On Being British and drinking tea


I’ve recently read Pretty Good Number One, a food memoir written by an American on his time spent in Japan. What struck me most was not the differences between US and Japanese cultures, but the similarities between the Japanese and English. Nowhere was this more abundantly clear than when it came to drinking tea. I did some internet research and was informed that although Americans think that they have tea, it’s not the same strength or flavour, they make it with hot (not boiling) water and don’t use milk. Is this true? Can any American readers let me know please?

Personally, I love a good cup of tea. It’s a much gentler way of getting a caffeine fix. A standard response to bad news in the UK is “I’ll stick the kettle on” – which translates to “I’ll make tea” (my internet research also suggested Americans don’t have electric kettles. Is this true? How do you boil water?) Tea is also a standard hangover cure, is given to people in shock and is a great restorative drink after a busy day.

Making tea can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. The easiest way is with a teabag in a mug, but for a fuller flavour you can use loose leaf tea in a teapot. Just to be clear, this is British (black) tea (commonly referred to as builders tea), not herbal, fruit, green or iced tea (I don’t even know what that last one is). There’s lots of different varieties of black tea but I’m going to show you how to make a standard cup of British tea.

First, you need a mug or a cup. Everyone will tell you that tea is better in a China teacup (that’s a cup made from China clay, which is actually British). No one in the UK below the age of 70 actually uses them though, unless you’re having afternoon tea in a nice cafe somewhere. We all use mugs, which are sturdier and can survive the dishwasher.

Below are a few pics of teacups that I’ve inherited from my grandma, and some of my own mugs:

Next, you need to find some tea, either loose or in a teabag:

If you’re using loose tea, you’ll need a teapot and strainer. If you’re using teabag you can add it straight to the mug. 

I have a collection of teapots that I’ve inherited from various relatives:

You’ll then need to add boiling water, either into your mug over the teabag or over the tea leaves in the teapot. I boil my water in an electric kettle, or you can use an old fashioned stovetop whistling kettle:

If you’re using a teapot, leave the tea to brew for a few minutes, then pour it into the cup through the tea strainer. If you’re using a teabag, poke it a bit to release the flavour, then discard. Add milk and sugar, if you want. (Black tea is almost always drunk with the addition of milk. Sugar comes down to personal preference). In all cases, stir. 

That’s it! A lovely cup of tea. Enjoy!

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