“I thought I’d make a cup of tea”, were the last murmured words of the mother of Janet Frame, NZ writer, as she died in her husband’s arms in the kitchen. They could well be mine… tea for me marks waking up and going to bed, a break mid-morning and that indispensable cup in the afternoon, the cup that cheers when a friend calls, or the one that sustains after a shock or a long day’s retail therapy.
I felt the would-be murderess Mrs McWilliams who shot her enemy Mrs Dick in the Tudor Tea Rooms in Christchurch NZ was a kindred spirit. When she was disarmed after her pot- shot she retorted: “Oh, give me a cup of tea, that’s what I came here for.”
When told that her victim was not dead or even much hurt the redoubtable Mrs McWilliams replied, “Oh isn’t she, what a pity.” (She got seven years jail for her failed attempt to eliminate her enemy)
We can sheet back this country’s addiction to tea to our discoverer Captain Cook, who concocted the first brews from leaves of the manuka tree, which he called, and many still do, the tea tree. He experimented with it in 1769, brewing the leaves in the hope of preventing scurvy, and wrote in his journal ( men write journals – women are downgraded to writing diaries): “The leaves were used by many of us as tea which has a very agreeable bitter scent and flavour when they are recent…. when the infusion was made strong it proved emetic to some in the same manner as green tea.”
In some ways, tea was the answer to coffee… men had gathered to gossip in coffee houses in London and elsewhere, for several centuries, while women had nowhere acceptable to congregate. The first tea-rooms opened in Glasgow in the 1870’s and tea-rooms quickly became as important to women as coffee houses to men in previous centuries.
Afternoon tea at home also became an institution… it was a relaxed time when women took off their corsets before changing into finery for dinner, and wore soft floating tea gowns. The great French food philosopher Brillat-Savarin called afternoon tea: “an extraordinary meal … in that, being offered to persons that have already dined well, it supposes neither appetite nor thirst, and has no object but distraction, no basis but delicate enjoyment…”
I’ll say – and not just for tea but for chocolate cake and shortbread, meringues and cucumber sandwiches. I used to think tea was an occasion just for ladies to enjoy… I couldn’t imagine inviting a man to tea… but then I remembered the delicate courtships conducted over silver tea- pots by the fireside in Edwardian times, and realised what pleasures we have forfeited in our nine to five world. I also wondered if this was the raison d’etre for those loose floating tea gowns… easier for making love?
Portly philanderer, Edward the Seventh used to visit his lady loves for afternoon tea, arriving in an elegant black carriage with his coat of arms on the door. Inside, his inamoratas awaited him. They could be the ravishing Lily Langtry, the Jersey Lily, as famous for her beauty which adorned postcards, as Kim Kardashian is today; or others, like Winston Churchill’s gorgeous mother Jennie, or even Camilla Parker Bowles’, (aka Prince Charles’ second wife) great-grandmother, Mrs Alice Keppel. She was Edward’s mistress for twelve years and was invited to his death-bed by his generous wife, Queen Alexandra.
Afternoon tea for me has never been graced by the presence of king, prince, or even lover… my most un-forgettable afternoon tea was at a Catholic convent in Ipoh, Malaya. The Chinese nuns in this little convent had been accredited to examine children taking GCE, the Cambridge University secondary schools exam, in oral French. So accordingly, I and nine classmates, embarked on the day- long journey in stifling armoured vehicles (to protect us from lurking Chinese bandits) and then by train, from the Cameron Highlands down to Ipoh.
Arriving in the early evening after travelling all day, we went to sleep in a dormitory with other Chinese teenagers who all, to our amazement, managed to get undressed and shower without showing an inch of flesh. This proved quite a challenge to us less inhibited girls trying to do in Rome as the Romans did. The next day we hung around until afternoon in the steamy convent grounds, and then I was first in alphabetical order for the exam.
I was shown into a little room, where a bowing, smiling, gentle little Chinese nun in heavy black horn-rimmed spectacles and starched veil awaited me. It would have been bad enough trying to understand a Chinese person’s French, spoken by someone who had never been to France or met a French person, but worse was to come. She made a cup of tea and offered me a cake, baked especially for us all, she explained in broken English.
So there we were, an Asian nun, performing, not the tea ceremony of her culture, but an adulterated version of a western ritual, and speaking a foreign language to a person who couldn’t make out a word she was saying, and who knew that shortly an even greater ordeal awaited, in which two people who already couldn’t understand each other, were about to embark on a conversation in a language foreign to them both.
But it was the preliminary that almost silenced me. I bit into the cake, and discovered with horror that the nuns knew no more about baking English cakes than they did about speaking French. They had obviously used sawdust held together, not with butter and eggs, but with some sort of inedible glue. With the first bite drying out my mouth and clogging my throat, I realised that now I had to struggle through the whole of this un-eatable culinary disaster, as well as bluff my way through the exam. Each bite nearly choked me, and I still had to look as though it was delicious.
