Category Archives: Food

Small Pleasures

This is a very good sign...

The BBC has got me thinking about baking cakes this week, specifically the programme “More or Less” on Radio 4, on which economist Tim Harford talks in a lighthearted way about “numbers in the news and in life”, treating topics from whether we can trust statistics rattled off by politicians, to the odds of buying a carton of 6 eggs (UK: box of 6 eggs, though their box and our carton are identical pressed-paper shapes) and finding that they all have double yolks.  “More or Less” recently asked people to contact them with cake recipes that had some numerical interest, no matter how tenuous the connection, so I told them about the common American pound cake.  And they were interested enough to ring me up and tape me over the phone for their podcast.

It's Christmas all year round at the local bakery.

You don’t get pound cake here; the UK’s version is called Madeira cake, which tastes very like pound cake, but—I assumed—would be made with Madeira, a sweet wine.  I figured they must use that instead of vanilla or something. When will I learn not to assume anything where culture or tradition are involved?  Madeira cake is pound cake by another name, and its British name comes from an earlier century in which it was fashionable to serve it with a small glass of Madeira alongside.

Christmas cakes at the Christmas bakery, that is, they are Christmas's Christmas cakes.

But what makes a pound cake a pound cake?  Traditionally the recipe called for one pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs.  (Yes, you weigh the eggs.)  But since that would make an enormous cake (or more likely, several regular-size cakes), any cake is called a pound cake as long as you adhere to that all-important and beautifully symmetrical ratio—1:1:1:1—for the main ingredients.

Living here, you learn that a cake can mean anything from an extravagant multiple-tiered sculpture to little individual goodies I’d call sweet rolls, and even things that aren’t cake at all in my view, like gingerbread men or custard tarts.  When the head of a social group asked me , not long after I moved to the UK, to bring “a few cakes”–plural–to a meeting, I wondered whether she could possibly mean that she wanted me to come up with several 2-layer, 9-inch, iced cakes.  Answer?  She didn’t.  She meant the kinds of little treats that I will tell you about below.

Because I have, at great personal sacrifice, gone to a popular bakery nearby and filled a tray with one of everything that would fit, so as to introduce you to British cakes.

A Yule log, which is yet another kind of cake eaten at Christmas. This is a very fancy one; it even has a branch. And you can just see, on the right, some rum truffles--decorated to look like miniature Christmas puddings.

It’s just lucky that the nearest bakery has a name that coincides with the season: the sign may say “Rickford Bakery”, but people call it the Christmas bakery, as it’s run by J. A. Christmas and Sons.  I’ve never seen a man behind the counter, though; maybe the men are in the back with the ovens.  The ladies who do work behind the counter are kept on the run, because the place is always so busy, especially at lunchtime—since in addition to cakes they bake Cornish pasties and sausage rolls and curry-filled pastries, and make sandwiches on their own freshly baked rolls—that getting in and out of the car park (US: parking lot) is a cross between a sliding-tile puzzle and a fairground Dodge’ems ride.  When I left today, two cars wanted my parking space; for all I know there was an episode of bakery rage after I left.

Inside the Christmas bakery

This time of year they do a brisk business in Christmas cakes (a treat I’ve written about before), and there’s a photo here of their display.  You’ll have to take my word for that the Christmas bakery offers cream horns, fudge brownies, lardy cakes, jam tarts, rum truffles, and a host of other things that won’t be in my photos, because I couldn’t actually buy one of everything in the shop.  But I can tell you about the ones I did buy (they’re identified in the captions of the pictures):

Iced buns: Kids in British books always seem to be eating iced buns, which sound wonderful.  But as you’ll soon see, traditional British treats tend to be very simple, without a lot of cherries or almonds or sweetened cream cheese or the kinds of things I’m used to seeing at bakeries in the US; there isn’t even a lot of chocolate or cinnamon.  And an iced bun is just that: a bun about the size of a hotdog bun, with a smear of sugary icing on top.  It’s very good quality bread, much, much better than a hotdog bun, but still…it’s just iced bread, though iced buns seem to be really popular.

