How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.


After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

Important stories from the British press

What people lose

You can learn a lot about a country by what it leaves behind. So what does Transport for London report having found on the city’s trains and buses? A life-sized Spiderman doll. A prosthetic leg. Endless wallets, phones, and tablets. Umbrellas. A judge’s wig, a room-sized carpet, and an urn with human ashes. “Enough musical instruments to form a band,” including drum kits. No grand pianos, apparently.

I’m not sure who I’m quoting about that band, but unlike some quotes that drift through the culture, this one seems to have actually been said because the newspaper article I’m stealing the information from put it in quotes. It’s probably from a TfL spokesperson.

Oh, and a brown paper envelope with £15,000. Which the finder actually turned in.

A rare relevant photo: A London tube station. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Vaguely relevant photo: Public transportation, although not in London. This is the Exeter St. David’s train station. Photo by Ida Swearingen

I don’t know what any of that tells you about British culture. That judges wear wigs and ride the tube. That someone either thinks or knows that a judge’s wig is different from a lawyer’s. That stuff drops out of people’s pockets. You know—phones,  wallets, room-sized rugs, tubas. An archeologist would have a field day.

But the real treasures are in the comments at the end of the article, where readers talk about the stuff they’ve lost on public transportation (Guardian readers write the best letters to the editor and their online comments aren’t bad either): “the will to live” (Northern Line, winter of 1993), “the woman I love” (Chalk Farm Station), “my heart” (San Francisco, which is a city, not public transportation, but what are categories for if you can’t break out of them?), and democracy (location not specified but probably also not on public transportation). I won’t spoil all the fun. A lot of the jokes are about that prosthetic leg, but not all. I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself.

Tom Lehrer said, “Life is like a sewer: What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” That may not be entirely relevant, although in an odd way it does seem to  belong here, but it is at least a genuine quote. (In a comment, Retirementally Challenged introduced the theory that some of the best quotes never got said.) Lehrer’s comment was on a record I played endlessly when I was in my teens. He may be to blame for the way I am.

What someone bought

You can also learn a lot about a country from what it sells. Want to buy a title? One was going to be auctioned off in December with (as far as I can figure out) a starting price of £7,250. I assume it sold. Sorry I didn’t let you know about it earlier but the clipping sank into the morass I call a computer desk and only just surfaced. So let me tell you what you (may have) missed:

The lordship of the manor of Woodbury Salterton village is roughly 1,000 years old. Buy the title (lord or lady) and you can use it on your checks and credit cards. You can join the Manorial Society of Great Britain. You can—. Oh. That’s pretty much it. I suppose you could put it on your mailbox. You could try to get mail and packages addressed to you that way. I have a post about that somewhere. Good luck finding it.

And all that for just £7,250–or maybe more, since it was an auction. What a thrill.

The manor (sorry, not the title; oooh, I’m getting all English, apologizing for stuff that isn’t my fault) was mentioned in the Domesday Book. If you haven’t heard of that, it was commissioned by William the Conqueror not long after 1066, when he decided to find out what he’d gotten his paws on in conquering England. The country, as it turned out, had no football teams at the time, no umbrellas, and no tea. You wonder why he bothered. It probably didn’t even have scones, since baking soda (that’s bicarbonate of soda if you’re British) and baking powder weren’t in use yet. At least not in baking. The Egyptians used a relative of baking soda to clean things and mummify people, but for baking? Nope. Not until the nineteenth century. Next time you find a list of all the marvelous things you can do with bicarbonate of soda, see if mummification’s on it. If not, it’s incomplete.

Where were we? Titles. The Lord or Lady of Whatsit. The newspaper article gushed a bit about the title (or maybe that was the manor; do you really care?) being steeped in English history, but I wasn’t impressed. Pretty much everything here is steeped in history. When they dug trenches for sewage pipes in a neighboring village, they found the remains of a prehistoric encampment and a burial site that mixed Christian (east-west burials) and pre-Christian (buried with grave goods, and I think north-south). One person was buried east-west and with grave goods, so whatever happened after death he or she would be ready for it. So history? You don’t need a title around here, just a sewage pipe.

