Monday, 26 October 2009


Before I left the UK, tea came in two kinds: Earl Grey (if you were trying to be posh) and Tetley (if you were trying not to be)*.
It normally came in bags, except when I was very very little (before my parents gave up on that sort of thing altogether) when there would always be a lot of soggy tea leaves in the plughole of the kitchen sink at breakfast time. Ideally it would be made in a pot, but then again any port in a storm.

If you asked for it without milk, you were considered a bit weird (even those who took it without sugar were living dangerously close to the edge).

Society was divided between those who put the milk in the cup first, and those who put it in afterwards. There are some highly valid and very scientific arguments for and against both stances, into which we will not go today.

Herbal tea was what Peter Rabbit was given as a punishment for breaking into Mr McGregor's garden.

Outside England tea is a different matter entirely.

It's actually ironic that we are considered to be the most tea-fussy nation in Europe, when British tea rituals are quite literally sloppy compared to those of - um let's think - the Poles.

For example, before leaving England, I never gave a second thought to tea brewing. You swirled the teabag around, gave it a bit of squeeze on the side of the cup and then flicked it into the bin (best done Dennis the Menace-style on the end of a teaspoon from the other side of someone else's kitchen).
What a fool I was. Now I know that you must drop the teabag (or tea leaf dongle thingy, or tea sock - don't ask, they look terrible) into a glass of boiling water, place the saucer delicately over the top and leave for five minutes. Five minutes, incidentally, is just enough time for the saucer to become very, very hot, and for you to burn your fingers.
Afterwards, you may add sugar, and/or a slice of lemon. You may drink it with milk, but only if you are pregnant or - apparently - an old-school Communist. In winter, the addition of raspberry syrup is compulsory. In the first language school I attended in Kraków, they never served it any other way. Requests for water were greeted with blank looks and confusion.

When you visit a friend, you will always be offered tea. And here the competitive streak kicks in.
- Thanks, what do you have?
you might innocently reply.
- Well... not much: English breakfast, Earl Grey, fruit tea, green tea, peppermint tea, Yogi Tea, Pu-Erh, Sencha, czarna porzeczka and something strange in a brown bag that came from that tea shop on Jozefa that closed recently - the one with the funny smell next to what used to be the Shisha place.

If you are sensible, you will pick English breakfast. Almost all of the others will be in leaf form, and then the ritual begins.
The safest way to brew leaf tea is in a pot, clearly. But, it can be done in a cup: various devices exist to assist this process.
Firstly, the springy thingy.
This looks like two tea strainers clasped together in a sort of scissors arrangement.
In theory the mechanics is good, but beware: having sprinkled that last gram of dry tea into one half of the strainer, take care not to snap the pincers shut Too Fast: tea leaves will be sprayed everywhere and will probably end up floating on the surface of your tanninate beverage.

Secondly, the Tea Sock.
Like the springy thingy, this looks fairly innocent when it's new and clean: it's a sort of long sack, in natural cotton, like the end of a pair of tights. Warning! After two or three uses, the Tea Sock will be stained an appetizing shade of tannin brown, looking for all the world like a very mangy pair of saggy cotton Y-fronts.

The worst part of it all is that eventually you start to feel ashamed of your own pathetic tea shelf offering. You find yourself unable to resist the siren waft of the tea merchant: that fragrance draws you in, you begin to collect teas too. My parents despair because their larder is filled with Ginger Spice digestive tea, Twinings Peppermint and Camomile (tea shelf staples), Taylor and Harrogate Green tea and something weird we found at the back of Grandma's kitchen cupboard.

However, unless you're buying it in loose leaves by the ounce and taking it home in a brown paper bag, you're not doing it properly. I'm safe for the moment. But how long will it last?

to be continued...

*come to think of it, this actually sums up British class attitudes pretty well.


Laura said...

Tea in Belgium is so depressing - I have PG Tips shipped in regularly because, despite having a lot of supermarkets nearby with English shelves (think Tesco Polish shelf - how fitting!!), they still don't sell anything other than Lipton Yellow Label. They sell Pop Tarts for gods sake - You can't even get them in England anymore!!!

I know I could go to the English shop but it just seems like more of an effort than making my mum go to the post office to send expensive parcels.

pinolona said...

Where do you shop? My local Carrefour has Twinings! The English version, not the export stuff. And Taylors of Harrogate. I don't know what I'm complaining about actually.

Lipton Yellow Label - Yuck. Double yuck. I sympathise (and suggest you shop in Etterbeek).

Laura said...