On the left, from back to front, we've got an iced bun and a filled doughnut; in the next 'column', also from back to front, you see shortbread, an iced Chelsea bun, and a jam doughnut; in the next row, a sugared Chelsea bun, a flapjack, and a vanilla slice

Doughnuts: It is difficult to find a canonical doughnut-with-a-hole in England, except in American chains (Starbucks offers a glazed old-fashioned, and Krispy Kreme has begun opening outlets here).  Other than that, the supermarket will sell you an enormous tub of mini-doughnuts, or you can get filled or jam doughnuts, as shows in the picture.  The jam doughnut would be no surprise to Americans, but the filled doughnut, split and filled with cream, and not even round, as new to me.  Very tasty, though.

Chelsea buns:  I would call these sweet rolls–spirals of dough with raisins or currants and sugar rolled up in the coil.  When someone asks for Chelsea buns, the ladies ask “iced or sugared?”  I’ve shown one of each; the sugared one has the sugar sprinkled on the top, instead of icing.

Along the righthand edge from back to front this shows: a gingerbread man, a mince pie in flaky pastry, a treacle tart, and an Eccles cake; just to the left of that there's a Viennese in the back and a rock cake in the front. (To identify those further left, see the caption for the other photo.)

Currants [please see correction, below!]  are one of the few fruits that will grow well here which also produce a decent amount of vitamin C.  During the war the government encouraged everyone to plant currants; we have some in the back garden.  In wartime, people made blackcurrant syrup and gave it to children like medicine, so as to make sure they got their vitamins; this has left the population with a taste for all things blackcurrant.  I find blackcurrant flavoring–which you get in everything from gumdrops (UK: fruit gums) to cough syrup (UK: cough mixture)–utterly vile, but as dried fruit currants are pretty good.

Flapjack:  These have nothing to do with the American idea of flapjacks as big pancakes; they’re bar cookies made with oatmeal, more like granola bars.

Vanilla Slice: Cream-filled flaky pastry with a thick layer of vanilla icing.

Viennese:  Viennese what?  Presumably Viennese cakes.  The bakery just calls them Viennese–which is an adjective, but no matter.  Two very buttery fluted cookies cemented together with icing and then dipped in chocolate at both ends.

The whole glorious trayful.

Mince pies: A Christmas staple that I’ve written about before. The Christmas bakery offers them in flaky pastry or shortcrust (ordinary pie crust).

Rock Cake: a rather hard biscuity cake studded with currants, rough on the top, with big sugar crystals.  Favorite of my husband, and of Hagrid in the Harry Potter books, although Hagrid makes his own, and–in a joke that is time-worn or time-honored here, take your pick–his are as hard as rocks.

Shortbread & Gingerbread: Much the same as American shortbread and gingerbread, although this gingerbread man is tipped in chocolate so as to clothe him with trousers.  At this time of year they also offer ginger Christmas trees.

Eccles cakes:  Round pastries filled with currants, brown sugar, and a bit of cinnamon.

Part of the hot-food cabinet, with its pies, pasties and pastries.

Treacle Tart: Here we get into a grey area, because if you’re asked to bring cakes, and show up with tarts, no one will think you’ve overstepped your remit even though these aren’t cakes because, well, they’re tarts.  I included treacle tart because it’s my favorite (and Harry Potter’s), and it’s something we don’t have in the US.  It’s also a way of recycling bread crumbs, which a bakery would presumably otherwise be drowning in.  The center is just bread crumbs, lemon juice and zest, and golden syrup (a type of treacle that I wrote about before).  It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s wonderful.

You could say that about several of these offerings, actually.  As you can see from list, the shapes and techniques may vary, but the list of flavorings is very simple.  Bill Bryson says in  Notes from a Small Island:

And the British are so easy to please.  It is the most extraordinary thing.  They actually like their pleasures small.  That is why so many of their treats—tea cakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys—are so cautiously flavorful.  They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

The Christmas family has (UK: have—I will never get used to that) been making these traditional, simple treats in their bakery since 1860, but there may have been a bakery on the site before that.  There was certainly a mill nearby, in times past, and I’ve heard that the old mill house is still there.

But the Christmases don’t sell Madeira cake (much less pound cake).  And my recording for the BBC’s “More or Less” was left on the cutting-room floor; the producer apparently liked the way I emphasized the ratio (well, it is a show about numbers), but instead used a clip from the other listener who suggested pound cake, because she actually makes her own.

Me, I don’t make my own cakes anymore.  Why would I, with the Christmas family right down the road?

