Sunday, 6 February 2011

I've joined the tea party......


It's an emotive subject, tea. Iota and Michelloui, at their respective blogs, have been discussing the English custom of immediately offering your guest a hot drink - something that just doesn't happen in America, where the electric kettle is almost unheard of. Go and read their wonderfully insightful posts here and here first (and the many fascinating comments). And then the lovely Michelloui asked if I would like to join in. Well, let's just say being invited to this particular tea party is definitely preferable to the Sarah Palin kind....


You see, even if our American friends have got over the fact that we like to offer them hot drinks, and begin to reciprocate, there is still a long way to go to understanding the British cult of tea. In an American household, you may be offered a herbal tea, or green tea - they will not, understandably, have plain black tea (although brands like PG Tips and Twinings are readily available here). You might be offered honey to sweeten it - or even milk, but that's probably because they know you are British, and let's face it, who wants to drink green tea with milk?

But, American friends, what you really need to understand is that our choice of tea - and the way we drink it- is riddled with centuries-old prejudices revolving around the dreaded British disease of class.

Here I must disclose that I grew up drinking Twinings Earl Grey tea. It was the brand my mother always bought; I didn't realise until much later that this was considered frightfully middle class, and by that time I was addicted. (When we arrived in the US, I brought three foodstuffs in my suitcase; Marmite, Weetabix and Twinings Earl Grey).

Given a choice, I will always go for Earl Grey (although never, ever 'Lady Grey', in my view a completely pointless, inferior made-up version). However, I am quite happy to drink less poncey teas - for example, Tetley or PG Tips. Note for Americans: this kind of tea, particularly if it is made very strong and comes with a good helping of sugar, is often known as builders' tea. (In the UK, builders drink tea. If you have builders in your home, you offer them tea and biscuits. And if you don't, they will probably ask for them). So, in some British households, you might be offered a choice of 'Earl Grey, or builders' tea' - others just assume you want one or the other.

As a child I remember reading Enid Blyton and there being discussions, among characters deemed to be 'snobbish', about 'China' vs 'Indian' tea. 'China' tea was thought to be more proper. But these distinctions seem to have fallen by the wayside, and it's all about brands now. Twinings is firmly middle class; PG Tips comes with a good dose of British humour (remember the ads with chimps?); Tetley is Yorkshire and no-nonsense. (Interestingly, in an effort to seem less snooty, Twinings launched a new tea a few years ago called Everyday Tea. They still got Stephen Fry to star in the ads, though.)

The order in which we add the milk is also ridden with class assumptions. I was always told it was more polite to make the tea first and then add the milk, although some people believe the opposite. My mother definitely thought it was the height of bad manners to put the milk and teabag in first, then add the hot water.

Then, of course, do you serve it in a proper teacup, with a saucer, or in a mug? This is definitely a generational thing. My grandparents would never have served tea in mugs. If we were having a posh tea party, with cake, my mother would have definitely have got the cups and saucers out, but if it was just us, we had mugs. Now, we drink out of mugs all the time. I do actually possess a set of Wedgewood cups and saucers - a wedding present- but they are rarely used. (But, Americans, rest assured that if you go and 'take tea' at the Ritz or Claridges, you will get nothing but the very best bone china. )

And then there's the question of teabags. Again, these used to be rather sneered upon by tea snobs - you made your loose leaf tea in a pot and then strained it. But, while you'd still get it at Claridges, I can't believe there are many families who would bother to make loose leaf tea now.

I do wonder what will happen in the next generation. I can't remember an age when I didn't drink tea, but you don't see children drinking it these days. My own boys refuse to try it. I suppose it's probably thought bad to give kids any kind of caffeine at all now, although I can't believe there's anything wrong with a weak cup of tea. So, will Britain lose its tea-drinking tradition? Will children move straight from apple juice to smoothies and then on to Starbucks? And with it, will all this knowledge, ceremony and tradition just disappear? I'd hate to think so.

20 comments:

Expat mum said...

Another great post on tea. I think I will have to feature you all on the new Pond Parleys MidWeek Mention this week.
But my you really are dead posh, being brought up with Twinings. You should try Argo Tea's Earl Grey Creme which is my all time fave tea these days. Although if you don't like Lady Grey you might think it too faddish.

Kit said...

We grew up with a tea caddy - one side Indian tea for breakfast, the other side China tea for tea. I learnt how to make properly, warming the pot and all.
Now it's tea bags in mugs all the way and I mostly drink Rooibos, now I'm in South Africa. But I still offer any guests a cup of tea or coffee the minute they walk in the door. I never knew it was a British thing!
Great post on tea!

anna said...