We only have Twinings Earl Grey which just isn't the same for me. We're in Saint Gilles so I guess they're more focused on their Portugese market round here... :(

Fish i Czips said...

i'm obsessed with tea and tisanes

i've had multiple occurrences of milk being put in my tea at Pret-type places, and i always make sure to ask for it black, milk only works with a select few teas for the most part

if i had a bigger aparment (read bigger kitchen) than what i can afford in londinium i would have a gigantic tea section, right now everything is scrunched up in a mess on the top shelf, hard to peruse

just bought a couple of teas from Dammann Frères while on a weekend trip to Paris

wow, my life is exciting, alright thanks for that outlet, i needed to talk about tea

pinolona said...

Portuguese?! Now see that just sounds cool... Etterbeek just isn't quite as colourful as some of the other parts of the city.
If I settle here I might move to Ixelles... (if I can afford it, gulp)

pinolona said...

Fisz - seriously, I only thought about it because my friend's flatmate (who is Czech) kindly gave me lovely cherry-infused green leaf tea when I was extremely hungover at their house last weekend. Then, today, I picked up Twinings Cherry and Cinnamon tea and felt as though I was cheating somehow for buying tea in bags.
Plus there's this lovely (read Very Expensive) leaf tea shop in the centre of town not far from the Mannekin Pis (see what happens if you drink too much tea?! Clearly he didn't have 30 cents for the loo. Have I not written that post yet?).

I digress. And I want leaf tea. Twinings herbal teabags are Not The Same.
You have spoiled me, Poland...

ps - I didn't realise you lived in London... thought you were a local :)

Fish i Czips said...

Bagged tea can be good. I have a Twinnings Organic Earl Gray that's a good standard black tea imo. In the UK I've found Dragonfly do nice bagged teas and Heath & Heather do nice herbal stuff.

Also I've also found that loose leaf tea isn't that pricy given that it can last quite a while. Unless you're buying some sort of super aged Pu-Eurererrpurrr. I'm sure you'll find some good local tea store staffed by some sort of weird dude, and then you'll be able to sniff at teas till your heart's content.

I ja sie urodzilem w Krakowie but grew up in Canada i teraz mieszkam w Londynie. I nikt nie umie mojego imienia pronounce, bo jest very Polish.

pinolona said...

oh cool! you must be a Przemysław, or a Zbigniew, or a Bogumił (or Władysław)! If I have kids, they're definitely getting Polish names, polskie imiona are the best...

Invidu said...

True, Poland is special when it comes to tea. I felt the same when I moved to Krakow.
Still, when it comes to tea religion I think Brits are invincible. At least this is what I came to think when reading this:

Laura said...

Ixelles is very nice. I live about five doors from the Ixelles border, I therefore enjoy slightly lower rent and constant jibes about living in the ghetto.

There's another expensive tea shop on Chaussée de Charleroi, near Place Stephanie - it might be the same chain as the one in the centre...

Island1 said...

Pu-Erh makes me laugh every time I see it in the supermarket.

pinolona said...

heeheehee :D

Anonymous said...

Don't ask for Puerh in Poland? Is that because they don't have it or it's just a hassle to make the stuff? Because you have to make Puerh in the sock and it doesn't look good. I'd want the Puerh wherever it was available in the world. Sock or no sock. --Spirituality of Tea

Raf said...

I don't own any tea but i do have some mint that has lived for three years through the wintertimes. I'm very proud of it and will go put some leafs under my tongue right now, just because this blog post was so great and because that's basically how the english drink their tea, right? Maybe i should read this again. After I put some mint in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

What is the nicest sweet and milky tea? And of course how do you make it? I had something like this in Poland and I came accross something like it on the internet called Bawarka, could this be it? Maybe someone has a special recipie for this that they would like to share?

Norman said...

Kurcze! Nawet nie zwróciłem na to uwagi! Właśnie sprawdziłem i wyszło mi, że mam 33 pudełka herbat, zajmujące całą półkę, częściowo dwie inne i część parapetu...
Herbaty czarne, czerwone, zielone - w różnych odmianach, z różnych upraw. Z dodatkiem kwiatów, suszonych owoców, olejków. W życiu bym nie spojrzał na to z takiej perspektywy!
Ale to swoje zalety. Szczególnie w zimie, kiedy pijam dużo herbaty.
Pino, jak to jest w Wielkiej Brytanii ze słodzeniem? Używa się cukru trzcinowego, kandyzowanego albo miodu?
No i kiedy przyjeżdżasz do Krakowa? Muszę Ci dać spróbować miodek (zdrobnienie od "miód"), który przywiozłem z Bieszczad (niektórzy mówią "Bieszczadów" - nawet w Polsce są problemy z "końcówkami"). Porównasz z produktami, jakie jadłaś w czasie podróży po Europie i, być może, dowiem się, gdzie mogę zdobyć lepsze miody.
Pozdrawiam serdecznie!

P.S. Piszę po polsku, ponieważ pomimo, iż nie mam problemu ze zrozumieniem angielskiego, trudno mi dobrać słowa tak, aby mieć pewność, że mnie zrozumiesz. Poza tym, zapomniałem angielską gramatykę... ;]
P.P.S. Nie polecam herbat w Chorwacji - z jakiegoś powodu nie znają tam dobrych czarnych herbat.

