Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A storm in a teacup

An American acquaintance of mine who lives in England said recently that one of the hardest things to adjust to was food shopping. Sure, we have lots of the same foods, but they have different names...and let's face it, there are always going to be things you can buy abroad that you just can't get in England, and vice versa.

And then there's the different attitude we have to food. And to drinks. And to one drink in particular. It's time to talk about tea.

The English are famed for tea consumption. We have something of a national obsession with it. (It's probably something to do with the Empire.) I'm saying 'English', because when you think of tea you think of England, but it's more of a British obsession. My Irish friends also understand tea perfectly (according to the UK Tea Council--yes, it's that important--the Irish drink more tea per capita than the British). You don't have to explain tea anywhere in the British Isles. Everyone gets it. But travel abroad and it's a disaster. American hotels don't even have kettles, and surely that's a basic human right.

And if I read one more book set in Britain where tea is done wrong, I might scream. So here's my guide to British Tea.

Rule one: Tea has milk in it. 98% of British tea is drunk with milk. The other two percent, I suspect, is the speciality kind of tea, such as Earl Grey, which is better taken with very little or no milk, or by those who don't consume dairy. Lemon is acceptable, but it is a bit weird.

Rule two: Tea has milk in it. I know this sounds like rule one, but it's important, so like Fight Club, I'm saying it twice. Cream tea does not mean tea with cream in it. You don't put cream in tea. If I read one more book (usually by a well-meaning American but not always), that has someone adding cream to tea I really might vomit. As would you if you drank tea with cream in it. Cream is thick, and floats in tea. Yes. It floats. Like scum. It is very, very wrong to put cream in tea. It's milk. Cow milk. I'm going to petition Parliament about this.

Have we got that straight? Good. Rant over.

Rule three: Tea means black tea. It comes from tea leaves. Herbal tea is not tea. Fruit tea is not tea. Green tea is technically tea (same leaves, different process) but it's not what we talk about when we talk about tea. There are lots of varieties of tea, and some are very fancy indeed, but if someone is making a cuppa, it's black tea.

Rule four: You can put sugar in if you like. Unlike with milk, no one will judge you.

Rule five: I don't know what that nancy boy on the Diet Coke adverts really does for a living, but he's not in construction. Real builders drink tea. Brew it strong, brew it dark, and make sure there's plenty of sugar available.

Rule six: There will always be arguments about whether you put milk in first or milk in last. It actually is a class thing, involving types of china and how it could withstand heat, but these days it's more about snobbery, and that's a totally different animal.

Rule seven: Tea is important. Tea is cultural. Tea is part of the fabric of British life in such a fashion that I truly believe society would collapse without it. Tea cures everything, or at least makes it better. You know that Doctor Who episode where James Corden touches the goo and gets really ill and the Doctor cures him with very strong tea? No one in Britain found that weird.

As this important public service announcement demonstrates, Tea contains Moral Fibre.

Now, go and put the kettle on.


  1. Hoorah!

    I never drank tea with milk when I was in America. I only started when I came to the UK. Now, I can't drink it without.

  2. *stands on chair, cheers, weeps a little, and hears an invisible brass band playing Jerusalem*

    Well said, Kate. Let tea with cream NEVER appear in print again.

  3. TEA SO IS!


    *puts kettle on, gets out the big teapot, sighs happily*

  4. Look, I hate to be the voice of dissent, but I have loose leaf chocolate truffle tea at home and the brewing instructions specifically include single cream. I'm not saying it's right. But it happens.

  5. Anonymous6:06 pm

    I don't like tea...


    *shuffles away feeling distinctly unBritish*

  6. Julie, I'm glad you came round to our way of thinking. You may stay.

    Naomi, we both know that's not real tea, don't we dear? Good.

  7. Alison, you've probably been drinking it wrong. With cream, for instance.

    Everyone else: huzzah! Help me with the bunting and scones, would you?

  8. Tea! Yey, go tea! Oddly enough, I can't drink tea at work, only at home - work is for coffee, home (particularly bed, under duvet, electric blanket) is for tea. Strong, dash of milk, no sugar thanks. Those nations without tea - how do they dunk their biscuits? And what in?

  9. Yum, I love drinking tea. When I go back home to Canada for a visit I have to bring a box of tea with me because I can't cope with drinking Red Rose (which is what pretends to be tea in Canada).

  10. Jane, I always had coffee at work: at 5am a cup of 50% instant coffee, 50% hot water was easy to make, had lots of caffeine, and most importantly didn't require the lumpy yellow milk in the fridge. Bleurgh, I can still smell it now!

    DJ, I'm sure you can order proper tea internationally online...

  11. What is 'cream' in American parlance - it surely isn't the double stuff we put on strawberries?

  12. I fear my citizenship is at risk of being stripped from me... I only ever drink green or black tea but I haven't drunk tea with milk since I was at university and we had to store milk bottles out on the windowsill because there was no fridge or drink tea with powdered milk. Once it got anywhere approaching warm, I ditched milk completely and haven't been able to go back to it.

  13. Tea - best drink of the day, as an ad once put it...

  14. Don't get me started. Tea is as essential as air, gin and chocolate. Thank you Kate for enlightening those who have forgotten. They will never know why chimps drink tea!

  15. Hey look, I'm inspiring!

    I've definitely come to love my tea, and can't imagine how I ever lived without it. When my American aunt came to visit I made her tea and she said 'no milk' I gave her milk anyway, because 'that's how its done here, Auntie'. :-D

    Jane, Americans dunking biscuits is up there with Quality Street. You're really making me re-examine life's priorities!

    Rach, who's feeling proud to be pseudo Brit