The first thing that happens when you start reading about tea is that you find many people quoting Gladstone (one of the most famous British Prime Ministers, having held the office four times during the reign of Queen Victoria), who apparently said
If you are cold, tea will warm you –
If you are too heated, it will cool you –
If you are depressed, it will cheer you –
If you are excited, it will calm you.
I haven’t found the source of the quotation—maybe it wasn’t even Gladstone who said it—but it doesn’t really matter, because most of Britain would agree with him.
So how do you make and serve this panacea? This is not a simple question. It’s something like a religious war; there are many factions, each certain that it knows the one correct way to turn tea leaves into something you can drink. The single thing they have in common is that they all start by heating water.In fact, the country is so united in this that at times they put real strain on utilities. In the US, I boiled water by putting a closed kettle with a whistling cap over a flame on the stove (UK: on the hob) and so did most people I knew, but over here electric kettles are standard. Demand for electricity at the end of Wills and Kate’s carriage ride from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, as viewers got up from in front of their tellies and switched on their electric kettles, caused a sudden 2400 megawatt drain on the system.
The couples’ later appearance on the balcony for a wave and a kiss coincided with a 3000 megawatt drop in demand for electricity, making it clear that viewing figures for coverage of occasions of national interest can be measured in terms of kettles, whether you count those that were boiled or those that weren’t. The royal wedding procession was, by this measure, a one million kettle or one megakettle event, while the balcony appearance rated 1.25 megakettles. The surge at the end of Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding rated merely 0.75 Mkettles (a figure not corrected to reflect lower density of electric kettles in the population at that time).
With so many people brewing up several times a day, a measurable portion of the country’s carbon footprint is created by boiling water for tea. Nobody would suggest the population cut back on tea consumption; the problem is that some people have a habit of filling the kettle to the top every time, even if they’re only making two or three cups. There are public service announcements on television every once in a while asking viewers to remember to boil only the water they need.They might do that anyway, if they were concerned about saving water, but our neighbors don’t seem to bother about that most of the time. Coming here after 20 years in drought-prone California, I was amazed that free water could fall right out of the sky so often, and further amazed at how a lot of people waste the water once it falls. One Christmas I put on a joint celebration with an English friend who used to be a chef; he would turn the water on to wash a parsnip, then cross the kitchen to some other task and leave the faucet running because sooner or later there’d be more vegetables to wash, and it was only water. I spent much of Christmas morning following him around and turning the faucet off.
They don’t say “faucet” here, either, by the way. Water comes from the tap. The builders who remodeled my kitchen were extremely amused at my American language, especially Lee: “Hey, Bob! Listen to what they call the tap!” (to me) “Go on, say it again!”
When I lived in Palo Alto, water officers patrolled the town by bicycle in drought years, writing tickets when they found people wasting water; here we don’t even have a water meter. Despite all the rain we do have droughts here, because the population isn’t equally spread around the nation and instead too many people live in the south of England, around London (er, I would be part of the problem, then). Per capita, there’s less water in the south of England than there is in Saudi Arabia, or so I’ve read. Government pamphlets urging us to save water suggest we voluntarily allow our water companies to install domestic water meters, prompting consumer radio programmes to issue dire warnings to think carefully before you choose to use a meter, because once it’s installed, you cannot ever remove it. The idea that you’d have to warn people that they couldn’t get rid of their water meters amuses me as much as the word “faucet” amused Lee (who is the Michaelangelo of house painting, and no, I won’t give you his phone number, nor will I give you Bob’s; I want them available when I need them).
In drought years we have “hosepipe bans”. They don’t say you can’t water your plants, only that you can’t use your garden hose (except here, it’s a hosepipe). This is one of the strange-to-me ideas from which I conclude that the essence of foreignness is a difference in common sense. There isn’t enough water for people to drink and to shower, but I can use all the water I want to wash my car or keep my grass green as long as I carry it in buckets or watering cans? Go figure.
When a drought gets very bad we’re warned that we might have to “go to standpipes”. This means that the water companies will turn off the water and send water trucks to each neighborhood; residents will have to queue to get water because their taps-not-faucets will stop dispensing it. But…a standpipe is a pipe. That stands. It’s like a town pump: a permanent installation. The Oxford English Dictionary confirms it. So if they’re sending water trucks, why don’t they call them water trucks? Okay, water lorries—why not? I’m told it’s historical; communities used to have standpipes. Communities also used to have village wells, too, but if a water truck hoves into sight I doubt the residents say “Quick! The village well is pulling up outside the vicarage! Fetch me bucket!”
Threats of “going to standpipes” notwithstanding, the fau—taps haven’t failed me yet. And from long habit, I’m frugal with water. Here again I come into conflict with British ideas. If I don’t use all the water in the kettle (for shame!), next time I use the kettle I just top it up and some of the water is re-boiled. Unthinkable!
My friends here generally pour the unused water from the previous boiling—water that was purified at some expense, piped to their kitchens, and profligately boiled to no purpose—down the drain. Tea must be made with “freshly drawn” water. I’m told it has to do with the oxygen content. I can’t tell the difference, so in my kitchen, I use the boiled (and still warm) water again. No one has ever told me that I make bad tea, but then nobody expects an American to make good tea—although one plumber did say “I see you’ve been here long enough to know how to make a good cuppa”. Made me oddly proud.Now, having gone into such detail about how the British boil water, I’ve run out of time to tell you about actually making tea. What began as one blog postbecame two and then three, and now must now be at least four (Monty Python’s sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, anyone?). Perhaps by the time I post the next one I will have tracked down the source of that Gladstone quotation, but in the meantime if you are cold, overheated, depressed or over-excited, you know what to do.
This week’s post is brought to you by my favorite place to go for tea in Surrey, the Tea Shop at Watts Gallery . Many thanks to Gallery staff for permission to use photos from their web site.
Click here here to read a previous post on Obama and “Hope”.