A British Cup of Tea

The British reliance on a good cup of tea goes back a long way. While it started as a new beverage for the upper classes as far back as the 17th century and was presented as a gift to Charles II,  it became a cultural fixture for a number of reasons, not, I hasten to add, linked to the desire amongst the British to boil everything! The East India Trade Company discovered that this robust plant from China could be transfered or grafted to new stock within British interests in India. The plant itself, discovered and used widely in China, is a shrub, Camelia Sinensis. It is a Black Tea that is hard wearing, long lasting and compressed bricks of it used to be used as currency in Mongolia and Tibet. The flavour is strong, restorative and, due to it’s tannins, has been reputed to have medicinal benefits. The trade in tea developed rapidly, combining with the advent of railways to the east and the porcelain industry in England, particularly Staffordshire. The industrial revolution meant longer working hours in a factory environment. Bosses quickly learnt that workers could legally increase their hours if they had a ‘tea break’ which included a cup of tea and a sugary snack or biscuits at 4 o’clock. So tea made it’s transition from the upper classes to a drink for everyone. Prices came down as trade and production became easier. Incidentally and significantly, the new ‘tea break’ meant their drink involved water being boiled, this reduced dysentry, cholera and typhoid, devastating diseases amongst dense populations of industrial England.

Now most tea sold in the UK is a blend of black teas, usually combinations of Assam, Ceylon or Kenyan varieties. Some varieties are sold alone, unblended such as Ceylon, Darjeeling and Assam. Earl Grey is slightly unique and very popular being black tea with bergamot oil. On the whole the British will buy an ordinary blend either as loose tea or teabags. The tea drinking culture now spans all walks of life, ‘Builders tea’ is tea in a mug with milk and sugar already added, drunk a few times a day by working people from builders (obviously!) to office workers, whereas ‘Afternoon Tea’ at The Ritz Hotel in London is an elaborate affair involving beautiful fine porcelain china, sweet cakes, tea in a pot with milk and white sugar offered separately. A sight to behold!

Now, I will defend France’s coffee prowess to the hilt. It is the thing I miss most as soon as I cross the channel back to the UK. Those small, arabic cups of intense flavour as opposed to the British mugs or buckets of milky, watered down coffee look-alikes that cost a small fortune! However, when it comes to tea Europe is still struggling to grasp what this is. It is not a shop full of every ‘tea’ variety under the sun from Assam to Pineapple (for crying out loud!). These are ‘infusions’ not tea. It is not a weak flavoured bag placed next to a mug of hot water (shudder). It is a powerful ‘brew’ designed to fortify and strengthen. The key and the magic being in the process. The closest I got to perfection was in Kathmandu many years ago, when young lads brought around trays of intensely flavoured, fragrant, sweet, piping hot, milky tea in small glasses to sell to all those expiring in the heat, workers and tourists alike.

On the whole I am still a resolute coffee drinker, I would struggle to begin the day without a significant dose of caffeine. But, given an emergency or extreme heat, it’s a good cup of tea I turn to. Excellent in a crisis, restorative and strengthening in a way coffee can never be. For years the remedy for nasty shocks in Britan has been a strong, sweet cup of tea. Workers would struggle to get through the working day without a ‘brew’, remember, no 2 hour lunches for British workers, a sandwich and a quick ‘cuppa’ tends to be enough.

So how do we acheive this perfection? Ask most British people about their tea habits and it will either be a tea bag in a mug with milk and possibly sugar, or tea leaves in a pot with the use of a strainer. Flavours, as we’ve discussed, are usually ‘blends’ put together for us, Go shopping and the labels are: Breakfast Tea, PG Tips, Red Label, Yorkshire, Typhoo, all blends of these black tea varieties. Loose tea, fresh milk and sugar are the norm!

A quick word about strainers here, they need to be OPEN and be able to sit over the cup, enclosed balls or anything that is designed to hold the leaves won’t work, these are for infusuions. I hadn’t expected that finding loose leaves or an open strainer in France would prove to be so tricky!

Now to the actual process of making a proper cup of tea.

The essential items within any British home are Kettle, Tea Pot, Cups or Mugs, Strainer, tea cosy (optional) White Sugar and FRESH Milk. Remember, you cannot make a cup of tea with UHT milk, it simply doesn’t work!

  1. Bring the kettle to a rolling boil using FRESH water or spring water (very important).
  1. Pour a small amount of boiling water into the teapot to warm it. Pour that water out.
  1. Add loose tea leaves to the pot, about a teaspoon per anticipated cup.
  1. Fresh boiling water is then poured over the tea leaves, swirling them initially then leaving them to ‘brew’ (no movement) for 2 to 5 minutes depending on how strong you would like it to be.
  1. A tea cosy may be placed over the pot to keep it warm.
  1. Teacups and saucers can be put out and fresh, cold milk added to the bottom of each cup, a small amount.
  1. A tea strainer is placed over the first cup and tea poured in when ready.
  1. White sugar is added at this point if required.
  1. The pot usually holds enough so that a second round of cups can be poured, the tea cosy is put in place again to keep the pot warm, boiling water can be added to the pot for the second cup if the tea has become to strong or ‘stewed’.

Douglas Adams in ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ describes how to make a proper cup of tea, amongst many things he describes how the water must be boilING not boilED when it hits the leaves!

“Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them.”

Tea in a porcelain cup and saucer also needs to be drunk properly too! If you are sitting the saucer remains on the table and the cup is lifted up to your mouth, do not lean down to meet it, however, if you are standing you hold the saucer with your non-dominant hand and raise the cup with the other, fingers curled into the handle not sticking out to the side! If, on the other hand, you are drinking builders tea from a mug it is really not very important how you drink it just try not to slurp it!!

So, whether you are drinking builders tea, tea after a crisis or tea to celebrate a special occasion, ensure the water is boiling, the pot is warmed, the tea is brewed and you are guaranteed a restoration of the spirit, a calming of the soul and a strengthening of the muscles (see ‘Asterix in Britain’!)

Vocabulary:

Beverage (n) = Drink

Fixture = Something that happens regularly.

I hasten to add = phrase used to emphasise a statement.

Robust = Strong

Grafted = Upper part of a plant attached to the lower part of another related species.

Used as currency = Used instead of money.

Reputed to have (or be) = Believed to be the case or reported to be.

The Advent = The beginning of something.

Staffordshire = A county in the north of England known during the industrial revolution for it’s production of fine porcelain.

A Blend (n) = A mixture of things, often involving subtle flavours.

All walks of life = All kinds of people from many different situations.

An elaborate affair = Something that is complex with many aspects involved. Usually something positive.

A site to behold = Something amazing to see!

To defend something to the hilt = To truly believe in that thing, to defend it’s reason for being. (‘Hilt’ is the part of a sword that is just below your hand, the part that protects your hand from the blade. ‘to the hilt’ means to the furthest point).

Watered down = Phrasal verb (past tense) meaning to dilute or add water to something.

Struggling to grasp = Having difficulty understanding something.

For crying out loud! = An English exclamation like ‘for goodness sake!’, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’ meaning ‘really??!!’ Difficult to believe it’s so ridiculous!

Shudder = A shaking of the body!

A brew (n) = A warm or hot tea

To brew (v) = To add a substance to boiling water or to boil it.

To stew (v) = 2 meanings. 1. To cook slowly like a casserole. 2. To over cook something. When tea is stewed it has been left too long and is now too strong

To fortify (v) = To make something stronger, usually used for people or buildings.

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