Sunday, January 2, 2011

The teacups of summer

One of the warning signs of holidays at my place is the trail of teacups I leave around the house as I waste time from room to room. During the dreary work year I quaff huge drafts of tea from mugs that could comfortably house colonies of large frogs but on my break I use dainty little teacups that hold a mere tadpole's worth of beverage.

I always check the china shelves for orphaned tea cups when I'm scouring op shops. Cups with saucers are not so common - if they are pretty and in tact, chances are they won't be donated. But single cups - well, they're a burden to the orderly housekeeper.

Not to me.
Here's some hunting tips if you think you have space in your heart and cupboard for some orphan teacups:

*Check them carefully for chips and cracks. This kind of damage is fatal and will - sooner or later- lead to your teacup breaking either in service or during washing up. Run your finger around the rim, around the inside surface and have a good look around the handle. All clear? Perfect.
*Regard stains with suspicion. Tannin stains from tea and coffee can sometimes be soaked away by filling the cup with a good squeeze of lemon, or warm water and a healthy splosh of vinegar ... but not always.
*Run your finger over the surface of the pattern. Is it slightly raised, can you actually feel the outlines? Bravo! It's hand painted. Completely smooth surfaces don't necessarily mean transfers, particularly with more modern pieces and very sophisticated glazing techniques. If you're looking at English china from the first half of the twentieth century, chances are it's hand painted. However, the same goes for German pieces of the late twentieth century. The value of the hand painted pieces are commensurate with any hand made piece of art - you're buying a little slice of someone's time and talent.
*I pay between fifty cents and two dollars for a cup, depending on how lovely it is. They have no real monetary value without their saucers except to collectors, so remember as you shop that you're buying little pieces of pretty, not investing in priceless antiques.
*I buy cups because they are pretty and have flowers, but it's always interesting to know a little bit about what you're buying. Here are some manufacturers to look out for: Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Shelley, Royal Worcester, Royal Winton and Spode (all English). Thomas and Rosenthal are two modern German firms, while the danish firm Royal Copenhagen makes excellent coffee cups. Noritake is one of the more popular Japanese manufacturers.

Companies change their brandings frequently so a cup's markings are a good way to pick the age of a piece (if that's important to you):

I just want to add here that I think Moss Rose is a beautiful name for a floral pattern.

As you become more cup-confident, you'll start to amass an interesting range of orphans and occasionally stumble across a wonderful piece with a saucer. Here are three of my favourites:

I might have to travel in economy on the actual plane but for $1.00 at the Salvation Army I managed to get an upgrade I can enjoy in my own home.

Yes, that's a Christian Dior rose in that cup. You'd be surprised how good this little cup can make black coffee and a macaroon taste.

And this strange old timer came from a market in Tasmania. The design is quite raised and the cup appears to be made from stone and clay, or maybe ground bone and clay (as in bone china). There are no clues to the maker expect this:
I use my teacups for all kinds of dining pleasures: serves of yoghurt, slices of peaches and a dollop of ice cream, a strong shot of espresso with a spoonful of vanilla ice cream (bliss), a serve of jelly beans, a serving of dry cereal, a cup of rice milk with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top, some cous cous with chopped up dried apricot. And obviously for tea or coffee.

They are also a great way to distract a tableful of guests when the dessert cake has sunk. Everyone likes to compare their cup so you can slice a woeful cake while everyone is chattering. If serving tea or coffee without a saucer irks you, plain white bread and butter plates show of the design and colours of the cup and allow room for biscuits too.

One final plea - no dishwashers! Warm soapy water in the sink or you'll soon have plain white cups.