A Lovely Cup of Tea.

A Lovely Cup of Tea.

There has recently been a furore in the world of social media concerning the correct way to make tea. This video was posted by two charming and entirely well-meaning but, unfortunately, woefully mis-informed ladies.

This video went viral. It made me feel ill.

An alternative was posted by JE Stanway, on the Jane Austen Fan Club Facebook page. Unfortunately the file is too big to share here but I do encourage you to look it up.

Tea is a staple in Jane Austen’s novels and with this – possibly slightly tenuous – connection I thought I might use my blog today to tell you about my experiences of tea-drinking during my travels in the US.

I ought to preamble this exegesis of American tea-drinking by stating that a) these experiences and opinions are all my own, b) no offense is intended and c) I am British (as though that excuses everything!) Please forgive me if I went to the wrong place, asked for the wrong thing or was otherwise in error.

The first thing to establish is that the British ‘do’ tea, hot tea, lots of it, every day. Putting the kettle on is a mandatory punctuation for any activity. It is an essential preparation for the next thing, whatever that might be.

‘Before we start, let’s have a cuppa,’ we say.

It provides an interlude. ‘Time for a break,’ we announce after a period of just about anything, ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

Tea is a reward – ‘We’ve earned a cup of tea.’

Drinking tea gives us thinking and discussion time; when we ‘talk things over,’ the thing we literally talk over is a cup of tea.

Tea is fuel; no worker in any arena can function effectively without tea; workmen in the home (decorators, plumbers etc) require it at a minimum every hour on the hour.

Tea is a palliative, administered in times of shock and bereavement. ‘You need a cup of strong, sweet tea,’ we say to anyone under-going trauma.

Tea is an essential ingredient of any British social occasion. Guests are always offered tea on arrival. ‘How lovely to see you!’ we cry. ‘Let me make you a cup of tea.’ And also on departure; ‘A cup of tea, before you go.’ we insist. Tea shops adorn every high street in every town and village in the land. No outing is complete unless it incorporates a cup of tea and oftentimes the cup of tea constitutes the entirety of the outing; we go out specifically and solely for tea.

Afternoon tea is a ceremony, a meal taken between three and four and NEVER at any other time, the menu unvarying; small sandwiches, scones (pronounced scone as in stone, or scone as in gone, depending on where you live) and tea, lashings and lashings of tea.

Tea is fundamental to being British; it is a cornerstone of our diet, our family-life, our society and our economy. As foetuses we float in amniotic tea. We are imbued with it as with mother’s milk.

The first thing I learned about tea in America was that when ordering tea it was necessary to preface the word ‘tea’ with the word ‘hot’. The consequences of not doing so were that I was presented with a cup of cold tea. Iced tea is revolting; I cannot think why anyone would drink it. It is just tea which has gone cold, served without milk or sugar (although neither would improve it) or any ameliorating adjunct of any kind.

The first problem American tea has, in my experience, is the tea. Tea comes in bags, never loose, unless you can find it on the continental shelf of the supermarket. The bags are pitifully small and the tea inside is insufficient for the purpose thereof. Bearing in mind that the rule is ‘one spoon per person and one for the pot,’ the minimum amount of tea leaves required to make one cup of tea is two spoonfuls. But the tiny little bags barely have one inside them; the resultant brew is necessarily weak and feeble. The bags themselves give the tea no scope to expand or swirl as it needs to do in order to impart its flavour to the water. The bags are always attached to little strings with a label. The idea is that you immerse the bag in the water and then hitch it out with the string. Any attempt to agitate the bag will result in the string and the label both ending up in the cup or pot, usually wrapped round the stem of the teaspoon. Generally speaking you will have to request milk (cold) or the tea will arrive without it. A slice of lemon might be provided, for all the use that might be.

A further impediment I found to the consumption of tea in America was a confusion that seemed to prevail as to what, exactly, could legitimately be called ‘tea’. Sometimes it seemed that any hot drink that wasn’t coffee must be tea. Alongside the teabags which had tea in them (howsoever small the amount) you would almost always be given the option of other bags also purporting to be tea but actually containing the makings of infusions. These will be flavoured with herbs or fruits. They have their place, I suppose. But they are not tea.

In America I came across a thing called ‘instant tea.’ This is an abomination.