What the British drink

Sales of tea have gone down 6% over the past five years and ordinary teabags—the ones that make what people call builder’s tea—have gone down 13%. It’s all (or mostly, anyway) the fault of coffee. The British have discovered that coffee can be something more than instant granules stirred into hot water and swallowed quickly enough to keep the taste from becoming noticeable. Coffee’s gone upscale. Tea sales are going down downscale.

There’s an English song that I have got to find time to make fun of someday, “There’ll Always Be an England.” It’s full of pomp and Empire and flag waving, and my apologies if you love it but the first time I heard it I was in one of those situations where you can’t let yourself laugh. I built up enough residual hysteria that I splutter when I so much as read the title. But the reason I’m bringing it up now is this: If tea is losing ground to coffee, will there always be an England? And not, how much longer can we count on it?

Long enough for the British Standards Institution to publish a guide to making the perfect cup of tea. It has the catchy title “Preparation of a Liquor of Tea for Use in Sensory Tests.”

What does it recommend? According to the Independent, it says, “You need a pot made of porcelain, and there must be at least two grams of tea to every 100ml of water. The temperature can’t go beyond 85 degrees when served but should be above 60 degrees for “optimum flavour and sensation.”

The Independent then interrupts the poetic prose and steps in to summarize: ‘The perfect pot size is apparently between 74mm and 78mm wide, and 83mm and 87mm tall. Since the average tea bag contains 1.5g of tea leaves, at least two tea bags should be used for a small pot, and four for a large one.”

The tea should brew for six minutes. And you should pour the milk into the cup first. That last decree is controversial. Seriously. If we have a civil war anytime soon, it will be over whether the tea or the milk should hit the cup first.

Which makes me think that, yeah, there probably always will be an England.

Updates on tea and medical bureaucracy

I get some fantastic comments on this blog and a few of them just have to break out of the comment section. So I’m going to pick up on four of them, two about tea and two about medical bureaucracy.


If you’re American, you think I already wrote more about tea than is either intellectually or physically possible. But I live in Britain. Tea is the binding force that holds the nation together, and let me tell you it’s looking a little shaky lately, what with Scotland having held a referendum on whether to leave the union and, far more shockingly, so many kids these days getting their caffeine from energy drinks instead of a respectable source like tea. Not to mention the number of tea drinkers allowing themselves to be seduced by fancy coffee and if that isn’t enough the possibility that Scotland will hold another referendum in the (less than immediate) future.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: fall berries. I'm not even sure what they are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fall berries. I’m not sure what they are but I don’t recommend tasting them.

And I’m not sure how the Welsh feel about referendums and secession. Or even whether some purist is going to tell me that the plural is referenda.

So, yeah. We need our tea. And we need to make it right. Which brings me to the point—and yes, there is one. Or two actually. You only had to wait.

J. tells me (and this was in person, not in a blog comment, which is why she’s going by an initial; the tradition may be silly but at least I’m consistent) that I ignored the role of teapots in my last tea post. Sure, I mentioned them, but you can’t make a nice cup of tea, J. says, unless you make it in a pot. Actually, she probably said “a proper cup of tea,” but I was listening to the sense, not the words, sadly. The sense was this: Make it in a cup and it just doesn’t come out right. Even if you only make a single cup, you need to make it in the pot and then pour it into the cup.

Why? Because it’s not a proper cup of tea otherwise, and if it’s not a proper cup of tea it’s not a nice cup of tea. And if it’s not a nice cup of tea, Scotland might just spin out into the North Sea, leaving the northern edge of England a ragged tear (pronounced tare; people may or may not weep about this, but it’s not what we’re talking about) across the land.

That’s not intended, by the way, as a comment on whether Scottish independence is a good idea. I could argue both sides of the proposition with equal passion. But the spinning into the North Sea? That’s just, you know, a fact.

Oh, and the pot has to be warm. Because the tea will brew better.

J.’s of the bone china school of tea drinking. Because it tastes better that way. It doesn’t have to be a fussy little cup and saucer—a mug’s fine—but for her it has to be made of china. Me? I like a heavier mug, but I try not to argue religion with friends.

So that’s one point. And then in the comment section, helenwood wrote about a job she had long ago, working for a tea importer, pouring water over the leaves so the tasters could sip and spit. But that wasn’t what grossed her out—it was that the tea leaves scattered on the warehouse floor, and presumably walked through by one and all, ended up in teabags.

