Rachel Laudan

English Tea

This post is in honor of the flood of stories about English tea provoked by today’s wedding.  I don’t have anything to say about the latter, since I see the Royals as an anachronism and a very pricey one at that.  But I do think of myself as something of an expert on the history of tea, the major meal of my youth.  So here’s a bit of a round up of pieces on tea, mostly mine.

Tamasin Day-Lewis is spot on in her Saveur piece on tea sandwiches.  The always wry and informative Old Foodie pondering  why cucumber sandwiches?  My response on how to make cucumber sandwiches that the Old Foodie kindly posted on her blog some years ago. Me on the sequence of English farmhouse meals in the 1950s, on an attempt to replicate Sunday tea in Guanajuato, on what teas were and the fact that they have vanished, and on bread and the problems of getting the right kind.

And finally, Sunday tea at my grandparents.  And no this was not upstairs, downstairs, no crowds of servants, my grandmother made the food and my mother or one of us children were sent to make the tea.




Tea was important when I was growing up in England, and nowhere more so than in my grandparent’s farm house. You can see it in the photo above taken in very early spring, everything still dun brown and grey green. The village street and front garden are hidden by the curve of the hill. The front of the house was added in the eighteenth century, the working part at the back went back hundreds of years before that. That’s the background. Now to tea.

Tea began with water. Water was the topic of much conversation in the family. Most of the the various aunts and uncles had their own springs for their farm houses. We did too for our farm house. These produced gorgeous, gorgeous water. But my grandparents had a problem. Mains water had come to the village and with its added chemicals it was deemed to be quite inadequate for drinking.  So they had had a well dug and an electric pump installed.

So step one in making tea was to turn on the small electric pump attached to one side of the old porcelain kitchen sink that looked out over the back farm yard. After a few gurgles, clear, fresh well water began to trickle out to be collected in the kettle. This took a while. The big kettle was put on the AGA to heat. This took a while too, partly because so much water was needed, partly because the well water was icy cold.

Step two while all this was going on was to assemble the tea equipment: large brown tea pot, tea cozy, water jug for topping up the tea pot, strainer for collecting tea leaves, slops bowl for throwing out tea dregs, sugar bowl, and milk jug.

Step three means backing up a bit. Milk was another problem. Not its availability. My grandparents always had at least a hundred cows in milk. But they were now all Friesians (Holsteins) because the British Milk Marketing Board paid by volume not fat content.

Well, now, we couldn’t drink that kind of milk, could we? So my grandparents had a dear little Channel Island cow that gave the most glorious rich milk. It was a bit of an indulgence, I realize in retrospect. An “old chap,” one of the farm workers who was now past heavy work, had to milk her by hand morning and evening. What the cost per pint can have been I cannot even imagine. At the time, though, she was a friend, to be greeted when she was walked up the village street, her big dreamy eyes, her slobbery tongue and muzzle, her black fringed ears.

By now the kettle was boiling.  The tea pot was rinsed out with boiling water to warm the pot. Then the tea caddies were taken down from the shelf over the AGA. My grandparents bought a selection of different teas from Stokes the grocer in the town three miles away. Depending on their preference for the day, different proportions were spooned from different caddies in a flat caddy spoon and added to the pot. Then came the boiling water, and water for the water pot too, and tea cozies to keep them warm.

Then the whole equipage was carried up the couple of steps to the breakfast room (they ate almost all meals in the breakfast room because the dining room filled up with farm paperwork).

We children sat on the bench under the endlessly fascinating prints of the Grand National showing horses falling about all over the place, and facing the fire on the other side of the room and the two miniature barrels one of port and one of brandy that we never got to touch. My grandmother sat at one end, everyone else sat in Windsor chairs around the table, never less than a dozen or so.

There was bread (and that was an even bigger story than water) and butter (hand churned from Channel Island milk), and scones (little flaky rounds, not the great dense hunks that now go by that name) with raspberry jam from the kitchen garden and clotted cream (thank you cow), and Victoria sponges. They had to wait.

With great ceremony, and much asking of preferences for milk and sugar, my grandmother poured tea into angular blue and white tea cups. Those who took milk got Channel Island milk. Not ideal even then, in my opinion. Thick gobs of cream rose to the surface, making it almost like a tea-flavored dessert. Once I had learned to drink it without milk it was clear and astringent and glorious.

