As required by British law, I grew up in a tea-drinking household. Back then, a day without tea was … well, to be honest, I’m not sure what it was like, because I don’t ever recall it happening.
As I remember, the main reason for getting out of bed in the morning was that it made it a little easier to put the kettle on for that first all-important cup of the day. Funnily enough, getting up and having to endure those first few tea-less minutes proved to be too traumatic for my mum, who had one of those quaint old tea-brewing alarm clocks called a “teasmade” perched on her bedside table, so as to have a freshly brewed cuppa waiting for her as she woke.
Yes, it was tea for breakfast, followed by tea and a couple of biscuits for the mid-morning snack known as elevenses. After lunch (with tea, of course), we’d wait out the afternoon (punctuated by an occasional tea-break) in anticipation of the evening meal. Even then, the food only really served as a gateway comestible to the real reward: lashings of tea afterwards. Small wonder then – and it may have been a regional thing, I’m not sure – but rather than calling it dinner, we always referred to the evening meal as tea.
Now, the level of tea consumption for the rest of the evening was largely dependent on your social calendar. An evening at home presented numerous opportunities for brewing up: having a cup while watching the evening news; having a cup while tackling a crossword puzzle, and of course, having a cup while deciding whether or not to have another cup of tea. If, on the other hand, a visit to the local pub was on the agenda (which it often was, if memory serves), then any thoughts of tea drinking were usually put on hold until the late evening. It sounds quaintly eccentric to me now, but in those days before caffeine became a real … er, buzzword, we thought nothing of coming home from a session at the pub and having a big mug of tea as a nightcap.
Now, my mother wasn’t a tea snob by any stretch. She had no desire for gourmet blends with silly added flavourings or nuts and berry additives; good old Brooke Bond PG Tips was her brand of choice, and it was a permanent fixture in our house for as long as I can remember. I’m no tea snob either, although there are those who would vehemently disagree. (Of course, these are people who have openly admitted to drinking tea with ice cubes in it, so they’re not to be trusted.) I do, however, maintain a fierce loyalty to the PG brand, and continue to pay through the nose for it in the imported food section of my local Publix supermarket.
Mum was no purist, either; she was quick to liberate herself from the drudgery of loose leaf tea and its attendant tea strainer (despite its allegedly superior flavour), and readily embraced the convenience of the tea bag. She did, however, have certain iron-clad tea-making rules that you had to abide by. Firstly, the water had to come to a rolling boil before brewing, in order to extract the maximum flavour from the tea leaves. Secondly, and I’m not sure if this was based on superstition or science, the milk had to be added to the cup before the tea was introduced to it. If she caught you adding milk after the fact, she’d make you pour it out and start again. As big a faux-pas as this was, in her book, it was nothing compared the biggest tea-time transgression of all: brewing tea without using a teapot.
To my mother, the idea of simply dunking a single tea bag into a mug of water and calling it tea was akin to heresy. Tea was to be brewed in a teapot, and then poured from the pot into the cup or mug. Further, since drinking tea was also a social event, the employment of a single tea bag would never do. “A bag for every person, and one for the pot” was her mantra. If there was three of you, you’d put in three bags and then add another, so that when you replenished the pot with more boiling water, there was still plenty of flavour for the obligatory refills.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it is, unless of course you venture to America, where coffee is king, and tea is a bit of an afterthought. Ordering a decent cup of tea in a restaurant in the US isn’t really that much of a problem, but actually getting one, is. On a stateside visit back in the 1980s, my mother almost shortened her vacation when she discovered that ordering tea usually resulted in being presented with a mug of warm water with a side of tea bag. She really didn’t know what to make of it; not only was there an obvious lack of boiling water, there was absolutely no sight of a tea pot anywhere. If that wasn’t enough, the tea bag was emblazoned with the dreaded word: Lipton.
In my experience, Lipton is to tea, what Budweiser is to beer. It may have unlimited marketing muscle and brand-name recognition, but the product itself is a pale imitation of the real thing. Speaking of marketing, I always thought it hilarious that Lipton saw fit to add the word Brisk to their packaging. I have to wonder if it’s their way of telling us that if we drink their tea in a really brisk fashion, that we’ll barely notice the absence of tea flavour. Judging by their share of the US market, it seems to be working. Me? I just briskly walk past it when I’m in the grocery store, which seems to work well for me.
Although the PG brand of tea was considered an everyday tea in the UK, their marketing pitch was that they allowed only the top two leaves and a bud from the tips of their tea plants, to be used in their tea blend (hence the PG Tips handle). I’m not sure how much of this was hype, but I have to admit that their tea tastes like … well, tea. To drink a cup of Lipton’s finest is to realize that the company has relaxed these guidelines somewhat, perhaps to allow for the inclusion of any fallen leaves, twigs (and maybe even a little topsoil) that might lie within 2 or 3 feet of each plant’s drip-line. Given this dirt-in-a-bag approach, it’s hard to imagine that even having water at a full rolling boil would be able to extract much in the way of tea flavour. Still, I’m sure my mother would have at least appreciated the gesture.