Norman said...

Anonymous, Bawarka is just black tea (for example Yunnan) with sugar and milk (or without sugar, if preffered).

pinolona said...

Hi Norman :)
(sorry for answering in English - Friday night, couple of glasses of wine, lethargy.)
It's cool that you write in Polish. it's good for me - and normally I answer comments in the language they come in so... just not today.

heeheehee, it's so true: Polish people have Loads and Loads of tea! I'm impressed by your collection!!
Usually people use sugar lumps (like cubes of sugar). My Dad used to take brown sugar but then switched to sweeteners. Sweeteners are very popular, especially because we have an obesity crisis, dontcha know?
Only hippies sweeten with honey :)

Thanks for the offer, I plan a visit in Dec or Jan :)

Anonymous said...


Bawarka is a tea for preignant women! :D

pinolona said...

Anon - that's what I said:
"You may drink it with milk, but only if you are pregnant"

Although, since health shop lore says that milk actually neutralises the antioxidants contained in black tea, it makes little sense to make pregnant women drink it that way.

In fact, it makes little sense to make pregnant women drink anything in any way! Who says that the minute you have a baby inside you your body is suddenly the property of everyone else in the world?! Jeez. *makes note never to get pregnant*
*realises that, the way things are going, that shouldn't be too difficult*

Anonymous said...

Could you please help me with the meanings/class differences behind putting the milk in before or after the tea? I have an interest in this, because someone asked me once and I answered, but I don't know if I answered in the high-class or lower-class manner. The fact is, I'm American and I prefer my tea black. I only ever put milk in tea when introduced to the idea. I put the milk in on my own, not having been taught in any particular way (I won't even say how I did it!). I drank it that way for a while. Then I was posed the question. I always wondered about this. It seems like you have the magical answer!



pinolona said...

Hi Jeannie,

You know that you should take all British class traditions with a *very* large pinch of salt, right?

The argument is that it's more genteel to put your milk in the cup before you pour in the tea on top. I suppose it's considered nicer because if you can put the milk in first it means you're probably pouring from a teapot (the milk first thing doesn't work with a teabag).
It is considered 'working class' (but please bear in mind that all this is with a touch of irony) to put your milk in afterwards because that's how it works when you make tea in a mug with a teabag: you have to put the hot water in first and the milk afterwards (otherwise the tea won't brew).
Now - here's the complicated bit - very posh people do it the 'working class' way, because the middle classes, who put their milk in first, are pretentious try-hards, and no-one wants to look like them. So if you want to pretend to be extra-posh, by not *appearing* posh at all, you put your milk in afterwards and pretend you don't care.
This actually makes you extremely post-middle-class (I put my milk in second and I'm a very classic example), because you are trying to deny your wannabe posh roots...

I think that's the psychology behind it... more or less. See what I mean by large pinch of salt?!

The other argument is that it tastes nicer if you make it in a pot and put the milk in first because then you don't get that nasty brown scum on the top. But that's just an excuse, it's all about class and manners really :)

pinolona said...

ps, I should put your milk in any damn way you like :) When you think about it, adding dairy products to an infusion is seriously WEIRD.
I started drinking it black in France and now only drink it with milk in the mornings (or for comfort). But the blends are a bit different outside the UK I think.

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO MUCH for that thorough explanation. I now know that I have been doing it, unwittingly, the ultra-posh way, even when using a teapot.

The last time I went to the dental hygenist's to get the tea stains taken off, I vowed to give up tea (at least as long as possible). I had tried it the previous time, and it worked for a while. I even started using a straw (Starbucks stirrers). Of course I finally broke down to have that cuppa. There's nothing like it, black, white, however you drink it, it's a cup of pure pleasure. So this time around, I have stayed true to my teeth and have not had a drop of tea for about six weeks.

If you saw my last dental hygenist, you would understand why. This was a new gal, not my usual one (she is always booked up). So I was sitting back staring at the ceiling that she has filled with posters. Right smack dab in the middle just above me was a surreal image of an evil eye outlined in red with a dark, menacing pupil. Then, three-quarter's through the cleaning, while I am tilted all the way back, practically upside down, with bib on, vacuum hose suctioning in my mouth, light shining in my eyes, she asked me, "Do you want to come back in six months?"

I replied, "Oh, yes, yes" for fear she would lay some kind of hex on me and knowing full well that I was going to call and cancel directly after the appointment (as well as complain about the evil eye! What kind of weirdo would have THAT hanging above the dentist's chair?

This was enough to drive me off of tea for a while. Though I am ready to go back to "black with a straw" soon.

Iced tea is great, too (no sugar).

Thanks again!