Let Them Drink Tea

There are many disadvantages of being thrust back into London life, somewhat against my will – to list but a few: the traffic, rush hour and normal; the sheer quantity of people filling the streets, pubs, shopping centres and green spaces; and the aeroplanes passing over my head ever five or ten minutes, jetting off from Heathrow to some unknown destination, almost certainly glorious, tranquil, vibrant and fascinating if only in virtue of the fact that I am not on the plane. But there are also advantages: I get to spend time with my parents, and now that I’m not a hormone-saturated teenager that is a much more appealing prospect than ever before. And I also get to revisit some of my old haunts, not least The Tea Box in Richmond.

I have waxed lyrical about the afternoon teas enjoyed after every meet of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, but I’ll admit I have predominantly focused on the cakey side of things. But another simple joy of these sessions is the opportunity to enjoy nice tea, brewed in a proper tea pot and sipped elegantly (of course) out of a proper porcelain tea cup, complete with saucer.

My introduction to tea was a slightly unusual one. My mother lives on the stuff – we actually used to pack small airtight bags of tea bags before going off on holiday. I think if you cut her she’d bleed milky PGTips. My father is just as huge a fan of coffee is my mum is of her tea. He’s been known to both grind and roast his own coffee beans at home, and we have a vast range of coffee making apparatus including a traditional Costa Rican ‘coffee sock’ brought back from my Gap Yah travels, a big plastic coffee syringe, and even some sort of high tech coffee syphon that looks like it belongs in my school’s chem labs rather than my parents’ kitchen. But despite my parents’ obsession with tea and coffee, I never liked either, or indeed any hot drinks at all, not even hot chocolate or warm milk.

This continued until I was 19, when, one evening on a particularly unpleasant part of a trek across Costa Rica, I found myself in a sodden tent, camped in the rain at the top of a mountain with a bad stomach bug, having walked since the small hours of the morning and set to get up at 4am the next day to do the same thing again. Feeling very sorry for myself in this pathetic state, I was offered something we hoped would turn out as hot chocolate – we didn’t know whether the dehydrated milk would work (and the chocolate did have little specks of white floating at the top). I guiltily accepted – guiltily because I still didn’t like hot drinks. But it gave me something warm and comforting to hold and to help encourage the blood back into my fingers. For further warmth and to mask my guilt, I forced myself to drink it, and by the end of the mug had decided that I no longer hated hot drinks. In Nicaragua I had my first ever cup of coffee, and then my second, third and countless more, all served hot, black and very sweet just as the locals enjoyed it. But I still didn’t tea for a few months more, until I had returned to the UK  and was taken  by my then-boyfriend to a new teashop that had opened in my absence.

The menu at the teashop was dauntingly extensive for an inexperienced tea drinker such as myself, particularly when I was adamant that I didn’t like ‘normal’ (read: English Breakfast) tea. However, after some persuasion I agreed to try a first flush Darjeeling recommended by a lovely waiter we’d come to know through our frequent visits there. And I was hooked. Since then I have progressed from Darjeeling to become an avid drinker of the more readily available Earl Grey. The unfortunate consequences of this included my old roommate (she of the straw mattress) complaining that I made our flat smell like “the bottom of a tart’s handbag”, and at work being accused of drinking the ‘posh’ tea. Now, finally, I can enjoy an English Breakfast if not too strong, but would choose Darjeeling, Earl Grey or almost anything else, almost every time. I was lucky enough to find myself attending York University, York being the home of the infamous Betty’s (if anyone reading this works at Betty’s or knows someone who does, please please tell them to bring back the Engadine Torte, which was heaven on a plate and went so well with an Earl Grey tea). Needless to say I spent as much time as my student budget would allow in Betty’s (not enough) sipping tea. I was brought a packet of Moroccan Mint Tea from Fortnum and Mason as part of my birthday present, which was delicious and refreshing. University was a time of enlightenment as far as me and tea went, as well as the philosophy and politics I was there to learn.

One of the lovely things about tea is the history that goes with it. Someone told me what they claimed was the story behind the origins of Earl Grey tea, though as I don’t know quite how true it is please don’t forward it on as fact or my old university lecturers will never forgive me. Apparently, an envoy of Earl Grey (a British prime minister in the 1800s) saved a boy’s life while travelling in China. The boy’s father was a mandarin and as a mark of his gratitude he presented the envoy with some tea to take home to his master. This blend of tea was given to the Earl back in the UK, who liked it so much he asked his local teashop (allegedly Twinings, but this could just be clever marketing on their part) to recreate the tea. When the details of the blend were recorded in their ledgers, they were recorded under his account and thus his name: Earl Grey.

Regardless of the veridity of this tale I like the romance of it, the romance tea and its complex history. I like the delicacy of the flavours, and also of the teapots, strainers, cups and saucers that come with it. My favourite teaspoon was given to me by my ex-boyfriend, and is from the teashop where I first enjoyed a pot of tea. It has a slim, delicate stem carved almost like bamboo, with a tiny silver teapot adorning the end, and I adore it. I love carefully spooning tea leaves into the strainer in my little one-person tea pot, or scooping them into a strainer to put straight into a mug. I love pouring tea from a pot into a tea cup, and yet I get a whole different satisfaction from a steaming (Earl Grey) tea, made in the mug with a simple tea bag. If you have read my blog before, and if you intend to read it again (and I hope you will) you should remember that every time I sing the praises of cake, talk about new recipes I’ve tried or cakes I’ve sampled baked by others, I will always be enjoying said cake with a pot, mug or cup of tea, drunk black and sugarless, just as my darling-Darjeeling waiter first taught me.

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Time For Tea

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has brought to the fore a more patriotic spirit than I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty-three and a bit years of life. Perhaps it’s linked to the Olympics (#London2012) or building on the hype of last year’s Royal Wedding festivities, but I’ve seen more red-white-and-blue than ever before, from bunting on trees to Union Flag manicures. And I’ve found it all rather heart-warming. On International Day at school, surrounded by girls in glittering saris, silky Korean hanboks and intricately embroidered kimonos, I often lamented the lack of an English national dress. The British, in particular the English, truly are in my somewhat limited experience the masters of understatement and not-wanting-to-make-a-fuss, and the general disdain with which much of the population look upon the closest thing I can think of to a national dance – Morris dancing – I thought spoke volumes about our national pride or lack thereof. But the marriage of William and Kate – now Katherine – last year contradicted me, and this year’s Jubilee festivities have solidified that still further. My delving into the world of the countryside has shown me and continues to enlighten me about a new side of British life, and the combination of these two worlds – the city and the country – has led me to the conclusion that British tradition – or rather English tradition, for the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are all proud enough to have and to celebrate their own national dress and traditions – does still exist, if in a slightly subtle form. I may live to change, alter, regret or even deny this assertion, but it’ll do for now.

Yesterday I went to my second gathering of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, and it was just as good as before. Three stands, three pairs of clays per stand and plenty of cake! The highlight was most definitely the wonderful, adrenaline-fueled simulated flush put on by John, Derek and Sid, our lovely instructors. I thought I loved shooting, and my second simulated experience (the first being a 20-bird sequence shot from the grouse butt at RBSS) has cemented what the first confirmed – it takes it to a whole new level. You have no time to think, it feels so much more instinctive and you do get a real adrenaline rush. I shot RBSS’s Classic Handicap with an A Class shot, and was thrilled with my 8 kills out of 20 when he only hit 12! The flush yesterday reminded me of that, and I was delighted when I managed finally to open my barrels and let the ejectors do the work (at the beginning I carefully removed my spent cartridges and looked around mid-flush for the bin to put them in). I reloaded at record-breaking speed – a personal record but still… – mounted the gun and ‘killed’ a clay that had been launched while my gun had been broken. The cherry on the cake was to hear expert instructor John King behind me say “very good shot”, a self-esteem boost if there ever was one. Needless to say I can’t wait for my first game shoot.

Shooting and hunting are, of course, part of British Heritage, dating back to Idon’tknowwhen. Having graduated from and thus left university, I think I am now safe to reference Wikipedia (and will admit a mixed feeling of guilt, rebellion and liberation in doing so) when I say that the first recorded instance of hunting a fox with dogs was in 1534. The relaxation of the law in 1831 meant that shooting was more accessible to the masses. The association of hunting (and I include shooting under that umbrella of a term) and the monarchy help give shooting its terribly British reputation – though, I believe, HRH herself doesn’t shoot, Prince Philip does, and the newest member of the Royal Family, the Duchess of Cambridge, has been photographed shotgun in hand.

