Drinking tea is so fundamental a part of Britishness that I can’t imagine why it’s taken me this long to get around to writing about it.
Americans may think that British people have tea in the afternoon as a break, a pick-me-up. They do, but that’s only a part of it—they drink tea the live-long day. For many, tea drinking starts as soon as the alarm goes off; it’s not unusual to find that somebody in the household brings hot milky tea to the others before they even get out of bed. If you tour Britain staying in B&Bs, sooner or later one of your hostesses is going to say “Would you like to be knocked up with tea in the morning?” (If that sounds strange, please click here to read a previous post that explains knocking up.)
Nowadays you hear that less often, it’s true; B&Bs have become more posh—and, alas, vastly more expensive—in order to compete with discount motel chains that only started really to blossom here about a decade ago. You’re more likely to find a little electric kettle in your room, with teabags and packets of instant coffee. Once you’ve check in, your hostess will bring you a little pitcher (UK: jug) of milk.
Tea-making in the bedroom itself has a long history. In the 1960s or 1970s the Teasmade was all the rage: a combination alarm clock, lamp, and teamaker, so that at the time you want to get up in the morning the light comes on and your tea is ready. The first “teawakers” were patented in the late 19th century for, as it says in the patent application, the convenience of those who needed to get up and go to work—which couldn’t be done without tea—but who had no servant. Ahem. Many people now consider a Teasmade somewhat naff (US: tacky), but you can still buy them, so they must be filling some need.
There will also be tea with breakfast, of course, and you can have tea at the other two main meals if you like, though I’m not getting into the minefield of what these meals are called, as the answer varies with social class as well as region. One thing that doesn’t vary, however, is temperature: tea is served hot. Just as Americans don’t stop their iced tea consumption in the winter, so the British don’t stop their hot tea consumption in the summer, and contrary to what you may have heard, it does get hot here; a couple of years ago it broke 100F here for the first time since records began. When I first moved to the UK I asked hopefully for iced tea in restaurants a few times and got horrified looks. An English friend told me he’d never encountered iced tea until he went to the US and even then, said he was “still not sure it’s actually made from tea leaves; it tastes as if it’s from the root of some obscure vegetable, possibly South American”.
When a friend drops in, the first thing you must say after how nice it is to see them, is either “Shall I put the kettle on?” or “I was just putting the kettle on”. If the person dropping by isn’t a guest but is any kind of technician, builder, or engineer there to repair, construct, or install something, you must keep the kettle going—tea will be wanted throughout proceedings. (If you like these workers, you can offer biscuits—that is, cookies—too, but that’s not required.)
If you move house, the removals men (US: movers—Britons do not move, they remove, apparently—though I don’t know what female movers are called here) you will find that they need milky tea with lots of sugar, all day long. In my experience they don’t eat lunch, they decline your biscuits/cookies, they go all day on a constant supply of milky, sugary tea. The very last thing to go on the moving van will be a box containing your teakettle, and that box will be unloaded into your new house or flat first, with a comment to let you know that the kettle is in that one. If you value your possessions, you’ll take the hint.
In addition to the ordinary three meals, the British have a couple of optional auxiliary back-up mealtimes in case anybody gets peckish. What Americans would call a morning coffee break, the British call a tea break, or sometimes call elevenses. Tolkien famously patterned his hobbits on the good folk of England, and hobbits put high value on comfort and on food. They eat dinner “twice a day if they can get it”, he wrote, and they are well-acquainted with elevenses, sometimes calling this “second breakfast”.
So finally we reach a discussion of afternoon tea. Now at this point, there are a lot of options. Tea can refer to a beverage, a snack, or a meal, and you can have an ordinary tea, a high tea or a cream tea–it’s such a large subject, I’ll have to address it in a separate post. I’ll tell you about afternoon tea in the next installment in which I’ll also, I hope, get into the subject of how one makes a good British cup of tea.
While it’s true, as I said at the beginning, that I hadn’t yet written about tea itself, I have posted my story of having afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. And in another earlier post I wrote about an attempt, under the most recent Labour government, to encapsulate Britishness in a catchphrase of five words, but I don’t recall any of the published phrases including any mention of tea. Tea may very well be a given, British at so basic a level that nobody thought to mention it.