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.