If anything’s going to convert me to leaf tea, that would do it.

Medical bureaucracies

Moving on, then, from a serious topic to the trivia of our lives, we come to what I wrote about medicine in the U.K.

Ianbcross, a doctor who’s worked in the National Health System, commented that the Choose and Book system gives patients a code so they can make an appointment with a specialist online or by phone. “If there are no appointments available,” he writes, “it is up to the hospital to find one for you. You decide whether to accept it or not. This is for routine stuff. If your doc thinks you might have cancer, you get a two week wait appointment from the hospital. Less choice for you, but as soon as they can, they fit you in. Emergencies go directly to hospital, without passing GO, of course.”

Well, this is a guy who knows the system, and his comment made me wonder if I’d misremembered my experiences and Wild Thing’s. So I did what any sane blogger would do: I took a small and unscientific survey (I’ve stolen that phrase; it’s nice, isn’t it?) and came up with the following revelation: Our local surgery (that’s a doctor’s office if you’re American) is all set up so you can use the Click and Book system, but they don’t tell you about it. If you ask to use it, they’re happy to let you use it. But if you don’t already know about it, you can’t ask. So you sit around waiting for that letter.

Unless—as happened to me recently—you get a phone call. From the wrong hospital. But never mind, it was a phone call and it came quickly.

When I acted as an advocate for our neighbor, it wasn’t about getting an appointment but about shaking loose the report from an appointment she’d already had so she could (a) find out what was wrong and (b) do something about it. The doctor had dictated the letter and there it sat, waiting to be typed. And as far as I could tell there it was going to sit and wait until pine trees grew in hell.

The practice manager and I had a leave-it-with-me conversation, and I left it with her until the end of the day, when I called back. Which reminds me to mention that the NHS has a wonderful service called PALS, which stands for Patient Advocacy SomethingWithAnL SomethingWithAnS, not (as it did when I was a kid in New York) the Police Athletic League. I called PALS just after I talked with the practice manager. I suspect it’s owed the credit for getting that letter in the mail. I heard a rumor the service’s funding is going to be cut. I hope it’s not true, because the idea that within an inevitably bureaucratic system are people whose job is to make a nuisance of themselves when things aren’t working for the patient? That’s inspired.

In another comment, Dan Antion reminded me that in the U.S. the first questions anyone medical asks are about your coverage. If you’re not American, you may need that translated: Do you have insurance? Who’s your provider? What plan are you on (secondary translation: does your insurance plan cover this procedure)? And so on. In other words, everyone talks money while you bleed onto the floor, because money is what matters. (Note to the current U.K. government: Are you sure you don’t want to rethink that whole privatization of the NHS thing?)

And if anyone in Britain thinks it’s just the NHS that has unacceptable delays, he tells the story of a friend with a life-threatening condition who needed surgery and was told she couldn’t be seen for six to eight weeks.

The thing about the NHS is that until the current round of disorganizations were introduced, it’s been a unified system, so people talk about unacceptable delays, and newspapers write about them, and word generally gets passed around and everyone’s outraged and wants something done about it, which creates pressure to actually do something. When emergency rooms keep people waiting for more than four hours, it’s considered unacceptable. In the U.S., my father was left waiting in the emergency room for, if I remember right, seventeen hours. With meningitis. At the age of ninety. And he had good insurance. We were furious, but it was business as usual and didn’t tarnish the hospital’s reputation, or the U.S. medical system’s.

Making a nice cup of tea

When my British friends seriously want some tea, they get specific about what they want: not just tea but a nice cup of tea.

Let’s take that apart: We can leave a and of alone without destabilizing anything important. But think about the word nice. Because you don’t just have a cup of tea in this country, you have a nice cup of tea. Even when the nice is silent, if you listen carefully you can hear it resonating in the background. I need a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea.

And if the cup of tea you get tastes like second-hand dishwater? It’s all the more disappointing, because what you wanted was that nice cup of tea, not this travesty you’ve been handed.

In the U.S., we never sit down to a nice cup of coffee. We drink coffee, we make coffee, we drop by our friends’ houses for coffee, and we go out for coffee. But we don’t expect that comforting nice from it. It’s just, you know, an ultra-fat mocha semiccino with whipped cream and caramel sauce with a side of chocolate chip muffin and a triple bacon cheeseburger deluxe on a sesame seed bun. With mayo.