I love tea. It rocks so much. Tea is to be shared in good times and bad. How many cups of tea have I nursed over with friends when someones's heart has been broken, or its been a bad day or someone needs to talk. Tea can save the world. I am Scottish though, where a world without tea would make no sense at all!! oh and my 4 year old daughter is always asking to drink my tea so I've started making her baby tea (very weak and milky.)The art shall not die!!

Mud in the City said...

There is something deeply comforting about "a nice cup of tea". Mind you - I never drank it as a child. It was water all the way then. But that certainly hasn't stopped me developing an adult taste for it!

Nota Bene said...

There really is nothing like a good cup of tea...so refreshing, unlike coffee. It's a shame the rest of the world doesn't understand...

Paradise Lost In Translation said...

Our son is an avid tea drinker, has been since the age of 8! But then he loves 'afternoon tea'. He's a real aficionado of the real thing & from abt aged 3 he used to say, whenever we were in a supermarket "Mummy have you got anything for tea?" Buy wch he meant 'tea & cake' tea!
I love love love tea, Can't beat it.
& I brought the exact same threesome in my suitcase!
Great post, brought back so many memories of my childhood & my granny in partic(who reckoned she cd 'taste' if you hadn't warmed the pot 1st!)

Michelloui | The American Resident said...

Oh no... I can feel those American tea-making anxieties creeping in again as I sneak off to my hot drink cupboard to figure out if I have tea from China or India...! I had no idea there had ever been a distinction. This post was a real education for me, and a very entertaining read!

Thank you very much for joining the party!

planb said...

On the tea leaf front... I actually went to try and buy a tea strainer the other day (had bought some lovely mint tea in Tunisia and needed something to get the bits out) and could I find one? Could I b*ggery? (I was going to be polite and say "could I heck" but then I thought I'd better be British through and through...)

What am I supposed to do now?

Oh, and for Michelloui - I *think* essentially the difference for most people is the same as builders'/earl grey one... Certainly when I was little, Indian tea was what I'd now call builders (although probably marketed as "English Breakfast" and Earl Grey was definitely "China" (never "Chinese") tea. Oh, and if you're confused, the clue's often in the name: "Darjeeling" - Indian, "Lapsang Souchong" - China...

Oh, and to add to the confusion. If you're born before about 1950 you put lemon in China tea. Never milk....

Blimey we're weird aren't we?!

Lynda said...

I didn't realise how similar Australia is to England. I wouldn't dream of not offering someone tea or coffee at my house as soon as they cross the threshold!

Other countries customs can be confusing though. My boss years ago ( who came from Northern Ireland) said within days of arriving here she was invited to an impromptu and informal get together with her new staff so they could get to know her. Everyone was requested to "bring a plate". She spent ages choosing a pretty plate to give the hostess only to find it means bring any old plate but fill it with food to share!

The kettle part has got me wondering. In a couple of months we are heading to the US for a holiday driving from National Park to National Park.We noticed that no motel seems to have a kettle and only some have a "coffee maker" - not sure what that is. Almost none have a fridge. (Even the most basic motel in Australia has a fridge and kettle in each room). We thought it odd and decided we'd buy a kettle when we arrive and drop it at a charity shop when we leave 9 weeks later. After reading the blogs I'm wondering will we be able to find a kettle to buy???

Iota said...

Lynda - Target or Walmart should have an electric kettle (though you might have to look hard).

Great post, NVG (I typed HGV by mistake!) One of my grandmothers only used loose-leaf. She thought teabags were just a sign of what the world was coming to.

I use mugs, but I have to say, tea does taste nicer out of a bone china cup. My grandmother claimed it was to do with the thickness of the cup, and how that affected the way the tea went into your mouth.

The brand that is really confusing is "Yorkshire Tea". What on earth is that about? Grown in the foothills of the Dales? I thought it was a joke, the first time I saw a box (and probably offended the Yorkshire lass who was serving it).

nappy valley girl said...

Expat Mum - I will give it a try. (I did once try an Earl Grey latte from Starbucks, but it was, frankly, weird...). As for being posh, well my mother didn't come from a particularly posh family, but she did like the finer things in life.....

Kit - Ah, someone who knows about China and Indian tea. It wasn't just Enid Blyton, then!

Anna - I'm glad to hear it! I must try to encourage those boys....

Mud - I will always make tea in times of crisis. Nothing better - not even wine....

NB - yes. I love coffee, but it makes me dehydrated. I can't drink it first thing in the morning, either- I have to have tea first.

Paradise - glad to see that he's carrying on the tradition. Tea and cake - the best combination ever...