A third obstacle issued from the water – not its quality, hardness or softness, but its temperature. The Americans did not seem to do boiling water. I speculated that this might be because coffee calls for hot but not boiling water (we all know that coffee boiled is coffee spoiled). This was generally dispensed from an urn or geyser set at a temperature somewhere between luke warm and hand-hot, or came from a machine pre-programmed for tepidity. Secondly it might be because they were critically afraid of the litigious consequences of boiling water. Kettles were not placed in hotel rooms, only coffee-makers which heated water to a consistent off-cool. Many homes I visited did not have a kettle at all. Some had one but it was kept in a cupboard, like the mixer or the slow-cooker, an impulse purchase used once or twice and then abandoned. We were once in a café in New Jersey where we requested boiling water for the tea bags we had brought ourselves. The café owner point-blank refused to provide us with boiling water but she did supply us with a kettle and sat us at a table which had a plug socket to hand. She then washed her hands of us, like Pilate, our scalds were on our own heads.

Here is the fact of the matter: real tea needs boiling water. Some alchemy occurs when you pour boiling water on tea leaves. The oils in the leaves are released, carrying the flavour into the water. The leaves swell, absorbing the water, then, as you stir the brew, more flavour is released from deep inside the leaves, flavour which has been desiccated and sleeping but is now energised and awake. Pouring luke warm water on the leaves just doesn’t make the chemistry happen, added to which, drinking tea which is only temperate does not give pleasure. Tea has to be sipped in order to be properly enjoyed. It is best consumed at a temperature which is only just bearable in the mouth, which is partly the purpose of the milk. Warm tea (assuming it started off properly hot) will be gulped, defeating the object. Warm tea which was never hot in its life will be tipped down the sink, the fate, I fear, of many a cup I bought and abandoned in America.

Imagine our excitement on discovering, in Pennsylvania, a little tea shop, called the Little Tea Pot? We were drawn to it inexorably and took the first opportunity to visit. Unfortunately our first foray was unsuccessful – it was necessary to book. Whilst disappointing for us this fact did hold out a beacon of hope. Was there, then, a secret sub-class of enthusiastic tea drinkers in the US? We made judicious enquiries. Would the tea be served in a pot? Made from loose leaves? With boiling water? The answers were all in the affirmative. Our cup, speculatively, ranneth over.

We said we’d like to book a table for afternoon tea.

What time? We were asked.

We looked back at the waitress, incredulous. There is only one time for afternoon tea!

Three o’clock.

We duly arrived to be shown our table and presented with a menu. ‘Morning tea’ was there. What can that be? Lunch tea. LUNCH tea? Whoever heard of such a thing? We turned the page. Ah! Here was afternoon tea. Surely we’d be on more familiar ground. Tea, yes, essentially. Sandwiches – of course. Scones – delicious. A selection of cakes. It would be rude not to. But what’s this? Salad? Soup? I mean, why would you?

We ordered afternoon tea without the soup or the salad.

The tea arrived, in a pot – very promising. It was even fairly hot.

Scones arrived.

We waited.

And waited.

The waitress approached. She wore a white apron and a little mob cap. ‘Don’t you like your scones?’ she asked.

‘We’re waiting for the sandwiches,’ we explained.

‘Your sandwiches will come after you’ve eaten your scones,’ she explained.

We exchanged a look, and a sigh.

The unnaturalness of such a procedure was hard to contemplate. ‘We’d like everything together,’ we said, as calmly as we could.

She inserted a bewildered finger underneath her mob cap and scratched her head. ‘All together?’

‘Yes,’ we nodded. ‘That’s how the British do afternoon tea.’

‘Well,’ she said, doubtfully, ‘if you say so.’

‘We do,’ we smiled, encouragingly. ‘And we’d like more tea.’

More tea?’

‘Yes, please. Much more tea.’

My two anthologies, The Book and The New Book both contain other articles detailing my travels in America, as well as excerpts from longer works, original short stories and book reviews. Both are just 99c/p today.

Please comment below to let me know what your own experiences are of getting your favourite beverage in foreign places. I’m ready to hear how execrable coffee is in the UK!







22 Responses to A Lovely Cup of Tea.

  1. While I love the scent of coffee, I despise the taste. I may spring for a Frappuccino once a year or so, but that’s my limit.

