I know that many foreigners have been conditioned to think that Britons have a big ‘thing’ for tea, full of ritual and pomp.
You see it cropping up on American programming in particular – any time a British character is involved (or god forbid, more than one), they’ll begin the ‘tea ritual’ at some point, and gather together all the necessary accoutrements : the teapot, the sugar bowl, the serving tray, the china tea service, the loose-leaf tea (and strainers), the sugar tongs, the water boiling on a fucking Aga… basically, things no Briton has used in the creation of a drink since Pepys had his first “cup of tee” in 1660.
While I can appreciate the Yankish fascination for a drink we were imbibing while they were still drinking muddy water out of puddles, things have rather moved on since then.
So, for your edification, I present a modern version of the British tea ritual (suitable for use by Americans and other foreigners) :
- Somebody says “Would anyone like a cup of tea?”. This person may in fact be you. If it is you, follow the remaining steps (if not, just sit there and wait for your tea to arrive. This may take anything up to several hours if, for example, your girlfriend gets distracted by something shiny on TV. For example)
- Tea is a loose brown powder, which is a pain in the arse to deal with, gets everywhere and tastes disgusting… but you don’t need to worry about that, thanks to the technological advance (seventy years ago) of ‘putting tea in little paper bags’, which means that loose-leaf tea can be told to fuck right off. Take one of these bags and put it in an otherwise empty mug.
- Boil some water. If you live in the highlands of Scotland, or have been sent back in time by some sort of freak scientific accident, you may be forced to boil a pan of water on a stove (or similar device). The rest of the time you’ll be able to use an electric kettle.
- Add the boiling water to the mug. Gaze in rapt fascination as the water turns a bit brown.
- Add some sugar (if you like sugar in your tea) – use a fucking teaspoon for this, not sugar cubes. You’re not a horse.
- Add some milk (you definitely like milk in your tea, it’s godawful without it). Gaze in rapt fascination as the tea turns a lighter shade of brown. Oh, and you pour the milk from the bottle which you keep in the fridge – you don’t need to pour it into any sort of intermediate container beforehand. That would be bizarre.
- Don’t add any lemon. Nobody British drinks tea with lemon. If you’re drinking tea with lemon because you think it makes you look British, it doesn’t – it just makes you look a twat. If you’re making tea for somebody else, and he asks for lemon, take this opportunity to ask him to leave.
- Stir your tea (probably using the same teaspoon you used for the sugar – make sure you don’t then put this spoon straight back into the sugar bowl, that really fucks me off). Jolly the teabag about a bit to get more flavour. Take the teabag out and throw it away (Members of the proletariat : you can instead use this teabag to make subsequent cups of tea if you like, each with less flavour than the ones that went before).
- Drink your tea. Blow on it a bit if it’s too hot.
You may be wondering why some of the supposedly key elements of British tea-making aren’t in there. It’s simply because they have bugger all to do with making a cup of tea. The teapot, for example, is only used today by people making vast amounts of tea in one go (or those who are trying far too hard).
The only cubed condiment you’ll regularly find in a British household is the Oxo cube, but you probably wouldn’t want to put one of those in a cup of tea (although they do make quite a nice beverage in their own right…)
Serving tea on a tray is something that may still happen to the Royal Family – but I have a sneaking suspicion that even the Queen just grabs her mug of tea on her way past the kitchen, and drinks it in front of the TV.
We just don’t want to faff around with all the china tea service bollocks when we’re drinking forty-seven cups a day.
That’s the thing that American TV culture doesn’t seem willing to believe (or at least let go of); that tea really isn’t a big deal to us. We aren’t the ones who threw a big tantrum over a box of tea in the 18th century – we just drink it.
We don’t esteem it above all other beverages, we haven’t built up this elaborate pantomime around its preparation. We don’t hark back to the good old days before electricity and teabags, when it took longer to make, like all the faffing about and picking leaves out of your teeth somehow made it taste better… if we held a big ceremony every time someone wanted a cup of tea we’d never get anything done.
It’s just a fucking drink.