Inside a Franglish Pantry: Tea

Inside a franglish pantry

A BBC news article came out this weekend that really tickled me. Apparently, the French are ‘rediscovering’ tea drinking. I was cynically unsurprised that it made it sound like a snobbish hobby only accessible to aficionados, as complicated as wine tasting. Can you tell I’ve become a little bit British? I like my tea simple, strong and decidedly populist. Like coffee is for the French. Sure, we’ve all got our preferences, but we are not Japanese geishas upholding a ritual of beauty built upon generations. Our rituals veer towards practicality over beauty, as is the British way. God Save the Queen.

The first and last time I bought tea in France was on a camping holiday and I got the only thing the local service station had on offer, which turned out to be Lipton, a trusted name as far as I thought. I was naive enough to expect to find English strength and quality within but it was far from it. It produced what was possibly the worst cup of tea of all time. Sock juice comes to mind; it was pretty much undrinkable, so weak and tasteless it was. And thus ended my attempts at tea drinking in France. Now I stick to coffee unless I’m at my mum’s, who stocks PG Tips directly imported from the UK in boxes of 200 tea bags.

Tea cups Collage

Tea is the national English drink and there is a knack to producing the perfect cup but it is not quite the elaborate ritual stereotypes would have us believe.

Here are 10 things I have learnt about tea in the nearly 16 years I have lived in England:

1. There are only two occasions when you will find yourself drinking from a dainty china tea cup: you are visiting your grandma and her friends of a certain age, or you are attending a vintage tea party. Otherwise, everyone drinks from chunky mugs.

2. More people put their tea bags straight into their mug than use a teapot.

3. 96% of tea is consumed using tea bags as opposed to loose tea leaves.*

4. There is no special afternoon tea time at 4 pm. Tea is drunk all day long at any time.

5. When people ask you: ‘would you like a cup of tea?’, they usually refer to black tea like English Breakfast Tea.  Common popular makes are PG tips, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley, Twinings and Typhoo.

6. They will also assume that you take milk with your tea. Unless it is green tea or herbal tea, which would taste foul with milk.

7. Other types of tea on offer would be specified upon request, like Chai, Earl Grey, green tea and any other herbal teas (like the fruit ones, peppermint etc).

8. In France, herbal and fruity teas are called infusions and traditionally drunk in the evening before going to bed. I was astounded that my husband’s drink of choice at breakfast is peppermint tea. I was conditioned by my upbringing to think of all herbal teas as lightweight girly drinks. I am learning to overcome my prejudice.

9. If you order a Cream Tea in a tea room anywhere in the UK, you will not be getting a cup of tea with cream. You will be presented with your cup or mug of tea, milk and sugar and, depending on whether you’re in a supermarket restaurant or in Harrods or the Ritz, a variation on scones, jam and clotted cream, finger sandwiches and tiny cakes.

10. And Finally, whilst people in England will have lengthy arguments about the correct order of preparation for tea (milk first/last, sugar or not), everyone agrees on THE ONE IMPERATIVE RULE OF TEA MAKING (French people take note): the water poured over the tea bag or leaves MUST be boiling hot. You can tell that French people don’t understand even the basics of tea making. They insist on bringing you a cup of warm water, with the tea bag on a separate plate, and some hot milk in a tiny jug upon request. The whole point of tea is that it must infuse in boiling water. There are physics involved, and they don’t work if the water is not boiling.

50% of people think I'm doing it wrong

50% of people think I’m doing it wrong

My tea drinking habits have evolved over the course of several years. Whilst my preference now goes towards the very British ‘milk, no sugar’, it wasn’t always so. In fact, I horrified many people when I first came over and asked for four sugars to go in my tea. ‘How French!’, they said. ‘You’ll be one of us eventually and you’ll take none, you’ll see!’ And so I did.

The biggest impact tea drinking has had on my life however, is one of the most surprising and positive of changes. Because people here drink so much tea so regularly, it very soon highlighted how minimal my daily fluid intake really was. I used to be quite unpopular in my first office jobs because I never instigated my turn to make tea for people (yes, everyone takes a turn. There’s often no lengthy ‘pause café’, otherwise you’d be at it all day; instead you keep your mug by your computer and drink as you work). I literally never thought to drink anything. I could go from 9 am until lunch time without a glass of water. But because I couldn’t avoid the regular offers for a cup of tea, I started to drink more and more. And eventually, even a foreigner like me, whose enjoyment of tea had to be acquired, got that most British of simple pleasures: you take your first sip and you go ‘oh wow, I really needed that’. That’s when you know you’ve arrived.

*In looking up these statistics, I discovered the existence of this gem of a website. I give you: the UK Tea Council. Tea is serious business, in case you hadn’t noticed.