In other words, it’s no big deal.

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

I don’t know what it says about our two cultures that one seeks comfort from a hot drink and the other doesn’t, but I’ve known people here in Britain to welcome a cup of tea the way I’d expect someone to welcome a stiff drink after a day when the computer blew up, the basement flooded, and the dog filed for divorce; I’ve known them to take the first sip and say, like a borderline alcoholic after a brief flirtation with sobriety, “I needed that.”

Or maybe that’s me I’m quoting. If so, forget it. I’m not British. Or I am, but not deeply enough to count.

So let’s move on. People who expect comfort from a hot drink seem to find it. Point made, in a wobbly fashion.

After nice comes cup. Go into any cafe any you can ask for a pot of tea, and in some for a mug. In most places you’ll get a pot whether you ask for it or not, and all of that is fine, but if the nice gets spoken at all, it comes attached to a cup—one of those curved shells you wrap your hands around while the warmth seeps into your half-frozen soul. The thing you bring to your lips, allowing all the love that went into its making to flow into your metaphorical as opposed to your literal heart. It may have been made in a pot, but whoever made it poured it into a cup for you and that’s what we’re talking about— that cup and its the contents, and by extension the acts of making and handing.

We’ve gone well beyond the rational here. This is about caring and nurturing. It’s about love itself, in an indirect way.

So tea is central to the culture. Does that mean an American can’t march in and make a decent cup? Americans seem to hold one of three opinions:

  1. [Fill in the blank] criticizes my tea-making and always will because I’m American. Even if I do it right, I’ll never do it right.
  2. I’ve been to Britain and read every book ever published on the subject. Tea is my religion and I’ve returned home to convert a refined few among the heathens.
  3. Oh, get over it. It’s just a drink. Wanna cup?

If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you can guess which category I’m in.

I don’t know how many categories British opinion falls into on the subject, and that may be for the best. However, in my unbiased opinion, I make a decent cup of tea, and if a friend’s in serious need I can even make a nice cup of tea. It’s hot, it’s strong (except when I make it for M., who drinks it so weak that I just boil the water and wave a teabag through the steam), and under normal circumstances it comes with something home baked.

And with that we arrive to the heart of this post. How do you make a nice cup of tea?

Am I qualified to answer that question? Do I care? Uncertainty hasn’t stopped me in the past, and neither has good sense. I don’t see why they should now. I predict, though, that from here on everyone who drinks tea will disagree with me about something. Have a good time, folks. I’m looking forward to it.

You start with the tea. If you’re American, this is the hard part.

Leaf tea: You can go to a fancy tea store and buy leaf tea, choosing one that was picked before sunrise from plants that have never been spoken to harshly. And you can pay any amount of money you like for the privilege, as long the amount is large. If you live in a tea-drinking country, on the other hand, you can buy leaf tea in a supermarket. No one in sight will know how the plants were spoken to or when the tea was picked. But it’s tea.

Wherever you buy it, try a few kinds and see which one you like.

Which means you have to brew it, and the first trick is to avoid stuffing it into anything that won’t let the water flow through. I’ve tried a variety of brewing gizmos over the years and most of them are as useless as stuffing the leaves in an old sock, and that includes the cloth or paper gizmos that imitate teabags. Why you want to avoid teabags and then use something that imitates them I don’t know, especially when they don’t work as well as the teabags you’re avoiding. (I am going to catch such hell for saying that. I can hardly wait.) Choose the wrong gizmo to stuff your leaves into and you’ll end up with expensive tannish water.

Open baskets do work—in this barbarian’s opinion.

In Britain, a lot of the cafes that use leaf tea dump it directly into the pot and give you a strainer, which comes with something to rest it on so you don’t end up splattering teadrops everywhere. Because the leaves are swimming around in the water, you don’t have to worry about whether the water’s flowing through them. The tea will be good and strong, but if you’re slow about drinking it, it’ll turn bitter. Some cafes give you an extra pot with hot water to thin it out with once that happens, but even with the extra water it sometimes gets strong enough to make you grow hair on your tongue.

