Making no bones about bone china

Vintage English tea cups

Fine English china and the pleasures of tea-drinking go hand in hand. The English are notoriously fussy about their tea cups. Not only do teacups have to look delicate and pretty, they have to be strong and durable and have excellent heat retention. The English like their tea scalding hot! Porcelain and bone china are ideal for making English tea sets. Both are known for their whiteness and translucency, high mechanical strength and chip resistance.

Bone china was invented in the late eighteenth century by English potter, Josiah Spode of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, nicknamed the Potteries. Spode was attempting to replicate the Chinese imported porcelain which was in high demand in Europe at that time.

What is the difference between bone china and fine porcelain?

Porcelain is a clay mixture that is fired in a kiln at a very high temperature till it becomes vitrified (glass-like). The end product is non porous, hard and translucent.

Antique bone china teacup (Spodes 1825) Enamel painted and gilded.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bone China has the same properties as porcelain but is made differently. Bone China contains up to 50 percent animal ash (mostly ox bone) mixed in with the clay. The bone is burned and ground to a fine powder before it is added. This gives the ware strength and excellent whiteness. The only difference between porcelain and bone china is the color. Porcelain has an off-white/greyish cast where as true bone china is snow-white.

Here are some totally impractical but fun tea cups for you to enjoy. I’d be a nervous wreck drinking tea out of one of these! Please vote for your favorite.

(Photos: courtesy koihai.com

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Teatime for the Firefly is Shona Patel’s debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

A local-yokel’s take on Chai

Lovely photo of a road side tea shop in Kolkata taken by photographer Anindya Kundu. You can check out his other Kolkata photos HERE

I once drove my mom’s newly washed car into a teepee-sized garbage dump! It happened many moons back in India. My cousin was teaching me to drive a stick shift and instead of reversing I accelerated forward. I could not back out (I must have been paralysed with shock!) and cousin (who is 6ft something) could not get into the driver’s seat to get us out because we both could not open our doors! And, oh mama, the stink! I don’t remember how we extricated ourselves but I do remember after the trauma we badly needed tea and that’s how I discovered the Little Russel Street chai shop.

Popular Hindu deities (Lakshmi the Goddess of wealth and Ganesha the Remover of Obstacles) bless a humble chai shop in Kolkata. Photo courtesy: Debu Chakravarty.

It sits on the corner of Little Russell Street and Middleton Row in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) undaunted by the boutiques, upscale stores and banks that now surround it. A manky little place it is, dark and sticky with the oil of frying samosas. If you come in the nether hours (the perfect time to drink tea is between 11pm and midnight for Calcuttans) you will see shifty-eyed characters lurking in the dim interior. But worry not folks, Calcutta is the safest and most friendly city in the world.

The Russell Street chai shop attracts the lowbrow and la-di-da alike. Fine folks like you and me don’t step inside. We drink our chai in air-conditioned cars parked on the street. Small chokra boys (tea runners) keep a look out for chai addicts cruising by. All you have to do is roll down your window and stick up fingers to indicate how many cups you want and the chokra boy will  bring it to you. And the chai will always be piping hot, aromatic and lovely.

A chai bhaar has no handles. The best way is to hold it by the rim – you will burn your fingers otherwise! Photo: courtesy Prabhat Sinha

Tea shops in Kolkata have staunchly resisted plastic and styrofoam. They kill the chai experience as any aficionado will tell you. Calcutta street tea is served in terracotta bhaars that give the chai a distinct earthy flavor. Please don’t freak out if you find a tiny mud chip sticking to your tongue! Count it towards the overall experience. And when you’re done, guess what? Roll down your window and drop the bhaar right on the street, with ne’er a qualm. Observe the childish glee you feel when you hear it smash with a satisfying “plok!”. Nobody will fine you for littering. Calcutta folks are not uptight and snarky that way. Besides it’s earth to earth, ashes to ashes: bhaars are Mother Earth’s best friend.

The best chai in India is found outside places of worship: temples, mosques and gurdwaras. To learn more about authentic Indian chai, check out this nice post by Patrick on the CHAI PILGRIMAGE BLOG her.

There is nothing posh about Indian Chai. Chai is village tea: the drink of truck drivers, rickshaw pullers and other yokels. Chai is made from low-grade tea dust (not even CTC or whole tea ) which yields an exceptionally strong brew. To this you add full cream milk, fresh ginger, cardamom and a bucket-load of sugar. You can forget about low-fat, lactose-free, unsweetened and other foo-faa customizations: this aint Starbucks, baby. As for American Chai – that is one twisted eight-legged monkey–somewhat like American yoga– much has been lost in the translation. And no, I am not judging anybody but by golly, sometimes marketing can make you believe purple is blue.