    My first action each morning when I come downstairs is to rinse the kettle, fill it, and place it on the hob. I then get out my teapot (clear glass, 24 oz), place in it tea bags (sigh–the budget doesn’t allow for loose tea), one organic black tea (bulk from the health food store) and one St. Dalfour’s Organic Strawberry Black Tea (which I used to be able to buy quite thriftily in 6-box packs for $20 but now are out of my price range). I catch the tea just before the boil (I should let it go longer, but due to dental issues, I can’t drink tea that hot), fill the teapot, drag the teabags around a bit and then wrap the tags conveniently around the pot’s handle, and pop on the quilted cozy. Five minutes later, I am happy!! If the day is cold, I will get out my tea stand, light a tealight candle, and keep the tea extra hot through the morning. If it’s warm, the rest of the tea becomes iced tea at lunch. No milk, no sugar, no lemon. Just plain and lovely!!

    If I meet friends at Starbucks or go out to lunch, I will order hot water only and add my own tea bag. Lipton tea is an abomination, and the assortment at Starbucks is less than stellar. Besides, I rebel at paying $3 for hot water and a substandard tea bag! (And I will request a ceramic mug/tea cup and saucer if I am not providing my own ceramic tea mug…which I usually do. I hate drinking tea from paper cups!)

    So this is the life of an American tea snob from Southern California. 🙂

    Thanks for your lovely post, Allie!! 😀

    Susanne, who used to buy Taylor’s of Harrogate loose tea from a lovely little shoppe in the suburbs of San Diego called All Things Bright and British, run by two lovely elderly Londoners who slipped Walker’s shortbread (YUM!!) to my kids while I browsed the vast tea selections yet almost always purchased my favorite blackcurrant flavor. But now the kids are grown, the shoppe is long gone, and the budget is much tighter. But I still have my tea cozies, my wooden tea tray, several lovely teapots, and a few other “investments” I made in that shoppe. I must admit, though, that Trader Joe’s Lemon Curd is very nearly as wonderful as the lemon curd sold at the British shoppe. 😉

    • So lovely to hear of your morning routine Susanne. If I may dare to make a suggestion it would be that you allow the water to boil before you pour it on the tea. I note your issues with drinking hot drinks super hot, but I think you’ll find a world of extra flavour. That shoppe sounds great. Such a shame it is closed.

  2. That tik tok video is an abomination lol

    I’m an American born to a Canadian-Scottish immigrant, and I’ve learned that I can’t order tea in any restaurant. It will only disappoint me. Lukewarm water. A Lipton bag made from dregs. And, then they think they’re helpful when they come back and offer more tepid water to pour over my already used bag. Oh, make it stop! I can remember visiting friends and I asked if they had tea for breakfast rather than coffee, and I watched them fill a mug with water, throw it in the microwave until it was warm, put a bag in it, and hand it to me, as though it was done and ready to be drunk, or even worth drinking. Good manners won, and I smiled and took the sad, sad cup and said thank you so much.

    I have a tea kettle that lets me select the temperature and it’s awesome; my tea tins are double-lidded and labeled with brew time and temperature; and it is a scientific fact that it tastes better in a china cup.

    It’s nice to know I’m not all alone in my quirks! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I don’t drink tea or coffee, so can’t comment on that. But you asked about Americans in Europe and one thing, at least years ago when I was there the first time, is getting ice cubes in your soda/pop/soda pop/cola (name varies depending on your US location). We were in Germany and it took a while for them to understand what we wanted and then we were only given a measly few cubes. The second time I went to Germany, I spent more time and got used to drinking cold soda without ice. As long as the liquid is cold, it isn’t too bad, but it does take some getting used to. I’m sure I could train my palate to drink tea or coffee the same way I drank soda without ice, but I don’t like coffee unless it is half cream and sugar. So, what’s the point? Think I’ll stick to wine or whiskey. 😉

    • A sound move on your part. But on the question of ice in drinks, I have lots at home, but when I am out I ask for my soft drinks without ice because otherwise they put so much in that it displaces the actual drink and you’re paying for ice instead of the drink you wanted. This assumes the drink has been refrigerated of course.
      Thanks for commenting.

  4. What a delightful post Allie, I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I was little, we only got tea when we were sick, in a bone china cup, with cubes of sugar. I have always liked tea and coffee both, but like Regina above, my body is unable to process caffeine – even in naturally decaffeinated tea or coffee – and I end up with heart palpitations. So real tea (loose, brewed in a pot, decaf) is a special treat that I can only enjoy once every few weeks or so. I love its crispness and would not like milk in it. I also like tea iced, or cut half and half with lemonade when iced. I think rituals and traditions are important and have sadly many have been discarded in the fast pace of life. Times are difficult right now but what a great time to revive such rituals and find joy in the simple things. Allie, I hope we can have tea together one day!