Somehow I got to end of this terrible experience, and there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that if I ate the cake, she would find my school girl French understandable and acceptable to her Chinese ears. I left with us both bowing and smiling, with great good humour, and walked into my classmate waiting to go in. She raised her eye-brows questioningly, and I smiled maliciously, which she optimistically took for re-assurance… later our profane school- girlish post mortems and accusations would have curled the ears of these innocent kindly nuns.
Other teas, with silver teapots, even a white-capped maid, tiers of scrumptious cakes, and lace napkins have never blotted out the memory of this ordeal. And now, a law unto myself, I break all the rules of the English ritual afternoon tea, which is a very different thing to tea ceremonies in parts of the world where tea drinking originated. My most daring break with convention is to put the milk in first, considered so vulgar by generations of tea drinking aficionados.
And having discovered that tea tastes much nicer when the milk goes in first, I have now also discovered that science supports my taste buds. According to research carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2003,”… if milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation or degradation of the milk to occur.” There you go, as they say in this country…
I have n’t space to touch on one of the most thrilling aspects of drinking tea, which used to be illegal in this country, and provoked fiery debate by male Members of Parliament; and now since 1981, it’s become illegal again ( MEN !!!). I refer to the innocent pastime of reading the tea leaves… but that is too vast and esoteric a subject for this little blog to tackle!
Food for threadbare gourmets
Cucumber sandwiches are de rigueur for the ritual English afternoon tea, and very dull they can be too. These I served for a friend’s birthday party, and we gobbled them up… with relish….
Apart from white bread sliced as thinly as possible – even supermarket sliced does the job… you need peeled and thinly sliced cucumber, eight ounces of softened cream cheese, quarter of a cup of mayonnaise, a good sprinkling of onion powder, garlic powder and a pinch of lemon pepper if you have it.
Mix everything except the bread and cucumber, spread the mix on the bread, and arrange the cucumber on top. Cover with another slice of bread also spread with the mixture. Press down firmly, and cut into dainty bite-sized sandwiches. Irresistible.
Food for thought
By experts in poverty I do not mean sociologists, but poor men.
35 responses to “My drug of choice”
I’m with you Valerie, the milk goes in first.It seems to take the tannin taste of the tea away and just leave the delicate flavour .I can’t abide tea made with the teabag directly in the cup with boiling water poured on it and then milk added.Whenever possible a teapot should be used.
I love the story about your examination.
xxx Massive Hugs xxx
LikeLiked by 1 person
Definitely a pot!
And I use loose tea leaves and lapsang souchong… my favourite !!!
LikeLiked by 2 people
I think I need to know more about the illegality of reading tea leaves!
Apparently Jim Mclay as Minister of Justice revised the Summary Offenses Bill in 1981, and telepathy, clairvoyance, tea- leaf reading etc, unless for entertainment is now an offense… ie the clairvoyant old ladies I know who read tea leaves for desperate people wanting some hope and a ray of light in their lives, are committing an offense… I know one whose grandmother taught her how to… and every woman in her family has done this for generations… it fascinates me… we don’t still burn witches, but we certainly would like to punish them !!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for your blog Valerie. Tea has always punctuated my day and been a support or comfort on all sorts of occasions too. And I’m so pleased that I’m not the only one who insists that tea tastes better if the milk goes in first! My preference has been met by howls of derision and patronising smirks from several friends. So I could not have been more delighted to read the information from the Royal Society of Chemistry! Have emailed all my sceptical friends and feel very smug heh heh. Right, with all this excitement I’m off to make a cup of tea.
Lovely to hear from you Elly… I so know what you mean about the patronising smirks, and the MIF derision – hilarious what snobbery can do !!!
Enjoy your pot of tea !!!
Such an interesting blog (as usual!). I did enjoy the bit about Ipoh and the nuns. I meet a lady now and again who was at Slim before my time. She told me how she went to Ipoh to the convent for a French exam so I will print out your blog for her.
Milk always goes in first, although my first cuppa of the day I have black!! I have never had sugar in tea because, as my Mum did not have sugar, she did not put it in our tea.
You will remember as I do our visits to the tea plantations in Malaysia.
Dear Margot, lovely to hear from you as always… I’d be so intrigued to know if your other Slimmer was one of our original trail blazing group to Ipoh !!!
Yes, tea was all around us, wasn’t it…especially afternoon tea with tomato sandwiches at the Cameron Highlands Hotel… a special treat !!!
Oh, I did enjoy this post and especially the bit about the loose flowing gowns!! Tea is such an uplifting drink and such an ice breaker – love it and your tales of tea with the nuns.
Found your last two posts fascinating too and read them closely but life has been very crazy recently and so no comments – sorry.
Good news though – Mr S does not need a new knee and I have my date 19th August so will be fit again sooner than we had thought.
All the best to you x
Dear Sally, so good to hear from you – and glad you have good news about your various medical trials !
I don’t know how you keep up with your treasure trove of beautiful things every day… my life is always overwhelming me at the moment !
So glad you enjoyed my tea-tales and others !!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Afternoon tea was a whole new experience for a young woman from the colonies arriving in Australia, never having had it before. It has been quite a learning experience. I’ve had two high teas, one horrible and one delightful, but nothing as interesting as you have described with the nuns! Did you ever figure out what they used in the cakes? Very entertaining post, Valerie.
