A steaming mug sits on a desk in the foreground.
Photo: David Mao on Unsplash

Everyone has their own pandemic heartbreak story. Weddings, graduations and birthday parties — all on hold for now. Even the smallest get-togethers or casual dinners out seem like hazy memories from some other reality, as all current community is one of togetherness in isolation and uncertainty. A wise stranger in a Target panic-buying line said it best: “I tell my kids, ‘We are watching this unfold as one,’” she said. “This is new and hard for every one of us.”

My big heartbreak to bear is a canceled trip to London, years in the making, to finally visit a favorite aunt who is now in a nursing home for dementia. This would have been a first trip to England for my husband and son, and a chance for me to say farewell. Instead, I watched in dismay as our window of opportunity to travel began to shrink and then close altogether, and finally become moot as my aunt’s care home went on lockdown. Now, of course, even a trip down the hallway of our apartment building feels like a risk.

A wise stranger in a Target panic-buying line said it best: “I tell my kids, ‘We are watching this unfold as one,’” she said. “This is new and hard for every one of us.”

Years ago, that same aunt housed me for a time in London when I was 18. She organized large fundraising campaigns for charities, loved the theatre, her garden and small dogs. And like most of her generation, she took tea every day at four o’clock. As her young lodger, that daily ritual became my job. I learned quickly which type of tea matched which occasion (“Earl Grey? Do we have visitors?”); that the water had to be at a boil just as it hit the leaves; that the tea should be allowed to steep for four minutes to suit her taste. I would then assemble the formal tray of cups, saucers, strainer, creamer, sugar bowl, tongs, teaspoons and teapot to haul into the sitting room for her to pour out and serve, usually with some cake or a chocolate biscuit, in a little ceremony with enough subtle etiquette to fill a book.

By the end of the process, I really needed that cup of tea. Luckily, the results were always delicious, and I began to understand my aunt’s daily demand for, and delight in, her moment of pause and refreshment. Soon, even the ritual of making the tea became something to look forward to — boil water, add it to the leaves, steep, inhale the steam. I joined her in savoring each sip.

As tea lovers from all cultures have known for centuries, a fresh cup of hot tea, prepared in solitude or shared formally or lovingly (or both), is one of the great comforts of life. It’s more soothing than coffee, more reviving than wine, comes in varieties to suit all tastes, and according to Wikipedia, is the second most consumed beverage in the world aside from water. (Also, like most of the world’s most sought-after commodities, it has a turbulent history, but that’s an article for another time.)

As tea lovers from all cultures have known for centuries, a fresh cup of hot tea is one of the great comforts of life.

It was from my aunt that I learned how troops found ways to brew tea in the trenches during World War I, and at the front lines in the Second World War. In times of crisis, tea can be more than just a restorative drink; the simple preparation and, if possible, sharing of tea are reminders of the peace and normalcy that will return once we make it through.

In a pre-pandemic social media post, Berkeley specialty tea shop Teance quoted Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing towards the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”

In that spirit, let’s bring a moment of calm and self-soothing to our current situation. Brew yourself a really good cup of tea, hopefully, with leaves from one of our local purveyors, some of whom are still selling their fine teas to-go, online for pickup, or wholesale at local grocery stores. Take comfort in the process — boil, steep, prepare — and if you’re unsure of any steps, learn and practice them. Then breathe in and focus on the slow, simple, ancient pleasure of a cup of tea, and reflect with fondness on the separated friends, family and loved ones around the world taking solace in the same. If ever it was time for tea, it’s now.

Where to get tea locally

BLUE WILLOW TEA Owner-operator Ali Roth, who, like many, considers good tea an essential, is accepting orders for pick-up at her Berkeley tea shop’s door. Contact her via website, direct message on Instagram, by emailing teaspot@bluewillowtea.com or calling (510) 524-1933.  If demand continues, she hopes to be open two days a week for cash-free retail sales of packaged tea — watch Instagram for updates. Blue Willow has a wide range of more than 60 varieties of tea; Roth is currently turning to immunity-boosting Japanese green teas such as matcha and a red Taiwanese tea called Red Dragon for comfort.

FAR LEAVES TEA Co-founder Peter Christy let Nosh know that they are fulfilling online orders while the West Berkeley shop is closed, with a 15% discount until April 7 for customers who use the word NESTING at checkout. Some of Far Leaves’ teas are also available online at Umami Mart in North Oakland for curbside pick-up. Christy said he is always partial to Taiwanese oolong, but suggested a blood orange infusion tea as a decaffeinated possibility that kids might also enjoy. He also encourages browsing their blends that promote wellness.

TEANCE The West Berkeley shop is closed for now, but Teance will still ship its high-quality imported teas from its website.

SOPHIE’S CUPPA TEA Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood shop specializing in teas sourced from China is hosting limited hours for to-go purchases of loose tea by the ounce, with information on a recorded message that changes weekly. Call (510) 500-3404 for availability.

Freelancer Joanna Della Penna has written about food, people and the arts in the Bay Area since moving here from the East Coast in 2001, and was Gayot's Northern California regional restaurant editor for...