Guest Post: Tea-Making for Beginners

A mug of strong British tea

A mug of strong British tea. Image copyright wordpress user skypotatoe.

Today I’m joined by the lovely skypotatoe (gold star if you get the reference!), a good friend who hails from the UK. She has extensive experience with tea, France, and the conjunction of the two: read on for wonderful witty commentary on British tea culture vs the French lack of same… and instructions, which I at least can certainly use, for making a proper cuppa. –maratinage

Thanks to Sophie for allowing me to write this week’s bitter little guest post in which I take the French to task on the doughty subject of tea-drinking. I suppose I should start by declaring an interest, or perhaps rather, a particular interest in all things French that is now, sadly, historical. Don’t get me wrong: I like the French as much as ever (yes, as much as that) but I used to go out with a French man and accordingly spent a good deal of time in the Hexagone, sometimes in Paris, where he lived, and fairly frequently in Lille, with his parents.

For any number of reasons, this was a trying situation, as the ex’s parents made it fairly clear that I was not really up to par: neither French, nor practising Catholic, nor young (a full six years older than their youngest son, a veritable rouée; moreover, a Brit!). They had to put up with me for nearly three years, and I had to put up with being taken aside and questioned on my ‘intentions’ (surely I was planning to have children at some point?) and being laughed at for daring to articulate dangerously radical notions, such as the égalité of men and women. Happy, happy times.

The following incident, however, dates back to an earlier and more naïve moment: the occasion, in fact, of my first visit to Lille to see the parents (though not in fact the first time I had met them). My ex-partner and I arrived mid-evening, straight off the Eurostar, and were in need of refreshment. Would I like coffee?, asked my ex’s mother. ‘Un thé, c’est possible, s’il vous plaît?’. A moment of silence, a puzzled look on his mother’s face, before visible relief as an explanation to this strange request gathered pace and form: ‘Of course! You’re British! You want tea!’

She then proceeded to fling open each of her kitchen cupboards in turn. ‘We’ve got small bowls! Medium-sized bowls! Large bowls! What kind of bowl would you like?’ This left me somewhat perplexed. ‘Est-ce que vouz avez un… mug?’ ‘Oh! Yes, yes, of course! A mug! No problem!’, further flinging open of cupboards.

A mug was found, and a sachet of Lipton Yellow. She gestured me in the direction of the kettle. ‘The water is nice and hot; it only boiled ten minutes ago!’ Thanks, I said, I’ll just head over and, um, switch the kettle back on then. ‘No, no! It is already good! It just boiled, only ten minutes ago!’ I quietly insisted, ‘I’ll just… pop the kettle back on a second… y’know, to get it boiling again.’ At this my ex’s mother laid down her arms, and my mug. Sensing my curious intractability on this point, and looking utterly bewildered, she declared that it would be better if I made the tea myself, what with my being British and all.

Now, listen: I want to stress that I was at pains throughout this entire interaction to communicate my general biddability and easy-going nature. I really wasn’t trying to pick a fight with my then ‘in-law’ (of sorts); far from it: I was happy to see them and I was grateful for their hospitality. I also chose tea simply because coffee would have kept me awake. I also hadn’t gone into that situation with any particular preconceptions of the French and their strange, tea-making ways, but I simply could not countenance drinking tea from a bowl (of any size) made with lukewarm water.

That’s not tea: that’s a footbath, perhaps, or maybe a medical preparation for the treatment of haemorrhoids, but tea? No. My reactions were instinctual; I could no more drink tea from a bowl than I could order a kir royale in my local pub: I was genuinely at a loss to understand how these otherwise worldly, middle-class people from a supposed food-and-drink-loving nation could get it so wrong with something as simple as a cup of tea.

After that day, it became an unspoken agreement that I would make my own cups of tea since I was clearly particular in the matter, and the only person drinking tea, which was apparently an entirely different matter from drinking herbal tea (an infusion, as the French call it). The occasional group drinking of infusions was a matter of some ceremony, and a great deal of slowness; again, inexplicable to my British make-it-fast-make-it-hot-make-it-strong mentality (can such a dictum have any wider application? The 34-year old loose woman in me wonders) that involved the drawing-down of the boîte d’infusions and a lengthy hesitation between the equally delicate pleasures of tilleul and verveine.

On a subsequent visit I did in fact witness one of my ex’s friends drinking some non-boiled – though highly stewed – tea from a bowl, and, adding insult to injury, dipping all manner of things not suited for tea-dipping into it. Here in the UK, we know that the only acceptable things to dip into tea are biscuits: Rich Tea is best; Nice biscuits are nice, and chocolatey Hob-Knobs are acceptable, if messy, in moments of national and personal crisis. But this was all sorts of culinary items, both sweet and savoury! Baguettes spread with butter and jam and cold meats, oh my. Not at all my cup of tea.

I also have a long-running beef (not beef tea, that’s a whole other kettle of fish) with the various Francophone hospitality establishments (Switzerland, I’m looking at you) that persist in serving ‘tea’ that doesn’t, in fact, have any tea in it. There is probably no more annoying thing for a British person than to come down to breakfast, in desperate need of their morning cuppa, only to find that the teapot delivered so assiduously to their breakfast table, and which they have duly left to ‘brew’ for some minutes before serving, in fact contains nothing more than a quantity of water of questionable hotness. This is not tea! The teabag (or tea leaves) is not an optional extra, and cannot be added to the water some several minutes after the water has boiled. And if the teabag is on the other side of the room (as sometimes it is) and I have to leave my table and my warm water to go and fetch myself a teabag, then frankly you have not in any sense served me a cup of tea, and I am wholly absolved of any legally binding contract to pay for it.

For the British, these things matter. Strength and clarity of flavour is paramount when it comes to black tea, that little thing that we get so right even where (for reasons of our early industrialisation and brutalised working-classes, and our particular national experience of WW2, all rations and tinned food) we get other things wrong. (To my Gallic friends who would think to start saying something about British bread at this point, I have only one thing to say to you (and I will say this only once): the ubiquitous, normalised drinking of le lait sterilisé, what’s that about?).

Black tea is, for my money, best served in a sturdy mug that keeps the heat in and delivers a satisfying quantity of our national beverage: while I am aware of the existence and unarguable lineage of teacups, I do not personally believe it is really possible to enjoy a good cup of black tea, in the modern British style, in a vessel that is better suited for the serving of gin in hipsterish fauxhibition-style joints in Shoreditch. Let me put that in a way that will be better understood outre-Manche (from where I’m sitting): a little bit like drinking Champagne from a teaspoon, it may be possible to drink good tea from a teacup, but only in defiance of the structural limitations of the situation, and by no means because of it. Black tea is made with boiling water, which means dropping everything (bar the kettle) to pour the water onto the leaves the very moment that the kettle boils. Yes, I hear you say: coffee-making is different, and requires a lower temperature so as not to burn the coffee; and making other kinds of tea (such as green tea) may also be made differently.

But these are matters that need not concern us here. My point, I hope, is clear. As forbidding and authoritarian as I may sound, the very model of the peevish British nanny, I do this only so that our French neighbours may come to know the revivifying pleasures of the morning cuppa, the office tea-break, the cup of cha, the afternoon tea, tea-time, high tea and indeed all the many and varied times and places in which we love to drink tea. Put the kettle on, love. I fancy a brew.