Hello Ardys… ahhhh – tea – what a subject…the whole business of tea as opposed to high tea deranges many pukka English people in this country ! Afternoon tea is what I described… high tea is what hungry North Country people devour in the evening instead of dinner or supper. At High Tea they eat kippers or sausage and mash and so on followed by rich heavy fruit cake and hot buttered tea cakes at about six o clock instead of three thirty, four o clock for afternoon tea….
But it’s got all confused at this end of the world so afternoon tea is called high tea here.. by hoteliers and restauranteurs thinking they’re offering a high treat, . to the chagrin of purists !!!!
No, the nun’s cakes remained an impenetrable mystery !!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for explaining, I had no idea it was so complicated!
Hilarious isn’t it !!!
I can vividly remember my mother’s tea parties, when the ‘ladies’ would come around and be served homemade cakes, biscuits and brandy snaps filled with fresh farm cream, on floral plates that matched the cups and saucers. How entertainingly you describe your ‘drug of choice’ and tea with the nuns.
Good to hear from you Juliet, Your tea-time memories made my mouth water and tempted me to have a sugar binge !!!
Good one. I’m inspired to make a cup this afternoon, while waiting for another of what seem to be an endless siege of rainstorms here.
I’m later catching up on comments Bruce… so hope your rain storms have eased… ours haven;t !!!
I love tea..it is my beverage of choice. Now for tea leaves!! I wish I could learn how to read them!!!
I bet you could if you tried Linda… you ‘re already psychic !!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Make me wonder…………..I’ll have to give it a go.
Of course being in England, we drink a lot of tea, though it’s interesting that coffee shops are burgeoning so maybe it’s taking over…
yes, lots of coffee places here too, but there’s nothing like an English tea shop in my fond memories of freshly made scones and moist iced chocolate cake… !!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I like a nice cup of tea in the morning, just to start the day you see
And then about eleven well my idea of heaven is a nice cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with my dinner and a nice cup of tea with my tea
And before I go to bed there is so much to be said for a nice cup of tea
Margot – this is un-arguable !!! Even though it often means getting up in the night now….
Sunday of catch up reading and you tell me the stories of past with such wonderful verve, bandits, glue cakes and childhood maliciousness (which I barely can believe except you tell me it is so). I am of course not a tea drinker, with the exception of Texas Sweet Tea, which is a monster unto itself. Coffee? This I drink all day and everyday and would rip the arms off anyone who tried to deprive me of my coffee. There is an art to coffee, though most don’t understand it. Not espresso, not that fluffy stuff they serve at Starbucks and the like; just coffee. Deep dark roasted coffee with Chicory.
As always, I am so grateful for your writing which transports me.
Val, it’s lovely to know you enjoy my little pieces of nonsense about life !!!
I know what you mean about the art of making coffee, and will drive for miles to a place that makes good coffee- and will drop it as soon as the perfectly skilled barista disappears !!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
We are kindred spirits when it comes to tea. There is nothing like a cuppa to start off the day, a pick me up in the afternoon with biscuits and to relax in the evening. I love cucumber sandwiches and will have to try to your spread. I usually just use cream cheese or mayo – what can I say I am an American. lol
Dear Patty, so good to hear from you… yes, tea is the thread that binds many lives, cheers us up, and keeps us all going !!! Enjoy the cucumber sandwiches !
I will! Heading to the store this weekend…. 🙂
I abandoned coffee in favor of tea several years ago and never regretted it. Although I take my tea “straight up,” I remember putting a bit too much sugar in it as a child while sharing afternoon tea with my grandmother. No cucumber sandwiches then…shortbread cookies, though! 🙂
Hello Lorna, I have to confess that I drink both with equal pleasure depending on the time of day, and whether the coffee is well made!… Cucumber sandwiches are an old English custom, made especially famous by Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy ‘The Importance of being Ernest’ !!!
I think your habit of putting the milk in first has merit Valerie! I used to work near The Strand in London and I recall visiting the Twinings tea shop and reading some of their trivia about tea making rituals and learned there (myth or fact I’m not sure) that the origin of milk in tea was due to the fragile nature of the thin porcelain cups the English used to drink them in, the milk was added first to prevent the delicate cups from cracking, that certainly makes sense!
I was intrigued on my travels through Asia to encounter the different forms of tea, when there is only one form of it available, that sweet, syrupy tea served at road side stops on the long 18 hour bus trips between cities in India, the milk and sugar boiled into a sweet, thick drop that becomes just the thing needed when energy levels are sapped and then in Vietnam, the salty version that should be appreciated like poetry, an old man told me, one never says no to an offer of tea, even if not partaking of it, ah the tastebud challenges of travel, those culinary, beverage experiences which open our minds and hearts.
Thank you for the memory inducing post Valerie!
Dear Claire, just realised that i had never replied to this wonderful comment, and reading it again, I feel the same as I did when I first read it.. Which was :you could write a blog yourself about tea, just as I felt when I read your remarks about the books you’ve retrieved from library discards – that that is a story that would make a wonderful blog which I’d love to read…
I still hope you’ll write it !