If you are a tourist in London and fancy buying serious tea drinking equipment and tea leaves, I recommend you visit The Tea House in Covent Garden. They do a lovely jasmine tea with flowers and my personal favourite, Lychee.


Over to you now: What’s your opinion on tea? How do you like to take it? Does tea taste better in a mug or  cup?


10 things I love about England

I was making myself a cup of tea this afternoon and was suddenly filled with gratitude towards England (and by extension China) for good tea. Twinings just ain’t the same in France, it’s weak and terrible and like drinking sock juice, whereas England is full of good strong brands like PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea and Clipper. It got me thinking about all the wonderful things I like about England, so here are 10 of my favourite things, in no particular order of preference, and guess what, they’re not all food-related!

English: A loaf of tiger bread. Photograph tak...

A loaf of tiger bread (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Tea – I did not drink tea before I came to England, and then I drank it with 4 sugars. I am now a hardcore, ‘milk no sugar’ tea drinker and it is my favourite beverage for keeping hydrated aside from plain water.

2. Tiger bread – It’s all crunchy on top and soft inside and is one of my favourite English breads.

3. Weather forecast summaries – I am endlessly amused that despite the fact that every (mild) type of weather happens somewhere in the UK on any given day, the BBC still tries to give us a nationwide soundbite summary, which often reads a bit like this: ‘sunny with some showers and possible snow in the north’. The beauty of it is that they still manage to get it wrong.

4. Pubs – it’s been a while since I’ve gone to a pub in the evening (you know, babies and all that) but we’ve gone out for lunch a few times recently and I just love the whole pub atmosphere. I love sitting in a beer garden with a half-pint of beer and a plate of fishcakes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the French café culture but the two feel very different. My favourite pub memory involves getting my hands dirty sharing a platter of chicken wings and chips with friends and nursing a Guinness.

5. Baby & Toddler Groups – believe it or not, toddler groups are very rare in France. Sometimes your only choice might be to go to the park. In England, you can go to a different toddler group every day of the week. Some are even run by churches and people don’t find it strange or off-putting. Yes, breaking into a clique of mums can be difficult but it’s so great to have the option, if only to get your child off your legs for a few minutes whilst you eat a bit of cake.

6. The job market – It may surprise some of you but even with the current job crisis, it is much easier to find a job in England than it is across the channel, especially if you are a first time worker/young person without experience. What I love the most about the British approach to work is that prospective employers look at the whole person and not just the education part of a CV. They look at what you’ve done and make assumptions about a person’s capabilities to do a job even if they have trained in something else. In France, it doesn’t matter what you have done before if you haven’t got the specific qualification required for the job.

Here is how it works for someone like me who has just the French Baccalauréat (or ‘bac’ = A-Levels equivalent) and 15 years of experience working in England in various office management and PA roles. In England, prospective employers will look at my experience and employ me on that basis. In France, because I only have the baccalaureate and no actual qualification for secretarial work, I would most likely be required to take a test to confirm I can speak English and also undertake a secretarial course. Basically an English employer will assume I am intelligent enough do the job because I had very good grades at the bac, and a French employer will think I was not intelligent enough to go to university and get a degree.

7. The Full English Breakfast  – without the beans and the black pudding <shiver>, so in my case consisting of sausage, bacon, fried egg, tomato, mushrooms, hash brown and toast on the side. You wouldn’t think it would work as a breakfast but there’s something special about the Full English, and it is such a classic it had to be on the list.

8. BBC Dramas – The BBC has given us Dr Who, Sherlock, Downtown Abbey (which I haven’t actually seen but I hear it’s brilliant), Spooks and North & South; and of course 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, which was thrust upon me the first week I arrived in England, and which I loved despite the fact that at the time I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying. And I haven’t even listed their superb nature documentaries, which I would normally not have touched with a barge pole for sheer boredom potential but are so visually stunning you can’t help but sit mesmerized as David Attenborough‘s soothing voice lulls you into a false sense of security moments before the little baby otter is killed by a polar bear, or such similar horror.

9. The English sense of humour – not so much the Carry On type of crude slapstick but the self-deprecating ‘everything is crap and isn’t it hilarious’ approach to life and the intelligent banter as displayed in TV shows like QI and Have I Got News For You. And sarcasm.

10. Being able to dress like a girl – I’ve said this before, but in France jeans and a t-shirt are almost a uniform for the youth and 30-somethings everywhere, and people wear a lot of black, white and grey. Here, I go to a party wearing proper girly dresses, bright colours and glitter and I don’t stand out.

And now for a thing that England does very well that is not on my list:

– Indian Food: people love curry over here, and Indian takeout is amazing. I can’t get excited about it, I find the food too rich and too spicy and it’s just not my thing. But it is very good, very popular and there are hundreds of fantastic places to get it from.

Your turn now. What’s your favourite English thing?