Teabags: British supermarkets sell more kinds of teabags than they do baked beans, which is another way of saying you have a lot to pick from. If you’re in the U.S., your choices are limited. You can buy Twinings or something along those lines—one of those brands that entombs each teabag in a little plasticky-foily packet so you’ll understand how special it is, and how special you are to have bought it. I hate Twinings. Which—according to Kate Fox’s Watching the English—is because I’m not upper class. The lower classes drink their tea strong. The upper classes wants theirs to be as refined as they (think they) are, so their tea has to be pale and (lack-of-objectivity alert here) flavorless. So if you’re American and you like Twinings, go ahead and drink it and know that you’ve got more class than I have. Or want, thanks.

When I lived in the U.S., I bought Lyons tea from an Irish store near us and it was strong enough to turn my hair gray. Just look at the photo I use. Back when I drank coffee, I had (mostly) black hair. But Lyons is great stuff. If I hadn’t been able to get that, I think I’d have gone for Lipton’s rather than Twinings. At least it has some oomph to it.

Do I use leaf or teabags? Teabags. I used to keep some leaf tea for special occasions but the tea I made with it was never as good and how’s that a way to celebrate?

Water: This is the other ingredient in tea. If you want, you can use bottled water and it may or may not make your tea taste better. It will be more expensive. Your choice. You can use a kettle or a pan to boil it. If you’re in Britain, you’ll almost surely use an electric kettle because it’s fast. You’ll use it so often that you never put it away. If you’re in the U.S. you can still use an electric kettle but only if you’re willing to invest some time in the project. I grew old waiting for electric kettles to boil in the U.S. I’d have been 56 if I’d just put the water on the stove, but no, I had to buy an electric kettle and so I’m 68.

I have no idea why American electric kettles take so long.

What you can’t do is stick the water in the microwave. Even if it’s in a nice cup. Because microwaves don’t get the water not enough. The true secret of a nice cup of tea is that the water has to be boiling when you pour it over the tea. Or, okay, if it stopped boiling 30 seconds before I get to it, I don’t quibble, I just pour. But if it didn’t boil, or if it boiled back when my hair was black, it’s not worth using.

Do you have to warm the kettle? In my book, it depends on how cold the kettle is. Which depends on how cold the house is. If it’s cold, pour a little of the water in it, slosh it around, let it sit if you want to, warm the thing up, then pour the water out and make your tea. And if you’re making a single cup? I’ve never stopped to warm a cup, although it makes as much sense as warming the kettle. And the tea’s been fine, thanks.

I’ve read that you shouldn’t reboil the water because all the air goes out of it, or all the—oh, I don’t know why you’re not supposed to do it. You’re not. All the experts agree. So put in as much as you need and no more.

How long do you brew it? Well, how strong do you like your tea? I remember a huge ad in Paddington Station saying that after five minutes tea was stewed, not brewed. Stewed tea is bad. Why? Because a huge poster in Paddington Station said so.

I don’t leave my tea that long unless I wander off to do something else and forget it, in which case it may be as much as ten minutes before I wander back. If I’m in a hurry, I stir it. What you (and you’ll notice how seamlessly we’ve switched from me to you here) don’t want to do, if you’re using teabags, is squeeze them. It makes the tea bitter. Really. It does. Just lift them out, all dripping and nasty. Or leave them in, but if the tea’s going to be sitting a while, you may end up with a hairy tongue.

Add milk. Or milk and sugar if you feel strongly about it. Then sit back and enjoy a nice cup of tea. With love.

Tea on the lawn: what could be more English?

Is anything more English than tea on the lawn of a great house? We’ve were talking about stereotypes since I fell for an inaccurate one about Americans, but linking tea on the lawn—especially the lawn of a great house—to Englishness seems like a safer gamble. (Feel free to take me apart on that if I’m wrong.)

Cream tea at Penhele

Cream tea at Penhele

Recently, Wild Thing and I went to a cream tea at Penhele, a great house not from where we live. It was a fundraiser for the Charles Causley Trust, which (I just checked the website) keeps alive the memory of a local poet and promotes writing in the region where he lived. I’d love to give you a link to some of his poems, but although I’ve been impressed by some of his poetry I didn’t like the only one I found online. Others are under copyright and that makes them a no-go zone. Sorry.

