Crimes Against Tea

I’m as fussy about tea as I am about beer, but perhaps in a slightly different way.

I start­ed drink­ing tea when I was about 2-years-old – weak and milky, then, out of a bot­tle. The not so fun side of this is that by the time I reached my teens I was on about ten cups a day and suf­fered with­draw­al symp­toms (migraine, faint­ness) if I missed a dose for some rea­son. Tea is, after all, a pow­er­ful stim­u­lant and vehi­cle for caf­feine, despite all the Great British Bake Off twee­ness that comes with it.

Over the years I’ve got to a health­i­er place with a gen­er­al cut­ting back and the odd decaff place­bo, though I can still be knocked out the next day if I don’t have a cup­pa mid-after­noon. And that’s one rea­son I often end up drink­ing tea in pubs, between or instead of pints.

There are oth­er good rea­sons too, of course: it’s a ter­rif­ic pick-me-up; it gives the palate and the liv­er a break; it’s warm­ing, which can be use­ful on a win­ter pub crawl for icy-fin­gered folk like me; and (per­haps not uni­ver­sal­ly applic­a­ble) it’s entire­ly his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate in an inter-war improved pub. (Espe­cial­ly for a lady­like lady like wot I am.)

So, here are my thoughts on the qual­i­ty and pre­sen­ta­tion of tea, some of which apply to pubs, and some more gen­er­al.

  1. Just as with beer, how it’s treat­ed mat­ters. Fresh­ness and stor­age con­di­tions are the most impor­tant fac­tors: fan­cy teabags stored in a glass jar on a shelf in the sun for six months won’t taste as good as basic ones refreshed fre­quent­ly and kept in an air­tight con­tain­er in the dark.
  2. Let me put in my own milk. You are putting in too much, too ear­ly. Remem­ber, tea for me is a sub­sti­tute for espres­so, not bed­time Hor­licks.
  3. ‎Relat­ed: don’t rush it. Either leave the bag in, or let it brew for four or five min­utes.
  4. Fan­cy leaf tea is fine and can be tran­scen­dent (I remem­ber fond­ly a place in the City of Lon­don whose tea had an almost hop­py flow­er­i­ness) but, real­ly, bags prop­er­ly looked after taste great to me. So don’t put your­self out on my behalf.
  5. Sup­pos­ed­ly arti­sanal tea brands can do one. Many of the teas with the sex­i­est brands, biggest claims and fan­ci­est pack­ag­ing seem to be utter­ly mediocre – all about the upsell.
  6. Organ­ic tea, unlike organ­ic beer, is still a thing and, just as with organ­ic beer, seems to taste worse than the pes­ti­cide-laden vari­ety.
  7. ‎Local tea? Don’t be daft. You can grow tea in the UK but why both­er?
  8. The worst crime of all is tea that has some­how been con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with cof­fee. I quite like cof­fee, I love tea, but the ghost of a stale cof­fee in my tea? Blech!

Now, to be fair, in my expe­ri­ence most pubs do a bet­ter cup­pa than the aver­age high street chain cof­fee shop, which might be worth remem­ber­ing next time you’re in a pub and, for what­ev­er, want some­thing oth­er than booze.

And, now I think about it, some of this isn’t that dif­fer­ent to how I am with beer after all: a basic prod­uct in decent con­di­tion trumps a fan­cy one that’s treat­ed and pre­sent­ed like rub­bish.

Bottle Parties, 1940s

In London between the 1920s and 1940s, it was possible to go on drinking after hours if you knew where to go and had (technically) ordered your booze in advance.

The ‘bot­tle par­ty’ was anoth­er of those odd­i­ties that arise when leg­is­la­tors attempt to man­age people’s drink­ing habits. Its work­ings were described by Lor­na Hay for Pic­ture Post, 25 Decem­ber, 1948:

To be admit­ted to a bot­tle par­ty, you must be ‘invit­ed,’ and to be ‘invit­ed,’ you must be spon­sored by one or more exist­ing invi­tees. But you must also have an order with a wine com­pa­ny, so that the drinks you order after mid­night are, in the­o­ry at any rate, already paid for, and are, in the­o­ry at any rate, fetched by wingèd bicy­clists from the shop. If your mer­chant is not an all-night one, there is noth­ing for it but to bring your own bot­tle along in your own hands.

Through­out the 1930s, there are news­pa­per reports of attempt­ed pros­e­cu­tions of peo­ple run­ning ‘par­ties’, such as this account from the Times of 27 July 1934 of the case against Mr. Bridge­man Rochfort Mor­daunt Smith, pro­pri­etor of the Front Page on New Comp­ton Street, Soho:

Mr Melville, pros­e­cut­ing, said at a pre­vi­ous hear­ing that the Front Page was not a reg­is­tered club. Nom­i­nal­ly per­sons went there by invi­ta­tion to night­ly ‘at homes,’ or bot­tle par­ties. Vis­i­tors were required to sign a form declar­ing that they had been invit­ed to a pri­vate par­ty, and were con­tribut­ing 5s. towards the cost of the par­ty. When order­ing drinks they filled in anoth­er form direct­ed to the Mad­dox Wine Com­pa­ny, which read: ‘Please place the fol­low­ing goods on order for me. I will give you instruc­tions at a lat­er date.’