If you think I’m exaggerating about the disrespect shown to tea in the US, try buying a teapot. Oh, there’s no shortage of them on the shelves of department stores and on the pages of trendy home furnishings catalogues. They’re available in a wide array of colours, finishes, and in a variety of patterns so diverse that you’re bound to be able to find one that matches your home’s decor to a tee. Unfortunately, as nice as they may look in your kitchen, their appeal is purely decorative, as they’re often quite useless when it comes to actually pouring tea.
I discovered this years ago, when I bought 3 or 4 of these aesthetically pleasing but functionally inept teapots in rapid succession, becoming increasingly bewildered as each of them would happily deposit as much tea on the counter as they did in the tea cups. I’d try a slow and gentle pour, and the tea would dribble out of the spout, down the belly of the pot and drip on to the counter; a more aggressive pour would result in part of the stream of tea overshooting the cup, with the remainder of the flow once again dripping dutifully onto the countertop. What kind of design flaw is this? Is it a conspiracy masterminded by major coffee retailers looking to break the spirit of the last few tea-drinking holdouts? A marketing ploy instigated by paper towel manufacturers, perhaps? Or is it the result of lingering anti-imperialist resentment; some Boston Tea Party-inspired scorn visited upon unsuspecting British tourists and immigrants?
Mercifully, I did eventually find a functional teapot. It was very plain in appearance; dull even, but whether a slow trickle or a full flowing pour, it worked perfectly every time, and the tea always ended up safely in the cup. Consequently, I used this particular vessel for years, and it seemed that all of my teapot turmoil was behind me. And it was, until one afternoon over this past Christmas season when my wife and I spied a little beauty on the shelf of our local Pier 1 store. We’d previously bought a couple of strikingly patterned tea mugs from the very same store, and this pot was obviously from the same line, matching them perfectly. My guard was down; it beckoned to us, and so we took it home.
With the old tea pot relegated to an out-of-the-way shelf in the kitchen cabinet, the new one quickly took pride of place on the kitchen counter in readiness for its daily duty. The next morning, I nonchalantly poured boiling water over three PG Tips tea bags nestled in the new pot, and readied the rest of my breakfast. It wasn’t until that moment when I picked up the pot and prepared to pour, that teapot anxiety struck, and the thought flashed through my mind – ” Oh, I hope this bloody thing works”.
Oh dear. The first pour overshot the mug by several inches. Quickly steadying the pot, I went for the gentle approach and aimed again. Oh dear, dear. As I watched the tea dribble down the underside of the spout and pool on the counter, I reached angrily for a paper towel, snorting at the realisation that I’d been lulled into complacency by the years of faithful service courtesy of that plain old pot, and had completely forgotten about this apparent plague of dysfunctional teapots. Although momentarily buoyed by the fleeting thought that Dysfunctional Teapots would be a great name for a band, the levity was brief, and I was left feeling duped.
So, of course, the trusty old teapot was trotted out of retirement, and the new one assumed a decorative role in a glass cabinet in the kitchen. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps I’d just been incredibly unlucky in my past teapot selections, and wondered if most of the teapots in circulation could in fact do a fine job of depositing tea into a cup or mug without major spillage. Even so, to be on the safe side, I flipped over the pot in order to look at the base and make a note of the manufacturer. If anything untoward were to happen to this pot, I wanted to make sure that I could replace it with another one from the same trustworthy potter.
Unfortunately, there was no brand name to be found, which would have been depressing, if not for the sepia-tinged verbiage adjacent to the requisite Made In China stamp. There, for the teapot-curious among us to see, were the words: “Designed in Great Britain“.
Designed in Great Britain? Of course it was! Forget for a second, all the tired old stereotypical jokes about stodgy English cuisine, medieval dental technology and rampant football hooliganism; forget too, the incessant chatter about Britain’s decline as an international power. Apparently, there are still some things that the British do best.
I’m loathe to knock my adopted home; for all my griping, I certainly wouldn’t live anywhere else (well, maybe Canada, but only if they temper their enthusiasm for that professional wrestling-on-ice sport that they refer to as hockey). But, for all her lofty technological and scientific achievements, when it comes to matching the ingenuity of the sharpest minds back in the Old Country, it seems that America may still have a little catching up to do. While hyper-educated American engineers fritter away their talents at NASA, designing shuttles and building silly space stations (all probably without working teapots), British boffins have been busy advising the Chinese on teapot design.
Ah, there may be life in the old Empire, yet. Anyone care to drink to that?