But we didn’t go there to support the Causley Trust. In fact, we didn’t know what the event was raising money for. We didn’t even go for the cream tea, although it was a welcome bonus. What we really wanted was to see the gardens and the house, which are well enough known around here that we ran into half the village almost as soon as we walked in. One of them, J., was a carpenter before he retired (only they say joiner here, or builder, and I’m not all that sure what the difference is) and worked restoring historic buildings. Basically, once he’s done you can’t tell he’s been there. I asked if he knew how old the house was and he pointed to a stone plaque above a doorway in what he told me was the hall. It carried a date in the 1600s—1660, if I remember right. For all I know, other parts are older.

“I worked on those windows,” he said, pointing to the right of the plaque.

I felt like I was sitting next to a rock star.

Most of us—maybe all of us—lined up to buy tea and either scones with jam and clotted

Walking by the lake.

Walking by the lake. Photo by Ida Swearingen

cream (that’s the cream part of a cream tea) or cake, then we drifted along paths and past fields, a lake, a swimming pool (covered), in and out of a series of open rooms formed by a high, dense hedge, and past an empty flowerpot stuck deep into the hedge and looking like a place for someone to hide his or her cigarettes, although I didn’t reach in to be sure since that seemed like an invasion. We paid closest attention to what I’ve learned to call a herbaceous border (you pronounce the H on herb here; I still don’t, but I’ve gotten to the point where both pronunciations sound odd to me), stopping to admire this flower and that one.

penhele 055

Part of the herbaceous border

According to Wikipedia, herbaceous borders became popular in the Victorian era. They’re basically a bunch of flowering plants—what I’d call a flower bed—and they’re gorgeous but take a lot of work. The Wikipedia entry talks about digging up and splitting and replacing plants, but even more than that they take weeding. Endless weeding.

Did I happen to mention how many weeds Wild Thing and I have grown since I started blogging?

I haven't a clue what the flowers are, so I'm not going to try identifying them.

I haven’t a clue what the flowers are, so I can’t identify them.

I overheard several people saying the same thing that came to my mind: “I wonder how many people it takes to keep it looking like this.” No one had the answer, but quite a few seemed like a fair guess.

It all felt a bit like something out of a BBC costume drama—the great house opened for an afternoon so the villagers could put on their company manners and enjoy a day out. It’s less lord-and-lady-of-the-manor these days, but you can’t help noticing the difference between the place you’re admiring and whatever you call home. Still, whatever people’s feelings were about class and inequality—and I expect they ranged all over the scale—everybody seemed willing to put that aside for the day and enjoy the beauty and the hospitality.

Both class and people’s feelings about class are more open in the U.K. than in the U.S., penhele 061where we break out in a rash if anyone uses the word in any context except middle. And the tradition of a grand house opening its gardens to the public is also something I never heard of in the U.S. Wild Thing and I speculated on whether it dates back to Victorian times or to the medieval period. I’d put my money on medieval, because, as crushing as the lord-peasant relationship must have been, it did lay a few obligations on the lord, and those may have included fetes or feasts.

The inescapable raffle

The inescapable raffle

But that’s guesswork. What’s certain (or as certain as I dare be about anything right now) is that the tradition of great houses opening their grounds for fundraisers is part of an English summer.

At the end of the afternoon came the drawing for the raffle. You can’t hold a fundraiser in Cornwall without holding a raffle. There’s no law on the books, but it’s just not done. So at Penhele they held a raffle. And we didn’t win anything.

British and American English: Talking about tea

Tea isn’t just a drink here, it’s a meal and a marker of class. (You’ll find lots of those if you know how to look.) If you’re working class, tea is the evening meal and dinner is lunch. If you’re upper class, the evening meal is supper. Are you still with me? You won’t be for long, because A. adds, “But we all say supper now.”

Who’s “we”?

Sorry, you’re on your own there.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. He doesn’t care what the meal’s called.

And in case this isn’t confusing enough, I’ve read that all this turns into its opposite in other parts of the country, so you have to know where someone’s from to know what they’re eating. Or drinking. Or talking about.

Wild thing was on the phone with H. and invited her to stop by for tea after something they were doing together. H. told us later that she hung up the phone and thought, I wonder what I just got invited for? Because Wild Thing and I don’t play by the same rules as anyone else does, so who knows what we mean when we say “tea”?

We sure as hell don’t.