  5. Well, I can only apologize for the way we [Americans] have bashed and trashed the proper serving and presentation of ‘afternoon tea’ for you or for any Brit that is. But what can you expect… we threw your most excellent tea into the cold harbor and had the nerve to call it a party. I love tea… hot or cold. Apparently it seems I don’t know what I have been missing. I’ve only known tea bags… sorry. I also enjoy iced tea… sweet. That is a southern thing and if you go very far north… they don’t brew it sweet. You can add sugar but adding sugar to cold tea does not work and adding a lemon makes it worse. So, I guess I will continue living in my ignorance until I can find a place that does a proper tea. That old saying is you don’t know what you are missing is probably true. If you live in ignorance… then you don’t know that you have missed out on something wonderful. If I knew what a proper afternoon tea was and couldn’t find it I would then suffer as you have in trying to find proper tea in a foreign place. I suppose you could say… it is what we get for our rebellion. Sorry, no offense. I loved this post. I already had one of the books but not the other. I grabbed it… thank you. Blessings, be safe, and healthy.

    • Take a look at the video I referenced in the blog. JE Stanway knows how it should be done. She kindly shared her video with me but the file was too big to add to my post. Of course you should enjoy your drinks as you like. Tea is such a staple of Englishness. As an English woman it seemed odd not to be able to get a product that literally flows like water here. Thanks for your comment and kind wishes.

      • The video of the girls making tea in the microwave for one minute? Such a disgrace doesn’t even deserve a comment. As for the other one… I’m not on Facebook so I’ll have to catch it another way. Isn’t it a shame we can’t all get together for a true ‘afternoon tea’ with all those things you have in that picture? What fun that would be. You could show us how it’s done. Heavy sigh.

  6. People in the US are particularly particular about their tea, much like you describe, but they’re particular about their ICED tea! This is especially true in the south. Everything you describe above about tea for Brits is true for iced tea in the south. At a restaurant, you need to specify sweet or unsweet iced tea. If you don’t, you will get sweet. And it’s very sweet.
    I do not like coffee OR tea! I will occasionally have hot tea in the winter, with milk and sugar (like a child, I believe you will think). I like lemonade, and I’m particular about it.
    One thing I found in England, in London, is that “tea” (the meal) is served everywhere, but why is it so danged expensive? Is it like that just for the tourists? If so, where do YOU get your tea when out? We finally found a patisserie chain that had a reasonable tea, so went there multiple times.

    • Thanks for commenting Gina. In the UK I would always head for a small, independently run tea shop. I live in the Lake District, which is a tourist hot spot, but I stay well clear of the places that target tourists. I agree, places like Betty’s are extortionate. Go a street or two back from the main area and you’ll find an excellent tea at a reasonable price.

  7. I have never been out of the country but we did go to a tea at a place called Victoria House in Lewisburg Pa. It isn’t there any more unfortunately but the tea was nice.They had tea and sandwiches and scones with strawberry jam and cream so good! Where is the place in Pa you found? I did not know there was another one here in Pa. What a find!

    • The place we went to was near Doylestown, where we lived on and off for a while. Once we had got over the aberrations of soups and salad, and persuaded the waitress to serve all the ‘courses’ simultaneously, it was actually very good.

  8. Although I am an American, I have never drunk coffee – always tea for me, starting from the time I was a wee babe. I am more likely, though, these days, to go for an herbal tea where possible, simply because caffeine does terrible things to my heart.
    When I lived abroad, I also live in Germany. Like Virginia above, we frequented the local “Teehaus.” However, when I lived in Spain, tea – good tea – was not as readily available in my locale.

    • Tea in a nice cafe or tea shop is always a treat, but it is something so easily made at home. I am sorry to hear it has adverse effects on your health. I do not know what I would do without my morning cuppa.

  9. Being from Germany, I also grew up on tea. One of my favorite places to go was the “Teehaus” or teahouse in our village. They served the loveliest variety of loose leaf teas.

    A dear friend originally from Scotland taught me that tea tastes best from a bone china cup – a rule I have always stuck to.

    Over the years, I have amassed a large collection of cups (all bone china) and a great variety of tea (I have a large cabinet dedicated to my most beloved beverage).

    To this day, I am an avid tea drinker – consuming several cups on a daily basis.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. 🙂

    • I too am a stickler for a bone China cup. My family laughs at me when I tell them that tea should be served in China. I think it keeps the tea hotter, and because the lip is thin, it is easier to sip. Thanks for commenting.

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