Only then began the elaborate ritual of handing around the eatables, and we were expected to sit, and eat, and listen, and no getting up from the table.

Why tell this story? Nostalgia, of course. The fact that English farmhouse teas of the kind I assumed happened every Sunday without fail have yet to find their chronicler. The fact that stories like this show that just perhaps Elizabeth David is not the last word on how bad English food was. The fact that this quality of eating (and I know that high quality eating is usually located with dinner not other meals, but be that as it may) is not necessarily open. Only the rare visitor to England would ever have known that such teas existed, let alone be invited to participate. The fact that such quality is not  democratic, that it may mean pretty ghastly economic and social distinctions. The “old chap” for example did not eat like this. For all those reasons.


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12 thoughts on “English Tea

  1. Ken Albala

    This is a splendid story. And honestly, it has me craving a good cuppa right this moment. It’s funny how we ritualize certain meals, expecting exactly the same thing. Not dinner or supper, but the smaller simpler meals. Breakfast for me. Some people tell me the same about lunch. Must be a certain bread, exact fillings, etc. Must be a good book to be written on this topic. Ken

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Ken, thanks. Please do go and have a nice cup of tea but pass on the super creamy milk.

  2. Adam Balic

    Rachel, after reading this I had to wonder if the experience is less an English thing and more something common to British [Empire] farming families.

    My Mother’s family (moved to Australia from various parts of the UK between 1850 -1890) had a very similar ritual during my childhood. Maybe a little less formal though.

    The house-cow was a Jersey, and the scones were ‘proper’, never made with sugar, as the preserves and cream were sweet enough.

    The preserves were likely to have been different, fig, apricot or melon and ginger (home made), plum or strawberry from tins. Sandwich fillings would have been cold hogget with tomoto sauce, ham, tomato or cheese and onion (for my Grandfather only). Tea was made from loose tea from the caddy and was made from hot water from the kettle sitting on the wood stove. Water was from a rain water tank, no potable artesian water.

    Mind you, if my family had known yours they would have spoken about the decadence. Milk from the house-cow goes though the cream seperator, skim milk is used for the tea.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I think you are absolutely right about that Adam. I loved your memories. And I agree about the decadence of cream. This is the same grandmother who chided my “townie” aunt for giving cats milk–how would the farm survive the extravagance. And when we were sent to fetch milk from the dairy we were never allowed to take the cream from the top. It had to be stirred first.

  3. Adam Balic

    Thinking about it, teabags killed off the ritual in my family. Once anybody could make tea at anytime, what was the point of a ritualised tea making?

    I do remember that there use to be endless discussion about how long the tea had been brewing for/how many top ups of water/if it was stewed or not.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, tea bags are not the same. On one visit, my mother began asking “Why don’t Americans use tea bags?” instead of ¨Why do Americans use tea bags?” when I was making her tea. She changed to mugs instead of tea cups at about the same time.
      It was also, I think, a switch from dinner at midday to supper in the evening that demoted tea time. And in the late 60s and 70s it became fashionable to ask people to dinner and distinctly passe to ask them to tea.

  4. Adam Balic

    Worth pointing out that while scones were involved this isn’t a “Cream Tea” (which is increasingly being called “High Tea”). It is a proper meal.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Couldn’t agree more that it was a full meal. Last meal of the day in our household. I was going to make that point to Ken Albala who described it as a minor meal. Far from it.

  5. Jeremy

    Lovely story, full of telling details. For us, driving out of London in search of a “proper” tea was inevitably a disappointment. But then, older, teas became a very important reason to visit gardens open for The Yellow Book.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks, Jeremy. And not just for you driving out of London but for foreigners too. Very hard to get access to that kind of English food. And of course now it has vanished.

  6. maria v

    lovely story rachel!
    like many greek immigrant women, my mum used to collect fine bone china – i have inherited a complete set of royal albert teacups with their saucers, which has travelled from the UK to NZ, and then to GR; they sit in a dusty cabinet, as a remnder of my mum – and they have never been used, since mugs were well into use by the time we began making tea, altho i do own an old teapot that we once ised for tea leaves (but with the advent of tea bags, that is now also in disuse…)

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Maria. I have tea cosies that I shall never use stowed in a closet. So hard to part with these memories.

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