“In Britain, a cup of tea is the answer to every problem. Fallen off your bicycle? Nice cup of tea. Your house has been destroyed by a meteorite? Nice cup of tea and a biscuit. Your entire family has been eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex that has travelled through a space/time portal? Nice cup of tea and a piece of cake.”
Mr Stink by David Walliams
Originally, I planned to write about my favorite Celtic pub this month but I decided to put that column on hold until Anglotopia readers are traveling again. So instead, I’m writing about tea.
According to Wikipedia, Ireland is the second-largest consumer of tea in the world (in terms of per capita consumption) and the UK is the third-largest consumer. But tea is more than just a beverage to the Irish and British. It’s also a source of comfort and strength in difficult times. Putting the kettle on during a crisis is a time-honored tradition across the British Isles.
The United States ranks 34th in per capita tea consumption, but in times like these, I think we should follow the lead of our British and Irish cousins and drink more of it. The comforting rituals attached to making and drinking tea can be enjoyed in solitude and can also unite multiple generations living under one roof.
“Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world.”
TEA IN THE BRITISH ISLES
Drinking tea takes many forms in the UK and Ireland. At one end of the spectrum, it can be as simple as enjoying a cup of tea with a good book or the telly. At the other end, it can be part of an elaborate afternoon ritual that includes finger sandwiches, scones, and an array of cakes and pastries.
“I expect I shall feel better after tea.”
Carry On Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
TEA IN THE MORNING
Many Brits start the day with a cup of tea and many take a mid-morning break called elevenses to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and a couple of biccies from the biscuit tin (cookie jar to Americans). While you’re at home, try gathering everyone in the kitchen for elevenses. Relax and chat for a bit, then head back to your laptops and tablets feeling refreshed and ready for more work and school.
“Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he realized what it was. “Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
TEA IN THE AFTERNOON
Most Americans are familiar with the elaborate ritual of a formal afternoon tea featuring crustless cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and lots of little cakes and pastries. Afternoon tea can be enjoyed in hotels and tearooms across the UK and Ireland, but Brits usually reserve this type of affair for special occasions such as holidays and family celebrations.
The lesser known tradition of the cream tea consists of a pot of tea and a scone or two slathered with jam and clotted cream. This is one of my favorite ways to enjoy tea. In the UK, cream teas are often available in cafes at museums and historic houses. The ritual of steeping and drinking the tea and spreading jam and cream on the scones is the perfect way to relax after hours of sightseeing. By the time I’m finished, my feet are rested, I feel refreshed, and I’m ready for more walking. I also enjoy cream teas at home, although a cup of tea with some biccies or a slice of cake is equally enjoyable.
In some parts of the UK and Ireland the evening meal may also be referred to as tea. If you’ve watched the British soap Coronation Street, which is set in Greater Manchester, you may have noticed that Corrie’s inhabitants sometimes mention eating food like fish fingers for tea. Most Americans would refer to this kind of tea (sometimes called high tea) as dinner, but feel free to call it tea if you’re in a Corrie mood.
“We’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place.“
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
BRINGING TEA HOME
I encourage you to try some of these tea traditions at home. Start your day with a cup of tea or take a mid-morning break for elevenses. In the afternoon, sit down for a cuppa and a slice of cake, or make some scones and enjoy a cream tea. On the weekend, splash out and enjoy the full afternoon tea experience, complete with bite-sized sandwiches, scones, and cakes. It’s a great excuse to get out your good china and linens.
You can find plenty of advice online if you want to practice brewing a perfect cup of tea, but it’s fine if you simply want to dunk a teabag in a mug of hot water. Lots of Brits do. However, I highly recommend boiling the water on the stove or in an electric kettle and not in the microwave, if you have the option. No matter which method you choose, the important thing is to slow down and savor the experience.
“…they had a Very Nearly tea, which is one you forget about afterwards, and hurried on to Pooh Corner, so as to see Eeyore before it was too late to have a Proper Tea with Owl.”
The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne
A FAMILY AFFAIR
If you have kids, make tea a family project. They’ll enjoy learning about British and Irish tea traditions and searching for recipes to make treats like shortbread, scones, and fairy cakes. If you’re organizing a full afternoon tea, they can get creative with the sandwich fillings and other savory options for the first course.
If you’re looking for a good scone recipe, check out the one for Tina’s Traditional cranberry scones in my November 2019 Eating British column. Another great resource is The National Trust Book of Scones by Sarah Clelland, which features fifty scone recipes and fifty historic National Trust properties. As an alternative to scones, you could try this recipe for Cornish or Devonshire splits from Delightful Repast.
Some US grocery stores carry the authentic clotted cream that traditionally accompanies British scones, but it’s fairly expensive. You might want to use whipped cream in its place. It’s not as traditional, but it’s a tasty and affordable alternative. If you want to try your hand at making your own clotted cream, take a look at this clotted cream tutorial from Delightful Repast. The process is relatively easy; all you need is pasteurized, organic heavy whipping cream and some patience.
“Come oh come ye tea-thirsty restless ones — the kettle boils, bubbles and sings, musically.”
PUT THE KETTLE ON
Whether you enjoy a quiet cup of tea when you wake up, gather your housemates for a midmorning cuppa and some biccies, take time out for tea and a slice of cake in the afternoon, or pull out all the stops for a full afternoon tea, you can draw comfort and strength from one of the British Isles’ greatest traditions. I think we could all benefit from putting the kettle on right now.