Friday, January 7, 2011


Is there a more stereotypically English thing than tea? I doubt we drink more of it than Chinese - indeed I'm certain we drink a massive amount less - and they are equally as ritualistic about it. Yet if someone from abroad attempts to characterise we English, it usually involves tea (ahead of self-deprecating humour, sexual repression and lots of rain.)

I would be ludicrous to deny that it doesn't play a major role in people's lives here though. Go round to anyone's house and you'll be offered a cup; have any workmen in and you are duty bound to make them a cup (usually with lots of sugar: while everyone these days seems to eschew sugar in tea, no one appears to have told builders, electricians and plumbers. I remember the whippet-thin, young sparky who asked me for five sugars (five teaspoons full ) in his cuppa - I wonder if he still has his teeth. Or early onset diabetes.) Personally, the first thing I do every morning is make myself a mug of tea. It's the most important drink of the day: warming, reviving, without the immediate buzz that coffee gives (I save that for later) and soothing. I'm no tea snob - there are no teapots or tea leaves in my house - but it does have to be Yorkshire Gold (not grown on the foothills of The Pennines; they don't have the climate oop North for that) but imported and supplied by Taylors of Harrogate, and the only teabag that comes near the richness and depth of a pot-brewed cup.

Two recent events caused me to muse over the prevalence of tea in English life. The first was returning home to the North at Christmas. I was in a cafe, and the old woman in front asked for a tea: 'No milk, bag out,' she barked. Having got used to the chi-chi coffee shops in London, and the flat, skinny jargon people employ, it was nice to hear a no nonsense request for a cup of tea, with the the bag on the side so the buyer could be in control of the time it brewed. It reminded me of being in a coffee shop in Exmouth Market when an elderly Northern gent was asking for a black coffee. 'You mean an Americano,' the young female 'barista' replied. The bloke wrinkled his nose. 'Call it what you want love, as long as it's hot and black.' (A line I shamefully nicked for my detective in my first book.)

However, the old woman in the cafe was also a shot of fresh air because few people drink black tea these days. Green tea yes, but black tea, no. My grandmother used to, a woman of parsimonious tastes, and I always thought it weird. Actually, when you think about it, the weird ones are those of us who take a delicate oriental infusion, with many health giving properties, and tip some pasteurized cow juice into it.

It also set me wondering about when someone starts drinking tea in the UK. When I was a kid, I thought the constant questions, 'Shall I put the kettle on?' or 'Fancy a brew?' were a bit daft and the drink vastly overrated. Now I find myself asking those questions at least once a day. I think the tea bug bit when I was a student, with lots of time to sit around and ponder life's imponderables, and we all know that there are few thoughts that aren't best accompanied by a mug of hot tea. I have one here beside me now as I type, brought by my lovely wife (always makes it too weak, doesn't leave the bag in enough, and can be too zealous with the milk, but you learn to live with someone's imperfections). Soon, before I knew it, cups of tea punctuated my day. One first thing, one mid-morning, another mid-afternoon, often with a crafty biscuit, and that was it. The evening's for wine or beer or water and never a hot drink unless I'm ill (I've never been one for cocoa or Horlicks). One of my sisters even uses the cup of tea as a sign to send everyone home of an evening. If she feels she's had too much wine, on goes the kettle, we're asked if we want tea, and we all know that the booze has stopped and the evening's nearly over. In other people's houses, I've also witnessed tea being used strategically. Ply people with tea, and soon that parched mouth feeling and creaking bladder kicks in, and when you ask if they want another, or simply get up and fill the kettle again, they can't get out of the door soon enough. Works every time.

The second event that prompted my interest was this article in The Guardian about Christopher Hitchens and a piece he wrote for an American website. Flagrant controversialist he might be, and his attitude to the Iraq War given his leftist past was deeply disappointing, but I've always had a soft spot for poor old drunken Hitch, and it's clear he's not well (those in the States aware of Hitchens, might not know he has a brother, also a journalist, who writes an almost satirically right wing and reactionary newspaper column in the UK - the pair don't get on.) While I"m sure you can get a decent cup of tea in the States, it's true in so much that away from the UK, and my box of Yorkshire Gold, I don't even contemplate drinking tea. It just doesn't seem right. It's coffee all the way (and getting a decent cup of that can often be a chore.)

For the record, I agree with Hitchens about the need for the water to be boiling, and as soon as it's boiled it needs to be poured into the cup and onto the waiting bag, while using UHT milk or the dreaded 'half n' half' will render the brew undrinkable. If you have a decent brand, like Yorkshire Gold, the bag needs to stand in the water for at least two or three minutes, then a quick squeeze against the side (before the last part, ask your English guests if they like it strong though, the squeeze can make the difference between a mild cup or one you can stand a spoon in - I like the latter) then add the milk at the end, never, ever at the start of the process. Same with any sugar or sweetener.

So, there you go, I started this blog thinking I wasn't a tea snob, but ended it proving I am. Typical Englishman.


Dan - Friday


  1. Tea. Truly is the best drink of the day and so British. The drink to accompany the important things in life and the mundane. After 48 hours of agonising labour what do the midwifes offer you? Brandy? Champagne? No, a cup of tea (with marmite toast if you are lucky!) When somebody dies (in real life or Eastenders) it's time to put the kettle on.
    My late father-in-law was a true devotee. His stays with us were a teathon with me trying to see if he would ever decline a brew, offering one up as soon as the empty mug went down. He never refused, greeting every one with the thanks of a starving man offered a steak.
    So, lets raise a mug to tea drinkers everywhere.
    Cheers Danny from the sister who calls time at the end of the evening with a bottle of Sambuca, preferably black.

