THOUGHTS ON TEA (and learning how to make friends with British people)
British people are obsessed with at least three things: apologizing to anyone and anything they bump into, glowering at you if you jump a queue and drinking tea.
Frankly, I didn’t know anything about high tea before stepping foot into the United Kingdom a few weeks ago. During college, I had always brewed and chugged whatever kind of tea they had left sitting out in the dining hall just to get through a long night of essay writing and procrastination. Given that I had never paid much attention to what kind of tea I was drinking, I didn’t quite get why people here seemed to be obsessed with the concept of afternoon and high teas: to me, the drink was just a more appealing source of caffeine than Red Bull or instant coffee.
To investigate, I dressed up a little nicer than my American standards would normally allow and ventured into the stodgiest, most expensive looking teahouse-type place I could find in London: Fortnum & Mason. The store, started decades before America even won its independence, gives off the posh air of a Neiman Marcus or Saks, but with dark wood and plush carpets in lieu of the brightly lit shiny surfaces that dominate American department stores. Fortnum also has a restaurant on its top floor known for its tea services, and so I trekked up the stairs to awkwardly stand by the menu board and take sneaky photos of it on my phone. (Only after heading home did I find out that you could, as one might expect, download the menu from their website.)
What I found out from my unnecessarily covert intelligence-gathering mission cleared up a lot of my American confusion: afternoon and high teas differ primarily not by the choice of tea served, but by the menu of foods that come along with it. At Fortnum’s, they offer two categories of tea: Classic Blend and Single Estate. The classics come in strong, light and aromatic blends that, much like wine, are paired to complement the food – or in the case of afternoon tea, tiny finger sandwiches, scones and tea cakes. Single estate teas come from around the world, but as the name suggests, they claim their provenance from one particular plantation or garden: no mixing involved.
High tea demands a heartier, savorier experience in which the dainty sandwiches of afternoon tea are swapped out for British classics like venison and blackberry pie or Dorset crab salad and Melba toast. According to my mentor at Oxford – who happens to be an American historian and has a bust of Abraham Lincoln in his office – high teas were served later in the day, around half past five or six, as a quasi-dinner for laborers and farmers who had already worked for most of the day and might have to return to the fields after recharging. (It’s blatantly ironic that high tea has now taken on a posh, upper class status, as evidenced by the £40 pricetag at Fortnum’s — that’s more than $60 for not even a full meal!).
And so, as a student on a limited budget with a paramount interest in inhaling food, I decided to make one of the more substantial menu items off Fortnum’s menu—and then bum a cup o’ tea from my British roommate to pull off an improvised high tea party. Naturally, I went for the most exotic sounding thing: Welsh Rarebit with Onion Marmalade. (Granted, for the first few minutes as I was searching for recipes online, I kept on typing “Welsh Rabbit.” Thank you, Google Autocorrect, for saving me a trip to the butcher.) Since “British organic mushrooms” were on sale at the store, I decided to throw some of those in, too.
NB: Mind you, grocery shopping in a foreign country – even one in which all the signs are in English – takes at least twice as long, because everything is categorized differently. Most all of the liquids I would consider sauces or condiments were split among several aisles, either as cooking aids, ethnic food, side condiments, pasta sauces and “Other Sauces.”
Also, getting around town on a bike (for the first time in 7 years) made for a particularly important revelation: if you have just bought eggs and want to keep them safe, don’t hang the bag from your handlebars; instead, secure them to your torso with saran wrap or, better yet, invest in a basket and put them in there. Bike Riding 101.
P.S. Eggs are sold at room temperature here. Who woulda thought?!
While I was in the kitchen, my British suitemate (from London) was sitting at the dinner table, sipping tea and reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. I got to know him while I was chopping onions, asking him about British people things (what’s your favorite tea?), tearing up (because of the onions) and then explaining to him that I wasn’t crying at something he had said. I learned that Americans are weird by British standards for thinking of Earl Grey as an everyday, wake-me-up-so-I-can-go-back-to-work tea, since British folk consider it more of a once-in-a-while, even special occasion blend.
The recipe, linked here with some of my notes, is straightforward, and it proved to be a hit amongst hungry graduate students otherwise faced with the option of wilty, fishy fish or overcooked steak in the dining hall (although that’s probably not the most discerning of crowds you’ll ever serve).
If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that food – even simple stuff like rarebit – is a powerful diplomatic tool, especially for the confrontation-averse, like me. After eating a slice of the cheesy bread I had made, my next-door-neighbor with whom I share a wall forgave me for singing too loudly to myself late at night (“What are you going to sing me to sleep with tonight, Patrick?” she always asks, a slight smile forming at the corners of her mouth). Food can help cement friendships, too. A fellow first-year graduate student turned to me after munching happily on some rarebit and said, in his French accent (as the French are wont to do), “You are my joyous and enjoyable friend, Patrick. Thanks for the food.”
This post is from my writing for #LetsLunch, a group of writers and food enthusiasts from around the world. Every month, we decide on a category of food, devise a recipe to make and then tell a story about our culinary adventures.
Check out more Let’s Lunchers’ high tea offerings at these links, too! High tea has spread all around the world, even though the Brits will always lay claim to being the originators.
If you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and write a message with the hashtag #Letslunch — or post a comment below.
Cathy‘s Sweet Potato Tea Bars at Showfood Chef
Charissa‘s Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches with Honey Mustard, Tomatoes & Basil at Zest Bakery
Emma‘s Brown Sugar Shortbreads With Hawaiian Jam at Dreaming of Pots and Pans
Grace‘s Taiwanese Sandwiches at HapaMama
Karen‘s Saskatoon Berry Tartlets at GeoFooding
Linda‘s Mesquite Hemp Cocoa at Free Range Cookies
Linda‘s Singapore-Style Ginger Tea & Kaya (Coconut Jam) Toast at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Little Lemon Meringue Tarts at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Mai‘s Cougar Gold & Shallot Shortbread at Cooking in The Fruit Bowl
Rashda‘s Spiced Chickpea & Sweet Potato Tidbits at Hot Curries & Cold Beer
Rebecca‘s Millionaire’s Shortbread at Grongar Blog
Steff‘s Lemon-Lime Shortbread Cookies at The Kitchen Trials