STOP PRESS!  The “More or Less” team decided to use my clip after all.   If you listen to the podcast, which you’ll find at (it’s the show for 16 Dec, marked as being about “Higgs boson statistics”, my little blurb on pound cake is at the end.  The very end, even after the credits, just about at the 27:50 mark (out of a 30 minute show!).  But it was fun to do!

CORRECTION: I have confused blackcurrants, the fruit that grows in my garden and that was given to children in wartime, for dried currants, a type of raisin used in baking.  Many thanks to Mary Korndorffer for letting me know.



Filed under Culture, Food

An English pub in California

Cameron's pub and inn. The crescent moon that you see on businesses all over Half Moon Bay (more picturesque than a half moon, I suppose) here wears a monocle and a bobby's hat, and holds a pint.

When I left for vacation/a holiday in California, I wondered how I was going to find topics for a life-in-Britain blog when I was so far from the UK myself. 

I needn’t have worried.  The solution popped up on California’s Highway 1 (the coast road that runs over 650 miles along the Pacific from Orange County to Mendacino County) in the form of Cameron’s Pub and Inn, a cross between the kind of roadside attraction that seems to be uniquely American (like the famous Florida gas station built in the shape of the Sinclair Oil Company’s dinosaur logo , the giant basket in Ohio that is the Longaberger basket company’s building, or the (politically incorrect) favorite we always watched for on car trips when I was a kid, the WigWam Village Motel), and an honest-to-goodness British pub. 

Cameron Palmer (right) with parents Adora and Alan Palmer.

The publican is Cameron Palmer, a genial and civic-minded fellow who was a veteran of the food service (UK: catering) business even before he became chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce—at age 19.  Few things happen in Half Moon Bay without Cameron’s sponsorship or contribution; he hosts the Fourth of July Parade every year and has at one time or another run the Coastside Fair, the Pumpkin Festival, and historic preservation efforts for the town’s oldest house and for WWII ammunition depots.  He also plays King Candy, in velvet robe and gold crown, at the annual Candy Land celebration for kids.

The world-famous smoking bus--as seen on the BBC, and many other news outlets.

His pub occupies a 100-year-old building that has in its day been officers’ quarters for the Army (once) and a house of ill repute (three times).  It was also a way-station for shipments of moonshine during Prohibition, a gambling venue during the Depression (Al Capone’s sister had the slot machine concession), and the site of three murders. 

Fish and chips at Cameron's. Note traditional newspaper under the food (though topped with a more hygienic wrapper). Cameron stocks the Union Jack for his customers: "America's Only National British Newspaper"

If all that sounds too American, then consider the pub grub: the menu offers fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, pasties, and a ploughman’s (well, a cheese plate similar to a ploughman’s, anyway). 

Upstairs Cameron's offers B&B, but it's not bed-and-breakfast, it's bed-and-beverage: they'll give you a drink, but they don't do breakfast.

Cameron’s father, who came to the US from Newcastle, is in charge of quality control in terms of keeping the offerings authentic, and the whole family helped get the pub up and running.   

The sign reads "It's a Bloomin' London Taxi"

It is in the nature of a US roadside attractions to have eye-catching architectural or sculptural features; Cameron’s offers a couple of red double-decker Routemaster buses (UK: busses) and a pair of black London taxis (and, inexplicably, a Chinese junk).  One of the buses earns its keep as the smoking section of the restaurant, and the other is full of video games for kids, installed so underage patrons can indulge the urge to crawl and climb all over a double-decker bus while keeping them out of the second-hand smoke. 

A 6-foot plaster lion--bouvant sejant erect--by the front door

Outside the front door there’s also a real red phone box from the UK, an imitation pillar box, (and not a strikingly successful imitation; surely one of Cameron’s friends could knock together a better one and mark it CR for Cameron Rex), and a 6-foot-tall plaster lion not unlike the one on the Royal Arms of England except that those are, in heraldic terms, passant guardant and Cameron’s lion is what might be called bouvant sejant erect (a lion sejant erect sits up on its haunches; I’ve added bouvant – drinking – because Cameron’s lion has a beer).

