Only If You’re Having One



If the British are so obsessed with tea, why are there no hip teashops, only coffee bars? All sorts of theories abound. Coffees can be fancified with complex rituals, from the patterning of froth to the ordering of ‘soy decaf flat white with a side of hot milk and a twist’ variety. (I actually heard an Australian chap asked for a ‘Big White’, and when the barista looked puzzled he berated her with ‘Everyone knows that’s a large flat white’.)

Then there are matters of class and gender – ‘Builder’s tea’ is common and comes in a mug.

SCENE: Tony Hancock & Sid James are at Arthur Mullard’s tea stall

HANCOCK: Two teas please.

MULLARD: Wiv or wivaht?

HANCOCK: With or without what?

MULLARD: ‘Andles!

Flavoured teas are ‘lady-teas’, subtler and more delicate, which presumably allows supermarkets to jack up their prices and put them in unnecessary layers of extra paper. Teabags are inherently common and insipid. Loose tea ‘puts hairs own your chest’ and makes grouts, and you need a teapot and somewhere to empty it. Tea refreshes and calms, and is relatively good for you, but it has an older, more suburban image. Bryant & May drink buckets of the stuff.

When I worked on Mike Leigh’s films like ‘Secrets and Lies’, American audiences found them surprisingly funny; these most English of films appeared to travel well. But it turned out they were laughing at something no-one had considered. Every time a character went to someone else’s house they got offered a cup of tea. This was seen as inherently hilarious. They thought it was a deliberate running gag, not a social tic.

Coffee is egalitarian, galvanises and energises. and seems younger and more hip somehow, even though it isn’t, and when it’s bad can be very bad indeed, but tea has lost ground to coffee.

Watching ‘Dunkirk’ (which you absolutely have to see at an Imax in 70mm) you can’t help but notice how tea is used in the film. It’s pressed on survivors – Cillian Murphy is virtually drowned in the stuff and knocks one mug of it away – proof that he’s shell-shocked, the heretic! Later it is accompanied by jam and bread and handed to exhausted troops. And I bet after climbing out of that Spitfire Tom Hardy could do with a nice cuppa.

I regularly lug tea to Barcelona, because they seem to have none, and always used to take it to America, where tea is made by pouring lukewarm water into a tumbler and handing you a teabag still in its packet. Tea should be Indian, a golden sepia colour, and have full-strength milk in it, added after. Ideally, it should come with a Digestive or a Custard Cream.

How you respond to an offer of tea is also a signifier of who you are. Visitors says ‘Only if you’re having one.’ Dads say, ‘I’m gasping.’ Grandmothers foist it on you on hot days because they insist that it cools you down. Tea is also a fantastic device for setting up scenes in books now that people no longer tap out cigarettes, but vape furtively alone. I asked a policer officer what she hated most about the job and she said, ‘The tea. Everyone you visit offers you one.’

Tea is heroin to writers. Now that I have a boiling water tap my tea consumption has risen further. My neighbour loves his although he added. ‘My mother can’t get the hang of it. We’ve had the Savlon out a few times.’

The picture at the top shows my mum’s thing-you-kneel-on-to-plant-roses (does it have an actual name?)

22 comments on “Only If You’re Having One”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    Tea is a wonderful drink. It is a worthy national institution. But we spoil it and devalue it. We use the cheapest and disguise the taste with milk and sugar. Ugh! Buy something good, possibly add a small slice of lemon and enjoy something very special!
    I remember my father’s warning about my mother’s tea: don’t expect too much; it’s what they sweep up after they’ve made the good tea.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Betty’s Tea Rooms, Harrogate and York.

  3. Jo W says:

    I was told that what they swept up after packaging went into tea bags. These I only use when travelling abroad. Ever noticed the dust that floats on the surface after using a bag?
    I use loose tea at home,brewed in a pot to just beyond builders strength, more ‘instant bring you out of a coma’.Just what’s needed first thing and always with a shortcake biscuit. As for the grouts,they go in the compost.
    Long live Tea! 😉

  4. Jan says:

    That’s a kneely garden thing you’ve got there. Recognised it straightaway.
    Builders any sort of milk. No sugar, polystyrene cup. Tea on the move. Kept hot in the polystyrene receptacle which also keeps your hands warm on a cold day. You can bite into the cup and pretend to be Snozzle Gerante and sing a song when you’ve finished. Marvellous!

