Serial expat—and now repat!—Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share, this time about England’s favo(u)rite drink.
“I’m not doing this again if you can’t stop going on about the tea,” declared my husband with a generous dose of irritation.
“But, really, it’s terrible,” I said. I couldn’t stop myself, you see, and his outrage was by now fully stirred.
“Okay, I’m leaving, that’s it.” He got up and headed for the door.
So ended our little tea break experiment.
Now that we have returned to England, my husband is working a great deal at home. It was my idea that, since he is talking to people around the world a lot in the evenings, we take a tea break together during the quieter mornings.
Though we are living in rural South Somerset, there are plenty of places we can choose. Our local pub does morning coffee and afternoon tea, with scones if you please. And there are little tea shops and cafes scattered around neighbouring villages.
I was ready to enjoy myself sampling them all.
Only now it seems I will do so alone, or not at all.
Food, glorious food! Sandwiches, cakes, full breakfasts…
Many of these places are serving wonderful sandwiches on hand sliced granary or flavourful white, chock full of local hams, cheeses, sausages and bacon.
Homemade cakes, too, are the order of the day.
Also noteworthy is how many of our local establishments realizing the potential in serving early breakfasts to those on their way to work. No longer is a “full English” only to be found in hotels or transport cafes, now you can enjoy one on shabby chic china while sitting at a distressed French provençal style table on a Cath Kidston cushion. You find people of all professions—from drivers to office workers, farmers to solicitors.
It’s a lovely thing, but this brings me back to the tea. Surely, sandwiches, cakes—and now bacon-and-eggs with their many accompaniments—demand hot and strong tea? My husband believes I am the one out of step in being so unhappy with a spineless brew. But I cannot believe, I just cannot. What has happened to my compatriots in the years I have been away? Why are we accepting such mean servings of tea in our pots—and paying for it, too? Where is our backbone, our firm upper lip?
All I want is a good cup of spine-bracing black tea!
Nowadays, instead of getting a nice pot of tea, we are offered a menu of teas: green ones, black ones, Chinese, Indian… We are told that these are special and tend to feel a little uneasy about demanding a little more of them. Perhaps two teabags in a pot is a little greedy, gross even.
There is, of course, a place for different tea from different places made with different temperatures of water and intended to be less bodied and more fragrant that the black teas I am primarily talking of. And the English are very interested in food and drink from far flung places and get much pleasure from experimenting with it.
But surely that doesn’t mean that we should allow our own food culture to be degraded?!
I’ve been away too long to know when the current tea culture sprung up, but to me it seems a little awkward. Extensive menus with flowery language makes me uncomfortable, and certain paraphernalia seems to try just too hard—muslin muslin tea bag with a stick instead of a string anyone?
Give me loose leaves and a little tea strainer any day! I truly believe, that as free chickens give better eggs, liberated leaves will give us happy tea. Leaves need space to develop. We must take time to give our tea leaves the correct environment to do their work.
The Americanization of British tea culture
What bothers me most is the uncomfortable realization that all this fancy talk and tea hides the truth that the American way has for some incomprehensible reason, taken over our own.
How have we fallen for this? America simply is not a tea-drinking culture.
How well I remember my first pot of American university tea. Tea warmed in the coffee maker and a cheap tea bag removed from its individual yellow paper back and hopefully dunked in the water and dangled in the vain hope it would tint and flavour the water.
Except for the presence of a spotty badly dressed student, tea is now made like this worldwide—even in Britain. We, too, are making tea like an 18-year-old American student whose only electrical appliance is a cheap coffee maker.
Interestingly, the only person I knew in my year at college in America did a fine job with a tea bag, but she knew well the need for a quick addition of boiling water. When I discovered her father was from Yorkshire, it all began to make sense—particularly her deft “mashing” technique with the back of a spoon. You see, a tea bag can be rescued if you remain mindful of the important things.
For the record, here’s what works (and why)
For me the recipe for a fine cup of tea was, and still is, a spoonful of tea leaves per person and one for the warmed pot. Onto this would be poured, boiling water, boiling. The pot would be lidded so it could be covered and left for a good five minutes before pouring.
The addition of milk and sugar is a personal thing, but the tea itself has to be strong, with a deep colour—and body.
Back here in the England of 2015, cafes and hotels seem to think it elegant to offer our tea in a gimmicky and deconstructed manner. A pot of hot water and a paper-wrapped tea bag on a saucer. But in all that show the importance of boiling water is lost. Bring it quickly to the boil, warm the pot and then use it. Don’t boil and re-boil or boil for protracted period of time—but do make sure it is boiled and recently so.
While I’m in full flow, I’d like to add a quick grumble about the tea bags and strings. Why are these so often twisted around the handle of the pot? First, the leaves are confined to a bag then the bag itself is prevented from moving freely.
How in all of this can the tea properly infuse? It can’t.
A “No More Tea Bags” Manifesto
Since my husband has long since taken refuge from this rant, let me finally call for an end to the tea bag, particularly the irritatingly trendy ones, along with kettles that boil. Let me also call for a generous amount of tea in the pot.
Let’s say goodbye to tea that looks as though it has had a fright and welcome back to the kind of tea you need when you have had a nasty shock or need a comforting and strong arm, which happens to all of us at some point…
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Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Can you relate to Joanna’s disappointment at finding England’s tea a shadow of its former self? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”
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