The ex ex­pat

Hav­ing been a com­mit­ted cof­fee drinker for 20 years, Kate Birch pon­ders the virtues of a ‘lovely cup of tea’, Brit style

Friday - - Contents -

Kate Birch gets in a stew about the highs and lows of ‘a nice cup of tea’.

Had your heart bro­ken? Pour some Cey­lon. Been mugged? Sip on Earl Grey. Lost theWorld Cup? It’s English Break­fast

Let’s put the ket­tle on and have a nice cup of tea,” sug­gested my neigh­bour, af­ter I ar­rived on her doorstep one evening last month, hold­ing my bloody head in my hands, tears run­ning down my face.

And so it hap­pened that af­ter an ac­ci­dent in which I’d gashed my head open (I needed eight stitches), I found my­self at my neigh­bour’s kitchen ta­ble wait­ing for her ket­tle to boil. She did even­tu­ally take me to the hos­pi­tal. But not be­fore we en­joyed – or rather, she en­joyed, I en­dured – a “nice cup of tea”.

Don’t get me wrong. Since re­turn­ing to Brew Bri­tain about a year ago, af­ter two decades of cof­fee and sun­shine, I’ve be­come rather par­tial to par­tak­ing of a cup of hot tea, or two, and even a few bis­cuits… the dunk­able va­ri­ety, of course.

But there’s a time and a place for a good ‘brew and stew’, surely? And sit­ting in a sort-of-stranger’s kitchen soaked in blood, and with a two-inch gash in your head, just isn’t one of them.

Or maybe it is. Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est ad­ver­tise­ment by York­shire Tea in which the virtues of a bang-up brew are re­vealed, a “lovely cup of tea” is a com­mon cure-all for pretty much ev­ery­thing, from heart­break to bad health, in­jury to in­san­ity.

The drink­ing of tea – or Rosie Lee, as the cock­ney rhyming slang names it – has be­come so em­bed­ded in the Bri­tish sub­con­scious that it’s the first thing reached for in times of panic, out­rage or dis­tress.

Had your heart bro­ken? Pour some Cey­lon. Been mugged? Have a cup of Earl Grey. Eng­land lost the World Cup again? Reach for the English Break­fast.

It doesn’t mat­ter if you’ve bro­ken a nail, split up with your hus­band or just had a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence, who­ever gets to you first will be sure to of­fer you, nay force upon you, a ‘nice cup of tea’.

And by a nice cup of tea, I don’t mean all that new-age herbal non­sense with fancy-sound­ing names and even fancier prices. Nor am I re­fer­ring to an oc­ca­sional posh pot poured in some five-star es­tab­lish­ment along­side scones, sand­wiches and sil­ver spoons.

No, I’m talk­ing good old black tea, with or with­out milk or su­gar, downed as reg­u­larly through­out the day as bot­tled wa­ter is in Dubai. Yes, as a na­tion, we sink 60 bil­lion cups of tea a year, with 25 per cent of Brits drink­ing five or more cups a day and one in 20 con­sum­ing more than 10 cups a day.

Tak­ing a ‘tea break’ isn’t just about quench­ing your thirst and re­fresh­ing your palate, how­ever. It’s a rit­ual; an oc­ca­sion. Just as dis­cus­sion about the weather is used as a con­ver­sa­tion filler, so hav­ing a cup of tea is used as a so­cial filler. Run out of con­ver­sa­tion, put the ket­tle on. Though if you do put the ket­tle on, make sure you know how peo­ple take theirs, be­cause tea-mak­ing is also a prac­tice taken very se­ri­ously.

While Ge­orge Or­well’s 11 rules of tea-mak­ing in his 1946 es­say ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’ (“Use a teapot made of china”) may no longer be rel­e­vant – nowa­days most peo­ple dump a teabag in a mug – peo­ple can still be touchy about tea.

As I dis­cov­ered a few years ago while in­ter­view­ing the Mid­dle Class King of Tea, Mr Twin­ings him­self, when he vis­ited Dubai. Sit­ting op­po­site him in Emi­rates Tow­ers’ ho­tel lobby, I pro­ceeded to break sev­eral tea ta­boos… not only did I add su­gar to my tea (only builders do that, ap­par­ently, said he) but I used more than a splash of milk and clashed my spoon against the sides of the cup, rather than the “silent swish with a spoon” that is proper.

Mr Twin­ings was far too po­lite to pull me up on my Earl Grey eti­quette, though his sub­se­quent high­light­ing of the rules of tea put me in my oh-so-proper place. As did my grand­mother a few months back, when she chas­tised me for pour­ing too soon. “It needs to stew in the pot for a good 10 min­utes,” she com­plained, be­fore giv­ing it a stir and a shake.

I’ve even got stick from col­leagues. One be­came so dis­tressed when he got ‘builder’s brew’ – made with max­i­mum brew time, min­i­mal milk and masses of su­gar in a large mug – rather than his loose-leaf, non­sugar, cup-and-saucer va­ri­ety, that only another cup of tea just the way he liked it could calm him down.

In re­al­ity, come to think of it, it took three more ‘nice cups of tea’ and an en­tire packet of Gin­ger Nuts – the king of ‘dunk­able’ bis­cuits.

Along with bak­ing, gar­den­ing and ra­tioning (yes, re­ally), tea drink­ing is en­joy­ing a nos­tal­gic re­nais­sance.

It’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore all those Star­bucks and Costas are run out of town by Aunty Betty and her Ye Old Tea Shoppe. In fact, she could be com­ing to a mall near you soon. I read it in my tea leaves.

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