  5. Chris Webb says:

    I have never understood why people use teabags at home. They are supposedly more convenient but the convenience of not having to spoon out loose tea is outweighed many times over by having to get rid of the bloody things. With loose tea you can just empty the teapot straight down the sink.

    Thought I ought to point out that there are actually only two types of tea:

    1 – English Breakfast
    2 – Other stuff

  6. Diogenes says:

    I hate to disagree but most black tea is rubbish. Good quality green, oolong and white teas taste much better but are harder to find and worth the effort.

  7. John Peacock says:

    Once or twice a month either my wife or I make the trek to the Algerian Coffee Store on Old Compton Street to buy a kilo of that month’s featured high-roast coffee beans (for breakfast) and a packet of their English Breakfast Tea (for every other time except breakfast). Having come out with the specific shop like that, I’m laying myself open to being told that I really *ought* to be going to this or that other place, but I find that tACS is just enough of a trek (with easily enough of a quality payoff) to feel like a valid investment of time, and I quite like the excuse for the walk: I suppose it’s become a reliable ritual, but one with a really nice cup of tea as the result. Traditional religions don’t seem to give one a really nice cup of tea, although the Church of England really ought to. With a Rich Tea replacing the wafer. He said, blasphemously.

    Anyway, I agree that it’s very odd that although there is a little bit of extra work in loose leaf tea (and grinding coffee beans), it’s surprising that more people don’t notice how much of a pleasure dividend the extra effort gives.

  8. Vivienne says:

    I don’t want to dispute Hancock, or Arthur Mullard, but my recollection is that tea always came in a cup and saucer (which was useful, if alone, to drink your hot tea out of.) My mother would never have used a mug, but they probably existed before the 60s on building sites.

  9. brooke says:

    “Tea is heroin to writers..” and to those of us who work from home–even if we live in the United States. I have all the paraphernalia for making a good home brew, as do most of my friends. I live within walking distance of 3 excellent purveyors who stock both Indian black TGFOP and the powerful Chinese greens, oolongs and whites (you can order on-line and get same day delivery in nice black & gold storage bags). And there is a great stall in the terminal market for chinese teas only.

    Good restaurants here serve decent tea–steeped, loose, no tea bag except when customers order those disgusting herbals and flavored tea–with sweet or savories as you wish. We have 2 hip tea shops; I was introduced to both by youngs. Perhaps you wouldn’t count them as tea shops because they are also bakeries, serve food. But they are places to connect, talk and read–daily newspapers and popular magazines are hung on racks.

    Begging Chris W’s pardon, but TGFOP single estate Assam is number one; number two are the blends, like blended scotch, and include english breakfast. BTW, NYC friends were in London last week, ordered sandwich tea, and upon asking discovered that the tea was imported from the US, Harney’s, a Connecticut firm.

    In the U.S. the object in the picture is called a garden kneeler or garden butler; there are marvelous new designs that make great gifts..

  10. C Falconer says:

    One of the most hideous things I have ever seen was the way my French hosts made tea for me back in the late 70s by putting a couple of spoons full of tea leaves into a saucepan, adding cold water, and bringing it up to the boil on the hob… (shudder, still)

  11. admin says:

    Arthur Mullard was running one of those tea stalls that only seem to exist in black and white films where posh people stop off to partake of standing-up tea with the plebs after a night in Mayfair. Tea was served in white mugs wivaht ‘andles.

  12. Roger says:

    Sergeant-major’s tea: a cauldron on an open fire. Bring water to the boil. Throw opened packets of tea to taste in, puncture cans of condensed milk at each end and add to the brew and boil. When the white labels on the condensed milk cans have come off and float on the surface and are the colour of the tea, serve in enamel mugs with a dash of rum.