Michelloui - Oh, I really wouldn't worry. I don't think anyone knows the difference these days....besides, I think there is now a sort of inverse snobbery about liking builders' tea!

Plan b - I do have a strainer! Have you tried John Lewis? I'd be shocked if they didn't have one....

Lynda - yes, you might have to check out some websites first and find out where you can get an electric kettle....they aren't available everywhere.

Iota- my father tells me that my grandparents always made loose leaf tea, but my grandmother started using teabags later in life. I can't remember exactly when teabags came in, but I do know we had a tea strainer at home when I was little, and there was always the danger you'd get tea leaves in your mouth....

geekymummy said...

Ahh, tea! We always have a cup on a weekend afternoon. At the moment I have lovely "yorkshire tea" brand tea, courtesy of my parents last visit (definately the builder kind). It was 'Co-op 99' all the way when we were growing up, i didn't taste early grey until I was in college, and confess to still finding it a bit weird! I like a nice "Brickie's brew, with a little low fat milk (never add half and half to tea, it just doesn't work!)

Tanya (Bump2Basics) said...

My mom was a serial Early Grey drinker growing up (we were one of the few households where a cup of tea was always on offer, though probably not with the frequency it is here in the UK). So I grew up with Earl Grey but now often drink PG Tips, which Chris was raised on. And we always drink our tea in mugs, though I do also have a china teapot and mugs (wedding presents too) that we used for the first time the other day. So I am a "class mishmash" I guess.

Oh, Chris thinks tea tastes best from a metal tea pot, strangly enough. Would you have any opinion on that?

Muddling Along Mummy said...

Um we'd be one of those strange tea pot, loose tea people but only at the weekend. I love the ritual of making my pot of tea, popping it on the Aga and having mug after mug whilst doing breakfast & my morning chores

nappy valley girl said...

Geekymummy - I never add half and half to anything - but that's another whole blog post...

Tanya - Metal pots just remind me of canteens and school - I would always go for a china teapot if possible. That's interesting about your Mum, did she have any British roots?

MuddlingAlong - hurray! someone who still makes proper tea. I like my tea out of a pot, too, but I am afraid I am lazy and use 2 teabags. I like the sound of yours, though.

leemikcee said...

Love all the comments about tea... Which I first tasted in the hot form at friend's house. I was about 7 years old, I think. I have always liked it. Rarely drink coffee, in fact. I am American, in case there was any question.

I prefer the taste of loose tea, if pushed. I always make tea (black or black blend) in a pot. Electric kettles are easy to find at Target or Costco. They are reasonably priced, too.

Twinings tea is a staple. Does that make me Middle Class (which means something different in the US than it does in the UK, I believe)?

Murchie's in Vancouver and Victoria, Canada (available by online order; they ship to the US) has some very lovely tea blends. I adore them. They also offer a "tea sock" which has been the best thing I've found for brewing a goodly-sized pot of tea. Most tea strainers, balls, infusers, etc., don't fit the variety of pots I have.

And milk. I use half & half, thicker than most milks and just plain better in my morning and afternoon cuppas.

Both of my grown children enjoy a cup of tea. I've taught them well! ;-)

Thanks for letting me put in my two cents' worth!

Natasha said...

What a brilliant post! I am so happy to have found all of the tea posts happening vis Smitten by Britain. I have also posted about tea on my blog (my mum is English so I think I have the tea making down pat!) and I was astounded when some of American followers told me that they heated up their tea water in mugs in the microwave! I can happily tell you that many of them have now bought kettles!

I am so happy I found your blog. I will be back soon for sure.

Best wishes,
Natasha.

Laura, Happy Homemaker UK said...

I couldn't be happier that you demystified the tea selection a little bit. I seem to have Builder's Tea on hand - who knew? I'm a Jasmine Green Tea girl. I have to pick it up in the US - funny since I'm in the epicenter of tea! XoL

heatherfeather said...

Found you through Pond Parleys. As an American, I've never been too fond of tea since always found the store brands tasted like dishwater. My mom used to take us every year for afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel in Chicago and I did love the little sandwiches, cakes and posh atmosphere.

It was only when traveling to London as an adult that I feel in love with "builders tea". PG Tips, Yorkshire are my morning ritual and I can't go back to America tea or order it outside of the UK. My electric kettle is one of my favorite appliances and after I showed it off to friends and family, they also bought kettles.

I've become a bit of a tea snob in the opposite way. I have to bring my tea bags on vacation with me! However, the younger generation Y in the UK seem to drink more coffee as they always seem to be hanging out at the Starbucks!

PantsWithNames said...

Love love love my tea. But we didn't start drinking tea until we were about 10 - so there is hope for our boys yet. Britain will never go completely coffee...