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
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.