It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British love their tea. It is their comfort, their panacea, their obligatory social activity. Tea is the answer to every question. When planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the first thing my neighbour did was brew me a cup of tea. After a challenging, exhausting day of mountain climbing in Wales, my sister-in-law spied a café in the distance and fervently declared her intention to “make love to that tea shop.” In our household, the ultimate passive aggressive act is to make a cup of tea for yourself alone. Such selfishness is unforgivable.
Tea can cause great controversy in other ways. Serving it with a splash or two of milk is fairly standard in the UK, but by no means obligatory. Some prefer tea with a slice of lemon. Never try to serve it with both as lemon makes milk curdle. Sugar is completely optional. I am not sure if there is a regional pattern related to the addition of sugar in tea as there is in the US. South of the American Mason-Dixon line, sweet tea is the norm while Northern Yankees like myself mostly drink it unsweetened.
Few issues cause greater debate amongst English tea drinkers than the timing of the milk. It is an issue which divides families, drives wedges in otherwise happy marriages and brings friendships to an end. I am definitely a Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie is a Milk-Firstian. And yet we will speak to each other. Amazing. Allow me to explain.
When Milk-Lastists such as myself make a cup of tea, we put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (BOILING, mind you!) water and then, only after the tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do we remove the bag and add a bit of milk. The rationale here is that once cold milk is added, the temperature of the water is compromised thus ruining the steep. This philosophy enjoys the support of many great scientific leaders (namely my husband and his entire family).
On the other hand, Milk-Firstians like Corrie place the bag and the milk in the cup first and then add the boiling water. Whilst I sneer at Milk-Firstians and all they stand for, I believe the theory behind their method is that if the milk is already in they do not have to calculate the space left in the cup for the adding of milk. Some of them do not even bother to rationalise their ways and simply claim this is the “proper way to make a cup of tea”. Again, I sneer.
Another, more charitable view, of the Milk-Firstian way is to claim that it is an evolutionary throw back to the days when tea was always made in a pot with loose leaf. In cases such as this, adding milk to the cup as the tea steeps away happily in a separate container makes sense. Primitive but understandable. I still love my friend Corrie…despite her deviant ways.
Iced tea baffles them more than a poodle smoking a pipe. They just don’t get it. You can explain how refreshing it is. You can draw them a picture of it. You can hand them a dewy glass of it on a hot summer day. They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness. Then they will fire up the kettle faster than you can say “What the—
During one of my mother’s early summer visits, she dared to hope. At the Magpie Café in Whitby she ordered: “Iced tea?” The waitress beamed back: “Of course.” One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the Magpie wait staff when faced with an order for iced tea. If my mother had asked for yak’s milk fermented with monkey piss they would have been less put off than by her request for iced tea. But, to the eternal credit of their service and manners, the nice young lady served my mother iced tea. That is to say, she brought out a small boiling pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.
Honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for.
I am training my family to be more open-minded about iced tea. Whilst my husband is a lost cause, my eldest daughter Freya is a devoted fan of both iced tea and English tea (though she shocks her father often by asking for it black with lemon). During summer visits to America she loves making Sun Tea. This traditional Yankee method is achieved by placing tea bags and cold water in a sealed glass container then leaving it out in the sunshine to brew naturally with solar heat. Sun being a rare and precious thing here, Freya and I have devised our own method of making iced tea to enjoy in the summer months. Try it if you dare…
Yankee Iced Tea
In a glass jug, pour one pint of boiling water over three black tea bags and two peppermint tea bags. Allow the brew to cool completely before removing all bags. In a large pitcher, dilute the pint of concentrated tea with three more pints of cold water. Top up with a generous amount of ice. Serve cold. You could also try experimenting with lemon, chamomile or jasmine tea instead of peppermint. Enjoy. Or at least try.