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 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.
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?