Monday, February 18, 2008

How Does One Make A Proper British Cup of Tea?

As if I don't have enough crap to be stressed over, I find new things to keep me up at night. For my American readers, this may sound silly but, serving tea makes me super nervous.
I don't think we (Americans) really know how invested the Brits are to the culture of tea. Well, maybe we did once back in 1776 in Boston when we decided to show them what they could do with their tea. But honestly, I don't think we have anything in our food culture that equates with British tea. I actually have dreams where I hear a repetitive, screeching voice asking "Cup o' tea?! Cup o' tea?!" much like Polly the parrot would mimick.

There is soooo much to learn about making a "proper cup of (British) tea". For example, while there is the popular notion to avoid over-processed, bleached foods like white flour and such--the Brits believe that only white, granulated sugar will do for tea.
"White sugar for tea; brown or otherwise for coffee," they say.

Jeez! here I was committing serious faux-pas by serving tea with raw, unbleached sugar.

Let me tell you...serving tea the "wrong" way will have people talking about you for YEARS to come. And heaven forbid you don't offer a guest in your home tea within 1 full minute of their arrival time. I believe you may have up until you've taken their coat and they've sat back fully into their seat to offer tea or else!
Apparently, my mother-in-law is still talking about how this person or that person from how many years ago didn't offer them a cup o' tea when they arrived at their home.

Even my freaking husband is somewhat ill-at-ease in the US when someone doesn't offer him tea.

We may offer you juice, water, a soft drink; maybe even coffee. But not tea. And I swear, I get the feeling that deep down, Andy finds it rude--even though he knows that tea culture is not apart of the American way. He is just the tiniest bit disturbed by it.

So, when we have company, I'm constantly stressed now about the damn tea thing! I welcomed them into our home. I take their coats. I show them to our couch. And before they can sit back and cross their legs, I press my face into a tight smile and mimick, "may I offer you a cup of tea?".

Despite doing this, and properly presenting white sugar, there are so many more RULES I still have to learn.

How long are you allow the hot water to sit in the kettle before pouring into a tea pot? How long to steep the tea? When to pour? Do you offer to pour or let your guest pour for themselves? Do we always keep a bit of whole milk in the house or will our guests' blow a blood vessel in their brains if we offer skim milk with their tea?

When I press people for answers on the dos and don'ts, they ALWAYS try to say that the stiff rules are of the past; this generation is so much more laxed about such formalities.
Uh huh. Yeah, right.
So, I just come from another angle and just ask what they'd prefer or not prefer...what their families prefer and little by little those DAMN RULES come flying out until they sound like water gushing out of a broken faucet.

My blood pressure is going up now...stressing me out just to even write about it.

I need to go lay down or something. This would be so much easier if they were addicted to crack or heroin. No stress there. The only rule is to just keep serving it up!

But if any Brits catch this post, please send me a list of the dos and don'ts for British tea.

I really need the help.


At Feb 21, 2008, 3:18:00 PM, Anonymous Helen said...

Yes, people I know have also cringed over how to make tea. When someone asked if they could make tea for me, I said sure, but knew that they would have problems since they had never done it before. There are certain rules, and even different sets of rule that people follow, but there are also the personal tastes of the individual to consider. This usually affects the amount of sugar and milk that you are to put in a cup of tea. If you put too much of one or the other, you might as well throw that cup out and start again because it won't taste right to that individual. So it might be best for you to stick with having people apply their own milk and sugar, until you are very comfortable with their tastes. And personal taste can also affect the strength of the tea in a cup. Some people like weak tea that hasn't steeped too long and others like it very strong. Concerning the strength of tea, if you are serving a pot to a group of people and some like it weaker than others, most of the time the first couple cups of tea that you pour will be the weakest from that pot.
A cup of tea is also affected by the size of the cup. If you are used to serving tea in a small or regular sized tea cup, then serving tea in a large 'big gulp' mug could cause problems because the proportions change. I think I prefer the small and regular size cups over the big mugs (they are after all more traditional)but in the US, big mugs are becoming more popular and I've noticed that I've had to adjust proportions.
I actually find that brown or raw sugar is good in tea. I don't use it a lot, but it gives a different flavor that's quite pleasant!
Have you come across the debate over whether you put the milk and sugar in the cup before or after you pour in the tea? Some say these are regional and social preferences.

Back to my friend who asked to make me a cup of tea, now she has made several and feels very confident in doing so. Now she won't let me make tea for myself because she thinks she makes it better than me!

