Apparently not. Unless I go to a dedicated tea room, like the slice of sassy British heaven that is Tea and Sympathy here in Manhattan, the aromatic, magical potion that results from pouring boiling water into Yorkshire Gold and letting it steep for the proper amount of time is not what I am going to see coming toward me when I order tea at a restaurant.
I have been a drinker of the sacred beverage since I was ten, and I cut my tea-teeth in Solihull, England, at the daily afternoon break at St. Martin's School for Girls. It was a strong black brew, whitened with whole milk, and sweetened, if you liked it that way. "If you are cold, tea will warm you," said William Gladstone. "If you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; if you are exhausted, it will calm you." Tea at St. Martin's did all that, and set the imprint for what I expect from a cuppa: flavour, heat, energy, and something a little more intangible: gentling.
Let me make it clear that I am talking about tea made from the tea plant, camelia sinensis. Herb tea is made with herbs other than real tea. Confused? Not surprising. It's a simple failure of language. In French – and perhaps in other languages, but French is the one I know – thé is made with real tea, and herb teas (infusions made with herbs, not tea) are called tisanes. It makes sense to have two different words, because most of the time the two are not prepared in quite the same way.
Flavour starts with providing a good black tea to begin with. This tea will not say Lipton on the box. Nor will it say Bigelow, Stash, or the name of an American chain supermarket (I am talking about you, Key Foods!). I'm personally not all that fond of Twinings (as sold in the States) either, because it always seems so, oh, trying hard but too weak in the end to get the job done. My current favourite is Yorkshire Gold, a rich, malty blend that helps me sit a little straighter and think a little faster, and restores my optimism. If there is a good tea and coffee purveyor in your town, you'll be able to get beyond brand names into loose teas from all over the world, and will end up knowing more than I do about the stuff.
Now, dry tea tastes like sticks and leaves (a dry tea bag tastes like sticks, leaves, and paper). You need water, boiling water, to unlock the flavours of black tea. What this means, to the weary traveler, is that one can almost never get a good cup of tea in a restaurant south of the Canadian border, because most of the time the water used has been heated by running it through the coffee maker. Coffee makers are set to heat water to just below the boiling point, because coffee is appalled by boiling water. So it's never going to be hot enough. Then the water, hot-ish and smelling faintly of coffee filters, is poured into a too-small mug, and the mug, with a tea bag (Lipton, most likely) next to it, is brought to the table. Let me recap: it wasn't hot enough to begin with, it's less hot now, and the consummation devoutly to be wished, water and tea together in cup, still hasn't happened.
One drops the tea bag into the cup and waits; the cold, weak brew that results is just plain discouraging. One may drink it, but why? In fact, why bother with anything? It's all so hopeless, really. Nothing matters.
One is hard-pressed to Get Up And Get On With It.
Furthermore, if it is a gentling of the buffeting winds of life that one was hoping for, and that same sense of being cherished that had extended from teacher Miss Waugh as she poured tea for this little newcomer to a school, a community, and a country… well, it just can't happen. None of the necessary ingredients are present: not the good tea, not the boiling water, not the trusting nature of childhood, and not Miss Waugh.
Therefore, I've resolved that henceforth I shall travel with a little electric kettle and a stash of good tea so that, when it's All Too Much, I can fill that kettle, boil the water, and, conjuring a sweet and personal past, brew some smashing tea, knowing that I wlll, no matter where I am, find therein the strength to Carry On.