Everyone seems to agree that afternoon tea (as opposed to just plain old tea) is afternoon tea—you know: a cup of tea and a little something—but if you want that little something in the morning it’s either morning coffee or elevensies. Morning tea? Sorry, there is no such thing. It’s morning coffee. And if you don’t drink coffee? No problem. You can get tea. But it’s still not called tea.

Britain, Tea, and Hot and Cold Running Stereotypes

Am I calling up a lazy stereotype when I say that Britain’s a nation of tea drinkers? I know: This isn’t the most important question you’ll face today, but stay with me. I’ll make it worth your time (she said rashly).

A while back, someone read part of an as yet unposted blog entry I’d written about tea and told me I was indulging in stereotypes. She mentioned beer (people do drink a lot of beer here; I’ll give her that), and Starbucks, and the country’s changing habits. She urged me to go deeper into the culture. She didn’t mention Starbucks’ untaxed profits, and I admit they’re not what everyone’s mind would race to in this context, but if you want to go deeper into the culture, they’re sitting there like the Titanic’s iceberg and I can’t type the company’s name without mentioning them. And don’t even get me started on Amazon.

A cup of tea, in motion. Photo by by ŇÄĵŵÅ Ă. Мǻŗǻƒįę.

A cup of tea, in motion. Photo by by ŇÄĵŵÅ Ă. Мǻŗǻƒįę.

She signed off by saying her husband had just made her a cup of tea, which either means she has a sense of humor (she hadn’t noticed mine, so I did wonder) or undercuts her argument, or possibly both. Either way, she left me thinking about stereotypes. Because they’re hard to resist if you’re trying to be funny—and the longer I work on this blog, the better I understand how deeply trying and funny dislike each other.

But I don’t want to stereotype stereotypes. They’re not all the same. Off the top of my head I can break them into two categories. And as soon as you say something like that, someone else comes along and breaks them into seven categories, and someone else comes up with forty-three. Settle down, everyone. It’s not a competition. All we need for this discussion are the harmful kind and the harmless kind. Think of them the way you’d think of spiders, or snakes: Some of them are venomous and some of them aren’t. Remember at the start of the Iraq War, when the French said, Guys, I don’t think this is an entirely good idea, and suddenly the geniuses who (as it turns out) helped destabilize the Middle East were calling them cheese-eating surrender monkeys? That’s not only a very weird stereotype, implying, among other things, that Americans think there’s something suspect about eating cheese, but it’s ugly. (I know, it started ironically, on The Simpsons, but by the time I’m talking about it had cut its ironic moorings and was loose in the world, untethered.) It’s not the most harmful stereotype I ever heard, but it’s surely one of the stranger ones in its category.

Now compare that to the claim that Britain’s a nation of tea drinkers. They’re different, aren’t they?

Is Britain a nation of tea drinkers? We have two cafes in our village, and both have invested in coffee machines. You know the kind. Huge silvery things. You stand behind them and you might as well be piloting a spaceship.

“Potential customer on the road, Captain.”

“Deploy the tractor beam, Lieutenant.”

So customers are tractored in, and they’re grateful. They order lattes and americanos and mocha half-decaf double skim vaguely Italian-sounding whatsaccinos, and they sit at tables in (if they’re lucky) the sun and sip them. But what they’re sipping are indulgences—the kind of thing people will invest in and think, I really needed this, or, Isn’t this nice, sitting here with a coffee? because it’s something special. Follow them home, though, and most of them will drink tea. If they have coffee in the house, it’ll be instant. How do I know? By what people offer me in their homes. By what they choose when they’re in mine.

But forget the cafes. Go to a village event—the kind the village has been holding since caffeine first came to these shores, raising money for the hospices, or the air ambulance, or the church—and you’ll have a choice of tea or coffee. And the coffee will be instant. Because that’s how it’s always been done and that’s how it’s still done. Any place has a tea pot. Any place can boil water. Not every place has a coffee pot.

What happens in the U.S.? Park yourself at the counter of any greasy spoon in the country and ask for coffee. The waitron will turn, grab a pot from a coffeemaker and pour. It’s already made, it’s waiting for you, and most of the time it’s no older than you are, so it’ll taste—well, it’ll taste like coffee. Whether that’s good is a matter of opinion. But it doesn’t matter. They go through enough of it to keep a pot on hand.

