Sarah m’dear, it’s not about the party. It’s about the tea.
For those of us of the British persuasion, tea is black tea. It was the tea on which the British built the empire.
It was also, I might add, the tea that Margaret Thatcher served at No. 10 Downing Street. I enjoyed some with her there. A Conservative traditionalist, she served it with milk for certain and sugar as an option.
Thatcher did not ask her guests, as bad hotels do now, what kind of tea they would like. Tea to Thatcher was black tea, sometimes known as Indian tea, though it might have been grown in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka. It was neither flavored nor some herbal muck masquerading as tea.
The former prime minister knew that good tea is made in the kitchen, where stove-boiled water is poured from a kettle onto tea in a pot, not tepid water poured from a pot on a table into a cup with a tea bag.
Boiling water in a kettle, or pot, on the stove is important in making good tea. In a microwave, the water doesn’t bubble. Tea needs the bubbles.
While the Chinese drank green tea hundreds of years before Christ, the British developed their tea-drinking habit in the 17th century. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted permission for the charter of the British East India Company, establishing the trade in spice and silk that lead to the formal annexation of India and the establishment of the Raj.
Initially, tea was a sideline but it became increasingly important and started to define the British. The coffee shops–like the one that launched the insurer Lloyds of London around 1688–continued, but at all levels of society tea was becoming the British obsession.
By the 18th century, tea drinking was classless in Britain. Duchesses and workmen enjoyed it alike.
Tea was the fuel of the empire: the war drink, the social drink, the comfort drink and the consolation drink. Coffee had an upmarket connotation. It wasn’t widely available and the British didn’t make it very well.
Also as coffee was well established on the continent, it had to be shunned. To this day the British are divided about continental Europe and what they see as the emblems of Euro-depravity: coffee, garlic, scents and bidets.
Although tea is standardized, the British play their class games over the tea packers. For three centuries, most tea has been shipped in bulk to various packing houses throughout the British Isles. But the posh prefer Twinings to Lipton.
Offering tea with fancy cakes, clotted cream and fine jams separates the workers from the ruling classes. One of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, Anna Maria Stanhope, known as the Duchess of Bedford, is credited as the creator of afternoon tea time; which the hotels turned into formal, expensive afternoon “teas.” The Ritz in London is famous for them.
The British believe that tea sustained them through many wars. “Let’s have a nice cup of tea. Things will get better.” I’ve always believed that America’s revenge against the British crown was to ice their beloved tea. Toss it into Boston Harbor, but don’t ice it. If you should have the good fortune to be asked to tea at No. 10, or at Buckingham Palace, don’t expect it to be iced.
Incidentally tea bags are fine, and it’s now just pretentious to serve loose tea with a strainer. Of course, if you want to read the political tea leaves you’ll have to use loose tea.
If you’re serving tea to the thousands at your tea parties, Sarah, remember that unlike politics, tea is very forgiving. It can be revived just with more boiling water. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate