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.