A yet more quintessentially British tradition is that of drinking tea. Tea is the lifeblood of the William Powell office, and I’m sure many other offices around the country. I don’t think my mother could function without it – we used to take little sacks of teabags on holiday with us, as she could never find tea good enough abroad. It was presented to the Britons by Asterix in place of the Magic Potion, and, drunk with ‘a drop of milk’ led them to win the battle against the Romans[i]. Despite being grown abroad and only becoming popular in the UK in the 1800s, tea is most definitely an English tradition, particularly when served with cucumber sandwiches and scones – which should be pronounced ‘sconns’ not ‘scoans’ – with clotted cream and jam (my mother and I disagree on the order of application of jam and cream, meaning it was a hot topic of debate around our tea table today… opinions welcome!)

All of the above means that a meeting of the Shotgun and Chelsea Bun Club, guns and teapots at the ready, on the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed most wonderfully fitting. I successfully managed not only to make a cake for this meet, but not to drop it; I did my bit, arriving with both my orange and hazelnut brownies (loosely based on Leon’s ‘Better Brownie’) and my pride intact. My brownies joined the cakes brought along by the ladies were not only of the same spectacular standard as last time, and to mark the occasion, they were adorned with red, white and blue stars, and union flags both edible and paper. Bunting decorated the lodge, and the beautiful LadiesShooting tea cups, saucers, side plates and teapots stood about proudly, waiting to be filled with hot delicious English Breakfast tea.

I was surprised again yesterday, this time by a spontaneous act of patriotism at a friend’s barbeque in the evening. In my role as sensible driver, I was amused and somewhat impressed when the slightly tiddly group agreed to add a new rule to the drinking game, Ring Of Fire. While the various rules are much argued over, interchanged, debated and tweaked, I’ve not yet actually witnessed the introduction of a new rule – until last night. To mark the celebrations of the Queen’s sixty years of reign, it was agreed that upon drawing a queen from the ring of playing cards on the table, the whole group had to stand and sing the national anthem. And despite their small size, sing they did. Twice before the game was abandoned did the walls of the shared house vibrate with passionate, tipsy renditions of God Save The Queen. I had the forethought to film the second performance, but sadly as it was on someone else’s camera I can’t post it on here. The gusto with which the anthem was belted out perhaps says more about the quantities of G&T and Pimms-and-lemonade consumed, but I believe it also shows that at their heart, even a group of proactive and intelligent students and ex-students with political views ranging from the redest of reds to the bluest of blues, share a love of their country and their monarch – if not the monarchy as an establishment. But I’m not going to dissolve into a debate about the monarchy here; suffice it to say, the enthusiasm and general joining-in-ness was really lovely to see.

Today I celebrated the Jubilee by enjoying afternoon tea with my family, watching the slightly damp pageant on the River Thames, followed by the Diamond Jubilee special “entertainment extravaganza”, all with yet more tea, homemade elderflower champagne, cordial and Lemon Shrub (more on those to follow in a later post) and plenty more cake. I spent last Friday baking a variety of cakes: the aforementioned orange brownies with toasted hazelnuts; wholemeal scones; a lemon drizzle cake with a hint of ginger (could have done with a bigger hint in my opinion but a nice moist loaf nonetheless); and the best Victoria sponge I’ve made to date, consisting of two wholemeal sponges that actually deigned to rise rather well, sandwiched together with only-slightly sweetened cream (a hat-tip here to the ex-colleague who introduced me to this) raspberry jam and fresh raspberries, and topped with more cream and a fresh-fruit Union Flag, inspired by yesterday’s winner of the S&CBC rosette for Best Cake. The plan was for leftovers to be vacuumed up by my friends on Tuesday after a street party here in Twickenham, but I fear the half a lemon drizzle loaf and two wholemeal scones that are left may not quite fill us up. Luckily I still have some elderflower champagne and more potent lemon shrub left over, which should hopefully distract my guests.

Shooting, barbeques, mini-flags, friends, family, copious amounts of tea and cake, pretty red-white-and-blue napkins and plenty of patriotic spirit have made the Jubilee weekend rather wonderful so far. This is history in the making, and we are living through it. We are celebrating only the second monarch ever ever ever  to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee. (The feminist in me wishes to point out that both of the monarchs to achieve this were women. Long Live the Queen indeed.) If HRH lasts another four years – and I can think of no reason to doubt her – we will have cause to celebrate the longest reigning monarch in British history; truly something to celebrate. I’d better get planning those cakes.


[i] I still think Marcus Ginandtonicus should have played a key role in ‘Asterix in Britain’, if only due to the fabulousness of his name!