But back to the chai…

You don’t need much to make your own chai. The key ingredients are fresh ginger cardamom, mint (optional) tea bags, milk, water, sugar and a saucepan to boil it all in.

If you want the skinny on how to make a cup of good chai – the way the local-yokels make it, here’s what you do:

(This yields two cups) Take a saucepan and add one cup water and one cup plain milk. Take a half-inch stick of fresh ginger and bash in a mortar/pestle and add to pan. Bring it all to a boil.

When bubbling nicely, add two bags of plain black tea (not decaf and not Earl Grey. Plain regular black). I use this brand of Trader Joe Irish Tea. Lipton Red Label/ Yellow label will all work nicely. (You can substitute teabags with two teaspoons of loose CTC Assam tea if you have some) Also add 4  teaspoons sugar (cringing, are we?) and two green cardamoms (bash these in  mortar/pestle as well). Turn the heat down and let it simmer for a minute. Be mindful, because chai has a sneaky way of boiling over and messing up your stove top. Turn off stove. Cover & steep for 30 seconds. Strain and serve. Add a sprig of mint if you like.

So there you go. Not exactly rocket science, is it? No need to  get yourself in a knot over complicated spices. Complicated chai is for complicated people. I like my chai reg’lar like the truck drivers.

Colorful Indian trucks
A road side Dhaba. Those rope Manjis the guys are sitting on are full of bedbugs!

Talking of truck drivers: the absolute, absolute best chai is served at roadside dhabas (truck stops) around Haryana and Punjab in north India. Here you sit on a rickety rope manji and get bit by a hundred khatmals (bedbugs) all to drink the best chai in the world. Dhaba chai is made from all milk: they use no water at all. Often the milk is thick creamy buffalo milk (Indian buffaloes are not the same as those grumpy creatures in Montana. Oh yeah, try milking one of those!). Buffalo milk is so thick and creamy that if you let a cup of dhaba chai sit for 30 seconds, you will find a skin  will form on  top. Good Dhaba Chai has dum (stamina). After all, this is the chai that keeps weary truckers going long nights and lonely miles. Dhaba chai is heady stuff. A single shot will keep you buzzed and in love with life for a long time.

Some nice touristy bhaars with swirly designs I picked up on my last trip to India.

What is the best accompaniment with chai? Did you say samosas? Biscuit? Cake? Nicht, nicht and nicht. What goes best with chai is adda (chit-chat). Friends chai and adda – is a lovely threesome. And believe me folks, it doesn’t get any better than that.

My cousin’s little daughter, now ten, still loves to hear the garbage dump story.

“Shona pishi, did you really drive my dad into a garbage dump?” she asks me over the phone. I hear the giggle in her voice. “Then what happened?” 

“Then,” I say, “we discovered the best chai.” 

LINKS OF INTEREST

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Shona Patel’s debut novel “Teatime for the firefly” is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read more about it HERE.  Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary

A sippa or a cuppa –it’s all zen to me

Ah… tea and wine. Two drinks that make you surprisingly jolly and one can get you into more trouble than the other. I am talking about tea of course 😉

Historically, both tea and wine have been used as a stimulant and intoxicant. The caffeine is tea, though mild, is still addictive. This is why the Mormons don’t drink either. After all there is always a temptation to sit God down in the back porch and say “Hang on, I’ll be right back after that cuppa”. I plead guilty of such transgressions.

Yet both tea and wine are indelibly woven into history and deeply embedded into the ritual, religion and customs of the world. And the similarities do not end there:

A tea plantation in Assam. Learn more about Assam Tea Here.

Tea & wine both capture a sense of place: Terroir’ is a French word that means the combined effects of geography and climate on wine. In other words the soil, climate topography and seasons all play a role in determining the quality of grapes that go to make the wine. And every batch is different even though the wine may come from the same vineyard. Tea follows the same logic. The leading tea regions of India can be broadly compared to the French wine growing regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Languedoc. Also like wine, Indian teas are named after the place where they are grown– each tea carrying the distinct aroma of its region. Darjeeling, “the champagne” of teas” is pale in colour and has a natural delicate, muscatel-like flavour. Assam plays “burgundy” to Darjeeling’s “champagne”. The best Assam teas, particularly the 2nd flush teas, have a robust flavor and depth of color that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Like wine, tea flavor involves both taste and aroma. Many teas and wines have their own intrinsic flavor with fruity, floral or woody notes. This should not be  confused  with herbal teas which have artificial or natural flavors added to a tea base. For example, the litchi flavour of the Gewurztraminer comes from the grapes grown in the Alsace region of northeast France.  Assam Teas have a deep woody note to them. Woody teas are a great after-dinner drink, and aid in digestion.

