A Traditional Cup of Tea

A traditional British cup of tea is made in a teapot, usually made of china, but stainless steel or silver are alternatives. Most families have a number of pots, at La Selve, we have three; a small one for one or two people, a medium one, and a large one for the family and visitors.

The first step is to boil the water, it must be boiling. Then you warm (chauffer) the teapot; one or two centimetres of boiling water is enough to heat the pot. Warming the pot ensures that when water is added to the tea, it does not lose its heat. After about a minute, the base of the pot feels warm, and you’re ready to move on. The pot is emptied, and it’s time to add the tea.

The amount of tea depends on the size of the pot, the number of cups required, the type of tea you are using, and the way you like your tea. I like tea of average strength, and I use two teabags of ‘Twining’s English Breakfast Tea’ when I fill our small pot, which makes about half a litre, or a pint, of tea.

Pour in boiling water. If the water is not hot enough, or if the water loses its heat because the pot hasn’t been warmed, the tea will not give out its flavour. Then the tea must be allowed to ‘brew’ (infuser); it must be left for a few minutes, giving the tea long enough for it to give its full flavour.

The tea is then ready to pour (verser). We have an expression ‘to be mother’; traditionally it is mother who pours the tea, so ‘Shall I be mother?’ means ‘Shall I pour the tea?’

Now comes one of Britain’s biggest quandaries (un dilemme). Unless drinking Chinese tea or perhaps Earl Grey, most British people drink tea with a little milk. However, some people put the milk into the cup before the tea; others insist that it should be put in after the tea. Often it’s a just question of a family’s habit. Everybody agrees that the milk should be cold, and that the milk should be put into the cup, never the pot, but when to add it?

If you add the milk before you know the strength of the tea; that is, before you see the colour of the tea as you pour it, you may add the wrong amount. Too little (trop peu), and you can add more, but too much (trop) and the taste may be ruined. We always pour the tea first.

My younger brother’s family drink tea all day. At the weekend, the first pot of tea is served while he and his wife are in bed, and one by one the daughter and sons appear, sit on the bed and drink tea, while the plans for the day are discussed. This is followed by tea at breakfast, and ‘elevenses’, at about eleven o’clock. They may drink tea at lunch, but will certainly drink ‘afternoon tea’ at four o’clock. Yes, ‘le fif o’clock’ is drunk at four, and is usually accompanied by cake, sandwiches, scones or biscuits, or a combination of these. This routine may be punctuated by other pots of tea, if, for example they are thirsty, a visitor arrives, it’s cold, or if it’s hot; yes, hot tea does cool you on a hot day. Tea before they go out, or tea because they aren’t going out. Tea to wake them up or tea to help them sleep, even though, like coffee, tea also contains caffeine. They’re fond of (aimer) tea, not unusually so for a British family. In fact, it was their idea that I should write this blog!

Traditional British afternoon tea

A pot of tea takes a little time to prepare, it also needs a jug of milk, a tea strainer if you’re using ‘loose leaf tea’, sugar, tea spoons and of course, tea cups. Tea tastes better in a tea cup, but most tea is probably drunk from a mug, and there are advantages to mugs.

If you use a mug for your tea, you might not warm the mug. You might simply wait for the kettle to boil, putting a tea bag in while you’re waiting, add the water, wait a while for the tea to brew, probably not waiting so long as with a pot because you’re not using so much water. Then you remove the tea bag, add sugar if you wish, and off you go. ‘Off you go’, that’s the real advantage, you only use the mug, and it can easily be taken anywhere you wish, back to your computer, or workshop, or garden, back to wherever you were before you felt the need for tea. It’s convenient.

Like many British people, Julie doesn’t drink tea; she prefers infusions or coffee. Tea is not as popular in Britain as it was fifty years ago. Nevertheless, it can still be found in almost every household, and is drunk by some members of the family at some time during the day.