Thursday, 27 September 2007

Tea'd Off

What does it take to get a decent cup of tea around here? Three weeks in this country (three weeks today, in fact) and so far I've been sluicing an underwhelming gray beverage down my throat. Not that I blame anyone other than myself. I fall into a stupor when confronting the tea aisle in a British grocery store. So many different brands to choose from! So why have I always chosen so poorly?

We were occasional tea drinkers back home in the States, preferring--like most of our countrymen--the bitter tang of the coffee bean to the sublime kiss of the tea leaf. The house we're renting in Oxford is not equipped with a proper coffee maker. There is a French press. That primitive contraption undoubtedly has a smaller carbon footprint than the Krups drip-filter machine we have back home but there's something fussy and fey about it. And that name, "French press": It sounds like some kinky sex act you'd get in Pigalle.

But we shouldn't be drinking coffee anyway. We're in England, the Land of the Cuppa, that obligatory goblet of multi-purpose liquid over which Britons relax, dish, kvetch, commiserate and ruminate. And while British coffee-making technology may be sorely lacking, the British excel at the science of instantaneous water heating. Every home in the United Kingdom is equipped with an electric kettle (below, right) that can turn cold tap water into superheated steam in about 8.5 seconds. Frightening, really.

The first tea we bought was something called Sainsbury's Fairtrade Tea. Drinking it--imagine warm water with just a hint of grass clippings--I was reminded that whenever I let my conscience be my guide ("Fair trade? Well that'll be better for the environment") I'm disappointed. Clear cut the forests, I say, if it means a tasty cup of tea.

Next we tried Twinings Classics Traditional English Tea. It was better-- Classics and Traditional!-- but it wasn't the transporting experience I was hoping for. What do I want in a tea? I guess I want something dense and chewy, the kind of tea you can stand a spoon up in. We've been told that we need to try PG Tips. People call it "builder's tea," the sort of strong tea that the lower classes supposedly prefer.

Tea has been in the news here. I read a story yesterday in The Times about how the United Kingdom Tea Council got its knuckles rapped for exaggerating the health benefits of tea in a series of ads. Guess what: Drinking four cups of tea a day isn't really as good for you as eating five servings of fruits and vegetables, as one ad may have suggested.

The Advertising Standards Authority's full report is sort of fun to read, if a little dense (and chewy?). The UK Tea Council provided all sorts of studies to supports its health claims--"antioxidant" this and "flavonoid" that--but the ad police pointed out that two of the studies were funded by the tea barons. One study even said "the quality of the studies now available is insufficient to draw firm conclusions."

I think it would be fun to work at the Advertising Standards Authority, debunking outrageous and misleading claims. The ASA released nine other reports yesterday, smacking everyone from the Body Shop (the effects of moisturizer are superficial, not physiological) to a home furnishings store whose television commercial showed a wife slapping her husband. "[We] considered," wrote the authority, "that the woman's action in [the ad], of slapping her husband twice as punishment for leaving the toilet seat up, gave the impression that aggression and violence enabled people in everyday life to get their own way."

And of course that isn't true. Aggression and violence never solved anything. But if I don't get a decent cup of tea soon, I won't be responsible for my actions.


Paul said...


Try ordering a selection of samples from the Copeland & Shaw tea company

My wife and I are from Arlington, VA and we were introduced to this company whilst visiting the Thomas Oaken tea room in Warwick last Christmas.

If you want to try a cup of builder tea in an Oxford cafe try Browns in the Covered Market or St Giles cafe in St Giles.

suburbancorrespondent said...

Well, now I am coveting your teapot, or whatever you want to call it. Those appliances are available in the US, but the citizens of this fair land are so coffee-besotted that the beauty of an appliance which heats water quickly and efficiently is overlooked. I had one - it was amazing. You could even lift it up like a real teapot, because the cord was attached to a special detachable base instead of to the pot. And then I broke it. I turned it on while it was empty and that was the end of the story (okay, these appliances can be a tad temperamental at times). My husband went out and found me another one and wrapped it up and gave it to me for Christmas and .... I hate it. Its plug protrudes from its posterior and it is short and squat. It is so far inferior to what I had before (and to what I see pictured on your blog) that I resist using it. And we can't find the nice kind anywhere.

Good to get that off my chest. I'm off to turn on the darn thing without any water so I can throw it out without hurting my husband's feelings.

Henrik said...

PG Tips is the preferred brand. Buy PG Tips loose tea (i.e. not teabags) and experiment until you find the desired strength. I personally prefer nail polish remover-level strength and no milk, but to each his/her own.

Richard said...

I have never, never, never (to my knowledge) kvetched, at least not in public, and anyway there weren't any witnesss. At least none that would speak. In a court, at any rate.

What's a kvetch? Some sort of boat with a special number of masts and sails?

John Kelly said...

Yes, Richard, a kvetch is a ketch with five masts, or as the Romans said, "V."

Paul and Henrik, thanks for the suggestions. And SC, Ruth almost did the same thing to our kettle the other day. Instead of breaking the pot, it blew a circuit breaker. We live on the knife's edge here.

Marc Naimark said...

I recall seeing a story on TV about a British tea company having to reformulate all it's products for the French market. Basically, the UK formulations were too strong, too coarse, and without any delicacy. Which is why the British tend to take their tea with milk and sugar, while the French take it with sugar, and occasionally with lemon. It came down to the fact that British teas in France were better than British teas in the UK.

Can send care package if you wish.

John Kelly said...

Interesting. I think the Gallic delicacy would be lost on me. And I have another problem, one that I didn't reveal in my original posting: I only drink decaf tea these days. It's a legacy of the heart attack I had six years ago. My doctor said to avoid caffeine. Several people have said there's no hope of getting a "real" cup of tea if I stick to decaf. The PG Tips decaf we just bought seems to come closest so far to what I had in mind.

Anonymous said...

The heck with delicacy. Your problem is that you're drinking decaf tea, which is dishwater. Go ahead and drink the high-test stuff, because the steeping process for tea is nothing like as caffeine-extracting as the brewing process for coffee. Ask your doctor if you don't believe me.

Anonymous said...

I am in possession of one of those kettles, complete with detachable carafe and plug-in base.

It belongs to my AA group.

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