A Perfect Cuppa

June 5, 2012

We’re all gluten-free, caffeine-free and sugar-free these days, but sometimes when the skies are gray, a good old-fashioned afternoon tea is the only way to go.

Tea holds a special place in many cultures, but in England it’s an institution.  Afternoon Tea is a delicate ritual that works best in prestigious venues, such as The Ritz or The Dorchester,  where one is expected to conduct herself in a dignified manner with the decor to match.  These kinds of Teas are best shared amongst a group of close girlfriends on a special occasion.  I hosted one of my first birthdays in London at The Wolseley – it was a warm and sunny April day and the dress code was floral prints.  We indulged in tea and scones – known as a Cream Tea – and I was instructed to coat my scone with a decent layer of butter followed by clotted cream and then finally fresh, home-made jam.  My best memory of this day was a gift granted to me by my friend Tamara – a set of River Cafe Cookbooks (the origin of a long love affair with the restaurant to be blogged about later) and the unusual treat of sunshine.  We were, however, drinking tea like tourists.

Traditional tea choices in England are of the black variety (and here the green tea drinker in me confesses that there is nothing quite as luscious as a cup of fragrant Earl Grey) served with a decent amount of milk.  But tea is not just reserved for special occasions.  There is also the office tea ritual.  Brits love and rely on their tea and biscuits (bikkies) breaks when the afternoon or even a mid-morning slump hits.  If you don’t take a turn at the kettle, you’ll quickly find yourself out of the loop in any working evironment.  Popular combinations are a PG Tips, Tetley or Yorkshire tea paired with McVitie’s Digestives or Rich Tea biscuits, served in a mug you’ve likely brought in from home (and never to be borrowed by anyone else)!

I’ll never forget attending a focus-group on biscuit consumption for a famous British biscuit brand.  The women interviewed spoke of the pleasure of biscuit eating in a way that sounded dirtier – and much more fun – than sex.  One women confessed to a nightly biscuit binge.  She would pull out a package of her favourite biscuits and eat an entire sleeve after the kids were in bed.  Luckily she didn’t have the waistline to reveal her dirty secret!  In terms of a guilty pleasures, biscuits are to the British what ice cream is to Americans, and a national right at that!

Then there’s the concept of the Builder’s tea – a strong cuppa with a good amount of milk and sugar to soften the blow – designed to accompany anyone through a tough task at home and a necessary offering to any maintenance man.  My colleague once told me that he’d do any menial labour project such as painting, so long as there was a cup of tea and biscuit by his side (note to self if I one day marry a Brit).  Later that day I passed a man mending his fence – perched next to his exposed bottom was a cup of tea ready and waiting.  When life gets difficult, the Brits get the kettle boiling and the biscuits out.

When I first moved to London, I plunged right into the tea ritual.  But soon I realized that the caffeine/dairy/sugar combo was not doing me any favours.  I struggled as I appreciated the ritual, but not the side effects.   It’s a habit that I suspect is exacerbating some health issues for tea-centric Brits too.  But like milk and cookies to Americans, it’s too far engrained in the culture to drastically change it now.  And why would you?  The news consistently supports the healthy aspect of a good tea ritual in terms of providing antioxidants.  What they don’t point out is that tea gets drunk often in lieu of water, in doses far greater and manners far less elegant than what was originally intended when tea ceremonies were first introduced.  When you’re sat at a computer all day drinking tea, that’s a whole lot of dehydration going on.

Nevertheless, when you live in a country where it’s cold and damp most of the time, a cup of tea is comforting and feels right (not to mention a healthier option when compared to the UK’s other famous past-time of alcohol consumption).  It’s normally an excuse to interrupt what you’re doing with a tiny and often sociable pause.  In my eyes, it’s also a whole lot better than the daily Starbucks consumed from wasteful disposable cups or the Diet Coke addictions one sees all over the U.S.  So if you’re in London, I would say that on at least one occasion you should put aside all refined food fears and tea preconceptions and get stuck in.  You’ll learn a lot about England from just one sip and you’ll probably like it too.  I’d check out this website for the best advice: http://www.tea.co.uk/.  You might never pair a cookie with milk again – sweet things are much nicer with a sharp cup of warm tea.

But if you’ve been consuming tea and biscuits your whole life (and the majority alone at your desk at work to get you through the day), I’d suggest experimenting with a week of herbal teas and afternoon fruit snacks instead and see if those headaches or IBS symptoms disappear (or if you’re masking discontent at your job)…there’s no reason to put your ritual to a halt, but modifications can be made to make this a truly healthy and even spiritual ritual that one can continue to practice on a frequent basis!

When this blog departs from a London-theme, I’ll talk about tea rituals I have observed in other cultures that helped change my approach to tea drinking…

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