Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Tea: a way of life

It’s a late British Summers day. I am in Carrickfergus, just northeast of Belfast.  The morning sun is glaring through the windows of my girlfriend’s family home, and I am in the kitchen preparing a cup of tea for her. As I stand here looking out over the lush green garden, keeping an eye out for Freddy the Frog, the kettle clicks off. The sound whisks me away from my daydream and I turn to prepare the teapot. As I fill the aluminum pot with a splash of boiling water, it hit me. Tea, as the Brits know it, isn’t just a drink. It is a staple of our culture. Tea is a way of life.

The perfect cuppa. Look at that colour!

Tea Time

Tea... Tea, tea, tea. It is quite simply the best drink on the planet. When Brits say tea, they don’t mean herbal tea, for when we want herbal tea we will ask for “herbal tea, please.” No, when any member of the British public asks for a “cup of tea,” a “cuppa”, a “brew,” or just simply “tea,” they mean, “Give me a cup of black tea, with some milk, and possibly a few sugars.” You see, it’s the perfect recipe, the perfect combination of flavours and textures, and it just makes any situation better. The reason why it works so well, why it is so popular is due to the easy adaption of the recipe. Why? You can make a good cup of tea with any balance of the three main ingredients. However you look at it, at the end of the day, you can’t make a bad cup of tea.

The cuppa can take many different forms, all depending on the balance and blend of ingredients poured into your cup, and they all have a name, too.

Builders Brew or Spider’s Piss?

I’ll start with the weakest cup of tea, Spider’s Piss. This kind of cuppa is simply the first lot of tea poured from the pot. As it is poured first, the strength of the tea is weak because it hasn’t lingered near the tea bags and hasn’t had time to begin stewing. Due to the weakness of the tea, Spider’s Piss is very light and has no colour to it, so when you add the milk there is a more milky texture and taste to the tea. Do you want tea with that much milk?

Next you have the standard Cup of Tea. This form of cuppa is the perfect blend of well brewed tea and just enough milk to give it that creamy texture, but not enough to impose on the taste of the tea. It is the most popular form of tea and people generally take it without sugar, but I know a few who take one sugar... well, now and again they do.

Finally you have Builder’s Brew. This is my favourite. Builder’s Brew is simply the bottom of the pot, the strongest of the strong, the dregs, and you take it with nothing but a splash of milk and lots of sugar; in my case, two. This form of cuppa gets its name from all the tradesmen and workmen of the UK, in honour of all the long lasting roadworks they provide us with.

Yorkshire tea, my favourite
Slurp it

There is a ritual that surrounds tea preparation. It is the solution to most of life’s problems, and every British family takes part in it. We prepare it like no other nation. We drink it, slurp it, sip it like no other culture. Most importantly, it brings people together like no other drink can. In the British household, making tea isn’t just putting a tea bag into a cup, pouring boiling water over it, and then just adding milk, no, no, no, no, no. Making a cup of tea is much more than that. It all starts with the call up.

“Who’s for a cuppa?”

The tea process begins with the all too familiar call of “Who’s for a cuppa?” At this point every member of your family, and any guest in your house at that time, will immediately stop what they’re doing, look up with intrigue, and... well, say “Yes please.” If someone says “No,” you simply ask them over and over again until the pressure is too much, they crack, and say “Yes please.”

It has begun. You go into the kitchen, pick up the kettle, fill it with water, and place it on either your hob, or if you use an electric kettle, flick the switch. At this point in time it is guaranteed that a member of family, a friend, a guest, or whoever else is in your house at that point will come in and offer you a friendly helping hand.

The second stage begins... A little natter... I mean, Preparation. A cup of tea can be made by one person... Yeah right! 99% of the time it is made by two; In my opinion it is more fun with two, as you can dance around the kitchen and be all limbsy! Now there are an infinite number of reasons why a double act is better when making a cup of tea. First off, better cups of tea will be made, and second, it builds on any relationship and makes it stronger. Where do you think the the business world stole the whole “working as a team” mindset from? Eh?

The jobs are halved you see, with one person managing the sugar, milk, biscuit, mug, and cup gathering; An important job! While the other’s job is to ready the tea pot for when the kettle has boiled. It sounds silly but believe me... the real deal is about to happen.

A little side note to couples out there. When making tea in my flat, my Girlfriend and I make tea together, as it allows for interesting “tea talk” or a nice “chin wag.” We discuss life, current events, how good or shite the day was, or simply obliterate the things we hate verbally until they are... Well... I think we normally kill them... Whoops. They say you have found the one when you hate all the same things, right?

Stage three begins. Now this is where all the fun starts. The kettle has whistled, rang, clicked off, or in some households is currently burning away on your stove top because your whistle is broken, you’ve left the kitchen, forgotten about it, and now you have just ruined your third kettle... THIRD KETTLE!!!???

Sorry for the sidetrack there, but it is pretty bloody traumatizing to see a flaming ball balancing perfectly on your parents’ gas hob..... Right where the kettle was.... Ten minutes ago.... Bollocks.

Anyway, the water is boiled, and you pour a small amount of water into your teapot (aluminum ones are the best; my girlfriend’s family turned me onto this gift from the gods). Of course, an experienced tea maker is still listening, and or talking as they do this all of this. You then swill out the tea pot, place THREE! IT HAS TO BE THREE! tea bags into your pot, and pour your boiling water all the way up to the... STOP! Almost to the top. The other person, in the meantime, has placed a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar, the appropriate number of mugs, and a plate or tin of biscuits, cakes, or Veda bread on the table; the Veda only applies to the Northern Irish. Again experienced tea makers are still heavily invested in tea talk here.

