• Rob Butterfield


A very British tradition.

Tea - it's quintessentially British! Photo by Rob Butterfield.

What is it with us Brits and our obsession with tea? It’s not even a British invention; the history of tea is long and complex, spreading across multiple cultures over the span of thousands of years. I won’t go into detail here, there’s plenty on the internet about the history of tea should you care to look it up. In summary though, it’s most definitely a Chinese invention. The British Empire were responsible for the massive growth of tea production in India in the early 19th century courtesy of the East India Trading Company and we kind of adopted it as our national drink. Interestingly, the famous British tea brands such as Liptons, Tetley, Twinings and Typhoo are now owned by Indian tea companies!

Historically, tea has been an integral part of Britain's global trade, contributing in part to Britain's global dominance at the end of the eighteenth century. Tea, somehow, has become more than just our national drink though. To this day tea is seen worldwide as a symbol of 'Britishness' – it’s an essential part of our culture. But why is that?

It seems to be the cure-all for those stressful moments in life. On how many occasions have the words “I’ll put the kettle on” bought calm and clarity to the most challenging of situations? It’s become an integral part of how we deal with almost anything and everything. Happy, sad, whatever the weather, tea is always there as a source of comfort. Business meetings simply don't function without tea being served and our builders/tradesmen can’t attend a job without the offer of a cuppa - it’s like an unwritten law in the industry!

Tea is also the cause of many a heated debate across the country. What is the ‘correct’ way to make tea? Milk first, water first, tea bag, loose tea, in a pot, cup or mug… the options are endless and hotly contested. Do you let your tea brew or ‘draw’ naturally or like me, do you swish the bag around in a cup with a spoon to eek out the flavour quickly? I know one thing, I’ve had many a cup of 'cha' ruined by careless making… and that is unforgivable!

It’s not just how you make it though, there is also the consideration of which tea you choose to make. Not just the brand – advertising has done a wonderful job of bringing tea brands to the forefront. We all know and love the Tetley Tea Folk and as for those PG Tips Chimps of the 70’s and beyond… “Cooee Mr Shifter!/Do you know the piano’s on my foot?/You hum it son and I’ll play it!” – classic! (sorry, I’m off on one!). Back to my point, which particular blend or type do you choose? Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam, herbal infused, white, oolong? We really are spoilt for choice.

These days I prefer my tea of the green variety (I’m harping back to its Chinese roots I guess) normally with the inclusion of jasmine or lemon and with no milk, of course. That said, I still recall my best-ever cup of tea being served on Scarborough Pier whilst on a ‘lad and dad’ weekend away with my son. He remembers it too, it was a real moment in time etched in our memories forever. That’s the power of the humble cuppa. It was strong and sweet – Yorkshire in a mug, bloody lovely! We returned a few years later and hoped to repeat the experience but were sadly let down by a weak and weedy brew.

Afternoon tea is a strange phenomenon when you consider that we drink tea all day, every day. I guess what makes it special is the perfect accompaniment of cake or sandwiches, or both – two things that we eat all too regularly as part of normal everyday life. But put them together with tea and it’s big business and often seen as a treat. Bettys of Harrogate is a world renown tourist attraction, considered by many as the ultimate British tea room. I’ve been there and done the whole afternoon tea thing – it’s wonderful. Yet, in reality, it’s just a humble cuppa with some familiar sides served up with a certain panache and style. It’s genius and the tourists can’t get enough of it!

And, of course, there is tea and biscuits. To dunk or not to dunk? Dunk most definitely… but then what do you dunk, what is the perfect dunking biscuit? There have been scientific studies – I kid you not – scientific studies on the perfect dunking biscuit. Taxpayer money invested in finding out which is the best small baked unleavened cake to pop in our brew. It’s mad, but we don’t mind because it’s important. It’s a British thing and if you’re not British you just won’t understand how important it is.

For the record, my top dunker? The custard cream, or the humble ginger biscuit. I’m partial to a digestive too but it all depends on the brand. Some are just too, well, absorbent and will end up as a sludgy mess at the bottom of your cup – and none of us want that! Oh, and what is the etiquette for rescuing a droopy biscuit from a steaming tea abyss? Yes, we’ve all been there, that moment when the sodden clump falls, slow-motion like, into your freshly brewed elixir. Are you straight in with your fingers, braving the burn to minimise biscuit contamination in your brew? Or do you head for the spoon and scoop it out whilst cursing the confounded bake? Or just leave it and approach the last sips with caution?

The extraordinary thing here is that you all, without exception, completely understand these strange little quirks that I’m talking about! And maybe that's why tea is such an integral part of our culture. We all completely get that it is more than just a drink; it's so much more than that.

So, there you have it. Tea, a very British tradition. Now I’m off to put the kettle on – anyone fancy a cuppa?

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