Tuesday, January 26, 2010



You knew this one was coming.


Anyone who knows me at all will have come across my tea obsession in some form, as I’ve written quite a lot about it (a long poem and most recently, an article about its history in TTZ). The line that inspired me to write this now was “I don’t drink coffee, I drink tea, my dear” (which is from “Englishman in New York,” or more accurately, this video). Which is true of me, and I am an American—an an avowed tea drinker quite awhile before I came to the UK. What I am particularly crankifying about this time (instead of waffling on about the history yet again) is how disappointed a tea-fancying Yank might be if s/he visits Britain—depending on where s/he chooses to go.

If you expect everywhere in Britain to be like Devon or the Savoy Hotel, you will be disappointed. Tea is omnipresent—but I don’t think I would be too far from the truth if I said in its most basic form. If you watch the very first episode of New Who, you get an idea from Rose and Jackie Tyler as to what the common Brit drinks as their tea. It’s boiled from an electric kettle (which is an amazing object, it boils the water so quickly—we will come back to it), and is made in mugs with individual tea bags (quite possibly the cheapest kind, bought 80 for £1). Many people will pour a mug of mostly milk, dunk the tea bag in for a few seconds, and swirl around the hot water/milky mixture (“would you like some tea with your milk?!”). I’m not trying to be too toffee-nosed about this method—it often yields decent tea, and I will admit I drink a lot more milk in my tea than I used to. I will even admit I use the cheapie tea bags—though all the while the tea snob in me begs me to bring out the tea strainer and use real leaves. But I digress.

The point is, this kind of basic tea, perhaps with a biscuit, is the mainstay. Very few people brew their tea in a pot now, and even fewer drink loose leaf tea. (This is why, one suspects, Swansea’s Whittard of Chelsea went bust this time last year.) Unless you go to a London hotel or a similar hoity-toity establishment, you are very unlikely to see the whole smorgasborg of trappings that we, as Americans—am I not mistaken?—associate with the effete British and their tea. By this I mean tea sandwiches (cucumber, of course!), scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, and dainty tea desserts and cakes. Devon is another story, where you are served giant scones with jam layered first, then lots of clotted/Devon cream (I am told; I have sadly not been there). In this sense, the St James Tea Rooms in Albuquerque are more the stereotypical afternoon tea parlor (that exists only in memory now) than anywhere in the UK (that I’m aware of).

This isn’t a problem, unless that’s what you’re looking for. I’m cranky because I can’t find a place to get decent tea in the whole of Swansea (and Cardiff isn’t much better). My Welsh tea fanatic friend and I were discussing this, and we reckon there may not be a place in the whole of Wales where you can find that elusive tea room experience (though there is a nice place in Chepstow, I admit). Why should Wales suffer from a lack like this?? It isn’t as if people here are affirmed coffee drinkers (well, not very many of them). In every Welsh work place I’ve yet worked in, it is ALWAYS time for tea. It really indulges my tea fetish to the max to be offered tea every few hours. At work! Where would you find such a thing in an American office? Though sadly, since Whittard of Chelsea’s demise, it’s been hard for me to find new and exotic blends (Builders’ Brew is okay but occasionally you want something with a bit more nuance!)—Twinings is a reliable source and present in every grocery store, yet remarkably expensive for what it is.

I have done the London hotel afternoon tea experience, and the St James Tea Rooms, even if they are faux, are comparable if not more enjoyable than the “authentic” experience. I suppose it’s the last spoke in the wheel, turning from when tea was expensive and drunk only by the elite, to when it filtered down to the lower classes who used it as the centrepiece for their “tea” ie supper, filled with calorific foods so they could get through their tough working days. I can’t be wholly cranky, though, as I have found gems of tea experiences in far-flung places. Gorgeous tea at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver (yes, I know, we’re back to North America again), Crabtree & Evelyn in Stratford-upon-Avon, Hands in Bath . . . and if I’m honest, the Dragon Hotel in Swansea does a pretty good afternoon tea, too.

I said I was going to come back to the subject of kettles: my Welsh tea fanatic friend told me of a group of students (boys, of course), who put tea bags straight into the kettle and boiled the water around them. That is, I’m sure you’ll agree, disgusting.

And who makes the Best Tea in the World™? My boyfriend, of course. Lucky me.

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