As long as they stuck to the let­ter of the law, how­ev­er, they were able to con­tin­ue trad­ing, like half-arsed speakeasies under half-arsed pro­hi­bi­tion. The Met man­aged to close many dur­ing World War II using rather dra­con­ian emer­gency pow­ers which per­mit­ted them to tar­get ‘unde­sir­able premis­es’ (Times, 28 June 1944) but they couldn’t do away with them alto­geth­er.

Ms. Hay wrote about bot­tle par­ties in 1948 because they were under threat thanks to pro­posed changes to licens­ing laws which would make it ille­gal to drink any­thing at all after hours except in the pri­va­cy of pri­vate homes, ‘or go to bed’.

She acknowl­edged that Lon­don night­clubs, quite apart from the weird rit­u­als required to gain entrance, were seedy – ‘lush and draped and quilt­ed, over-dis­creet and over-dim’ – and expen­sive, with bot­tle par­ty entrance fees at a guinea (21 shillings) and spir­its at £100+ a bot­tle in today’s mon­ey. Nonethe­less, they were nec­es­sary:

Yet peo­ple do go to night-clubs in Lon­don. Why? Broad­ly speak­ing, for two rea­sons. The first, that most peo­ple from time to time get the feel­ing that the night is still young, and that it would be pleas­ant to go on drink­ing for a bit in com­pa­ny. The sec­ond, that, what with the night and the wine and the music, it is a way of get­ting your girl a step fur­ther. Or, from the girl’s angle, of appear­ing so dou­ble desir­able in this ‘roman­tic’ atmos­phere, that her young man will want to get her a step fur­ther.

(We’re fil­ing that dain­ty euphemism for lat­er use.)

In fact, in 1949, the Home Sec­re­tary, James Chuter Ede, extend­ed the hours at which night-clubs could serve drinks with music and danc­ing until 2 am, with half-an-hour’s drink­ing up time, thus all but doing away with the need for bot­tle par­ties, and spiv-like wine deal­ers.

The Campaign for Real Cream Teas

Cream tea at Selworthy in Devon
Pho­to by Heather via Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.

That’s right – this post isn’t about beer, it’s about love­ly, love­ly tea, as served with scones, clot­ted cream and jam. While a cool pint of beer is our favourite way to fin­ish a tir­ing walk on a summer’s day, a cream tea is almost as good, and we’ve giv­en a lot of thought over the last few years as to what makes for a good one.

1. Scones

Scones don’t keep well. After a few hours, they become dry, brit­tle and mealy. To get the best scones, look for a busy cafe with a kitchen. Small­er places are prob­a­bly mak­ing them off-site or – worse – ‘refresh­ing’ them in a microwave, which stops them being dry by mak­ing them sog­gy. Worst of all? Scones in plas­tic wrap­pers. If you see these, run a mile.

Scones baked too high or for too long can quick­ly devel­op the con­sis­ten­cy of gran­ite: look for a light colour and a bit of a spring. In our expe­ri­ence, they tend to be bet­ter if shaped with a ser­rat­ed cut­ter.

Some peo­ple will tell you that fruit scones (with raisins or sul­tanas) are an abom­i­na­tion and have no part in a prop­er cream tea, and they are cer­tain­ly a nov­el­ty in Corn­wall.

2. Jam

We will respect the tra­di­tions of Corn­wall and talk about jam before cream. (More on that lat­er.) Its role is to cut through the rich­ness of the cream with some acid­i­ty and sweet­ness. Good sign: pots of home­made jam with spoons stick­ing out of them, ready for dol­lop­ing into serv­ing dish­es. Bad sign: indi­vid­ual plas­tic cater­ing por­tions of no-brand jam-style fruit-flavoured gela­tine spread. Dol­lops, not serv­ings is a good rule of thumb.

Though some mav­er­icks do offer black­cur­rant, apri­cot or oth­er flavours of jam, you real­ly want red flavoured. Rasp­ber­ry is fine, but straw­ber­ry – with pieces of fruit in evi­dence – is best.

We once had a real­ly classy cream tea that came with sev­er­al very ripe, fresh straw­ber­ries instead of jam. This was an accept­able sub­sti­tu­tion.

3. Cream

The cream tea is, real­ly, an excuse to eat clot­ted cream, because it would be wrong to scarf it on its own with a spoon. (But try telling Boak’s Dad that…)

Clot­ted cream with­out an off-white, cracked crust is a waste of time. That means that, per­haps counter-intu­itive­ly, indus­tri­al­ly pro­duced sin­gle serv­ings are the way to go. Rodda’s of Corn­wall has a vir­tu­al monop­oly on the glob­al mar­ket, and for good rea­son: they have per­fect­ed the art of pro­duc­ing tubs of every size with a con­sis­tent, sat­is­fy­ing crust.

