Tea, part 3

The Tea Shop at Watts Gallery is my favorite place to go for tea in Surrey. See the bottom of this post or the Featured Link on the right for a link to their site.

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.

Tea Shop staff bake their own cakes on the premises.

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.

The Gallery and Tea Shop are right on the North Downs Way, a long-distance trail, and hikers (UK: ramblers) are welcome. There are lots more outdoor tables by the leafy lane on the other side of the shop.

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).

The Gallery itself houses the paintings of Victorian artist G. F. Watts, including "Hope", a favorite of President Obama's and the inspiration, ultimately, for his phrase "The Audacity of Hope".

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.

After refurbishment and under new management, it's fancier than it used to be, but it's still the closest thing here to the kind of laid-back cafe I used to go to in California.

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”.

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13 Comments

Filed under Culture, Food

13 responses to “Tea, part 3

  1. Whence comes this idea that hot tea cools you? I was once very earnestly told that by an English woman (on a hot afternoon in Cambridge); I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. It just makes no sense physically. Hot drinks make you warmer, period. If they make you warmer in winter, why would they make you cooler in summer? Why on earth do people believe this?

    • Beth

      Dear Ophelia,

      Of course tea will cool you ( I am another earnest Englishwoman) Liquid evaporating over your skin will cool you, no? In other words, sweating (or glowing as we Englishwomen have it) cools you down.
      Drinking hot tea will make you ‘glow’ on a hot day: ergo, you will cool down!

      This all depends on a temporate climate. Since we rarely meet high summer temperatures for more than two days at a time, this works for us. The American discovery that cold drinks will bring down core temperature only reached us with the importation of the refridgerator

  2. Would you believe free water is falling from the sky here in California as I type? Very strange weather for June. I giggled at the image of you following your friend around turning off the tap! And the concept of megakettles…sadly my electric kettle has broken so I’m back to using the stove.

    There are some very tasty teas available here in the hinterlands–Peet’s has a great selection. I once mailed a pound of Good Earth cinnamon tea to a British friend…I’m not sure I could do that now as the authorities would probably assume I was trying to throw off drug sniffing dogs with the aromatic compound.

    Best,
    Cheryl

  3. Nitya

    I always enjoy your blog, but I think I like the ones on tea so much, because I am partial to my cuppa chai.. I mean tea! I think I can taste the difference between tea made with standing water, as versus tea made with freshly drawn COLD water from the tap (and then boiled, obviously!). I am very particular about how tea needs to be made, so I can rarely enjoy a cup anywhere else but home. I’m looking forward to the next post!

  4. Thanks to all — Ophelia, Cheryl, Nitya — for your replies! Hope you don’t mind this composite response.

    The “hot tea can cool you” in a mystery to me, too; hot tea just makes me hotter. As Nitya comes from a hot climate, I wonder — do you (Nitya) find that hot tea is cooling? Maybe in the way–I’m guessing here–that hot spices are said to be cooling?

    And I have sent tea to the US by post, and it never occurred to me that it might be thought to be contraband. Maybe it’s because I was mailing it from the UK to the US; officials might think that sending tea to England would be a sort of coals-to-Newcastle situation, and therefore suspicious!

    As for chai–I was given some *amazingly wonderful* chai in India, and I’d love to know how to make it. I’d been greeted with a flower garland, it had to be a good 5 inches or more in diameter, in green, white, and purple, with tassles on the ends made of bright orange marigolds–it was utterly lovely. We wore them around our necks, and I was apparently allergic to something in them. I started to cough and splutter, couldn’t get my breath, and had to leave the room, and take the flowers off. And a lady from the company I was visiting took me to her office and had someone bring chai–oh! It was delicious! I have no idea how it was made — now that I’m thinking about it, I may write to her and ask, but the answer will probably be “I asked the chai-wallah to make it, I don’t know”, wouldn’t you think?

    If you can recommend how to make such a thing, I’d be grateful!

    • Nitya

      AAaaah! I just realized I said tap instead of faucet… it comes naturally to me!

      I have heard that tea is very cooling; this does not have anything to do with the temperature of the tea, but more of its effect on the body. I don’t know if this is true.
      But I DO know that too much tea can make you anemic, and being anemic leads to cold hands and feet, among other things.

      I personally prefer tea to chai, I like Indian tea (leaves), but I like to prepare it the British way. I find chai too strong, it upsets my delicate innards. But if you want to make it for yourself, here’s a recipe.

      For chai, the amount of tea leaves per cup of water is about one and one half teaspoons, lightly heaped. This is added to boiling water on the stove, and it is boiled for half a minute to a minute, longer if you want it stronger. It is then steeped for a minute or so, and then mixed with hot milk and sugar. Some people might add a tiny piece of ginger to the cold water, and some might add one cardamom pod for upto 3 cups water; a little cardamom goes a long way. Some people even add the hot milk and sugar to the boiling tea, and make it all come to a further boil, before turning the stove off. Make sure to use strong black tea from India or Sri Lanka.

      If you make it, tell me how it comes out!

      • Thanks very much! I’ll definitely try it. In the meantime, I had written to the lady from Hyderabad who gave me the wonderful chai in her office, and she replied that it had come from a vending machine!! So much for me as a connoisseur of tea. And she gave me directions for making chai that look very much like yours, but I haven’t tried it yet. The chai I was given there definitely had cardamom. Oh…it was lovely… Rather a long way to go for a good cup of tea though!

  5. MFC

    This post had me laughing out loud. Too, too funny. I love your wry, intelligent humor.

  6. Malcolm

    Tap? Faucet? A few summers back I was helping friends refurbish their turn-of-the-(20th)-century house on Shelter Island. The moment came to get a new washer for an old brass faucet. “There’s a wonderful plumbers’ emporium over on the mainland [Long Island]Greenport,” they said. Naturally, I brought the faucet with me. The Ancient Plumber took it from me, disassembled it, and said, “That, sir, is no faucet. It’s a tap!” The difference is highly technical (something to do with the arrangement of the valve) but rest assured, America – it exists! (And he did have the requisite valve and washer in stock.)
    I think electric kettles are less popular in America because, with only 110v domestic power, as against the UK’s killer 240v supply, they take more than twice as long to boil.
    We once challenged a woman who insisted on tea from fresh-boiled water to pick out one such sample cup from five, the other four being from reboiled water. She got it right on her third choice. But I’m sure it makes a difference if you know how the tea was made. Remedy: Always assure your guests you only ever use fresh-boiled water. It works every time.

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

  8. Cathy Villa

    Mary Ellen, I never thought I would enjoy an article about boiling water so much! Thank you for brightening my day. -Cathy

    • Glad you liked it! Feel free to suggest similar subjects — bringing coals to Newcastle, or something. At the moment I’m researching “how to sit in a comfy chair on a friend’s back porch and do nothing”. This topic may require study…lots of study…

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