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!
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.
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.’
‘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!