By upbringing, tradition and habit, I am what is commonly called a “tea belly”. At home, I drink tea almost continuously and when I am out and about often stop off at a handy cafe for more of the same.
Other nations tended to be mocking of the Englishman and his tea but more and more the supermarket shelves of Europe are coming to resemble those of our own dear Blighty in the proliferation of types and brands of tea on sale. Jolly good, too, I say.
Tea is a delicious and comforting drink, a sort of elixir. Around the world it is drunk in many forms and often treated as a delicacy for the more sophisticated palate. In Britain, it is a daily staple, sipped in the Hilton, slurped on the building site and guzzled during tea breaks in offices and factories the length and breadth of the land. If there was one thing that we British got right, and in which we lead the world, it is our expertise in, and affection for, Camellia sinensis.
My mother hailed from good Lancashire stock and knew the benefits of tea. There were none of your mamby-pamby Japanese tea-garden rituals for her: into a warmed pot she would toss a good quantity of ordinary tea – Typhoo was her favourite – and pour on boiling water from a well furred kettle, put on the lid and a tea cosy and let the tea brew. The dark brown liquor that emerged in due course was tempered (rendered potable, one might almost say) by the addition of milk. I was introduced to this magic potion from an early age and it has been a constant factor in my life ever since.
We didn’t have a fridge when I was growing up. In summer the milk bottles used to stand in a bowl of water to keep them cool. This didn’t work, of course, as the little white bobbles floating on top of the tea indicated only too clearly. My mother, with that expression of wide-eyed innocence which only mothers can assume when lying through their teeth “for your own good”, told me this was because the cows had moved to their summer pasture and the milk therefore tasted different. I gradually came to see through this pitiful artifice and conceived a hatred of sour milk that afflicts me still.
When I first became a vegetarian, my zeal knew no bounds and I decided to shift to soya milk in my tea. The problem with soya milk (apart from the taste which some find unpalatable) is that it tends to precipitate in hot liquids. Use it in tea or coffee and it is likely to sink and form a sludge at the bottom of the cup – evoking horrible memories of the sour milk of my childhood. There was only one thing for it: I had to give up milk and learn to drink tea black.
On top of the other admirable benefits of tea is the advantage that it is so easy to become a tea snob. A little learning goes a long way and you can make a good start by simply learning the names of the differences teas – Darjeeling, Celyon, Orange Pekoe, Lapsang Souchong, Russian Caravan Tea, etc. – and rehearsing the virtues of each at every opportunity until your audience’s eyes start to glaze over. Hours of fun. Then there’s green tea. Never forget to mention green tea. Normal tea, black tea, the sort we British love to guzzle with our breakfast, is fermented. Green tea isn’t. If you search the Web, you can find lots of information on why green tea is good for you and better than fermented tea. Material for mammoth eye-glazing sessions.
Unfortunately, the one thing that green tea lacks, and which green tea enthusiasts either keep quiet about or try to pass off as a benefit, is that it is low in caffeine. Drinking green tea is therefore rather like drinking non-alcoholic beer or eating low-fat cheese: there comes that moment when you have to ask yourself what the point of it is. I drank green tea for a couple of years but in the end went back to normal tea because I missed the all-important caffeine kick.
I am no longer quite the tea snob I used to be but I still love my tea. These days I use Sainsbury’s loose leaf Ceylon which I brew in the mug with one of those plastic filters. I am even less fussy when I drink tea outside: I’ll take whatever the cafe is selling though I have to say I have been impressed by the quality of the tea in most cafes. When I say “Black tea, please”, no one turns a hair: the habit of taking tea without milk has become much more common than when I was a kid.
“Doesn’t it keep you awake?” people ask. No, it doesn’t. I drink tea right up to the moment I put my head down on the pillow and I have never had trouble sleeping because of it. Tea is a consolation, a fortifier and a delight. The government should encourage tea drinking as it is a sociable habit, encouraging repose and gentleness. I would say it is the unsung foundation of our culture. If tea did not exist, we should have to invent it.