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, my neighbour brewed me a cup of tea. After a challenging day of mountain climbing in Wales, my exhausted 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 unforgiveable.
Tea can cause great controversy in other ways as well. 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, though there are cultural regulations surrounding its use. In the US, this variation is almost strictly regional. South of the Mason-Dixon Line sweet tea is the norm whilst Northern Yankees like myself drink it unsweetened. As with most things in Britain, the difference between sweetened or unsweetened tea tends to be less regional and more class-based. “Builders Tea” is a strong brew made with two sugars—hard working man’s tea for hard working men. Grr! A middle-class tea drinker from the Home Counties would look disdainfully down her nose at such “common tea behaviour.” Sniff.
Sugar aside, 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 an Add-the-Milk-Lastist while my friend Corrie from Lancashire is a Milk-Firstian. Milk first and her rose is red, yet we will speak to each other. Amazing. Allow me to explain.
When I make a cup of tea, I put the bag in the cup, pour over the boiling (boiling, mind you!) water and then, only after my tea has steeped to a rich dark russet, do I 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 Red 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 Firsties 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.
A 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 Red Corrie…despite her deviant, Lancastrian ways.
One tea-related issue continues to unite Britain as a nation under leaf. The firm and shakeable belief that iced tea is a myth. An unnatural and mystifying myth.
Iced tea. They just don’t get it. Iced tea baffles Brits more than a poodle smoking a pipe. You can explain how refreshing it is. You can draw them a picture of it. You can hand them a dewy glass on a hot summer day. They might take a polite sip, but I guarantee you it will only be out of well-bred politeness. Watch in wonder then as they 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 a seaside café in Yorkshire she ordered.
“Of course,” the waitress beamed back.
One can only imagine the panicked conversation which took place amongst the café 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 hot pot of tea and a glass containing a single ice cube.
Honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for.
“The only iced tea I recognise is of the Long Island variety,” boasted a member of my Harrogate book club when I attempted to introduce them to my beloved summer drink.
“Iced tea does not compute,’ moaned another, shaking her head in bewilderment.
“Unnatural,’ the women agreed.
“It’s just tea poured over ice,” I protested. “It’s lovely. Really.”
The ladies of my book club looked suspiciously at my sundrenched pitcher, brows crinkled, lips pursed. Disapproval, disgust and a bit of disorientation coloured their expressions, as if they were gazing upward at some unsettlingly pornographic new constellation rather than a delightful blend of chilled orange pekoe and mint. They exchanged looks, daring one another to try the alien concoction.
Instead they shrugged, shook their heads and muttered “She’s American.” As if this both explained and forgave my deviant behaviour. Then they put the kettle on.