Some of Cameron's collections -- the beer cans are on the wall at the left of the picture

Understated is not Cameron’s style.  He says bare walls make him nervous.  His collections fill the space: beer cans (over 2000 different cans with more added all the time), brass plates, uniform hats,  musical instruments, horse brasses, flags, Norman Rockwell plates, bar trays, and anything British.  (Actually the horse brasses collection is the only one of these groupings that you’re likely to see in a pub in Britain.) 

A unique beefeater-Scotsman hybrid stands by the holder for business cards by the till.

When people find out their generous pub landlord is collecting something, they turn charitable and give him items to add to what he’s got. 

Bare walls make him nervous...

In fact his generosity has paid off in all kinds of ways.  If you live in a small town and help everybody who asks for help, people are more than ready to return the favor when troubles come, so a local motorcycling group once helped paint the building, and the fire chief turned a blind eye when over 300 people attended a wake in a pub that was at the time limited to an occupancy of 93.  (The fire chief was one of the 300). 

British goods for sale in the shop

Cameron has also squeezed a whole British grocery shop into a corner of the pub, so locals can buy Hob Nobs biscuits, Heinz Salad Cream, Scott’s Porage Oats [sic], Branston pickle, and other goods necessary to sustain life if you’re a British ex-pat.  In that little corner of Half Moon Bay, you could think you were in England.

Signpost shows just how far we are from the Mother Country.

So that’s the answer.  What do you do if you run a blog about British life, but you find yourself in the USA?  You find a little bit of England, obviously. 

(Like the people of Half Moon Bay, I’m indebted to Cameron Palmer.  In my case it’s for providing the information for this post.)


Filed under Architecture, Culture, Food

Tea, part 5

What the Tea Shop at Watts Gallery does with cracked or badly chipped tea pots.

In Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” novels, protagonist Arthur Dent is a sort of everyman—or at least an every-Englishman—in extraordinary circumstances.  Ripped from this green and pleasant land and sent travelling around the galaxy, he felt he could almost take it all in his stride if he just had a nice cup of tea. 

So he asked the Nutri-Matic machine, creator of food for the space traveler, to make him a cup of tea but the Nutri-Matic didn’t know how.  Arthur explained: 

He told the Nutri-Matic about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon.  He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun.  He told it about silver teapots.  He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn.  He told it about putting in the milk before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded.  He even told it (briefly) about the history of the East India Company.

“So that’s it, is it?” said the Nutri-Matic when he had finished.

“Yes,” said Arthur, “that is what I want.”

 The problem of how to make tea proved so complex that the Nutri-Matic linked circuits with the ship’s computer; it took all their combined resources to make tea, which meant that for the duration vital functions like, say, steering weren’t available, and the crew almost died.  And so we see that tea is a serious business.

 As of part 4 of this series we’d got to the point (British English doesn’t use gotten) at which you had the tea leaves in the warmed (or unwarmed) pot with the water of whatever temperature you favour and the whole thing swaddled (or not) in a tea cosy.  What’s next?

Well, there’s the contentious issue of how long you let the tea steep—if steeping is the right word.

After listening for almost twelve years when British people talk about tea, this is my understanding:

1) Brewing tea generally refers to the entire process of making tea.

2) Steeping is what the leaves do in the pot between the time you pour the water in and the time you pour the tea out.

3) Boiling covers only those situations in which the tea and the water boil over a burner on the hob (US: stovetop), and is pretty much confined to descriptions of making Indian chai.

4) Infusing is confusing.  It refers to each steeping of the leaves, so if you refresh the pot (adding more water for a second round of tea from the same leaves) you’re making a second infusion.  But it’s also the term usually chosen to describe making herbal or medicinal teas. 

5) Some people use brewing, steeping, and infusing interchangeably anyway.

6) No matter which term you use, someone will be available to tell you that you are wrong.

That brings us to the vexed question of steeping time, which must have given the Nutri-Matic real trouble.  How long you wait before pouring the tea depends on such factors as the  type of tea, the hardness of the water, and how strong you like it; you could write a Ph.D. dissertation (UK: PhD thesis) on the problem, and no doubt someone already has.  The good hostess of yesteryear whose acquaintance you made in Part 4 of this series would probably have made strong tea and diluted it with hot water from a kettle for anyone who preferred weaker tea; a fancy kettle—even sometimes a silver one—over a small burner would have been standing by, an ordinary part of her tea set.  These days when you get a pot of tea at a tea shop you’re often given a second pot of hot water for diluting the tea once it’s poured or for refreshing the pot. 

