When things go wrong in Britain -- I mean really wrong, like widespread floods, transport strikes, a national outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, or a truly serious catastrophe, such as the defeat of Manchester United, or whatever your favorite team is, in a Cup Final -- we know exactly what to do. In addition to keeping calm and carrying on, we have a nice cup of tea.
Somehow, tea’s much more significant to us Brits than coffee is to you Americans. It’s a pacifier, a cure for anxiety and depression, a panacea. The wisdom in Britain is ‘have a nice cup of tea, and everything will be all right.’ No panic, no histrionics. So jolly sensible.
It has to be said that most UK visitors say about American tea exactly what American tourists say of British coffee, that it’s weak and tasteless and, well, a bit like brown bath water.
Both are true, actually. But it’s not surprising that the British revere tea in the way they do. Their history in the last few centuries has been steeped in the stuff. I’ll bet that when Sir Francis Drake saw the Spanish Armada hovering on the horizon at Plymouth, the last thing he thought of was finishing that silly game of bowls. No, he sat down on the grass and called for a nice cup of tea.
It’s s a ruddy certainty that Lord Cardigan, standing knee deep in dead and dying redcoats after the Charge of the Light Brigade, invited Lord Raglan to his tent for a cuppa. And don’t believe that Sydney Carlton, the upper-crust hero of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, crouched beneath the guillotine, waffled on about it being a far, far better thing that he did. Of course not! He asked for, well, you know what he asked for. This is, as prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said about something entirely different, ‘The British Way.’
We have to admit grudgingly that the Chinese discovered tea first, along with fireworks, medicine, astronomy, gunpowder, and a lot of other things. It was around 5000 years ago that the emperor Shen Nung inadvertently made the first cup of tea. While he was sitting in his garden, some camellia leaves blew into a cup of boiling water. I’ve always wondered what he was doing sitting there with a cup of boiling water, but never mind. Anyway, he was intrigued by its fragrant aroma, and soon decreed that drinking tea prevented illness.
Then the Japanese copied Shen Nung, copying being something they’ve always been rather good at. Like the Chinese, they lauded tea’s efficacy as a cure for aches and pains, including headache, depression and constipation. They made quite a cult out of it with their tea ceremony. They also had tea-tasting gatherings, much like wine devotees do today.
It was 4500 years more before tea -- er -- percolated into Europe. It came from China in relatively small quantities by way of the Silk Road, via Asia Minor. Because it was scarce it was also ruinously expensive, so that only the aristocracy could afford it. Marco Polo had called tea one of the ‘world’s wonders,’ and it was the Dutch who, in 1606, really discovered what he was on about, did a deal with the Chinese, and established tea trading posts, followed quickly by the French.
The Brits, with their trading fleets such as the East India Company, were a year or two behind their European trading rivals, but then, as Eartha Kitt put it so pithily, ‘An Englishman needs time.’ It was largely the British who, with the help of the Dutch and the French, reversed demand with supply, making tea affordable for everyone. Tea quickly became the favorite English drink (at least for the upper classes) and the first teashops opened in London.
By the 1700s the national fancy for tea provoked excessive taxes, and tea smuggling became as common and as lucrative a booty as brandy or rum. And it was these taxes that provoked a slight altercation about tea in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1773. But let’s not talk about that.
It was, of course, the British who invented the real tea parties, which have no connection whatever with that vulgar incident in Boston. Before tea first arrived, the British had two main meals: breakfast and dinner. Breakfast commonly consisted of bread, beef and a flagon of ale. Yes, they had beer for breakfast, and nobody thought this in the least uncouth. Dinner was a protracted, massive meal at the end of the day. So it’s not surprising that aristocrats such as Anna, Duchess of Bedford, had a ‘sinking feeling’ toward the end of each afternoon at Belvoir Castle, and began to invite her friends to join her for an additional snack. She served little cakes, and ‘assorted sweetmeats.’ And what else? Tea, of course. It was made in a silver teapot down in the kitchen and carried up by a maid to the duchess, who presided over the fine china cups and saucers, surrounded by her twittering guests. Occasionally the hostess would top up the teapot from another, smaller one, kept hot over a small spirit lamp.
The tea they drank at these gatherings would have been green tea from China and, later, Empire-grown teas from India and Ceylon and, later still, Kenya and Malaya. And it was in the days of the Duchess of Bedford’s parties that the ‘proper way’ to serve tea evolved. China tea, being so much more delicate than Indian, was (and probably still should be) drunk with nothing added, though it was not unheard of to add a little unrefined sugar. But for most Indian teas, which have more flavor, and much more tannin, a little cold milk was acceptable, providing it was poured into the cup first. Nobody has ever offered a rational explanation of why this is important, or whether it makes the slightest difference. The snobbiest way to drink Indian-style teas is with nothing more than a wafer-thin sliver of lemon.
The British think the American way of making and serving tea a little . . . how should I put this? Uncouth? People in the upper echelons of society there still look on the teabag as an abomination, even though their supermarkets are full of them. Though, if pressed, most of them would probably admit they’ve used them on occasion. But no, those who truly cherish Britain’s favorite beverage use fresh leaf tea that’s been kept in an airtight tin container, protecting it from light, moisture, heat and anything that may contaminate its flavor. Indeed, the most pernickety tea drinkers warn the rest of us not to keep a batch for more than three months.
If you’re interested in how to make a perfect cuppa – unlike the millions content to dunk a tea bag in a cold mug of luke-warm warm water for a minute or so – there are one or two other things you should know. To begin with, buy a good teapot. The absolute ideal will be made of sterling silver, but a good earthenware pot will be fine, providing you warm it well with hot water before you begin brewing. Make tea with only the best water, because water tainted with chlorine, lime or iron, can make the finest, priciest tea taste like ditch water. Don’t over-boil the water, because this will evaporate its oxygen, making your tea flat and lifeless. Real gurus will advise you to wait a few seconds before pouring the water into the pot. They say that using boiling water when it’s ‘rolling’ will bring out too much tannin, making the tea bitter.
I’ll never forget an old radio jingle from Radio Luxembourg in the late 30s. It went like this:
“I like a nice cup of tea for my luncheon,
and a nice cup of tea for my tea.
And when I go to bed,
there’s a lot to be said
for a nice cup of tea.”
What else can I say?