On this very day 250 years ago this country began a process that gained it independence but lost a most precious commodity that I’d like to re-introduce to the folks of these former British settlements.
I know we all know all about tea, but we don’t.
Those colonists in Mohawk war bonnets who tipped all the precious buds into Boston Harbor that Sunday were Yankees, of course. Southerners would have dumped tons of sugar in with it, perhaps a squirt of lemon, too.
Folks down in Dixie put tea in their sugar. Swee-ee-eet. One taste will put a smile on your face that’ll take a month to shake off. Rictus-like.
And why ice it? Tea really should be drunk hot, even in summer where a steaming cup on a sweltering day will actually cool you down. The man who discovered this interesting paradox was Earl Grey, a British prime minister whose name is now on one of the aromatic types. One that – so sorry to disappoint – real tea drinkers never touch.
You can buy the earl’s redolent elixir over here. Oh yes, along with Lipton, Red Rose, Bigelow’s and other brands of that anemic stained water Americans have come to know as tea. But none of it really is. Being almost tasteless it actually should be termed “a hint of tea”.
There’s a simple reason for this which I’ll explain in a minute.
What happened at the Boston Tea Party is that the Brits saw through those flimsy Red Indian disguises immediately: maybe the warpaint looked a tad too Sherwin-Williamsy. They decided then and there that because Americans were such naughty boys, tossing tea in the sea and all, they wouldn’t be sending the good stuff over here any more. Forcing us now to buy a supermarket’s bland brand or one of those snobby choices, variety packs, and “classic collections” of perfumed sipping juices.
Meanwhile around the globe they’re guzzling great, strong, tasty tea served up by the grace of God and the British Empire. Those who consume the most per capita are the Irish, but it’s also a national beverage in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa… It’s the world’s most drunk drink. Need I go on?
While the rest of America must settle for one brand or another of what the Brits would call “gnat’s piss”, local folks who’ve been to our house know different. And here’s the gen:
The real stuff can be had. For the technically-minded it’s orange pekoe, a nicely-oxidated medium black blended from plants in Assam, Kenya and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but beware! Its regular name, English Breakfast Tea, is also used by companies turning out feeble domestic imitations – the equivalent of paperback editions.
Some bird-doggin’ back in a grocery store’s hidden crannies may turn up a small pack of Tetley or Ty-Phoo, perhaps Ireland’s pride, Lyons, in the red-and-green box. Or even the one in the other package sporting the same colors but bearing the name PG Tips. This is the brand whose commercials, adored by the Brits for 45 years, featured chimpanzees in street clothes having party after riotous party with tea and fairy cakes. Made by Brooke Bond, this is the runaway favorite worldwide, and the one Americans who’ve visited England rave about. Some even say they’ve switched to it from coffee.
One lady tried and loved it after seeing a photo of this brand in Prince Charles’ office. But PG Tips and its peers are actually what’s called working class teas, “char”, unpretentious, unadulterated by oils and fancy spices. Never bitter, just a straightforward drink that’s a staple at the truck stops, known in Britain as transport caffs or snack – some say “snake” – bars. You step inside, lose your footing on the greasy floor, stumble and if you’re lucky you land in a chair. Then you order a “cuppa”.
That will be one of three billion cups downed that day, not all English black tea because in China they also serve oolong and a few prefer green. But once you go black…
When I left school I worked on construction sites in and around London and at one time they made me the cook. Duties included chasing rats out of the frying pan and brewing the tea – which was made in a ten-gallon steel pail. A little different from the widespread notion in this country that that tea drinkers outside the “icy” South take dainty little sips of aromatic brews from delicate little demitasse cups.
Why is this tea so much better than the American type? It’s to do with the tips.
Brooke Bond uses only the buds and the top two rows of leaves from the plant. Period. The other regular British Isles brands similarly clip only the newest and smallest flushes from the tea tree. Then, for the rest it’s the lower leaves, medium grade, which real tea drinkers deem only one step above sawdust. And by real tea drinkers I mean everyone from royals like Charles to common laborers like me.
Read the reams of American praise on Amazon.com, which is where you can also get PG, Lyons, Tetley and Ty-Phoo I buy 480 tea bags for $34 which computes to 7c a tea bag but there’s also 40 for six bucks.
Ah yes, the tea bag. Invented in New York over a century ago and perfected in, of all places, tea-tossing Boston. The toffee-nosed purists who insist on brewing loose tealeaves – with one extra spoonful ‘for the pot’ – have now given up the fight.
For the fullest flavor use a porcelain or bone china cup but a mug will do: warm it first, put the bag in. It’s imperative to then pour fiercely boiling water onto it and prod it a dozen times or so: watch the color darken. Then place a saucer over the top to keep in the heat and let it steep for a couple minutes.
The above is vital to avoid getting the tasteless fluid called Hospital Tea, as served to patients too weak or sick to protest.
Add whole milk until the color has shed its “metallic” appearance. Sugar also, most folks using two spoonfuls. I take one.
Invite your friends over for a cuppa and a natter, and lay on some fairy cakes too. That’s what they used to do at the London Zoo with some lucky chimpanzees dressed in everyday clothes. And for 45 years PG Tips used the chimps’ party theme in Britain’s longest-running TV commercials.
A tea party with real tea has nothing to do with politics; there are no Mad Hatters and March Hares waving mis-spelled anti-government slogans. So c’mon you coffee-quaffin’ Yanks. It’s tea time.
© 2013 Fred Wehner is a mainstream journalist. He was a reporter and sub-editor with the Daily Mail in London before setting up and running the New York News Agency, providing news and features to daily and weekly publications worldwide. He lives in Georgia.