Will you put anything into your tea?  I grew up drinking tea with lemon, but I’ve learned to prefer it the British way, with milk.  This is the norm, and if you don’t want milk in your tea, you may get it anyway if you don’t speak up quickly, especially if whoever pours favors putting the milk in first (MIF), before the tea, a la Arthur Dent.  The milk in last method (MIL) allows more time to fend off an unwanted dairy garnish. I didn’t make up those acronyms, by the way; do a Google search on either MIL or MIF with the word tea and you’ll see that they’re widely used and that the issue of whether the milk goes in first or last is discussed endlessly.  Some families can be so dogmatic on the subject that suitors from the opposing camp may be considered inappropriate mates for the next generation.

(Some families are similarly dogmatic in the use of tea towels after you’ve finished your tea and washed the dishes; to rinse or not to rinse is another divisive issue.  I was amazed to see people hand off dishes to be dried with soap suds on them, but it’s done all over the country by all kinds of people.  When I asked friends they told me that marriages had failed over whether to rinse dishes, and it would be better if I didn’t bring up the subject.)

Some MIF drinkers will tell you that putting milk in first shows good breeding (though no one knows why that should be) and some that MIF ensures that the hot tea won’t crack delicate teacups (though china is sturdy stuff, and if you’re worried,  a metal spoon in the cup is a good defense against cracked crockery).  MIL drinkers feel that they can’t know how much milk they want until they see how strong the tea is.  People of either opinion, if of a scientific turn of mind, may harangue you with talk of the denaturing of proteins . 

Just as some people can tell (as I’ve mentioned) when a cup of tea has been made from twice-boiled water, some say they can tell by tasting whether their cuppa was created with MIL or MIF.  One study determined that while the denaturing of milk proteins does occur differently depending upon whether you pour the milk into the tea or vice versa, it made no difference to the taste of the drink among the tea drinkers tested.

On the subject of sugar I’ve found no difference between American and British preferences except in vocabulary. You may have run across characters in British books asking “One lump or two?” or, if you read a different sort of book, plucky girls giving sugar lumps to their ponies.  I was a bit disappointed to find that a sugar lump is only a sugar cube.  People rarely say that here anyway, the conversation being shortened these days to “Sugar?” “Two, please.”    If you serve sugar lumps/ cubes you need sugar tongs unless your guests don’t mind using their fingers; the cubes can be almost impossible to get out of some sugar bowls using a spoon.

And that, together with the four previous articles in the series, is pretty much the end of the story (except for biscuits and cakes, scones and crumpets, meringues and strawberries, but I’ll leave those later, to give people a break from tea-themed posts), and a long story it has been, involving all kinds of paraphernalia.  Adding it all up, to serve a proper tea you need a teapot—or two if you’re going to offer both Indian and China tea—but that’s barely the start.  Cups and saucers, spoons, milk jug (they don’t use the word pitcher here) and sugar bowl are obvious.  You’ll need another pot for hot water (burner optional), and the caddy for the tea, with caddy spoon.   Add a plate for lemon slices, and a tea cosy if you want. You may need sugar tongs, and you may want straining apparatus: mote spoon, tea strainer or tea ball. 

But there’s one item found in tea sets here that I’ve not yet mentioned: a vessel called, with Anglo-Saxon bluntness, the slop bowl.  It doesn’t sound like something that belongs on the table with bone china cups and silver spoons, but none of the tea drinkers and tea servers I’ve spoken to found anything odd about the name. (Of course you don’t have to use the stereotypical bone china and silver and most people don’t, but I’m assuming that if you’re drinking tea from big earthenware mugs, pouring milk straight from the bottle and sugar from the paper bag you bought it in, you aren’t going to worry much about the inappropriate nature of the word slop.)  Such a bowl serves as the receptacle for the water used to warm the pot, for tea gone cold when the drinker wants a fresh cup, or for the tea leaves after they’ve been read.  There are euphemismsort bowl and waste bowl sound better to me—but slop bowl it usually is.

