After my previous post about the British habit of drinking tea, a reader sent a link to a pleasant little song from 1935 called “Everything Stops for Tea”. It’s the kind of nonsense—one of the lines is actually “With a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee”—that Hugh Laurie might sing when in character as Bertie Wooster. It’s a rhapsody on the sanctity of teatime, ending with these lines:
Now I know just why Franz Schubert
Didn’t finish his unfinished symphony—
He might have written more but the clock struck four
And everything stops for tea.
Many things do stop for tea, including England’s national sport; cricket may be the only athletic contest that has time-outs for afternoon tea built into the rules. But stopping for afternoon tea is no longer universal; these days few business offices, for example, grind to a halt at teatime. Most factory workers nowadays take their tea breaks in shifts rather than letting all the machinery lie idle while they sip; stopping all the machines seems unlikely but I’m told it happens (or used to). Tea breaks, whether taken in shifts or all at once, are perks that union negotiators take seriously.
A pun on perk gives me license to drop in a word about coffee here: there is good coffee to be found in England, but sometimes you have to look long and hard. Issues of class and region complicate the situation, but I can safely say that at the lower end of the price scale Nescafé dominates the market. I’ve even seen restaurant and pub menus that offer filtered coffee or espresso and, separately and listed by brand name, Nescafé; to some people here, coffee means Nescafé, and if they’re served something fancier they don’t like it. A British friend of mine used to work for a coffee importer, convincing stores to carry his employer’s brand; as part of his sales pitch, he reminded potential buyers that coffee is an aphrodisiac. While he made a good living, and nowadays chains like Starbucks and Costa are thriving, coffee-drinkers are still in the minority. Most Britons prefer to have tea.
But tea can mean many things. That tea is a beverage is obvious, but afternoon tea is more or less a snack, and—again with regional and class considerations—some people call the evening meal “tea”. This can mean a meal for the whole household but is especially used to mean what the children eat in the evening, leading to a strange-to-American-ears phrase used by parents: “Sit down and eat your tea!” Finding that you can eat tea was new to me. “I’m giving them fish fingers for tea” (US: fish sticks) and “No, you’re not having that now, it’ll spoil your tea” sounded equally strange before I got used to them.
Afternoon tea (of the non-meal type) on an average day won’t be elaborate—a cup of tea by itself or with biscuits (US: cookies)—but you can make it a little more filling with bread and butter or a little fancier with cake. I understand it’s polite to eat bread and butter first, before going on to cake, so you fill up on the cheaper stuff. Older people who were children in the war years or the austerity years just afterwards remember having nothing but a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter (or more likely margarine, and in some cases dripping, which is the fat from roast meat) for their evening meal. That had to hold them until breakfast.
If you go beyond biscuits and bread and keep adding things to eat, especially if you add savory as well as sweet things, you lift your tea out of the everyday category and find you’re serving a high tea, which is really more of a light meal. This is the British afternoon tea of American imagination (or stereotype), and is where the finger sandwiches come in—certainly cucumber sandwiches are the most usual, but you’ll also come across watercress or egg mayonnaise (US: egg salad), too. The next step up would be chicken, ham, or beef, in sandwiches or in pastry, and—if you’re really pushing the boat out, as they say here—smoked salmon.
But there is an even more delectable, if less substantial, option that you’ll rarely find except in these islands: a cream tea. No, the British don’t put cream in tea—that just makes it greasy. A cream tea consists of tea served with scones, cream, and jam—almost always clotted cream and most likely strawberry jam. Don’t be put off by the blunt Anglo-Saxon sound of the term clotted cream; this is a dairy product somewhere between cream and butter, with the best characteristics of both. You break off a piece of your scone (you would never spread the whole scone and then bite right into it, would you? Horrors!) and top it with a big blob of cream and then a dot of jam from the end of your spoon, and try to fit it all into your mouth without looking totally gluttonous. Occasionally cafes or tea shops offer whipped cream instead of clotted cream, but if you’ve ever tasted clotted cream, I’ll bet you’ll agree that whipped cream is an inferior substitute.
A cream tea is a traditional end to vigorous holiday/vacation activities such as long country walks; my public library’s catalogue lists eight titles such as “Tea Shop Walks in Surrey” so you can plan your route to end up at place guaranteed to offer the kind of tea you’ve earned with all that exercise. It’s a satisfying end to less strenuous activities, too, such as touring a stately home, particularly as most such establishments really depend for their running costs on the tea shop and the gift shop, that is, on people who buy tea to drink on the premises and then buy pretty tea towels with pictures of the house on them to take home.
And just as I said I find it hard to get really good coffee here (outside the big-name coffee chains), the British have been known to comment, often and loudly, that it’s impossible to get good tea in the US. In fact, there’s a tea company now running telly adverts (US:TV commercials) on that theme; they’ve got a mobile tea shop in a caravan (US: camper) going around the US providing good tea to Britons on holiday (US: vacation) there. And who am I to question their assessment of US tea? But I will say that having had tea all over the British Isles, and granting that nobody can top a good British cream tea, one of the best high teas I’ve ever encountered was at the Huntingdon Gallery in southern California. Oh, and that song, the British hit “Everything Stops for Tea” made popular by British musical comedy star Jack Buchanan? It was written by Americans. For a British movie. Set in New York.
(Next time, in part 3 of this series, I’ll write about how the British make and serve tea.)