Whipped cream, espe­cial­ly squirt­ed from a can, is nev­er an accept­able sub­sti­tute. (We’re look­ing at you, that ter­ri­ble cafe in York!)

4. Tea

A del­i­cate­ly flavoured, sub­tle infu­sion is no match for a gob­ful of fat, but­ter and sug­ar. You need char: dark, bit­ter tea with a bit of welly. What a lot of peo­ple don’t realise about British tea is that it’s not a gen­teel affec­ta­tion: it’s a pow­er­ful stim­u­lant.

A good cream tea comes with a pot of tea, and a sec­ond pot of hot water for top­ping up. Loose leaf tea is a touch of class, but we don’t mind teabags. Del­i­cate chi­na cups filled with tea so strong you could use it to stain wood is an amus­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion, but a mug is just as good.

Posh tea with a ‘con­tem­po­rary’ brand – the type that gets adver­tised with a sign out­side the cafe – is rarely much cop, at least not in this con­text, but there’s plen­ty of Fair Trade tea with poke about these days.

5. Vol­ume and val­ue for mon­ey

Many cream teas come with two scones which we find a bit much. One scone, how­ev­er, is usu­al­ly not enough. The best places let you pick and choose, so that one and a half scones becomes an option. Per­fect!

There is not, as far as we have noticed, a cor­re­la­tion between price and qual­i­ty: we’ve paid £7 for rub­bish, and £2.50 for home­made per­fec­tion.

Rules and reg­u­la­tions

The order in which jam and cream are applied to the scone is a mat­ter of light­heart­ed ban­ter between Devo­ni­ans and the Cor­nish. (Wait, what do you mean it’s not light­heart­ed?) In Corn­wall, jam goes first, with cream dol­loped on top, which is how Boak prefers it – with cream as the main event. Bai­ley, hav­ing grown up part­ly in Devon, finds this per­verse: the cream ought to be spread like but­ter, so that there’s some in every mouth­ful.

If you do it ‘wrong’ in either coun­ty, you won’t get told off, but you might get gen­tly ribbed.

We’ll be back to beer tomor­row…

Green scrumpy and prat falls

Somerset Levels from Burrow Mump
Pic­ture by Steve Bridger from Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.

By Bai­ley

This morn­ing, a ques­tion on Twit­ter from Jeff Pick­thall about whether cider should smell of manure prompt­ed a vivid flash­back to an inci­dent from my child­hood.

In, I think, the sum­mer of 1988, dur­ing a heat wave, my par­ents decid­ed to have a bar­be­cue and invite a few peo­ple round for a ses­sion on the deck chairs in the back gar­den.

My fam­i­ly was liv­ing in a coun­cil house in Bridg­wa­ter, not because of the charm­ing archi­tec­ture (pre­fab con­crete) or com­mu­ni­ty atmos­phere (the local kids used to throw stones at our house and our shed got bur­gled twen­ty or so times), but because we were on our uppers. As a result, bang for buck, when it came to the pur­chase of alco­hol, was a sig­nif­i­cant con­sid­er­a­tion for my par­ents.

At around lunchtime, my Dad’s mate – a mum­bling Chew­bac­ca of a man my broth­er and I nick­named ‘Womble’ – turned up to accom­pa­ny my dad on a mis­sion: the booze run. Womble, it seemed, had a hot lead on some farm­house cider being sold at about half the price of posh stuff like Rich’s. When I say farm­house, I don’t mean rus­tic, bou­tique Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall ter­ri­to­ry: this was a Farmer Palmer asbestos barn out on the Lev­els whose own­er had a ‘relaxed’ atti­tude to tax­a­tion and the law.

When they returned, it was with a plas­tic gal­lon jer­ry can of what looked, for all the world, like the urine of a very dehy­drat­ed tramp.

It’s bloody green,” said my Dad, inspect­ing it against the light.

There were dead rats float­ing in the tank,” said Womble. (I’m not sure if he was try­ing to wind me up but sus­pect not.)

My Dad’s old­er broth­er, as I’ve men­tioned before, drank a lot of rough cider in the six­ties and sev­en­ties and, even now, can bare­ly string a sen­tence togeth­er and has no short term mem­o­ry to speak of. As a result, my Dad, to this day, is very wary of scrumpy. He and Womble took ten­ta­tive tasters. Steam blew out their ears. Their faces went through con­tor­tions. They stamped their feet.

How is it?” asked Mum.

Bloody awful,” said Dad, before he and Womble set about drink­ing in earnest.

After two pints or so each, they were talk­ing in tongues, or per­haps Unwinese, and appar­ent­ly regress­ing to child­hood. Even­tu­al­ly, gig­gling, Womble keeled over side­ways tak­ing his flim­sy can­vas fold­ing chair with him.

The cider was aban­doned with half a gal­lon remain­ing in the jug.

This is how I remem­ber it, but I’m sure Mum will call me lat­er to tell me I’m wrong.