A cheerful mix of vintage crockery served up by the Tea Shop at Watts Gallery

Given that I don’t have a tea set (with or without slop bowl), I was surprised while writing this to realize that except for sugar tongs I could probably manage to put on a fancy tea party with the equipment I already have on hand—not that I’ve ever felt the need to.  I didn’t mean to acquire a tea set; it’s all pieces I collected over the years, and of course they wouldn’t match.  Still I’ve got everything I need—except, alas, a parlourmaid to hand the cups around.

Arthur Dent had no tea leaves and no tea set, all he had was a Nutri-Matic and the computer resources of the most sophisticated space ship ever built, but these did eventually produce a perfect cup of tea.  But as Arthur Dent’s situation and his instructions to the Nutri-Matic show, we’re not just talking about a beverage, but of comfort, reassurance, history, tradition, and ritual.  I rather think the name for that might be religion.


Filed under Culture, Food

Tea, part 4

My tea cupboard

At long last we get to the subject of how to make and serve tea as the British do—bearing in mind that we’ve established that there are many variations and everyone thinks their way is best.  The authors of the blog and accompanying book “Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down” (see Featured Book and Featured Links) tell us the technical term for this is “projected tea enjoyment”: everybody thinks other people will like tea the way they like it, and if others don’t prefer it that way, they ought to.   

The following, therefore, is meant to entertain rather than to prescribe.   And it’s only part of the story;  there’ll be one more post after this one to finish the subject of tea—for now.

Making and Serving Tea

First, choose your tea.  At a formal tea guests usually have a choice of two; you may have seen this in costume dramas in which hostesses ask their guests “India or China?”, having a pot of each standing by.  Indian tea is the default; if offering a China tea (always “China tea”, not “Chinese tea” here) likely choices include gunpowder tea and lapsang souchong.  Or in a break with tradition the second option might be something like Earl Grey instead. 

My tea caddy, which belonged to my husband's grandmother

You keep your tea in a caddy—where else would you keep it?—which these days means a pretty, or at least a serviceable, tin.  In years past a tea caddy locked and the lady of the house kept the only key, because—as I learned on a visit to Jane Austen’s house—tea was expensive and it was thought that servants might be tempted to pilfer.  A lady of my acquaintance tells me that a proper tea caddy had compartments for different teas and a bowl for mixing them; the lady who kept the key blended the tea herself.  She prepared the cups herself, too, pouring each one and adding whatever each guest prefered, then handing them off to a parlourmaid who would take each cup to the guest for whom it had been made.  One good thing about this procedure was that no one said, as some British people do when having tea informally, “Shall I be mother?”  It’s a twee expression—to my ear, anyway—meaning “Shall I pour?” 

Indian tea is the default; it’s certainly the most widely chosen for breakfast, for afternoon tea, for friends who drop by, and for consoling victims in a crisis.  (I mentioned the restorative properties of tea in a previous post, but since then I’ve learned that the British considered tea crucial to morale during the second world war, so the Lyon’s chain of tea shops dispensed free tea from camouflaged caravans (US: campers) to bombed-out families and rescue workers.  Jumping forward to last month when my mother-in-law visited from the US and fell on uneven pavement in London, I can report that two Good Samaritans came to her rescue, each independently telling her she needed “a cup of tea, love”, one adding “that’ll settle you”.)

Have decided on the type of tea, will you choose tea bags or loose tea?  Loose tea requires either a tea ball (a little cage that lets water through but keeps the tea leaves in), a device to strain out the leaves as you pour, or a liking for damp vegetation at the end of your drink.  Of course, if you believe you have the gift of reading fortunes in tea leaves, you’ll want to be sure the leaves do get into the cup. 

A selection of the many free samples of tea I've been sent. The Red Cross sent me tea bags to encourage me to donate so that they would have money to help victims in emergencies, including providing said victims with tea, Britain's number 1 remedy for shock.

A fashion for tessomancy (reading tea leaves) in Victorian times has left us any number of lists of symbols and their meanings.  I have never encountered tea leaves in the shape of a dog (friendship) or a pirate (adventure), but perhaps I lack concentration—in which case my fault would be revealed when my tea leaves fell into the shape of a feather.  Victorian matrons must have had great powers of observation to be able to distinguish an tea-leaf eagle (strength) from a tea-leaf vulture (theft).  And if they did find such a bird—or a pirate, should he have a parrot—would they have counted that as finding feathers as well?  It must have been quite a skilled occupation.

