way, today seems muggy to me, but I imagine you are quite used to it?
"If the day is cold, then Prince of Wales tea or Russian Caravan is good, and if the day is positively filthy then Vintage Darjeeling. Yes, that is different from plain Darjeeling.
"After dinner, if you have had sticky things I like an Earl Grey, or if it's been a very heavy dinner, a jasmine tea. The Chinese always serve jasmine tea at feasts and banquets.
"For a quiet cup of tea at night there is nothing better than a China Oolong."
Pleased to recognize a name along the way, I said my grandmother drank Oolong and thought it just the thing for refined women.
"It still is," Twining said, though I sensed he would have no objection if quite vulgar and coarse folk also tried it.
"Growing up I always wanted to be in the Royal Marines," he said, "so I was very happy when I joined them and spent a few years among them. Then I joined the family firm, of which I am now director.
"The Twinings have been identified with tea for 300 years, but the present firm was established in London in the late 1700s." But tea had been introduced to western commerce, first to Holland then to England, the century before, and King Charles II made it popular at court.
"Its first use was undoubtedly medicinal," Twining said, but fortunately (I ventured) it never cured syphilis, as sassafras tea did. Or was thought to do.
One of Twining's ancestors opened Master Tom's Coffee House as early as 1706, but even that was too late, probably, for sassafras tea, which was exported to London from Virginia almost immediately after 1607. People used to gather at London tea houses to drink it, until it got the reputation for curing dismal diseases, at which point gentlemen understandably declined to be seen sipping sassafras tea by the gallon.
No such stigma ever attached to real tea, however, and Twining keeps reminding everybody it has only half the caffeine of coffee and does less damage to the brain, gizzard, etc., than booze. And costs less.
Twinings across the years have lofted the tea banner -- one of them lobbied William Pitt to reduce tea taxes -- and of course Twinings were right out there in front to protest cutting tea with sawdust, leaves, gunpowder and smouch. Smouch was ash leaves steeped in sheep dung, and was one of the more ingenious products of mercantile inventiveness. Not only adulteraters but pub owners gave Twinings some hard years, since they feared cheap tea (it was at first very costly) would compete with their ales.
Virtue, needless to say, paid off for the Twinings and now they sell their tea, sans ash leaves and other detritus, in 90 nations, including the Soviet Union, which likes Darjeeling. They still have a tea shop on the original 1706 site and it is visited by people who go where the guide books tell them to go, as well, of course, as people intending to buy tea.
Twining lives with his wife and three children at ("I hate to tell you this because you won't believe it") the agreeable town of Middle Wallop, surrounded by a garden of shrub roses and typical country things, and enlivened by a springer spaniel. One of excellent disposition who does not bite, Twining said, surprised to hear that a lot of American springers snap widely.
He is chairman of the group that oversees firms suggested to receive royal patronage. You know, "By Appointment" to the royal household. Such an appointment implies the product is good enough for the royals and contains, needless to say, no smouch whatever.