At Feb 21, 2008, 5:47:00 PM, Blogger Peggy Brunache said...

Thanks as usual for your comments and observations and helpful hints. Yes, I have come across the question of whether the milk/sugar goes in the cup first. Yet again...more freaking issues to overcome!!

And by the way, I don't think you'll be allowed back into Britain if they find out that you actually prefer raw sugar in your tea over white, processed! In the meantime, I'll keep your secret for you.

At Feb 21, 2008, 9:03:00 PM, Anonymous Helen said...

Peggy- I can see you now mimmicking an English person saying, "May I offer you a cup of tea?". Pip pip!!!

At Feb 27, 2008, 6:50:00 AM, Blogger FUNKYBROWNCHICK said...

When I lived in England, I made homemade choc chip cookies and gave those to company. It went over well. When in doubt, you can always fall back on what you know!! ;)

At Feb 29, 2008, 10:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peggy, you should offer pate and whatever cold beverage in a very tall, very wet glass wrapped up with a napkin (or coffee filter, if you live in the Delinois house)


At Mar 3, 2008, 10:49:00 PM, Blogger Cat said...

Generally, one person (which might be you as hostess) will say "Shall I be mother?" and pour the tea for the group. It is up to the individuals to add their own milk and sugar, and no-one would expect you to keep full fat milk especially. (Adding the milk before the tea means the milk's heated as the tea's poured, so traditionally it would be done the other way round.)

At Mar 5, 2008, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Peggy Brunache said...

FBC, I have never found cookies that are as good as we have them back home. And I can't stand using the words "digestive biscuits" either. Just sounds too medicinal.
Pierre--way to show how Haitian you can be!
Cat-Thank you for the advice but there is no way in HELL that I will ever say "Shall I be mother?" Are you kidding me?? That just sounds....too weird!
NEVERNEVERNEVER...I'll just elect myself to pour and leave it at that.

At Mar 6, 2008, 5:23:00 PM, Anonymous Helen said...

Yeah, the 'digestive biscuit' sounds scary, but the chocolate covered ones (especially the dark chocolate) are yum yum yummy! You should also try Hob Nobs- similar but a little more crunchy. And they even make some digestives and hob nobs with a layer of yummy caramel under the chocolate. Cadbury fingers in milk, dark, and white chocolate are good. But yeah, there is not really a good chocolaty, chunky, chippy cookie over there- unless maybe you ask Jamie Oliver or Nigela Lawson to make one for you!

At Mar 6, 2008, 11:02:00 PM, Blogger Slutty McWhore said...

Peggy! I am a bad, bad, bad blogger friend. I'm sorry for not replying to your last email (and for not commenting about Ruben's pictures on Facebook - but that's because I couldn't access them. I don't understand this Facebook thingy). Forgive me! I will email you tomorrow, I promise!

Your post had me laughing out loud. While I do think that the older generation is far more hung up on the tea issue than people of my age are, I do have to say that I also find it somewhat disturbing that Americans don't understand tea culture.

It never fails to shock me when I order tea in a café here and they just give you a cup of hot water, and dump the teabag on the side of the cup. What the fuck? They're not even going to make it for me.

Worse still, you ask for tea, and they serve you fucking iced tea! Eh?!

Personally, I never offer anybody tea anymore, as they don't like it anyway, but I can remember one occasion in the beginning when I did. The guy started drinking the tea, but then got up to leave when the cup was still HALF FULL! He said he had something to do and needed to get going. I was actually surprised at myself, because I found that totally rude. An offer of tea isn't just about the beverage; for me, it's an invitation to take time out, to relax, to tell me about your day, to have a wee chat. You ABSOLUTELY CANNOT leave when the cup is half full. You cannot rush tea! OH NO NO NO! In fact, I would say you shouldn't even leave after one cup. Two would be polite!

PS/I'm thinking of starting up a blog in May for/by/about Scottish women and I was wondering if you'd like to contribute (because you're Scottish now!)? I haven't got a clue yet what format it would take but I thought I would start asking around now to find women who want to contribute.

At Mar 16, 2008, 1:49:00 PM, Blogger Terry said...


Welcome to Britain.
It might (or might not) surprise you to know most Brits just bung a teabag in a cup of boiling hot water. Then we add sugar and a bit of milk.
It's a bit boring.
Oh I like to dunk a chocolate rich tea biscuit in mine.
*howls of canned laughter ... oh you brits are soooo funny*


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