If you don’t want leaves in your cup and you have no tea ball, you may find a tea strainer or a mote spoon useful.  A shallow mote spoon used to be a standard way of skimming errant leaves from the top of the tea after it was poured into the cup.  It could do double-duty as a caddy spoon, too, if you didn’t have one—a spoon for dipping tea out of the caddy and conveying it to the pot.  Note that either container or spoon could be called a caddy just to add to the confusio— fun.

Tetley's drawstring tea bag, with diagrammatic instructions. I've been gone from the US for so long I don't know whether this is old hat to American readers, or the latest in teatime technology.

Like most people, I’m happy for the tea leaves to stay in the tea bag.  While some here will tell you that the contents of tea bags are leftovers or “floor sweepings” that’s unlikely, if for no other reason that most tea is sold in tea bags and sweepings from the production of loose tea couldn’t possibly account for it all.  Tea bags are definitely the less elegant but are generally the more practical choice, whether you like yours rectangular, pyramidal (though these are really usually tetrahedral), round, or—the latest thing here—with a drawstring, so that you can squeeze the water out without having to touch the damp tea bag.  Until I encountered the drawstring version I’d never used tea bags that came with instruction diagrams. 

The first tea bags were made of silk by an American importer who sent them to customers as samples of his merchandise.  At least one British author says the importer intended the consumer to open the silk bag and pour the tea into the pot, but the “clueless Americans” didn’t know any better, and dunked the whole bag.  If so, then great credit must be given to clueless Americans. 

My unusual tea cosy

The staple tea at our house is Tesco’s Finest, a blend of Indian teas, but my cupboard (US: cabinet) is full of different tea bags: some bought, some received as gifts, some left behind by visitors, and lots and lots of free samples. Everybody seems to want me to buy their tea: Twinings, Tetley, Numi, or Yorkshire Tea.  That last one is made especially for hard water areas and, let me tell you, we may be hundreds of miles fromYorkshire, but if the water here were any harder we’d have to chip off chunks and suck them to get a drink. 

Britons generally concur that it’s best to use one tea bag or one teaspoon of loose tea per person plus one extra, often called “one for the pot”.  The correct temperature for the water is debated, however.  Some maintain it should be just shy of the boiling point, and others that keeping the temperature right up at boiling is so crucial that they warm the pot by rinsing it with boiling water before they fill it, lest the cooling effect of the ceramic result in a suboptimal cup of tea.  I can’t tell the difference, and I don’t bother warming the pot. 

The other side of my unique tea cosy

Nor do I generally use a tea cosy, a device to keep the tea warm while it steeps.  For everyday use, tea cosy-favouring households generally have something knitted or crocheted by a family member.  Except for the slits for handle and spout these look very much like woolly hats (presumably why Dobby the house elf wears one on his head in the Harry Potter books), often complete with pompoms on the tops.  Manufactured tea cosies are sewn using two pieces of quilted fabric (see photos), and you commonly find them in souvenir shops and museum shops.  My tea cosy is more of a curiousity piece, definitely one of a kind; a friend found it in a charity shop and gave it to me, apparently thinking I was the kind of person who really needed an  elaborately embroidered, appliqued, and quilted velvet creation with “M. C.  Aged 80” worked into it.  I confess I’d love to know who M. C. was and who made her this extraordinary tea cosy.  Or did she make it herself, signing her initials and age the way girls do when making samplers?

Now that you’re all set with your tea, your teapot, and your tea cosy, I’m afraid I have to leave you to your own devices until the next post.  You certainly can’t pour the water now; by the time I upload my final post in this series the tea would be stone cold.


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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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Tea, part 2

A classic British teapot for every day.

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.

Reproduction of an antique teapot; a little pot of milk sits on top of the teapot where it stays warm, and the sugar bowl sits on top of the milk. Silver needs polishing though...

 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 Chinese rice-pattern teapot; little holes like rice grains are pierced through the clay leaving lacy gaps that light comes through, but the glaze makes it water-tight.

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.

A teapot that is very much not my style, but I keep it for sentimental reasons: it's also a music box that plays 'Tea for Two', and my mother used to entertain us with it when we were little.

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.

Many thanks to my friend Jocelyn for contributing this photo of her elephant teapot.

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.

And this is Jocelyn's everyday teapot.

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.)


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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.


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