A mug for a mug

Two things need to happen each day to ensure I’m functioning fully as a responsible adult. Firstly, and before leaving the house: tea. Then later, preferably mid-morning, one perfect coffee, which acts as breakfast. If it’s not perfect, I might need to have another one, but this will be disappointing (and costly) on all fronts.

So, what constitutes the perfect drink? Well, it does depend on which country you happen to be in. Sri Lanka, for instance, doesn’t coffee well, although this is rapidly improving, so I might have to eat (or drink) my words on my next visit. But in places such as this I stick to tea, and preferably from a cheap eats cafe or a bus station where they will serve it well-stewed but not bitter; black; sweet but not sickly, and infused deliciously with ginger to ward off any discomfort from the twisting roads and enthusiastic driving. In Latin America and many parts of Europe it’ll be coffee all the way; an insipid Lipton tea bag floating in lukewarm water is more trauma than I can handle first thing in the morning. But let’s assume I’m at home, in Scotland.

Tea will be builder-style: a tea bag is okay, provided it has been made with fully-boiling water and left just long enough for a strong and flavoursome brew, but not long enough for it to cool. Warming the mug first helps. Next, it must have just enough soya milk in it to turn it an orangey-brown colour. Appearance is important; tea made with cow’s milk looks grey to me, now. The type of milk is important, too. While I will tolerate almost any non-dairy milk rather than none ( black tea being acceptable only in Sri Lanka, or sweetened and minted, as in Morocco), the correct soya milk turns that first morning cuppa from a life-saving necessity to a life-enhancing delight. Basic, unsweetened, long-life soya is ideal. Usually the cheaper it is, the better is tastes, too. Coincidentally.

While I’m more than happy to drink Italian espresso or cardamom-infused Arabic coffee milkless, the perfect mid-morning fix is made very strong and latte-style with barista oat milk. Lightly-frothed, but not so much as to impair its inherent creaminess. It’s more of a visual thing. It is said that the water must be off-boiling for coffee, and that it should be allowed to rest for some minutes before pouring, but I can’t bear it when it starts to get cold. Reheating it is not a satisfactory option, so it does have to be piping hot in the first place. A cloth wrapped around the cafetière or coffee pot while it is brewing helps. Creating artistic designs on the surface of the foam is not imperative, although it adds a sense of occasion, and when you’re only planning on one coffee a day, this matters.

Now let us not forget what is possibly the most vital aspect of all: the vessel. Here I must confess something I dare not, on a day-to-day basis, admit whilst working at the pottery. Okay, I may have mentioned it. In passing. Then quickly back-pedalled. In truth, the first, precious drink of tea tastes better, and stays hotter, in a china mug. My favourite, a gift from Liz while sharing the Bournemouth house, when we were teaching English in the summer of 2007, is a tall one, slightly flared at the rim, and covered in kittens. When I think of it – and I do, frequently, now it’s packed away in storage and I’m scrabbling around for a substitute – I don’t see the kittens. I simply taste the best-ever tea.

An acceptable second choice – and absolutely, definitely, the first choice for everything else including afternoon tea, outdoors tea, camping tea, hot chocolate and most certainly coffee – is, of course, a beautiful, comforting and hard-wearing Highland Stoneware mug. Imitation is no substitute and nothing else comes close.

Naturally, I have a lot of mugs, and I love each one. So when I realised I should be taking one with me on my travels, I was paralysed by sudden indecision. How to choose just one? It has to be my favourite. But wait, what if it gets broken? So it must be something that can be replaced. A pattern not likely to be discontinued. And really, should it not be something I’ve painted myself? Or something that would remind me, every day, of the place I still call home.

After some anguish, and with my already-owned mugs safely tucked away in boxes, I have narrowed the field to four possibilities, as pictured. On the far left we have the gorgeous honeysuckle, painted by Linda, from which I drink the delicious pottery coffee when I’m working, in our eagerly-anticipated morning ritual. I am not sure if I can be parted from this mug; it’s so much a part of my daily routine and the sight of it certainly sparks joy, even when empty. But, how would I feel if it got broken?

Next to the honeysuckle sits one I painted in ‘Rockpool’. This is my favourite pattern, and I love painting it, too. But does this particular mug have special meaning?

Third is this year’s Mug of the Year, designed and painted by the very talented Tracey. I don’t always love the mugs of the year but this one is very pretty. It’s the title, though, that makes it particularly appropriate: Time flies. And how it does! It would remind me, every day, to make the most of this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given, just as I made the absolute most of my decade at Highland Stoneware. I didn’t paint it, though.

On the far right is a common-or-garden landscape mug, which happens to depict Suilven. Landscape is generally not my favourite pattern. Yet, taking Suilven with me seems sensible. I’m a landscape painter, so one of my landscapes, showing my favourite mountain, could be the obvious choice.

Might I just add that I have only room for one mug in my pack. This is non-negotiable.

The icing on the cake, when partaking of a favourite beverage, is the location. For me, that would be outside, in sunshine. It’s been a long-held dream of mine, oft thwarted, to drink my morning tea standing in warmth, just outside wherever I am living, or staying. It’s a small ask, I feel. In my flat, I used to stand looking out of my kitchen window, my bottom on the storage heater, my fingers cupping kittens. Sometimes I’d spot an otter, and I kept binoculars on the windowsill. I was warm, cosy and content; it was close to Heaven. But I knew that one day, somehow, I’d be drinking that tea with the sun on my face.

So no matter which I choose to accompany me on the next part of life’s journey, it’s going to be an indoor/outdoor mug, and it’s going to be a source of great happiness. I might even photograph it on its travels in exotic locations, if we stay together long enough. A mug is for life, but how long does a mug live? Long enough to bring back travel tales to its envious cupboard-mates?