PhD InsaniTea

Vera Veldhuizen is a second year PhD at Cambridge, focusing on children’s war literature. She also likes cats, but mainly dogs. And baking.

Are bookish people necessarily tea people? I suppose not, and it is true that there are a few too many days when I run on caffeine fumes (and I fear I’m not the only one). It is a classic image though, the combinating of books (not Kindles!) and cups of freshly made tea, it just feels right.

There is something so incredibly pleasing about the sensations of holding a book in the one hand and a cup of steaming tea in the other, even if it is impossible to find a truly comfortable position for reading. Even aesthetically it is simply pleasing. Maybe it’s because we are all secretly old(school) ladies inside (but then why are drinking tea and reading, especially when combined, gendered ideas to me? A discussion for another time, perhaps). For now let us focus on the feeling, the texture of the page in your one hand, and the warmth from your cup almost but not quite burning your hand in the other, the scent of your tea that has infused almost too long as you lost yourself in your reading, but not yet.

The problem with doing a PhD in literature (I know I make it sound like there is just one, like it isn’t a marathon you run whilst on fire) is that reading becomes work. Sure it is still a fun, interesting and enjoyable activity, but when you start looking at literature in a certain way it becomes increasingly difficult to “switch off” and return to the wide-eyed wonder I so distinctly remember from youth. I once almost set the oven on fire when my mother left me in charge of the bread (silly mistake on her part) while I was reading The Secret Garden. I devoured books in a way I cannot anymore. This is not necessarily a loss, as I have gained a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the actual art and craft that goes into these books I enjoy so much. It does mean, however, that it does not give me energy in the same way anymore.

Why Vera, you may think, that seems like a bit of a non sequitur. To that I’d say yes, maybe it does seem that way, but stop being so impatient, it’s going somewhere, I swear.

Just reading is not guaranteed to give me pure pleasure anymore. But for some reason, the combination book-and-tea does. Something about it all just relaxes me, even when I am borderline overwhelmed by the PhD insanity. Because even though it is a burning marathon, I do like exercise, and strangely hot tea helps take the heat off of things. So to share with you all I will briefly outline my 4 PhD InsaniTea recommendations. Do mind that I am a bit of a tea purist, so these are all loose leaf teas!

Morning: Earl Grey (Anywhere)

It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s a classic. Except it isn’t actually that simple a tea. In its simplest form it is a black Chinese tea blend with essential oil of bergamot. You can also have it as a green or oolong though, which is very exciting. It’s got quite a bit of caffeine in it too, so it’s good fuel to get you started! And if you’re British or Irish and have no taste, you can let it infuse way too long, get more caffeine from it and let it go completely bitter, and add milk to it to salvage it. If you want to be weird about it, that is.

Afternoon: English Rose (Whittard) 

Oh this one is just beautiful, simply gorgeous. It is just a simple, Chinese black tea to which some genius added rose petals. The result is a tea with an easy drinking body and an incredibly strongly perfumed yet soft to the palate rosy quality to it. I like drinking this in the afternoon because it is the best tea I own for transporting myself away, a form of tea-escapism almost. It’s hard not to imagine myself as a true English Lady with absolutely nothing of consequence to do besides taking down my other socialite enemies, drinking a cup after a particularly successfully pulled off social strategic move (take that, Margaret!). If you don’t have this one you can replace it with a Lady Grey, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t run out and get you some of this.

Late afternoon/evening: Bohea Lapsang Souchong (Jing)

This is an intensely smoky number, and it actually reminds me a lot of a peated whiskey in many ways. It’s warm, intense, and comforting. Think of it as the liquid version of a roaring woodfire in your fireplace on a cold evening. It has this flavour because they dry the tea in a room above a smoldering pinewood fire. The Bohea version is a little bit more nuanced in its smoky pallet because there is more distance between the fire and the drying room (non-Bohea is dried not in a drying room but in baskets right above the fire!), but both will give you a bit of a shock if its your first time. After a long frustrating day this is exactly what I need to give me a kick in the behind and prevent me from falling asleep too soon! Plus you can use Lapsang Souchong as a cooking ingredient to add a lovely smoky flavour to whatever you’re making.

Evening/night time: Milk Oolong (Whittard again, I’m sorry)

Now we are back to relaxing, possibly with a book – if I/you can still be bothered to read at this point. This tea is an Oolong which has been fermented with milk. Because of this it has a creamy, biscuity flavour that is a bit reminiscent of those cheap Marie or Rich Tea biscuits. The scent is very strong and sweet, and to get a similar cookie level you’ll have to let it infuse for at least 5 minutes.  One of the benefits of Oolong teas is that you can use 1 filter bag multiple times, and the flavour stays strong. This one is just so easy to drink, lighter than black tea but a bit heavier than green it’s thick, it’s creamy, it’s floral, and a perfect pairing with any book! This is another one of those escapist teas that just helps me with losing myself in another world like no other.

So there you have it, teas galore!

And as lame as the meme has become, it’s especially true in cases of literature PhDs:

And don’t forget to carry on!

One comment

  1. This sounds just perfect! I love Earl Grey, for me it’s perfect for both a pick-me-up-in-the-morning as well as for winding down at the end of a long day. Good luck with your PhD!


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