What is the proper way to make a cup of tea?

Teapot or teabag? Whats your perfect cuppa?

Teapot or teabag? Whats your perfect cuppa?

It never ceases to amaze me how a seemingly innocuous throwaway line at the dinner table can ignite the most vociferous of debates.

Few, however, are as explosive as the casual comment: 'the proper way to make tea is...'

It was delivered in the seemingly safe setting of casual after-dinner banter among a group of Brits abroad, this time around a table in the Saalbacher Hof Hotel in the Austrian resort of Saalbach as the ski season neared its end.

Yet far from a friend joining the group, it felt more like a silent assassin sneaking up to the meal table and leaving fall-out akin to a detonation sending volatile and conflicting views, as razor sharp as shrapnel, in all directions.

When dropped unwittingly into the conversation, the deliverer of the line had no idea she was pulling the pin on a hand grenade and seemed almost shocked that her view of how to make tea may actually be challenged.

That's how tea-making is, we all think we know best, and actually that's just how it should be because when we make tea for ourselves we always do make a good cuppa, don't we?

Half an hour later, or more, the table was divided in healthy disagreement – albeit amicably, I must stress.

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You see, tea is sacred to us Brits.

India may have its cay, China has 'all the tea in...', it is black in Russia and served from steaming samovars, Japan has ancient tea ceremonies and there have even been tea parties that have changed the course of history, and I'm not talking about the one hosted by the Mad Hatter.

But here in Great Britain, we have a pot, a cosy, tea leaves, china cups, mugs and tea bags.

We heard initially from the voice who triggered the discussion about how she felt tea should be made – about boiling the water, warming the pot, adding spoons of tea leaves (never tea bags, she frowned), and then adding more water and letting the pot settle before re-boiling the kettle and topping up with hot water.

It all seemed very personal. A relevant side debate was also had, of course, about how many spoonfuls of tea were required.

There was common agreement that everyone who would be drinking a cup from the teapot should get one spoonful but there was division over whether the pot deserved a spoonful of tea leaves too.

We all have our favourites – builders, breakfast, perhaps even fruit teas, Earl Grey or a touch of Darjeeling or Assam – but tea has great individuality. And we should take pride in that.

It is not unusual to see pinned on an office wall the range of brownish options of a 'match-pot' chart from paint manufacturers such as Dulux or Crown, not for the décor but the shade of tea. Pale tan for a lot of milk, black for no milk at all, dark brown for a spot and all shades and hues in between.

Milk, it seems is the crucial ingredient.

And while there is personal preference on the amount of milk and the shade, the biggest question of all soon loomed over the table.

Milk in first, or last?

Here, the table backed away into partisan camps – you were either for, or against; there was no middle ground on the milk delivery.

It was actually a very light-hearted debate, the type only Brits abroad indulge in for after dinner amusement, but a most valid discussion at that.

Occasionally, it was added to with a token mention of coffee, mainly fuelled by the frustrated barista at the end of the table unsuccessfully trying to steer the topic round to cappuccino, Americano, mocha, latte and espresso.

But we were having none of that.

There was, as you can imagine, no consensus or conclusion to the tea debate and we all decided the best option was to retreat to the bar and drop the topic.

Now I'm not one to be provocative in such a debate but just for the record, the correct way to take tea is this: take your favourite Man Utd mug, select a tea bag from the flavour of the month (that may be Tetley, PG Tips, Typhoo etc), drop gently into the cherished mug and add a splash of milk. Whilst the kettle boils, allow the teabag to marinate in the milk before adding boiling water. Permit to stand for a few moments, give the bag a good squeeze and then enjoy.