Fresh grapes, hand-picked makes the best wine

Hand picking ensures premium quality: Good wine and tea are never made from mechanically harvested crop: they are very carefully hand-picked. Exclusive wines are made from hand-selected grapes just as GFOP (Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) the top grade Orthodox Assam Tea is made from hand-plucking only the pubescent tips of a tea bush. The fresh picked harvest has to be processed immediately while the leaves are still fresh to ensure optimum quality. The same goes with wine.

Tea leaves hand-plucked have to be processed within 24 hours otherwise it will spoil

Expertise and know-how are critical in tea and wine making. The decision of when exactly to finish the fermentation of rack a wine is as crucial as that of when to start or stop hand-firing a tea. That can only be learned by experience and determined by experts because wine and tea, are both living, artisanal product where top quality depends on instinct and knowhow.

Bacchus: The Roman God of Wine. To read more about the ceremonial uses of wine CLICK HERE.

Ceremonial & social uses:  In ancient Greece and Rome the mild intoxication offered by wine was valued as a means of

Click here to read an excellent article in Fresh Cup Magazine on the "Rituals, Rites and the Religion of Tea."

entering the irrational realm of Greek divinities. Buddhist monks use tea to help enter a meditative state. Rikyu, an influential historical figure who studied tea coined a phrase that roughly translates to, ‘You can either sit on a cushion to gain enlightenment or you can make a bowl of tea.”

So here I am sitting on a cushion AND drinking tea– that should qualify me for double enlightenment, don’t you think? So whether it’s a sippa or a cuppa, share one with me, will you? And cheers to you, my dear friends!:)

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Since the Book of Grapes (and DANG, it’s a good one!) has  already been written by Johnny Come-First, Shona Patel decided to write a story set in a tea plantation in Assam. You can read more about Teatime for the Firefly HERE.  Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary

Old tea garden bungalows

Manager's bungalow: Ducklingia Tea Estate, Assam, India. I was born and raised here.

This was my childhood home. Yes, we lived in a mansion. British colonial lifestyle, liveried servants, big game hunting, fancy formal dinners -the works. Strange to think of it because these palatial residences were built in the middle of nowhere. Assam. One of the most rain-locked, deeply forested and inaccessible regions of North-east India. Early colonial planters braved the malaria-ridden jungles, dangerous wild game and head-hunting tribes to set up the tea industry in Assam and grow the finest tea on earth. Check the map here if you want to know more about Assam and Assam tea. 

This historic photo of the Digulturrung Tea Estate Bungalow was shared with me by Davey Lamont. I used it as my picture reference for my novel "Teatime for the Firefly". This bungalow has has a fascinating history. To read the intriguing true-life story of "The Elephant Boy of Tea" (reprinted courtesy of Koi-Hai.com) CLICK HERE.
Mancotta Tea Estate (Courtesy Larry Brown)

While researching “Teatime for the Firefly” I started collecting information about tea garden bungalows in Assam. I discovered each one had its unique architecture, charm and even RESIDENT GHOST!Tea garden bungalows come in a baffling array of styles. Here is an except from my research notes:

“In the early days of tea, Managers had plenty of say in the design of their personal residences. It was one of the ego-perks allowed by the Company to entice capable men to join tea. As a result, tea garden bungalows were a startling medley of styles, reminiscent of the dreams and aspirations of their first owners.

Some managers tried to replicate the English-style manor houses of their home country, but the result was a confused mish mash of western architecture using Indian materials, incongruous but fanciful nonetheless.

The Hunwal Tea Estate Bungalow where my best friend Kumi Baruah lived. I spent a lot of time here. This bungalow has one of the most magnificent and ancient Acacia tree, hundreds of years old as seen in this photograph.

I am attaching photos to showcase these wonderful bungalows from Assam tea gardens– most of them have mysterious and quirky names. These photos have been shared with me from tea planters from all over the world. (Planters! I need captions for Bungalows marked “unknown”. If a you have any information of these featured here please send me a message. ) 

Many thanks to the members of the KOI-HAI.COM community for help your loving support.

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If you are an Assam Tea planter and would like to share a photo of a bungalow, please send me a message HERE I will give you my direct email where you can upload the photo. Don’t forget to include the name of the tea garden and the year the photo was taken. Many thanks 
 
I have started a separate photo gallery to showcase tea garden bungalows and will be adding to to this from time to time. Please click PHOTO GALLERY OF ASSAM TEA GARDEN BUNGALOWS here to see what I have so far.
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Teatime for the Firefly is my debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.