Tea, Part 1


Teacup and saucer in the pattern Chinese Flowers from James Kent's Old Foley pottery. Gee--wonder why I'd be interested in collecting china from that line?

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.)

Teacup and saucer in Garden Harvest by Mikasa. If you've read my previous posts about British food, you may recognize the dishes from previous illustrations.

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.

Teacup and saucer with daisies, again from James Kent's Old Foley pottery, this piece bought on my first trip to England on which I made a point of finding the Foley Pottery, which took some doing. Eventually a nice guy at the Wedgwood pottery rang up a friend on my behalf--"Hey mate, where'd Jimmy Kent move to?"--and gave us directions.

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”.    

 But if you want hot tea, you’re in luck, because anything at all can be turned into an excuse for a cup of tea.  If you’ve had a shock—heard bad news, been in a car wreck (UK: car crash), or perhaps found a dead body, because to judge from UK television’s line-up of detective programmes, it’s difficult to avoid finding a corpse when walking a dog here—someone is bound to offer you hot sweet tea.  Hot sweet tea is right up there with brandy as a restorative.  When the toughest he-men of the SAS (Special Air Service, one of Britain’s special forces) were in Iraq, one of the most important things at any pause in the action was to “get a brew going”, if Bravo Two Zero is anything to go by.

Bracelet by Pickard--wedding china that looks great on a Christmas tablecloth.

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”. 

A sturdy mug of authentic builder's tea beside our crumbling brick garden wall.

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.



Filed under Culture, Food

10 responses to “Tea, Part 1

  1. Malcolm

    To expand a little on the Teasmade: It was an electric kettle with a screw-seal lid and a siphon spout – that is, when it boiled, the pressure of the steam forced the water out through a spout whose inner end was a tube reaching almost to the bottom inside. The kettle stood on a sprung platform that acted as a second switch in the circuit – the first being the setting you made for your wake-up time. When that time came around next morning, the circuit was completed (in silence) and the kettle started to heat up. As it boiled, it siphoned the hot water out into a companion teapot, filled with dry tealeaves until then. The kettle, naturally, grew lighter … until the sprung platform sprang up and cut the circuit – or, rather, switched the circuit to a buzzer-alarm. At which point you manually killed the alarm and, bleary-eyed, poured out the tea, which will, by now, have brewed in the pot.
    Alas there was too much to go wrong and (in my case) it has been supplanted with a time-switch, an electric kettle, and teabags.

    • Clever! But it does seem much ado. Rather like the contraption, if you don’t mind me mentioning it, inside the tank of the loo here; what’s wrong with a simple ball-cock? In the US, I could fix one of those myself, but here I have to hire somebody. The last one was telling me–but no. There’s a whole blog post in British plumbing, so I’ll save that story for later…

      • Tina

        What sort of loo do you have? Mine’s just got a straightforward ballcock. Doesn’t look any different to an American loo, except of course it doesn’t fill the bowl to the same height (this, BTW, is something UK loos definitely could do with – makes cleaning far easier!).

      • The stuff in that toilet tank is so complicated I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me there was a hamster running on a wheel somewhere in the innards of the thing. It’s all tubes and hinges and what-not; the guy who fixed it — a builder who was here working on something else and threw that in for nothing — showed me a plastic flap-like thikng and saying that it was supposed to create a vacuum, and that’s what had broken (that time, anyway). Why should a simple device like a toilet require something that works via creation of a vacuum?? Oh, and the lid screws down with an enormous screw, at least 3 inches long. Who screws the toilet lid on? It’s not like they’re prone to wandering away, and the tank is far to tall and narrow for a toddler to get in and come to grief…

  2. Mary Ellen, I just adore your blog. What a great post. I am on the edge of my seat waiting for the rest of the tea installments!

    I used to watch all the home reno shows on BBC Canada, one called Changing Rooms and I did notice an inordinate amount of tea being consumed (by everyone!). Oh, I do miss Handy Andy and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.

    And our public tv station, TVOntario is showing all of the Midsomer Murders right now and yes, lots of dead bodies (sometime multiple ones per episode) and lots of tea. The occasional pint in the pub too (have you done a beer post yet, or a pub post?)

    One other note for your British readers. Iced tea can be two totally different things in the US. In Canada it is always sweetened, and in the US, in cans it is usually sweetened but in many restaurants it is unsweetened. Quite a shock for our teen boys used to sweetened iced tea!

    • So nice of you to say so! As you “adore” my blog, you can be my new best friend. (Sorry, Malcolm, you’ll just have to give the tiara back, the title is being passed on.)

      I’m a Midsome Murders fan. And I rather like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, too, but he seems to have disappeared from telly lately. He was a bit overexposed for a bit, but maybe it’s time he came back. If we could trade him for Jamie “Overexposed is My Middle Name” Oliver, I’d be happier.

      I haven’t written about pub culture, but I did a post what I called a pub sign safari a while back; you can search on ‘safari’ and find it easily enough. (Can’t search on ‘pub’: you get ‘public’, and ‘publishing’ and such.)

      When I was a kid in Kentucky we always made sweet iced tea, and that’s certainly the stereotype, but iced tea in restaurants came without sweetening, and you stirred the sugar–or sugar substitute–into it yourself. And stirred. And stirred and stirred, because icy cold tea doesn’t dissolve sugar well. But now when I go back I find if I order iced tea waitresses will ask “sweet or unsweet” — that was new to me!

  3. Cheryl

    I wonder if the “sweet or unsweet” request is a regional thing…I remember some friends of mine commenting on how there’s a sweet tea belt similar to the Bible Belt, such that south of it you get sweet tea automatically and north of it you get unsweetened tea (this is in the US, obviously). Arnold Palmers (half tea half lemonade) are very popular, too.

    • We don’t have Arnold Palmers here, but you can order a St Clement’s–half orange juice and half lemonade. Except that “lemonade” here is fizzy, something like 7-Up. You can also get cakes and sometimes biscuits (cookies) in St Clement’s (orange-lemon) flavour — the name comes from the old rhyme about church bells with the line “Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s”.

  4. Christine Lindop

    I knew a builder who wore a Tshirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘white with two sugars’. Saved a lot of time I guess!

  5. Pingback: The Penny Post Weekly Review ~ All Things Austen « Jane Austen in Vermont

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