Two pots, actually: regular with a black (or is that brown?) handle and decaf with an orange one.

Ask for tea, though, and the waitron will have to check with the boss, because it’s been six years since anyone ordered a cup. I worked in a place like that. The boss probably kept a box of teabags stashed somewhere, but I never had a reason to ask about it.

That’s what life’s like in a nation of coffee drinkers.

But I hate being called superficial, so let’s consider countervailing trends: Before I left the U.S., I’d begun to worry about the younger generation’s moral fiber, because so many of them were getting their caffeine from soft drinks and energy drinks and cold bottled coffees or (yes, I admit it) teas with vacation-sounding names and enough sugar to fill a bathtub, condensed somehow into a fist-sized drink. This struck me as childish—self-indulgent, even. Adulthood involves learning to drink things that don’t taste good, and then learning to like them, and teaching other people to like them, and judging people on the basis of whether they like them. Weren’t these kids ever going to grow up? And more to the point, when it came time to give them house-warming presents, was I ever going to be able to give them coffee mugs?

I should probably pause here and say that I’d stopped drinking coffee by the time I passed this judgment on an entire generation, but I didn’t get my caffeine from cold, sugary drinks, so it was different. And I had once been a coffee drinker, so whatever I did after that was okay, because I’d survived the initiation.

I never claimed that this made sense. What I’m trying to do is make a point, which is, defensively, that I’m capable of going deeper into a culture. And still exaggerating. Which is the essence of stereotype. And the essence of humor. Or, yeah, I’m exaggerating again. It’s the essence of some humor.

If you go deep enough into any culture, you’ll find something to laugh at. Without dismissing it or being ugly.


Americans think tea’s something you drink with your little finger in the air, as if you’d broken it and put it in a splint. We think it’s something you put on a funny accent to ask for. And America’s tea snobs reinforce that. You can’t just drink tea, you need tea made from leaves that were picked while the morning dew was  still fresh on the plant and which were then individually dried and sung to the whole time—by a tenor, thanks; a soprano might crisp the edges and a bass would leave them open to mold. And you need to pay lots o’ money for the resulting tea. I’ve been to restaurants, when I still lived in the U.S., where asking for a cup of tea meant the waiter had to haul out a wooden chest left from the time when restaurants kept a set of dueling pistols on hand in case, you know, a customer needed them. Only now it holds a complete set of hermetically sealed packets, each entombing one lonely teabag. And after all that, they bring you water that isn’t hot enough to lift any flavor out of the tea so you end up with, basically, a cup of bath water.

Irrelevant Photo: Launceston Castle

Irrelevant Photo: Launceston Castle

An English friend was so traumatized by her visit to the U.S. that she still talks about “that gray stuff you call tea.”

I hate restaurants like that. Not because of the tea. And not because everyone who works there is dressed better than I am. I’m used to that: I’ve always been dyslexic about style and have now gone entirely post-fashion. It’s because I keep thinking I’ve wandered into some private club and the butler’s going to throw me out any minute.

Are there still butlers loose in the world?

Anyway, tea: In Britain, it’s just a drink. If someone comes to fix the leak under your sink, you ask if they want a cup of tea. If you want to know why three guys are digging a hole in the middle of your street, you wander over and ask if they want a cup of tea. Add a biscuit—which is a cookie, and it doesn’t even have to be homemade—and they’ll tell you anything you want to know. Tea is the kind of drink you put in your thermos to take to work, if you happen to take a thermos to work. People talk about ordinary tea, or breakfast tea, to distinguish it from the fancy teas—Earl Grey, say, of green, or herbal (they pronounce the H). A. calls it builder’s tea, and sometimes builder’s butt tea. Her husband’s a builder, so she gets to say stuff like that.

A builder, by the way, builds buildings. Or fixes them. And a joiner’s a carpenter, not someone who belongs to a lot of organizations. All of them will drink tea. And so should you if you visit, because Wild Thing, who was once a dedicated and not at all fussy coffee drinker, tells me the coffee’s terrible. I gave up coffee long before I moved here, so I can only take her word for it.

A cup of tea is also a measure of time. If I drop by someone’s house and they offer me a cup of tea, they want me to stay long enough to drink it. Friendship is a highly caffeinated undertaking.