  13. Jan says:

    The only tea stall I can recall which approached anything like the location posh people join the hoi polloi for a cuppa was just south of the river on the S side of Battersea bridge. On east side of road adjacent to southbound carriageway. Near to what I remember as being the print HQ and offices of what I think was the Telegraph building. Not 100% about it being the Torygraph but pretty sure it was weighty daily newspaper.

    Later became the QVC studios – QVC decamping to Chiswick a few years back. Don’t know what’s there now due to become residences for mid level embassy staff in the new Battersea power stations diplomatic quarter I suppose.

    The place used to be swamped with black cabbies, theatregoers returning home, Chelsea types refuelling for the trek back to their homeland after an evenings clubbing south of the water. Was always good fun and the grub was alright.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    My new tea pot has a wire basket that fits in the mouth of the pot. When you pour the boiling water in it runs through the leaves. If you aren’t making a whole pot, though, it doesn’t work well because the water doesn’t reach the bottom of the basket and one pour through is not going to get anything like the flavour you want. I find that a pot of tea (or two) is great for conversation and I’ll drink much more when talking with friends than when alone. I drink it clear, regardless of black, green or white. Yes, biscuits to go with, but here they’re home made so greater variety.

  15. Jan says:

    Tell you what does go well together Helen lemon tea ( I’m a pleb so use the kind you make with the crystal sugary stuff) and ginger biscuits. Dunk the biscuits in – loverly!
    Nothing is quite as good at about 1630 at end of a sunny day in the garden.

    Speaking of which the years definately turning on just now. Still sunny pleasant mornings but lots of dew on the grass that just isn’t going away till just an hour b4 lunch. Somehow the sunshine just hasn’t got quite as much bant in it. Apples in the orchard are ripe and I keep walking down the drive for a few for ploughmans lunches and to make crumbles. I need to get going and forage blackberries I’m so late already.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, just got a recipe for pickled blackberries. White wine vinegar, fish sauce, water and sugar. Put in berries to marinate for 4 hours or over night. Serve as garnish on salad or (!?) ice cream. Use marinade as vinegar portion of salad dressing. Quite tart but everyone agreed they were delicious. A Philippina friend said she has always done this with mangoes, etc. so I think I know where it came from originally.
    Must go out and pick some more berries.

  17. Jan says:

    Fish sauce – r u sure your’e not trying to put an end to me Helen? Will give it a run. Bit like putting strawberries into balsamic vinegar I suppose.

    You don’t know anything about pickling nasturtium seeds (poor mans capers ) do you? The recipes on the internet just get me confused. Come September there’s loads of mackerel fishing down this way off Chesil beach. Nasturtium leaf is very peppery and if the seed is similar I will use with mackerel instead of Horseradish sauce. I’ve got tons of nasturtium in the garden but need to make a start soon before they start drying.

  18. John Howard says:

    Like you Chris I take my tea to Spain every time I go as well. All I can say is, check out Portsmouth Tea from Go to the website.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    It’s not a lot of fish sauce, Jan, 2Tbsp to 6Tbsp of white wine vinegar plus 2Tbsp sugar and 3Tbsp water to go with 6 oz of blackberries – if you’re still allowed to measure in ounces. This recipe was in Bon Appetit, which is American and sent to me by my clipping service.
    I’m not a capers fancier so haven’t done the nasturtium thing. I’ll look it up in my basic pickling book and post for you.

  20. Helen Martin says:

    Jan, not in either of my books but the on-line recipe at couldn’t be any simpler. Good luck.

  21. John Griffin says:

    Elizabeth Botham’s tea rooms, Whitby. Afternoon tea in the Skinner St tearoom above the old bakery with their ‘own brand’ Resolution Tea plus triangular sandwiches, cream tea, fancy cakes. Heaven at 3.30pm.
    Yorkshire Tea – 1 large mug with handle, two tea bags, a touch of milk.
    Ooop North is Tea Land:” get this down yer, lad, it’ll put ‘airs on yer chest”, “now love, what you need is a nice cup of tea” etc etc. All stereotypical, but all absolutely true to life – as a Lancastrian, coffee was unknown except in spiv and beatnik bars at the turn of the 60s.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    Some of my folk come from the south – Glasgow – and that seems to be tea land as well.

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