What’s up Duck?

During all this preparation the two tea makers have dissected a current event, a political problem, a modern day issue; one of my favourites is the economy. They have debated the who’s, what’s, and the why’s, and within that ten minute period have managed to solve the issue flawlessly... So why do we need this bunch or corduroy, toffee nosed, tory prats leading us? Who the hell knows?

Sometimes, however, the conversation can been a simple “Tell us about your day ducky?” Where you go into a rant about the queues at the bank, the bastard in the BMW cutting you off, or simply that you couldn’t wait to get home to see the one you love, because that lot out there, out in that big, bad, scary world, are complete and utter... Well I’ll let you be inventive on this one.

Preparing tea may sound stressful, but it is one of the most calming things you can take part in. It is in fact therapeutic, both in the conventional sense because you’re talking to someone you love, someone close to you, someone who understands you, and in the unconventional sense because you’re just letting loose, going crazy, limbsy, and being you. At the end of the day you are in your kitchen, in your space, and you are making what is about to be a brilliant cup of tea. You’re  relaxed, you know you can handle this, and you are about to be showered with compliments from those nearest and dearest about “What a great cup of tea this is!”

Everything’s Under Control

When all the tea is made, the table is set, and the biscuits are out, it is time to make the biggest decision of the day... “So, where are we sitting?” On this occasion and on most, we take it in the kitchen.
At this point in time everyone sits down and pours their tea how they like it. They add their milk and their sugar, and take whatever treats tickle their fancy... But... Hang on... How am I meant to choose? Teatime may not be stressful, but without a shadow of a doubt, this is definitely a very distressing couple of minutes. It’s hard to get the right biscuit to match your tea because certain biscuits just go with certain ways you take your tea. You need to pick wisely, and I can’t stress that enough. Of course the other “problem” is that the selection of biscuits and cakes is so grandiose you just can’t choose, but... it’s hard.

The biscuit, cake, and if you live in Northern Ireland, bread selection that accompanies a good cuppa is... Well, to be perfectly honest... Like no other. It is just great. In terms of biscuits you have Digestive biscuits, chocolate Digestives, HobNobs, custard creams, bourbons, short bread, and ginger biscuits. For cakes you have the Jaffa Cake, Battenburg cake, Angel cake, Carrot Cake, Cherry Bakewells, Jam Tarts, and Lemon Slices. Finally for breads, well you have my favourite Veda Bread, then you have Wheaten Bread, Scones, Tea Cakes, and Hot Cross Buns. These are your choices on a good day... So can someone please tell me how this isn’t stressful? No wonder the Mad Hatter went mad at his tea party.

Job’s a Good’n

After everyone is sitting down comfortably, tea poured, treat picked and ready to eat, you remember why exactly you suggested making a cuppa in the first place.

You see as the tea is slurped, sipped, gulped, and the treats are whoofed, nibbled, or even untouched, it isn’t just the occasional bit of food that flies from someone’s mouth due to an intense debate or a laugh, but it’s the thought provoking statements that also spur from mouths, it’s the stories of past times that are rekindled, and the occasional tear that falls because you’re pouring your heart out about something good or bad. These are the reasons you make a cup of tea, to be brought together, to share in one another’s great company.

I have been in hysterics around the kitchen tables and four piece suits of those I love during a good cuppa. I have wept with laughter, debated until a compromise or a conclusion was reached. I have kissed the woman I love over a cup of tea, I have shed tears into my tea because my family went home and “put the kettle on” right after my Uncle died. You name it, I have felt it over a cuppa and I see no shame in that.

Just the other week when I started this article I was in Northern Ireland at my Girlfriend’s family home, I will say honestly that I was still slightly nervous as two weeks with me can be hard, but now I can say that those two weeks were two of the best of my life so far. I bet you can guess why too. It was because we spent at least an hour every day sat around drinking tea and talking. You see, tea brings people together. It was over a cup of tea that I started my relationship with my girlfriend. It was on a dreary Monday afternoon when I made the most daring and brave move of my life. I decided I was going to ask the girl from across the hall in my tenement block if she’d like to come over and have a cup of tea... she said yes, and we still laugh that it was a cup of tea that changed everything and started our relationship.

The British Way

This is why we, the people of the British Isles, sit down for a cuppa. We sit down and drink this wonderful drink as an excuse to simply enjoy one another’s company. We gab about this and that, about “What wall paper to use where,” discuss politics and how the government still doesn’t help the common man, and about how life is for us personally. We use words we didn’t even know we knew to describe how the world has worked out for us just once, but this once was the most important once. We talk about how the world has gotten us down, and we share and receive the loving advice of how to get back up, dust yourself off, and listen to how “They will be there for you no matter what.” That is why we sit down for a cuppa, because it is a sneaky way for the British, with their stiff upper lips and pride to uphold, to get personal, and to let those who actually matter inside those heads of ours and help out.

My girlfriend once told me “The people I will invite to the wedding will be the people who know how I take my tea.” The ones who really know you, love you, care about you, are the ones who know how you take your tea. They are the nearest and dearest because they have taken the time to learn, to correct themselves over and over again, to learn from the mistake of adding too much milk or too little, to sacrifice their untouched tea because they have buggered up the one that was meant for you, and they take that one instead. The ones who love you have watched you prepare your own tea in the morning, or at the table, they are the ones who will lay down their own spoon to make your cuppa before anyone else’s, including their own.

I hope you lot over the pond enjoyed the rant, and I hope, in some way, I have managed to help you understand why we Brits love our tea so very much. Ta ta for now.

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