  2. It was a great surprise to me when I came to stay in England for half a year during my PhD when I found out that nearly everybody used milk (and a lot of it) and many used sugar in their tea. Where I come from, milk and sugar are for children or young people, when they try to get used to this strange brew... So I politely declined milk and sugar when I was offered my first cup of tea, only to discover that - horror - the English also leaves the bag in!! With the result that the tea becomes very strong and to my taste, too bitter and nearly un-drinkable. But I had to drink it, didn't I ? ;-) earning me quite a reputation of being tough...

  3. Enjoyed your take and view on tea! I am always interesting to hear the personal side of it especially as a writer about tea. Thanks for sharing!

    Lisa Boalt Richardson
    Author of The World in Your Teacup

  4. My Irish grandfather gave me my first cup of tea when I was about five. My mother was not pleased. A rite of passage occurred when I was about thirteen; I was allowed to make myself a cup whenever I wanted it.

    I had my first cup of "real" tea when I spent a summer in Ireland. The tea was strong and always available. In the US, it is a terrible mistake to order tea in a restaurant. Hot water comes in a little stainless steel tea pot. There is always enough water for a cup plus a bit extra for who knows what. Not enough for another cup and I don't know anyone who adds extra water to their tea. Next to it on the plate is the tea bag. It is a sacrilege. The water is hot but it had never reached the boiling point. So the tea was ruined before it ever got to the table.

    When our children were young, endless cups of tea were consumed as we mothers sat chatting and our children played nicely. When ever the guest made a move to leave, the hostess would always offer "just one more cup." That one more cup led to a near disaster. One of my friends had a son the same age as my daughter. When they were three, they were playing nicely while the parents had just one more cup. Then we heard my daughter scream, the kind of scream that parents know immediately will necessitate a trip to the emergency room. The kids had both been on a Fisher-Price motorcycle though they had been told they must not be on it together. She lost her balance, grabbed him for support, they ended in a pile and she broke the growth plate in her elbow. A couple of surgeries and six months in a cast and she was on the mend. If the surgeons hadn't been successful, her arm would not have grown. At her full height of 5'10" one are would have stayed the same length as it was when she was three. She has a very long scar and, when she was young, people would ask her what happened. She would tell them she fell off a motorcycle, earning me some pretty obnoxious looks. She would never say the motorcycle in questions was plastic.

    Despite having a Scottish grandmother, my husband never acquired the tea habit. About five years ago, coffee stopped keeping me awake at night. So now instead of endless cups of tea, I drink endless cups of coffee.


  5. Dan,

    Forget about Tea, and for the moment Christopher Hitchens, CONGRATULATIONS on winning the Ashes! I know to most Americans that seems less of a congratulatory event than finding a lump of coal in one's stocking, but only because they didn't read your earlier post. Now, back to CH, nah, let's stick with celebrating the Ashes win. No sugar please!


  6. Tea. Tea. Tea. Remember the sound of the hot water boilers in the tea shops. Scalding hot. Here in the states they serve the water lukewarm in a metal pitcher with a tea bag. There's something pusillanimous about serving tea like that. You want to say: "Steady on, old girl. You want a proper slap up alongside your chops to make a proper cuppa?"

    Tea's never better than with milk and a bit of sugar (certainly not 5 teaspoons..very amusing) and until recently, no proper English person would use anything but loose tea to make the spoon stand up in the tea. Actually tea is very good for you. I tell you -- up in Scotland where the cold is bone-chillingly damp; there's a reason why they drink lots of tea and brew the best whiskey. It's called survival.

  7. Thanks all.

    Em, sambuca is evil. I don't trust any drink you have to set on fire first (and don't tell Shirl I wrote this...)

    Anon, the bag needs to be taken out at some point, or it will stew, hence the bitterness. Your hosts should have known better.

    LIsa, I like the sound of your book. And thanks for stopping by.

    Beth, coffee keeps me up and still does, so I tend to refrain after 3 in the afternoon. Was the Irish tea Barry tea by any chance? That's a good drop. That sure sounds a nasty injury too. I've been there, sat nursing a tea with other parents, while chaos reigns among the kids.

    Jeff, thanks - I was up to watch the moment of victory (I'm quite glad it's over, those late nights of cricket watching have taken their toll, though I will toast the win with something rather than stronger than tea....)

  8. Anonymous - I've been Scotland and spent time there, once working for a week in the middle of December. Tea, porridge and whisky should be made available free by the state to get through those winters!

  9. Another heartfelt hurrah for annihilating those irritating Aussie cricketers!

    I learned to drink tea when I first went to school. I was woken each morning at 6:30 with a cuppa (milk and sugar, of course) and 2 Marie biscuits.

    Now I drink weak black, no sugar, because I like the taste of the tea rather than the milk and sugar. However after any trip exceeding 8 hours, I have a large mug of tea the English was a as a pick-me-up - but only 2 sugars. Five would kill me.


  10. Dan, I don't know what tea I was drinking in Ireland but Barry's is the tea I have at home.

    Barry's is in the supermarket which may give you some idea of the ethnic background of those of us who learned to drink tea when we were young.

    Tetley at a pinch but never Salada.